An Inside Look at Cat Grooming

Adult cats spend up to 50 percent of their waking hours grooming, according to Dr. Cynthia McManis, a veterinarian and the owner of Just Cats Veterinary Services.

Since grooming is so important to your cat, too much or too little can indicate a number of health problems. McManis explains why cats are constantly grooming:

  • Protection against predators Cats instinctively clean away food and additional odor-causing agents so they will not be detected by potentially threatening animals.
  • Cooling down Cats sweat a little from their paws, but they mostly rely on saliva evaporation on their fur to maintain normal body temperature. Grooming controls around one-third of a cat’s cooling process.
  • Fur maintenance and warmth By licking itself, a cat helps distribute its natural oils evenly around its coat. This oil guards against dampness and seals in heat.
  • Nail care Grooming helps your cat to sharpen and maintain its claws.
  • Self-medicating Cat saliva is thought to contain enzymes that turn it into a natural antibiotic. If your cat licks a wound, it may be guarding against infection. Always see your veterinarian if your cat sustains an injury.  
  • Relaxation Cats take comfort in the ritual of self-cleaning.
  • Stimulation of blood flow Similar to how a hairbrush promotes blood flow on the scalp, your cat’s tongue -- which is covered in tiny, bristle-like hairs -- improves circulation.
  • Friendship Familiar cats will groom each other as a sign of affection. Think of it as a kitty kiss, since it involves saliva exchange and mutual trust.

Too Little Grooming
Since there are so many benefits to grooming, an unkempt cat is probably a sick cat, according to Dr. Jane Brunt, a veterinarian at the Cat Hospital at Towson, in Baltimore. “Look for dullness of the fur, a buildup of undercoat, dander and even hairballs that, contrary to popular belief, are not normal for cats,” she says. If your cat has a hairball more than twice or so a year, it could be suffering from any number of internal problems. “And hacking could be a symptom of heartworm, lung disease, asthma or other serious issues,” she adds.

Too Much Grooming
When the volume of hair loss is excessive, there can be a “lawn mower effect,” with patches of missing fur, says Brunt. A common cause is hyperthyroidism, a condition that happens when a cat has an overactive thyroid. Hyperthyroidism can be fatal, so have your cat checked out immediately if you suspect this could be the problem.  

Food allergies may also cause over-grooming, since the cat may feel itchy and uncomfortable. “Sometimes, cats may become allergic to certain ingredients, most often a protein,” explains Brunt, adding that rotating different food flavors can sometimes help. High-quality pet foods formulated for cats with allergies are also available now. These foods promote skin-and-coat health, so ask your veterinarian about them.

Cat Coat Perfection
Certain qualities indicate a “perfect” coat of fur, including:

  • Shine and a soft, lush texture
  • Little dander
  • No black specks, which can be a sign of fleas
  • No bald patches
  • Not a lot of dead undercoat, since your cat normally removes it

To promote these qualities, feed your cat food that contains quality natural ingredients, essential nutrients and amino acids. Visit your veterinarian twice a year to stay ahead of common problems, and establish a daily brushing routine with your cat.

“Both Cats and owners should look forward to this productive time together,” says Brunt.

The Easiest Way to Assess Your Cat’s Health

If your veterinarian were to ask you to take your cat’s temperature at home, would you know what to do? This often-necessary task might seem simple, but it requires preparation and practice. Dr. Jodi Korich, a veterinarian and the director of Partners in Animal Health at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, explains what you should do both now and when the moment of need arises.

Cat First-aid Kit
It helps to create mini “sub-kits” within your cat’s basic first-aid kit, with each containing items required for specific tasks. For the temperature-taking portion of the kit, you’ll need:

  • Thermometer While you can use a standard glass thermometer, Korich believes a digital one is safer. “If you accidentally drop the thermometer, which can happen when trying to control a squirming cat, it won’t then break and shatter,” she explains. “A digital thermometer is also flexible and will move with your cat.”
  • Lubricant It facilitates insertion of the thermometer. Korich suggests three choices that work equally well: mineral oil, KY Jelly and petroleum jelly.
  • Alcohol You should have this in your kit anyway, for treating certain wounds. In this case, it will be used to clean off the thermometer.
  • Paper towel This is useful during cleanup.

Taking Your Cat’s Temperature
Even before your cat is ill, it’s important that you perform a few practice temperature-taking runs. These instructions assume that you are using a digital thermometer. To begin, lightly coat the tip of the thermometer with lubricant. Have all the other required items within reach.

If possible, “Try to find a friend or family member who can help out,” advises Dr. Korich. One individual can then serve as the “cat holder,” securing the cat with both hands between the feline’s neck and shoulders. If the cat might bite or scratch, have this second individual wear gloves and use a towel to hold the feline patient.

If you’re working alone, hold your cat against your side. Wrap an arm around the front of your cat so it cannot break free. If possible, place your cat on a raised surface, such as a table.

Lift your cat’s tail, but be gentle. If you pull too hard, you can hurt your cat, which might then bolt. Insert the thermometer into your cat’s anus. “There will be some initial resistance, due to contraction of the anal muscles,” warns Korich. Hold the thermometer until it beeps, signifying that a temperature has been taken.

When finished, “It’s important that you don’t forget the treat,” says Korich. This will help to ease your cat’s tension and reinforce that the temperature-taking process is rewarding and not threatening.

Korich says temperatures falling between 100.4 F to 102 F “are considered to be normal for cats.” If your cat is emotionally stressed, however, its temperature could go up to around 103 F.

When to Take Your Cat’s Temperature
According to the Hale Veterinary Group of Wiltshire, England, “pyrogens,” or substances that change the level at which the body temperature is maintained, cause fever. Pyrogens include “bacteria, viruses, toxins, some drugs and natural substances released by the body in response to inflammation.” Cat temperatures tend to hold steady, so rises and falls strongly indicate that something is wrong.

Korich says your veterinarian might ask that you take your cat’s temperature after it has undergone a surgical procedure or has been diagnosed with an illness. “Visits to the hospital can be tremendously stressful for cats, so home monitoring under a veterinarian’s supervision can allow the cat to recover quicker,” she explains.

 “Cats are notoriously secretive about illness,” says Korich. Temperature is one key indicator of sickness that your clever feline cannot fake or hide.

Cat Flu Truths and Myths

Just a few weeks ago, a 13-year-old indoor cat in Iowa was diagnosed with swine flu. “Two of the three members of the family that owns the pet had suffered from influenza-like illness before the cat became ill,” explains Dr. Ann Garvey, a veterinarian with the Iowa Department of Public Health.

Although everyone recovered, many pet owners remain concerned about their own cats and families. As is the case with so many other illnesses, the facts are hard to separate from fiction. We’ve debunked some misconceptions, and we offer facts and pointers to help you deal with cat infections.

Feline Flu: Myths and Facts

  • Cats can catch H1N1, aka swine flu This is now fact, thanks to the confirmed Iowa case. It’s reason for caution and concern, but not panic. “The risk of other cats becoming infected appears to be low at this point,” says Dr. Alfonso Torres, former chief veterinary officer of the United States and current associate dean for public policy at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
  • People can give cats swine flu Experts believe that people can transmit the H1N1 virus to cats and ferrets. “We’re seeing reverse zoonosis, with the virus jumping from people to animals,” explains Torres. But few such cases have been documented. According to Dr. Kelly M. Wright, director of The Cat Clinic of Orange County in Costa Mesa, Calif., “generally, these types of viruses target different cells in the respiratory tracts of humans and other mammals.” In other words, a virus that can thrive in the respiratory tract of one type of mammal isn’t likely to do so well in another.
  • People can give cats other types of flu Experts believe this is likely but uncommon. Nevertheless, it’s better to be safe than sorry. “Avoid direct contact with pets if you have the flu,” advises Michael San Filippo, a spokesperson for the American Veterinary Medical Association. “Keep them off of your bed and be sure to cover up coughs and sneezes. Wash your hands regularly.” He adds, “Pets are members of our families, so exercise the same precautions that you would for other friends and family.”
  • Cats can catch other types of animal flu That statement has been true on occasion. A 2006 report from Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine mentioned that cats can contract avian flu -- aka “bird flu” -- and also transmit the virus back to birds. “This helped the virus spread between poultry farms,” says Dr. Wright. It’s also one of the many reasons you should always keep your cat indoors.
  • Human flu and cat flu are the same This is a myth, according to Dr. Wright. “The term ‘flu’ is used to describe an influenza virus,” she explains. “But cat upper respiratory viruses are most typically the feline herpes virus (FVH-1) and feline calicivirus (FCV).” She adds, “I think we use the word ‘flu’ descriptively so that owners understand that the symptoms of these conditions can mimic a human flu virus.”

How to Help Your Cat
Although true flu among cats doesn’t occur often, your cat can still develop respiratory problems and other symptoms that resemble human flu, as well as symptoms unlike those associated with human influenza. A cat with a respiratory infection may not only sneeze and cough but also lose its appetite, develop a high fever and find it difficult to breathe through its nose. The cat additionally could squint, develop cloudiness or heavy discharge from the eye, and experience severe swelling of the tissue around the eyes.

Any cat that develops such symptoms needs to see a veterinarian. The veterinarian can recommend treating the respiratory symptoms with antibiotics, which will help combat the bacteria contributing additional discomfort to the cat. Your veterinarian can also prescribe an ointment to ease eye symptoms, and nose drops to relieve nasal congestion.

Although animal health experts continue to investigate how well the human swine flu vaccine works on cats, a readily available vaccine -- the FVCRP -- can help prevent most other feline respiratory infections.

“FVCRP is a common combination vaccine recommended by the American Association of Feline Practitioners every three years that will help protect against both the calicivirus and the herpes virus,” says Dr. Wright. “These are the two most common respiratory viruses in cats today.”

Become a Health Detective for Your Cat

Cats are sneaky creatures, masters at hiding anything from pens to hair clips and illnesses. Numerous reasons are to blame, but one theory involves their genetic makeup. "Like wild animals, cats may feel the need to cover their illness so they're not viewed as being vulnerable," says Marie S. McCabe, DVM, vice president of the Human Animal Bond Division with the American Humane Association.

Knowing your cat by sight and touch can help you understand what "normal" is. Here are six clues that your cat could be under the weather. 

Clue No. 1: Weight Change
For most cats, weight loss isn't normal and can signal illness, says India Lane, DVM, associate professor of medicine at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine in Knoxville, Tenn. Weight gain in cats is usually associated with excess food.

While your veterinarian can help you to determine what is normal for your particular cat’s breed and age, you can also observe your pet’s body. First, look at your cat from above. You should see a waistline. Now view your cat from the side and see if the belly hangs. In a normal-weight cat, there should be no hang. Next, put your hands on your cat's back and make sure you can feel the ribs. 

Clue No. 2: Unkempt Coat
When cats are nervous, they often raise the fur of their coats and shed excessively. If that's the case, a change in the environment -- such as a big move -- could be stressing your cat, says McCabe. If your cat has stopped grooming and the coat looks clumpy or flaky, that may be cause for concern, as cats are normally fastidious groomers.

Clue No. 3: Pale Gums and Bad Breath
Checking your cat’s gums and teeth regularly can help you spot changes more easily. Pale gums, or paleness in the ears or around the eyeballs -- for cats with black gums -- can signify illness. This subtle color change can indicate poor circulation and disease. In addition, check the teeth and make sure there is no plaque or tartar. Another illness tip-off? Unpleasant-smelling breath that doesn’t come from something you’ve put in the food bowl.   

Clue No. 4: Dilated Eyes
Gaze into your cat's eyes. You should see similar-sized pupils that aren't dilated. With some illnesses, the pupils can dilate and remain dilated, says Lane. One pupil may even appear to be slightly larger than the other.

Clue No. 5: Shallow, Quick Breathing
Respiratory problems can be another red flag for health woes, but you often have to watch cats closely to know they're having problems. In retrospect, you may realize that your cat has been hiding or hunched up, with its breathing shallow but quick.

Clue No. 6: Behavioral Changes
While the above clues deal with bodily changes, behavioral changes may also alert you to problems. For instance, something could be awry if your cat is urinating or defecating outside the litter box, straining in the litter box, hiding in odd places, not interacting with family members, becoming aggressive or irritable, or bouncing off the walls.

Even with these clues at your fingertips, how do you know when you need to call for expert medical help? Lane says three of the aforementioned things should drive you to the veterinarian’s office immediately: breathing difficulties, changes in the pupils, and straining to urinate or defecate. Otherwise, watch your cat for a few days. If you still suspect a problem, call your veterinarian without delay.

Is Secondhand Smoke Killing Your Cat?

You probably wouldn’t encourage a toddler to smoke, but if you subject your pet to secondhand smoke, you might as well be offering kitty a cigarette. “The correlation is similar to what is seen in children: Smaller lungs have less reserve and are more likely to be affected,” says Laura Sullivan, DVM, of Cascade Hospital for Animals, in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Recent studies confirm Dr. Sullivan’s assertion, warning that secondhand smoke may lead to deadly diseases in your cat. So if personal health risks haven’t compelled you and your houseguests to quit smoking yet, there is a new incentive: the well-being of your cat.

Consider the Dangers
The health risks associated with inhaling secondhand smoke have proved to be just as worrisome for cats as they are for people. But unlike you, your cat doesn’t have the choice to escape the environment to get fresher air, says Shera Dickie, DVM, of St. Julian’s Cat Care, in Dearborn, Mich. What’s more, pollutants from the smoky air collect on your pet’s coat. Since cats are meticulous groomers, they can easily ingest these harmful substances as they lick their fur.

According to a Swedish study cited by Dr. Dickie, “six out of seven cats that lived in a smoking home had pathological changes in their lungs.” These changes foretold the emergence of cancer for the majority of the cats. Here are a few other diseases your cat runs the risk of developing if regularly exposed to secondhand smoke:

  • Malignant lymphoma This aggressive type of cancer occurs in the lymph nodes and can be fatal. In fact, “Three out of four cats with this disease are dead within a year of diagnosis,” says Dr. Dickie. Cats living with smokers are twice as likely to get this disease, and the risk elevates with increased exposure.

  • Squamous cell carcinoma This type of cancer plagues a cat’s mouth. A study conducted at Tufts College of Veterinary Medicine found there is a higher incidence of this illness among cats living with smokers for more than five years.

  • Nicotine poisoning Feline explorers drawn to unknown objects, like a forgotten cigarette butt, are especially threatened by nicotine poisoning. The affliction occurs when a cat ingests tobacco. Cigarette butts contain much harmful nicotine -- about 25 percent of the nicotine of a whole cigarette -- so even a small cigarette butt can lead to the death of a cat.

  • Asthma Cats exposed to secondhand smoke are not only more susceptible to asthma, but they also “tend to heal slower from respiratory diseases, such as viral infections and pneumonia,” notes Dr. Sullivan. Increased coughing and breathing difficulty is a possible sign that your kitty suffers around secondhand smoke.

What Can You Do Now?
Proactive, responsible owners have many options to protect their cat from secondhand smoke. But how do you do that if you can’t quit smoking so easily? Here are four tips to guide even the most addicted smoker:

  • Designate smoke-free areas Consider smoking outside, or smoke only in rooms that pets are not allowed in. The less the exposure, the greater the chances your cat will stay healthy.

  • Use air filters Air filters may help clean the environment, removing harmful chemicals in the air that could block your kitty’s respiratory passage.

  • Clean your pet and your house Regular baths, or at the very least wipe-downs with a damp cloth, can help remove smoke residue from cat fur, says Dr. Dickie. Vacuum and keep all cigarette butts, tobacco products and even nicotine patches out of sight to prevent accidental illness, poisoning or even death.

  • Look for symptoms Excessive drooling or difficulty eating are symptoms of oral cancer, while labored breathing is a sign of lung cancer. Observe your cat frequently, since catching diseases early on always helps with treatment. If something is out of the ordinary, contact your veterinarian immediately.

The best solution of all? Quitting if you’re a smoker -- and encouraging cigarette-carrying visitors to do the same. In the words of Dr. Dickie: “Why expose your beloved furry friend to a potentially preventable disease?”