Top 10 Questions for Your Cat’s Veterinarian

You most likely prepare questions for your own doctor’s appointments, so why not do the same for your cat? “If you are coming in for your cat’s annual wellness visit or a sick visit, write down your questions ahead of time,” says Dr. Elizabeth A. Dole, a veterinarian who practices at Stack Veterinary Hospital in Syracuse, N.Y.

Questions to Ask
Most veterinarians start your cat’s exam by asking you questions to rule out any serious feline diseases. They may inquire whether your cat has been vomiting, had diarrhea or shown any change in thirst, urination or appetite. Excessive thirst or urination, for example, could be signs of feline diabetes or kidney disease.

After fielding those queries, it’s your turn to do the questioning. Here is a list of the top 10 questions to ask.

1. Is my cat at the appropriate weight?
Obesity is a growing concern in pets, as it is in people. “It has all sorts of health implications for the heart, joints, liver and kidneys,” says Dr. Bonnie Beaver, former president of the American Veterinary Medical Association and a veterinary professor at Texas A&M University.

2. How are my cat’s teeth and gums?
Tooth deterioration, tartar buildup and gum disease get worse as an animal gets older. “Infections of the gums can spread to other areas of the body,” explains Beaver. It’s important that kittens get used to having their mouths cleaned to allow you to brush their teeth and remove tartar buildup.

3. When should my cat have blood work done?
Blood tests can pick up certain congenital ailments, such as kidney disease. Some veterinarians take a baseline screening on a pet’s first visit, but it’s a good idea to have a screening done on a senior cat, generally after age 10, says Dole.

4. What should I feed my cat and/or kitten?

Feed your cat food that carries the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) seal for complete and balanced nutrition, say experts. For kittens, it’s important to feed them canned and dry foods; however, they may need more moisture in their diet as they age, or if they develop kidney disease or bladder stones, says Dole.

5. Does my cat need exercise?

A regular program of exercise and environmental enrichment is important, particularly for indoor cats. Have your cats chase toys up and down stairs, or use a laser or dream catcher to interact with them.

6. How often should I bring my pet in?

Pet owners usually get in the habit of bringing cats in for an annual checkup, although sometimes that stretches to 16 months between visits. Senior cats require biannual visits. “It’s best if we can catch things early so we can intervene and help prolong and improve the quality of a pet’s life,” says Dole.

7. What are the latest vaccine recommendations?

Vaccinations have saved millions of cats’ lives. The latest recommendation is that the last round of cat vaccines should be administered after a kitten is 16 weeks old, according to Dole. It’s also critical to get any follow-up booster shots.

8. How can I administer my cat’s medication properly?

If your veterinarian prescribes medicine for your cat, you should always ask for clarification on the directions, says Beaver. “If you give your pet medication the wrong way, it doesn’t help them and can potentially have serious consequences.”

9. Is generic medication available?

Prescription medications for cats can be as expensive as those for humans. Ask your veterinarian if generics are available. If they are, find out the difference -- if any -- compared to brand-name products. While generics exist, veterinarians may not carry all varieties, although they usually try to provide economical options.

10. How much does it cost?

Don’t be afraid to question your veterinarian’s recommendation, particularly if it calls for an expensive surgical procedure. “You should also ask whether there are alternatives,” says Dole. And don’t be afraid to ask for a second opinion.

Veterinary Education Goes Global

As a veterinary student in 2006, Brian DiGangi found himself in a setting quite unlike the cozy University of Florida campus he was used to. He was in the town of Tunkas, Mexico, caring for cats and dogs in an open-air, MASH-style clinic. At night, he slept in a hammock.

"It's always an eye-opening experience to spend a significant amount of time in another country, but this program was my first experience using my veterinary skills in such a setting," recalls Dr. DiGangi. "We learned how to provide high-quality medical care without all the 'bells and whistles' of the university setting. In fact, we usually didn't even have electricity or running water."

The Global Factor
DiGangi was participating in Project Yucatan, a student exchange opportunity that's part of the University of Florida's certificate program in international veterinary medicine. Started in 2003, the program is part of a growing trend in veterinary medicine to give students a global perspective on their profession.

A paper recently published in the journal Preventive Veterinary Medicine provides an overview of the relatively new program and its goals, which can be lofty. "Animal medicine is not much different than people medicine," says Amy Stone, D.V.M., an assistant professor at University of Florida and co-author of the paper. "If the animals in a community are well cared for, it is likely that so are the humans. If we can teach people how to care for animals, their food supplies, homes and workplaces will be safer.” She adds, “If we can fight disease together with the human medical professionals, then we can stop outbreaks, pandemics and possibly bioterrorism. If we go and extend a hand through medicine, it helps our relationships with other cultures."

Health Benefits for Pets and Vets
The University of Florida program is not just for people who want to do missionary-style work abroad. Dr. Stone was part of a program in Honduras that focused on zoonotic diseases, or diseases that pass from animals to people.

"These folks were getting parasites from their pets and they were at risk of disease," she says. She believes there are many parts of the U.S. where the education about zoonotic diseases is lacking. Intensive training like she experienced in Honduras can therefore become valuable when dealing with cat and dog owners back home.

Skills Better Learned Abroad
Dr. Stone additionally points out that training in a country where the standard of care is lower can actually give students a unique set of skills they might not get at a university back home. "Not everyone [in the U.S.] has the resources to care for their pets in the way that most veterinarians would advise," she says. “The no-frills nature of international projects gives the students the opportunity to practice what I call 'street medicine.' They learn how to prioritize and deal with the situation that they are given.”

Many veterinarians are all too familiar with sad cases where pet owners come in with a troubled cat that they can't afford to have treated. Having a bag of tricks and quick fixes learned in countries like Mexico or Cuba is better than denying care for lack of funds.

Help for Less Fortunate Felines
Then there are those whose international experiences inspire them to come home and care for the least fortunate of our feline friends. That's exactly what happened to Dr. DiGangi, now a D.V.M. specializing in shelter medicine as a University of Florida resident. The stray cats he cares for that come in off the streets of Gainesville aren't all that different from the semi-domesticated cats he tended to in Tunkas.

"All the animals that came through our clinic were brought there by their owners,” he shares. “That said, many of the cats were not as accustomed to handling as pets in the United States, and most of them probably lived exclusively outdoors." These cats usually require even more care, since outdoor living comes with many perils, including more exposure to pathogens.

Dr. DiGangi believes that receiving training abroad helps veterinarians to focus on working with the underserved animals in our country as well as their caretakers. “My participation in Project Yucatan was one of my first experiences working with such a population and undoubtedly played a role in my current career path," he says.

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.