Common Cat Health Myths -- Debunked!

Lots of fibs have been told about felines through the ages. For example, consider the popular notion that it’s supposedly healthy for cats to drink cow’s milk.

The truth is that most cats are lactose intolerant and can’t break down the sugars in milk, says Joseph Wakshlag, DMV, an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. Kittens will -- and should -- drink the milk from mother cats. But once they are weaned, other milks, such as cow’s milk, are not recommended for feline diets. “Much like (some) humans, cats don’t have the enzymes to break down lactose,” Dr. Wakshlag says. “Evolutionarily, it’s not part of what cats need in terms of nutrition.” Furthermore, he adds, it can add fuel to the fire if a cat already has an upset stomach. “It’s the last thing you want to give a cat with a GI disturbance,” he says.

As with most popular myths, there’s usually some grain of truth. Over the years, farmers would sometimes put out saucers of milk for kittens. However, it would be a supplement to a meat-and-tissue diet, since the cats would catch mice in the barn, Dr. Wakshlag points out.

The spreading of myths about feline health is akin to a game of “telephone” in which someone says something and others pass it on and on. “They’re just like urban legends,” says Arden Moore, author of The Cat Behavior Answer Book (Storey 2007) and editor of Catnip magazine. “No one bothers to figure out if it’s fact or fiction,” Moore says. “They figure, ‘I’ve heard that. It must be true.’”

Sometimes the myths are harmless, such as the common belief that cats are aloof creatures -- perpetuated by such fictional characters as the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland. But sometimes the tall tales can cause harm. When the myths deal with feline health and nutrition, owners like you need to take extra steps to verify what you might have read on the Internet or heard from your grandparents.

Fact or Fiction?
Here are common assumptions to help you test your cat-telligence:

Cats Always Land on Their Feet
Fact: Cats do have a “superior righting reflex” and a flexible spine. They can instinctively fall feet first, but they may also end up with broken bones from a fall, says Moore. She advises owners to check screens on windows and ledges to prevent cats from falling from high buildings.

Spaying or Neutering Will Cause a Cat to Gain Weight
Fiction: There is little scientific evidence tying the act of spaying or neutering to weight gain. The primary reason that cats gain weight is inactivity, which is more prevalent in housebound felines, Wakshlag says. However, the fact that Tomcat is no longer on the prowl -- looking for love, so to speak -- may reduce its overall activity level.

Pregnant Women Shouldn’t Own Cats
Fact: It is true that some cats are infected with a disease called toxoplasmosis. It’s possible for this disease to spread to humans through contact with cat litter boxes, thereby harming unborn babies. However, says Wakshlag, pregnant mothers can avoid handling cat litter. They can make sure to wash their hands thoroughly and keep them away from their mouth if they come into contact with cat waste.

Cats are Nocturnal
Fiction: Even though they have keen eyesight, cats cannot see in total darkness, according to Moore. The truth is that cats are most active in the early morning or early evening. “In the wild, cats did most of their hunting at dawn and dusk,” Moore says.

Garlic on Food Will Keep Fleas and Worms Away
Fiction: Garlic and onion have the potential to cause anemic conditions in cats, says Wakshlag. To date, no one has ever been able to prove that garlic will keep worms or fleas away.

Debunking Cat Myths
Your best bet is to exercise caution before trying out old wives’ tales on kitty. Ask your veterinarian about any myths that you’ve heard, or check out reputable cat health and research websites, such as the ones run by the Morris Animal Foundation or the Winn Feline Foundation. There is also a website run by the American Association of Feline Practitioners for veterinarians with a specialty in feline medicine. Catnip magazine, sponsored and reviewed by experts at Tufts University’s School of Veterinary Medicine, also has content available online.

Few, however, have addressed what is perhaps the most common cat myth query of all time -- do felines have nine lives?

“They have but one, although they seem to be able to get themselves out of trouble quite often,” Moore says. “We only wish that they had nine lives.”

Is Feline Diabetes Becoming An Epidemic?

Does your cat sport the feline equivalent of love handles? That extra cushioning might look cute, but it places your cat at risk for feline diabetes. Cases of this disease are soaring, to the point where some veterinarians consider diabetes in cats to be an epidemic. Last year a study at Edinburgh University in England found that of the estimated 90 million cats in the U.S., almost 400,000 will develop diabetes at some point in their lives.

Just what's going on with our pets? Veterinarians say the trend mirrors the rise in diabetes among humans, and feline diabetes has similar causes. Weight gain and a sedentary lifestyle are contributing culprits for both humans and cats. Similarly, a healthy diet and regular exercise work as preventative measures for our cats, just as they do for us.

Is your kitty among those cats at risk? Educating yourself about feline diabetes can go a long way toward protecting your cat's health. Here are four important steps you may follow:

Recognize the Symptoms
Just like their human counterparts, diabetic cats either don't produce enough insulin or they develop sensitivity to the insulin in their bodies. This results in high glucose, or sugar, levels in the blood. This, in turn, can cause serious long-term health problems in your cat. The warning signs of feline diabetes are quite similar to the symptoms humans experience with Type II diabetes. Dr. Karen Becnel, who operates a cats-only clinic in a New Orleans suburb, says you'll want to have your cat examined by a veterinarian if you notice any of the following:

  • Increased thirst
  • Increased urination
  • Weight loss
  • Increased appetite
  • A disheveled appearance (A cat might not groom itself properly.)
  • Poor muscle tone

Recognizing the factors that can lead to feline diabetes is as critical as recognizing the disease's symptoms.

Understand the Causes
There's certainly more to love when it comes to the cats visiting Dr. Elizabeth Colleran's Chico, Calif., cat hospital. Increasingly, the cats she sees could afford to shed a pound -- or three.

Although there has been some discussion over the feeding of wet versus dry food when it comes to feline diabetes, a University of Missouri study last year found the type of food made no difference. The single biggest determining factor was the cat's weight -- and a whopping 40 percent of our cats are overweight.

Other factors include inactivity, longevity and perhaps genetics. Due to the latter, for example, Burmese cats are likely more at risk for developing the disease. If you have such an at-risk cat, discussions about diabetes with your veterinarian are even more critical.

Work to Prevent Diabetes
Dr. Colleran teaches cat owners how to play with their furry friends. It's all part of educating them about their cat's need for activity. Colleran and other veterinarians recommend that you should do these things to help keep your cat healthy:

  • Schedule regular checkups with blood tests.
  • Practice portion control. Free-feeding is a no-no, says Dr. Elaine Wexler-Mitchell, who frequently sees diabetic cats in her Orange, Calif., feline clinic.
  • Discuss your cat's nutritional needs with your veterinarian and carefully measure out food.
  • Play more. "We unfortunately have a generation of couch potato kitties that have all the benefits of indoor living, but they are being overfed and under-exercised,'' Dr. Becnel says.

Cats live longer when they're kept indoors, but you need to make sure your cat gets up and moving. If your cat is diagnosed with diabetes, you'll take an active role in maintaining its health.

Treating Feline Diabetes
Feline diabetes is manageable, through diet and medication. Some veterinarians recommend steering clear of high-carbohydrate foods. Not exceeding your cat's caloric needs is important, says Colleran. For example, an average adult cat should daily receive about 3 ounces of cat food per 3 1/2 pounds of body weight, but check with your veterinarian to see what amounts would be best for your cat.

You'll most likely need to inject your cat with insulin. Don't worry; it's not as hard as it might seem. "Almost everyone cringes at the idea they're going to give their cat a shot,'' says Becnel, "but 99.9 percent are able to give their cats shots successfully.''

Ask your veterinarian to demonstrate several times how to give an injection. Becnel shaves a small area on a cat so that the owner can easily see where to inject the needle, and cat owners practice under her watchful eyes.

The Long-Term Outlook
Although cats that have diabetes are more prone to kidney problems, urinary tract infections and other health-related issues, many can expect to live normal lives. A new type of insulin, glargine, has been particularly effective, say Becnel and Colleran. They're actually seeing some reversals in newly diagnosed cats after treating with glargine and working to control the cats' diets.

Owners who are well-educated on the indicators of diabetes often bring their cats to the veterinarian at the first warning signs. This has helped significantly in the management of the feline diabetes epidemic. "If we can control the blood sugar and get the cat's weight under control, the prognosis is excellent,'' says Becnel. "The large majority now lives for many years."

Furniture Could Make Your Cat Sick

Since the 1980s, thyroid disease in cats has been on the upswing, and the cause may be found right in your living room. Common chemicals, found in many homes, appear to speed up the function of the feline thyroid glands, which help to regulate metabolism, heart rate and more.

According to a recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study, a group of flame-retardants, called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE), is at the root of the problem. These flame retardants were mainly used in the manufacturing of sofas, rugs and other fabrics.

Since the chemicals are so widespread and labeling was not required in the past, it is difficult to tell which fabrics were treated with these specific chemicals. If you have a flame-retardant item, however, there's a good chance it could contain PBDE. But an easier task than guesswork is to identify symptoms of hyperthyroidism in your cat, which can include:

  • hair loss
  • increased appetite and thirst
  • irritability
  • vomiting
  • weight loss
  • increased vocalizing

Sarah Turner, a teacher in Orange County, Calif., always thought that hyperthyroidism was simply a result of old age in her cat Franny. That chemicals in her home could be to blame for her cat's illness was quite alarming to her.  "Hearing this really makes me want to redo my entire home with all-natural everything," says Turner.

Franny exhibited two of the telltale signs. Turner explains, "My cat's appetite was insatiable, but I couldn't keep any weight on her. It just didn't make sense." Fortunately, the symptoms did make sense to her veterinarian, who quickly confirmed her suspicion with a blood test.

Treating the Disease
Thyroid disorders are manageable with several treatment options. These include surgical removal of the thyroid glands, radioactive iodine and drugs. According to the Feline Thyroid Clinic in Springfield, Ore., each treatment comes with its own pros and cons.

  • Surgical thyroid removal Although this is the most effective treatment for severe cases, all surgeries come with risks, especially for older felines. Since the thyroid is also involved in calcium regulation, removal of the glands can cause dangerous imbalances in your cat. Your veterinarian must therefore closely monitor your feline after the surgery.
  • Radioactive iodine For this treatment, radioactive iodine is injected under your cat's skin. It travels to the thyroid, where it kills abnormal cells. Since your cat will literally be radioactive just after the treatment, it must be isolated from other animals, including humans, for 4-5 days after the injection. Because this is often done at the veterinarian hospital, the cost can escalate.
  • Drug treatments Oral or topical treatments can help to regulate a malfunctioning cat thyroid but, as for diabetes, they must be administered for the rest of the feline's life. Your veterinarian will also have to conduct regular blood tests to determine drug amounts and also to make sure possible side effects, like liver dysfunction, don't arise.

Turner has been successfully treating Franny with oral medication for the last few years.

Why Cats are at Special Risk
While humans may also be susceptible to thyroid problems resulting from toxic chemical exposure, cats have significantly higher levels of PBDE in their system than their owners. According to Janice Dye, DVM, a North Carolina research biologist who led the EPA study, there are a couple of possible explanations for this.

First, your cat spends 24 hours a day in your home being exposed to dust particles containing PBDE, getting a daily dose average person is not getting. Second, the toxic particles in PBDE cling onto dust and cats are meticulous self-groomers, eating any dust they come into contact with. In contrast, says Dr. Dye, "We sit on the couch, but we don't groom ourselves thoroughly afterward."

Before you decide the findings are a good excuse to let your kitty roam outdoors, Dr. Dye points out, "Outdoor cats usually do not live long enough to contract this disease. The risk of being attacked by coyotes or hit by a car is still much greater."

Is Prevention Possible?
Dr. Dye believes that it's probably not necessary to "rip up all of your carpeting or throw out your sofa." She says, "If flame retardants are the cause, the products have been, or are in the process of being, banned." Also, more studies need to be performed before anyone can conclude for certain that there is a direct link between these chemicals and hyperthyroidism in cats.

In the future, it will hopefully become obvious that people whose indoor cats have high levels PBDE in their blood should get tested themselves because they are exposed to the same toxins. Your cat could be your lifesaver. Says Dr. Dye, "As pets share our home, they give us clues as to what we must use more wisely."

Should You Vaccinate Your Cat Against Feline Calicivirus?

One day, Jeanne Prins' six-month old kitten Paris was playing actively; the next she was like a limp rag. "I took her to the veterinarian," recounts Prins. "We assumed it was an abscess. He gave her a shot and said to bring her back on Monday if she wasn't better. I took her home and she couldn't stand up. On Sunday morning, my 20-year-old cat Sanibel couldn't walk. I assumed it was coincidental. But then on Monday, my one-year-old cat, Higgins, also couldn't walk. My 10-year-old cat, Kitten, stopped eating and I took him in, too. Then A.J. couldn't climb the stairs. The virus hit us like a tornado."

Prins, a veterinary supplies salesperson from Reisterstown, Md., discovered last November that she ultimately lost three cats to what was confirmed, upon autopsy, to have been a virulent systemic strain of the feline calicivirus. Two of her cats, Paris and Higgins, survived the illness, while the five others never showed a single symptom. Prins is now an active advocate in her community for vaccinating against the illness.

Tough to Target
The sickness is called virulent systemic feline calicivirus (VS-FCV). Thanks to the efforts of Prins and other concerned pet owners and researchers, a new vaccine is available against VS-FCV, a potentially fatal mutation of the feline equivalent of the common cold. Similar to preventing human flues and viruses, however, targeting this illness can prove difficult.  

It is not unusual for your feline to feel under the weather every so often. Upper respiratory infections, oral ulceration, limping and lethargy occur fairly frequently in cats, and may be symptoms of the very common feline calicivirus (FCV). According to the Center for Companion Animal Health at the University of California's Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, up to eight percent of house cats and 25 percent of cats from multiple cat environments like shelters are calicivirus carriers at any given time. The virus is most often fairly harmless. A few days of rest and your cat should be back to its old self.

More Dangerous Forms of Calicivirus
Some strains of the constantly mutating calicivirus cause the symptoms mentioned above. As in the case of Jeanne Prins and her kitten, certain types of the virus cause no symptoms at all, while other more infrequently occurring strains become highly virulent and dangerous. The virulent and non-virulent forms of calicivirus can both begin with the same symptoms -- including the aforementioned oral ulceration, limping and fever. However, unlike the more common strains of FCV, VS-FCV can progress in some cats to more severe problems, including limb swelling, hair loss, ulceration and oozing of the skin, and even death. Outbreaks of VS-FCV in any cat community are very rare. More commonly, cats experience this severity of symptoms due to common FCV combined with panleukopenia or another respiratory issue.

Documenting numbers of cases has proven difficult, since over 65 feline caliciviruses exist worldwide. Recently outbreaks of the deadly version of the virus, however, have been reported in Northern California and New England. One strain appears to be particularly fatal to cats housed in animal shelters.

An insidious feature of FCV, including the virulent forms, is that it spreads easily. Cats may shed the virus through their saliva, so a single sneeze could blast other felines with it. Even asymptomatic cats could harbor the virus and then pass it on to others. If your cat is ever diagnosed with any type of calicivirus, be sure to quarantine it from other animals. Other species, like raccoons, can get it too.

To Vaccinate or Not to Vaccinate?
As with any vaccine, however, there are pros and cons when it comes to administering it to your cat. The major con arises largely from the fact that this vaccine is a "killed vaccine," which means that additional chemicals are needed to stimulate the vaccine's immune response. There is some theoretical but to date unproven concern that these chemicals might predispose cats to injection site tumors. The major pro, of course, is that the vaccine may protect your cat against a potentially life-threatening disease.

Veterinarian Kate Hurley, an assistant clinical professor at California's UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, studies all forms of the calicivirus. She offers the following thoughts:

  • VS-FCV is a rare mutation of feline calicivirus that is a serious threat when it emerges. However, it is uncommon. VS-FCV emerges and resolves spontaneously. This is because the calicivirus is an unstable virus, which means it mutates every time it is passed from one cat to the next. So every calicivirus that mutates into a virulent calicivirus will, as it is passed on to the next cat, ultimately once again become a non-virulent calicivirus.
  • Because the virus is always mutating, there is no single virulent strain to vaccinate against. While the new vaccine may provide broader protection against calicivirus in general, it is not certain that it will protect against another virulent strain.

The Bottom Line
"If I were already getting my cat vaccinated with a killed vaccine, I would add the new strain. There might be benefits, so why not?" says Dr. Hurley. "But I wouldn't switch from a vaccine I was already happy with, [such as] a nasal spray or modified live vaccine, to get the benefit of the protection which there may or may not be. I would not panic in the face of a reported outbreak and rush to get my cat vaccinated. The place your cat is most likely to pick up the virus is at the vet. Wait for the crisis to pass, and have your cat vaccinated in its usual series, adding the new vaccine strain if you choose."

Protecting your cat's health always involves a series of choices. The same is true when dealing with concern about virulent systemic feline calicivirus. Consult with your own veterinarian about the issue to decide what could be best for your cat.

Silent Signs of a Sick Kitty

Cats are notoriously stoic. It's rare for them to show any obvious sign of illness. "As a general rule, any major or sudden change in a cat's usual activities and patterns requires some investigation," says Wendy Christensen, author of Outwitting Cats: Tips, Tricks and Techniques for Persuading the Felines in Your Life That What YOU Want is also What THEY Want (The Lyons Press). Here, an inside look at clues that your cat may be under the weather:

Pay attention to unexplained weight changes A pound or two for a cat is the equivalent of 10 or 20 pounds for us. And, if the weight change is rapid, the situation calls for veterinary attention, warns Christensen. A sudden gain or loss may signal cancer, kidney and liver disease, hyperthyroidism and several other conditions.

Note changes in eating habits, too If your pet turns up its nose after a few bites, it might simply be that new food you bought. "But disinterest in eating can also happen when a cat is under stress -- maybe some change is happening in your household -- experiencing tooth pain or tongue ulcers, dealing with hot or humid weather, or battling something more serious such as an upper respiratory problem, kidney failure, liver disease, diabetes, bowel disease, heart disease, cancer or feline leukemia," according to Christensen. So if your cat's food cutback or refusal to eat lasts longer than a couple of days, call your vet.

Be aware of drinking and urinating patterns These activities can indicate how well the kidneys are functioning. Often, excess drinking and urinating are the first signs of chronic kidney disease, since the kidneys may not be properly filtering toxins. "With veterinary care, diet adjustment and possibly medication, chronic kidney disease is a manageable condition, but it's best to catch it early," says Christensen.

Note elimination patterns If your cat is eliminating outside its litter box in significantly smaller or larger amounts than normal, or voiding blood, it may be a sign of medical or behavioral issues. See a vet for an evaluation. "Feline elimination problems, unaddressed," warns Christensen, "tend to get worse, not better."

Be aware of head shaking and ear scratching This can indicate ear mites (a parasite) or a bacterial or fungal infection -- a veterinarian can tell the difference. Don't try to diagnose this yourself, urges Christensen. "If it's mites and you treat for infection, your entire house can quickly be infested." 

Don't ignore kitty halitosis Persistent bad breath can point to a variety of illnesses, including kidney failure and gastrointestinal problems. It's not just a cosmetic issue, says Christensen. It needs veterinary attention.

Note changes in vocalization A silent cat who suddenly cries and calls at all hours, or a talky cat who's suddenly mute, may be experiencing pain, stress or confusion. Pay your vet a visit.

Take quick action if your cat bumps into things, has dilated pupils, and seems ill-at-ease in familiar environments All of these symptoms can indicate sudden blindness, says Christensen. Contact your veterinarian immediately.