Cat Ownership Keeps the Doctor Away

Medical researchers have discovered a miracle cure that can reduce stress, lower blood pressure and improve mental well-being -- no pills required. The cure is your cat, according to a recent conference held by the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction.

“Research in this field is providing new evidence on the positive impact pets have in our lives,” explains Rebecca Johnson, Ph.D., an associate professor at the MU Sinclair School of Nursing who helped organize the event.

Direct Health Benefits of Cat Ownership
It’s a visual given that comforting attention benefits your cat. Studies show that with human companionship, pets produce reduced amounts of the stress hormone cortisol. The good feelings appear to be mutual.

Dr. Karen Allen, a research scientist at the University of Buffalo, studied the blood pressure of 24 male and 24 female stockbrokers in New York City. All were non-smokers easing their hypertension with medication. During the study, some were instructed to adopt a dog or cat.

Those who acquired pets had more stable blood pressure and heart rates than those without pets. In fact, the pets seemed to do more good than the prescribed medicine. “When we told the group that didn’t have pets about the findings, many went out and got them,” says Allen. “This study shows that if you have high blood pressure, a pet is very good for you when you’re under stress.”

Cats Improve Psychological Health
Allen conducted yet another study on stress and pet ownership. This time, 240 married couples participated. The couples performed stress-inducing tasks in the presence of friends, spouses and pets. A machine monitoring stress levels showed that when individuals had their dog or cat around them, they experienced less stress.

“The findings demonstrate that pets can buffer reactivity to acute stress as well as diminish perceptions of stress,” says Allen. “Social support can indeed cross species.”

A Forever Friend
People of all ages can benefit from cat ownership, but two groups appear to show the most dramatic improvements: students and seniors. Perhaps during these life stages, many undergo changes that make feel more vulnerable and alone.

“We might not think of college students as being lonely, but a lot of freshmen and sophomores are in an early transition from living at home to living in dorms,” says Dr. Sara Staats, professor emeritus of psychology from Ohio State’s Newark Campus, who conducted a study on students and pets. “A lot of young adults choose to have an animal companion to help get them through these difficult and stressful situations, and many more say that without their pet, they would feel lonely.”

A University of Warwick study on British senior citizens came to similar conclusions. Seniors who must part with their pets upon entering residential care were found to often suffer from loneliness, depression and other forms of psychological distress. Those with pets fared much better.

Cats Help When No One Else Can
Dr. June McNicholas, who co-authored the U.K. study, proposes that cats and other pets may enhance our social interactions with other people while providing their own emotional support and companionship. While it’s frequently argued that animal lovers should not regard pets as a replacement for people, McNicholas and her colleagues astutely point out that “the fact that pets are not human confers certain advantages: The relationships are less subject to provider burnout or to fluctuations, and they do not impose a strain or cause concern about continuing stability.”

Another intriguing theory, formulated by Dr. Howard Frumkin, an internist and the director of the National Center for Environmental Health, is that we may be hardwired with a preference for animals and natural settings. Frumkin found evidence that viewing landscapes and having contact with animals, plants and the wilderness improves our mental well-being. In the future, psychologists may be justified in advising, “Pet two cats and call me in the morning.”

Choosing a Veterinarian

How important is it to find the right veterinarian for your cat? Just ask anyone who has had a bad pet-medical-related experience. Searching online for your nearest local clinic or thumbing through the yellow pages can be a recipe for disaster. Cat owners often don’t even interview veterinarians before making that first office visit, says Roberta Lillich, DVM, spokeswoman for the American Association of Feline Practitioners.

You want a veterinarian who understands you and your cat and who will help your feline to live a fulfilling, happy and healthy life. Take the time at the outset to find such a professional by visiting several clinics. Our experts offer this checklist to help you in your search:

Comfort level A growing number of practices are devoted solely to felines, but you may not be able to locate a cats-only clinic in your community. You might also find that other factors lead you to choose a veterinarian who cares for both cats and dogs. In any case, the clinic you choose should understand how to keep your cat calm and relaxed.

Cats tend to be more nervous and to like a quieter environment. If it’s not a cats-only clinic, look for separate entrances for dogs and cats. “Ideally, a clinic that is not feline-only will have a separate waiting room area for cats so they aren’t subjected to strange dogs sniffing their carriers or barking right next to them,” says Karen Becnel, DVM, who runs a cats-only practice in suburban New Orleans. “Hopefully, they will also have a separate ward in the hospital for those cats that need to be hospitalized.” If the veterinarian doesn’t have a separate waiting area, note how the staff segregates cats. They should be able to efficiently move kitties out of the waiting area and into a quiet exam room.

Staff experience Gentleness and a true love and understanding of cats should come through when you are speaking with veterinarians or observing them in action with your pet. Ask how a clinic handles fractious cats, says Marilyn Krieger, a certified cat behavior consultant in Redwood City, Calif. Staff members should understand how to remove a scared or annoyed cat from a carrier without a tussle. Also, you can inquire about their own personal pets or clinic cat. “You certainly don’t have to have children to be a good pediatrician, but it helps in his or her understanding of the species if your veterinarian has cats as personal pets,” says Dr. Becnel. Make sure you meet each veterinarian who might care for your feline.

Cleanliness You want your kitty treated in a clean, sanitary facility. Ask for a tour of the clinic if possible and note the cleanliness of the cages where cats are kept.

Fees and payment methods You should know what a veterinarian charges for such basic services as office visits, vaccinations and annual checkups. A veterinarian should also freely discuss the potential costs of any treatment plan up front and be willing to provide itemized estimates. “A veterinarian shouldn’t wait for the client to ask for an estimate,” says Dr. Lillich. “A veterinarian should make you feel comfortable talking about the financial implications. A lot of times, it can put you at ease knowing that there’s not going to be a big surprise at the end of the road.”

Breed-specific knowledge It’s important that your veterinarian understand traits and genetic tendencies unique to your kitty’s breed.

Current veterinary practices Sometimes it helps to think like a pro. “For example, vaccination protocols have recently changed,” Krieger says. “I like to ask veterinarians what their vaccination protocols are. It’s important that they keep up with the new information and are reading journals and staying current.”

Emergencies Understand practice hours and how emergencies are handled. Are weekend and night calls referred to a certain emergency clinic? If so, it’s a good idea to make a practice run to that clinic as well, say the experts.

Finally, you should feel comfortable with the way a veterinarian lets you know what’s going on with your kitty. “You want to make sure there’s good communication,” says Krieger. “Is the vet available for follow-up? Will they call you back? Will they talk with you? Ignore you?” You’re both working together for your kitty’s well-being, and your relationship with your veterinarian should lead to a long-standing, rewarding partnership.

A Feline Veterinarian's Day

Weak from days without food or water, the emaciated, dehydrated cat could barely lift her head. The Good Samaritan who had found the little feline brought her to The Cat Care Clinic in Orange, Calif., hoping that veterinarian Elaine Wexler-Mitchell and her staff could ease the cat away from death’s door. The odds of such a miracle occurring were iffy at best, since the cat was not only starving, but also was besieged with internal and external parasites. Handling such challenges, however, is all in a day’s work for Elaine Wexler-Mitchell, DMV, who owns and directs the clinic.

Dr. Wexler-Mitchell, author of Ask the Vet for Cats (Bowtie 2004) and Guide to a Healthy Cat (Wiley 2003), downplays any talk of performing miracles in feline veterinary medicine. “After twenty-two years of being a veterinarian,” she says, “almost everything is typical.”

Here’s what a “typical” day for Dr. Wexler-Mitchell might entail:

7:30 a.m. to 8 a.m.: She arrives at the clinic, reviews the results of laboratory tests on patients and checks to see how hospitalized patients fared overnight.  This is her favorite part of the day. “I like trying to figure out how I am going to stay organized and on top of everything I have to do,” she says.

8 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.: During this multi-hour bloc, Dr. Wexler-Mitchell sees patients and their people. Generally, each appointment runs 30 minutes. She deals with a wide range of feline ills. “Everyday I see vomiting, diarrhea, upper respiratory infections, itchy skin and urinary tract problems,” she says. 

11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.: Midday is for routine dental cleanings and surgical procedures. “Typical surgeries are sterilizations, dental extractions, growth removals and bladder stone removals,” Dr. Wexler-Mitchell says. “Less typical is removing foreign objects that cats have ingested, such as lips from a rubber duck, jean buttons and foam ear plugs. I perform many abdominal surgical exploratory procedures and usually, since we have ultrasound, I know what I’m going to find. But sometimes it’s not exactly what I expect with regard to the severity of a disease or the spread of a cancer.”

1 p.m. to 3 p.m.: Early afternoon is when Dr. Wexler-Mitchell grabs some lunch, meets with her office manager, writes reports on what happened with earlier appointments for inclusion in her patients’ records, and telephones clients to discuss their cats’ medical conditions while outlining courses of treatment. All too often, though, such calls require reassuring anxious clients who know little about feline physiology. “Often, a client will call on the phone frantic because her cat is crying out and writhing on the floor,” says Dr. Wexler-Mitchell. “But, in fact, the cat might just be in heat.”

3 p.m. to 6 p.m.: Dr. Wexler-Mitchell uses another big bloc of time for more appointments with feline patients and their owners.

6 p.m. and later: After 6 p.m., Dr. Wexler-Mitchell attempts to close out her day. “I finish records and try to leave,” she says. During this time, she also checks once more on how the clinic’s hospitalized patients are doing.

One such patient was the nameless cat who’d been brought in earlier. “We placed her on a heating pad, injected her with intravenous fluids and antibiotics, treated for parasites, and gave her anti-diarrhea medications,” Dr. Wexler-Mitchell recalls. “The IV treatment was for four days, but she was hospitalized and received oral medications for two weeks.” 

At the end of those two weeks, the Good Samaritan, who’d agreed to pay for reasonable efforts to save the patient, brought the recovered cat to live with her and her two older male cats. There, the once-helpless feline proceeded to show her true colors. “After one day of adjustment, the cat promptly took over the house and then dominated the other two cats,” says Dr. Wexler-Mitchell. “She was a bit of a devil in disguise!”

While veterinarian work often provides intangible rewards associated with helping, and even saving, the lives of pets, it can, as evidenced here, lead to long, grueling hours. You can help your own veterinarian’s day to run smoothly by keeping the following points in mind:

  • Be on time If you have an appointment with your veterinarian, he or she is setting aside time to help your cat stay healthy. Acknowledge that effort by being on time for your appointment.
  • Be respectful Your cat is your number one priority when you visit your veterinarian, but remember that your veterinarian has other clients to see and a schedule to keep. If you need additional time beyond your appointment to discuss a matter, ask for a follow-up meeting or a phone consultation.

  • Use common sense If your cat’s behavior or health changes suddenly, don’t wait to see what happens. Call your veterinarian right away, and also make sure your cat has regularly scheduled checkups.

  • Expect to spend money The high-tech, cutting-edge advances in veterinary medicine that keep your cat healthy cost your veterinarian money. Expect to spend some of your money to receive such quality care for your cat. If you’re worried about paying for expensive treatment, consider purchasing pet health insurance for your feline friend.

Brush up on Feline Oral Care

A cat with bad breath has much more than a social problem. Unlike humans, kitties with halitosis are probably in considerable pain and their lives may be in danger. That’s because cats with unpleasant breath probably suffer from feline dental disease. This condition not only gives a cat bad breath and more than a little pain while eating, but it can also cause infections in the gums that may migrate to vital organs, such as the heart and the kidneys, possibly resulting in serious illness and even death. Although the American Veterinary Dental Society notes that 70 percent of cats develop dental problems by the age of three, your cat doesn’t have to be one of them. All you need to do is brush its teeth regularly, following these six steps:

Step 1: Buy the right brush and paste
Experts agree that toothpaste for people shouldn’t be used to clean feline teeth. Since cats don’t spit out the toothpaste after brushing, regular fluoridated paste could upset your cat’s stomach. Instead, buy toothpaste specially designed for cats. Also purchase a child’s toothbrush with soft bristles. But don’t plan on using either right away. You need to first prep your cat for what lies ahead.

Step 2: Get in position
Introduce your cat to the place where you’ll be doing the toothbrushing. “Start by just putting your cat up on a counter top, or on your lap, or wherever you ultimately would like to do the toothbrushing, and give a reward,” suggests Valerie Creighton, DVM, president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners. “That can be a small food treat or scratching of the cheeks --whatever makes the cat happy.”

Step 3: Try using a tantalizing lure
After a few days at the tooth-brushing place, begin to help your cat realize that getting its mouth worked on can be a good thing. Bring your cat to where you plan to brush the teeth, and “put some tuna fish juice on the edge of a cotton swab,” suggests Jan Bellows, DVM, a veterinary dentist in Weston, Fla. “Then, apply it to the area where the gums meet the teeth.” Finish with a treat.

Step 4: Introduce the toothpaste
Next, help your cat discover the pleasures of toothpaste made just for the feline set. At the brushing zone, “introduce the toothpaste by letting the cat sniff at the uncapped tube, followed by a treat,” recommends Dr. Creighton, who practices in Thousand Oaks, Calif. After a day or two of sniffing the tube, put some toothpaste on your finger for your cat to sniff or lick each day. 

Step 5: Bring on the toothbrush
After a few days of taking the toothpaste from your finger, your cat should be ready to accept it from a toothbrush. “Get the cat used to the presence of the brush without forcing it into the mouth,” Dr. Creighton suggests. Once your cat is used to seeing the brush, try placing your hands on its face and running your fingers along its lips as though you were getting ready to brush the teeth -- but stop short of actually doing so.

Step 6: Brush the teeth
If you detect that your feline friend is comfortable with the brush and having your hands near its mouth then you’re ready to try actually brushing its teeth. If your cat still bristles at the bristles, don’t give up. Instead, try lifting your cat’s lips with your fingertips and gently brushing the outer surfaces of your pet’s teeth. If worst comes to worst, your cat can take care of the inside surfaces with the abrasive action of its tongue until you can take it to your veterinarian for a full, professional tooth cleaning, which should be done at least once a year and up to four times annually if gum disease has already set in.

DIY Care
You can check for dental and gum disease as you work with your cat. Look for symptoms including brown or yellow staining on the teeth, red or swollen gums and bleeding gums. Even if you regularly take your cat for professional toothbrushings, keep in mind that more than your feline’s teeth will be clean after each visit. You’ll then have a clean slate upon which to start acclimating your cat to a home dental care routine.

“This process may take several weeks, but by the end, you and your kitty will be far less traumatized by the idea of you brushing its teeth,” Dr. Creighton predicts.  “And you’ll be well on your way to a healthy habit where your cat’s teeth are concerned.”

Veterinarians Who Visit You

Cathy Bryan, an accountant in Marina Del Rey, Calif., first discovered mobile, or house-call, veterinarians when she was planning a family trip. She almost had to cancel her vacation because she couldn't show a boarding facility proof of her cats' vaccinations. "I only realized a day before our trip that my cats were overdue for their vaccinations. I was up to my eyeballs trying to wrap everything up at work.... There was no physical way for me to get them to the vet before our trip." Desperate, she found a veterinarian who would come to her home to vaccinate her cats -- and she was hooked.

Like Bryan, a growing number of pet owners are finding the idea of receiving medical treatment for their pet without the hassle of making a trip to a veterinary office irresistible. While traveling veterinarians may conjure up images of small towns and simpler times, for the most part, veterinarians who make house calls cater to over-scheduled career-driven people living in metropolitan areas. Jim Claghorn, DVM, a mobile veterinarian who has been seeing patients in Northern California for 25 years, says the vast majority of his clients are working people, 30 to 55 years old.

What you can expect from a house-call veterinarian
House-call veterinarians provide most of the services you will find in a stationary veterinary office, such as exams, vaccinations, dentistry, blood testing, disease screenings, preventative care, dispensing medications and behavior consultations. They also offer in-home humane euthanasia, allowing animals to spend their final moments in the comfort of their home rather than in a sterile veterinary office. In the words of Dr. Claghorn, pets can rest at peace "without any stress, pain or misery that they would experience in the torture chamber."

In-home convenience comes at a cost. You should plan to pay higher fees than you would if you went to a regular veterinarian's office. The additional cost usually is in the form of a "travel fee," which can run anywhere from $40 - $50, or even more, over your area's standard rates.

When to make the trip to a veterinary office or animal hospital
Most mobile veterinarians refer patients to veterinary offices or animal hospitals for critical and intensive care, as well as surgical procedures and radiology services. Says Dr. Claghorn, "If your dog has a broken leg or has been hit by a car, don't call me. Go to an animal hospital." Some house-call veterinarians, who travel in a motor home-cum-surgical suite, are able to provide more extensive services, however. Be sure to plan well ahead by asking mobile veterinarians for a full list of provided services during your initial discussions.

Something else to keep in mind, especially if your cat needs urgent care, is that when house-call veterinarians are seeing another patient, there is no receptionist to pull them out to handle your emergency. They may be on a house call in another county and not be able to see your cat in a timely fashion.

The benefits to your cat
Despite the potential drawbacks, in-home care definitely has its perks, especially from your cat's perspective. According to Dr. Claghorn, "Ten to fifteen percent of cats have a nervous breakdown when the cage is brought out. All they know is they are being taken to a place where they will be injected with needles and surrounded by barking dogs." When your veterinarian comes to you, your cat does not have to endure the stress and anxiety of being put in a cage, of having to ride in a car or spend time in the veterinarian's office. Additionally, you don't risk exposing your pet to communicable diseases that may exist in a veterinary office.

The benefits to you
These days, Bryan relies on a house-call veterinarian for all of her cats' medical needs. "I know that having a vet come to your home is a luxury, but with my hectic schedule, it's also a necessity. Both my husband and I work all day, so if we're not paying a vet to come to our home, we're going to have to pay someone to take our cats to the vet."

When your veterinarian comes to you, not only do you not have to take time out of your schedule to take your pet to an outside office, you also spare yourself the frustration of sitting in a waiting room. If you are elderly, disabled or without a car, you also won't have to arrange for transportation to the veterinary office.

Interested in finding a house-call veterinarian?
For a list of house-call veterinarians by state, check out the American Association of Housecall & Mobile Veterinarians Web site . Click on "LOCATE A VET" at the left-hand side of the home page. You may also want to ask a reputable dog care professional, such as a groomer, trainer or even a veterinarian in your area, for a recommendation.