How to Manage Your Cat’s Health Care

Has the recession affected your spending habits? A new survey reveals that the economic doldrums have impacted many cat owners. “Dogs and cats are feeling the bite of the recession as pet owners put a leash on pet care expenses,” says Susan Spaulding, executive vice president and principal at The Pert Group, which conducted the survey with Brakke Consulting. “The recession has not only decreased what consumers spend on their own health, but what they spend at the veterinarian.”

Cats have especially taken a hit. John Volk, a senior consultant at Brakke Consulting, shares the reason why -- as well as promising news for cats and their owners.

Fewer Cats Are Going to the Veterinarian
On the downside, the Pet Owner Channel Use Study found that less than 50 percent of cat owners took their cats to the veterinarian last year. “Some have never even been to a veterinarian,” says Volk. He believes additional research is needed to dig into the reason as to why that’s the case, but he offered these possible explanations:

A lot of first-time pet owners are cat owners. They haven’t developed proper habits for routinely taking their pet to a veterinarian.

Cats are often indoor animals, so owners may feel they can spend less on health care prevention, such as heartworm and flea and tick products. (All of these problems can hurt indoor cats, as any owner fighting a home flea invasion knows.)

In comparison to what’s available for dogs, there aren’t as many health-related products available for cats.

Factor in the recession and the cost of veterinary care and you can see why owners could be postponing trips to the veterinarian. A lot of people are tight on funds now.

Longtime cat owners, however, realize that preventive care can help stave off health issues, ultimately saving pet owners money. If your cat is 6-7 years old or younger, schedule a veterinary visit once yearly for a routine examination. Cats older than age 7 would benefit from twice-yearly vet visits. The visits will include the basics, such as a full physical, a dental evaluation and a parasite check. Routine blood work and a urinalysis should also be included, especially for older cats.

Pet Insurance Spending Is Increasing
One positive outcome from the study is the finding that cat owners are now spending more on pet insurance. Insurance is another tool for combating the recession, allowing for regular veterinary visits and safeguarding against the cost of required special care, such as hospital stays and treatments for serious illnesses.

Volk says there is growing interest in health insurance for pets, so expect this business sector to continue to grow in the years to come.

Food Spending Remains the Same
Compared to a similar study conducted in 2007, the findings of this latest pet owner study show that cat food expenditures are basically the same. “There are more purchases of cat food, but actual expenses are higher for dog owners because dogs are often bigger than cats and eat more,” says Volk.

The Way We Buy Pet Health Care Products Is Changing
The study found that more and more cat owners are turning to the Internet for their shopping needs. The reasons? Variety, sometimes-lower costs and convenience. Still, the trend is worrisome to Volk, who supports one-on-one interaction and expertise rather than online ads and in-store displays.

He and his colleagues are also concerned about the Fairness to Pet Owners Act of 2011. This legislation was introduced last year and referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health. Among other things, it would require veterinarians to write a prescription whether or not they will dispense the product. The majority of survey respondents have already indicated that they would fill those prescriptions outside of their veterinarians’ offices at least some of the time. How veterinary offices would react to the change remains unknown.

Signs of Improvement
In the few months since the new Pet Owner Channel Use Study was conducted, there are “anecdotal reports that veterinarians are seeing increased volume,” says Volk. However, Volk also adds that it is too soon to tell whether or not the recession and other problems of recent years are finally on the way out.

Nevertheless, at least one major pet health insurance company has “reported a good uptick in revenue for the first quarter of 2012.” That, food sales and other indicators provide hope that cat owners have learned to cope with financial challenges and are looking ahead to an even brighter future for themselves and their pets.

Spring 2012 Flea and Tick Care for Cats

Chances are your cat has had fleas and ticks, which have been bothering animals -- including humans -- since time immemorial. They are out in force this spring, which exterminator Alan Pendarvis of Texas credits to weather changes that are speeding up the parasites’ life cycles.

Your cat doesn’t have to suffer this spring and summer, however. New products and a better understanding of how to combat flea and tick infestations can help your cat steer clear of them.

Why Fleas and Ticks Are Bad News
Aside from the yuck factor, both fleas and ticks can spread diseases from cat to cat, and from cats to humans. Jane Koehler of the University of California at San Francisco, for example, found that cat scratch disease bacteria may spread via fleas and not just via scratches, as the name indicates. Koehler says that people with weakened immune systems are most vulnerable, and she advises that they “control flea infestation as much as possible, avoid getting scratched and, if they do get scratched, wash the scratch immediately.”

Nancy Hinkle, a University of Georgia entomologist, adds that fleas can transmit tapeworms. “An infected flea can pass on tapeworm if a dog or cat happens to swallow a flea while using its teeth to scratch, but the tapeworm is not transmitted if the flea only bites the pet,” she says. “Some animals are also highly sensitive to flea saliva, which can lead to secondary infections and dermatitis from incessant itching.”

Ticks are equally awful, burying their heads into the skin of your cat and then sucking blood for survival. This too can spread infectious diseases.

Plan of Action: Flea and Tick Avoidance and Removal
New pest control products abound this spring, with many major manufacturers introducing new and improved versions of their already popular lines. Thanks to a clever plastic gizmo, topical liquids for some lines are easier to apply, helping to keep owners’ hands away from the skin-penetrating product.

A number of natural and/or organic alternatives are also on the market now. In addition to shampoos, you can also find electric flea traps that attract fleas with heat and light and then zap them. Food-grade diatomaceous earth, a chalk-like powder that clings to the bodies of insects, works by cutting into their waxy coating and then gradually desiccating them. A drawback is that it can be a bit dusty and messy to use.

Buying Over-the-counter Meds Doesn’t Mean You Should Forget Your Vet
With so many products on the market, why did a recent pet health survey conducted by Banfield Pet Hospital find that flea infestation is one of the top 10 reasons owners bring their cats to the vet? “This might result partly from pet owners buying preventive medications at retail outlets and not talking with their veterinarians about which product is best for their pets, how to apply it and how to avoid environmental contamination from fleas and flea eggs,” says Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, veterinarian, senior vice president and chief medical officer for Banfield.

He and other veterinarians can provide fast-acting medications that may provide quick relief. Nitenpyram, usually administered in pill form, starts working in 30 minutes and can eliminate fleas within three to four hours. These are just a few of the possible remedies.

No product is free from potential side effects, however, so follow user guidelines carefully. Kimberly Chambers of VetDepot offers this additional advice:

  • Consult your vet first. Even if you plan to purchase an over-the-counter remedy, talk to your vet beforehand.
  • Pay attention to age and weight guidelines. Failing to allow for these “could result in a dangerous overdose.”
  • Do not use a dog product on a cat. Never give your cat products that contain permethrin or are labeled “For dogs only.”
  • Avoid getting topical flea-control products in your cat’s eyes and mouth.

“Flea protection is an important part of pet ownership,” says Chambers. “It not only saves pets from suffering from an itchy and uncomfortable infestation, but also protects pets from the dangers associated with fleas, including anemia.”

Finally, keep your home clean. Be sure to wash your pet’s bedding regularly and vacuum affected areas, including curtains, furniture and mattresses.

Common Eye Problems in Cats

As anyone who has woken up with a cat sitting on their chest and glaring at them can attest, cats are particularly good at expressing themselves through their gazes. Cats are very sneaky creatures, well-known to be experts at hiding signs of physical disease and distress. For this reason, these deep gazes can be an excellent opportunity to catch early signs of ocular disease in our feline companions.

Eye Problems in Your Cat
Eye disease is a common problem in cats. But due to cats’ quiet nature, it is one that can be easily overlooked, according to Dr. Marcella Ashton, a veterinary ophthalmologist at the The Eye Clinic for Animals in Kearny Mesa, Calif. Owners should be aware of the often-subtle signs of eye disease, so it can be caught and treated early.

In kittens and young cats, the most common ocular diseases are those that are caused by infectious agents or congenital disease (i.e., something the cat was born with). FHV-1, a virus that is one of the causative agents of the feline upper respiratory complex, is a common cause of corneal ulceration. Congenital glaucoma causes an increased pressure inside the eye, resulting in a large, blue eyeball. “The signs are subtle and they mask their pain,” says Ashton, “but the condition can be pretty severe.”

Underlying Diseases
Many times, an underlying systemic disease manifests itself in the eyes and is the first inkling an owner has that the cat is ill. Uveitis, an inflammation of the eyes, is commonly seen in association with systemic infectious diseases such as feline immunodeficiency virus, feline leukemia, toxoplasmosis and bartonella.

“Most owners will notice a cat crying or squinting, which is a pain response,” says Ashton. “They may also notice a difference in pupil size, sensitivity to light, changes in cloudiness of the eyes, or a blue tinge to the eye.” Any of these signs warrant a veterinary visit for a full evaluation, not only to address the eye, but also to make sure there is not an underlying disease that requires treatment.

Be Vigilant About Older Cats
These same conditions are seen in older cats. The FHV virus can remain latent in a certain part of the eye, and flare-ups are common during times of stress for cats or owners. A move, a new pet or a breakup with a boyfriend can stress the cat enough to reactivate the virus.

As cats age, a litany of diseases develop that present in the eye. One of the more common diseases Ashton sees in practice is melanoma, a cancer that manifests as brown spots on the iris. “They can be diffuse brown spots or look like cocoa powder,” says Ashton.

Kidney disease, a common condition in older cats, can also first manifest itself in the eyes. Since the kidneys are involved in the regulation of blood pressure, cats with renal disease often have accompanying high blood pressure. This leads to burst blood vessels in the eyes, causing a red eye, or retinal detachment, which causes blindness.

Symptoms to Watch
Cats are very adaptable, and owners might not notice right away when a cat is having visual problems, says Ashton. “Owners will notice dilated pupils that are not responding to light,” says Ashton. “They may also notice the cat holding their whiskers piloerected (involuntarily erected) forward,” which can also be an indication of a visual problem.

Any of the following signs are cause for a visit to the veterinarian, as they can indicate pain, infection or a disease process:

  • Dilated pupils or pupils of two different sizes
  • Sudden change in eye color
  • Unusual spots on the iris (the colored portion of the eye) or the cornea (the surface of the eye)
  • Squinting, winking, or pawing at the eye
  • Ocular discharge

A Night in the Life of an Emergency Pet Hospital Vet

TV shows often chronicle the dramatic goings-on in the emergency room of hospitals, but what about emergency pet hospitals? Here, Dr. Katy Nelson, an associate emergency veterinarian and a certified veterinary journalist in Alexandria, Va., describes what goes on at such hospitals from her perspective.

How an ER Shift Starts
Nelson says a typical shift in an ER starts and ends the same way: with rounds. “Vets, just like doctors, have to turn over their patients so that the incoming doctor knows all the ins and outs of each case, knows what to watch for, and what the plan is.”

After this work comes what she and some other ER vets call “SOAP.” This stands for “Subjective, Objective, Assessment and Plan.” The acronym refers to many different activities, from fielding owner questions, to communicating with other veterinary hospitals, to handling all of the emergency cases that come through the front door. Some nights, this process goes very quickly; other nights, it goes on and on. “The reality of emergency medicine is that it’s like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates -- you never know what you’re going to get,” says Nelson. But she says most “emergency types” thrive on the uncertainty.

Cat ER Patients
Nelson says that most cats come into the emergency room for the following health problems: vomiting, diarrhea, urinary problems, respiratory issues and lack of appetite.

“Cats can be very vocal and very physical, so you’ve got to use caution when dealing with them,” says Nelson. “For the most part, they’re just scared, so by dealing with them slowly and with patience, you often can achieve what you need to get done by simply assuring them that you’re not out to hurt them.”

How ER Pet Hospitals Differ From Others
As opposed to a regular veterinary office, most ER facilities stay open for 24 hours, or handle cases after normal working hours. Emergency hospitals are typically more expensive, with care costing about 20 percent to 30 percent more due to higher overhead and higher liability, as well as what Nelson calls “the convenience factor.” As opposed to other care facilities, some ER hospitals would rather that the owner not be in the treatment area at the time of the emergency. This is much like a human hospital, where the family is frequently kept outside in the waiting room.

Reasons to Visit an ER
Because of the ER cost and the often late-night hours, some cat owners try to wait out their pets’ health problems until the morning, figuring that their cats’ usual veterinarians can handle the issues then. Nelson, however, says you should never wait until morning if the following symptoms surface:

  • Respiratory distress. It could be tied to asthma, congestive heart failure or a clot in the lungs, all of which can be fatal.
  • Nonproductive urination. A urinary obstruction can be life-threatening.
  • Vomiting/diarrhea/lack of appetite for more than 48 hours. This can lead to severe and life-threatening liver damage among cats.
  • Ingestion of string or a possible toxin. It’s better to be safe than sorry in such cases.

What to Do Before Going to the ER With Your Cat

Nelson offers the following three tips:

1. Try to bring a copy of the medical records with you (and not just a receipt) so that your ER doctor can have a complete picture of your cat’s history rather than just having to go on your memory alone, which is not always that great during an emergency.

2. Always bring your cat in a carrier. Remember that there will be other pets in the hospital. For your own pet’s safety, having it in a carrier is key.

3. If you know your cat gets aggressive or has required sedation during prior visits, please tell your veterinarian or technician immediately so that no one gets hurt.

Nerves and emotions run high at ER hospitals, so by following such advice, you can eliminate additional hassle. You might also help to save your pet’s life.

Are You Protecting Your Cat’s Health?

We all want our pets to live healthy lives, but are we as informed as we should be? Take this quiz to see how you measure up.

1. I schedule basic veterinary checkups for my adult cat:

a. Once a year

b. Twice a year

c. When needed

Optimal answer: b. Twice a year

Although annual visits are a good start, twice-yearly exams are your best insurance against hidden diseases, says Dr. Ernie Ward, a veterinarian based in North Carolina. “I also recommend checking your pet’s blood test and urinalysis once a year in patients over 7 years old,” he says.

2. I treat my cat with over-the-counter medicines (e.g., painkillers):

a. As soon as symptoms appear

b. Only in emergencies

c. Never

Optimal answer: c. Never

The No. 1 cat poison is human medication. “Simple human drugs, like acetaminophen, can be fatal to cats,” says Dr. Patricia Joyce, an emergency veterinarian in New York City. Keep your pills to yourself.

3. I check my cat’s ears:

a. Once a year

b. Every few months

c. Every few weeks

Optimal answer: c. Every few weeks

Ear infections are preventable with careful monitoring. “If the earflap is red and inflamed; if the canal is narrow, has a heavy buildup of debris or is smelly; or if touching your cat’s ears is painful; you have a problem that needs to be addressed,” says Dr. Bernadine Cruz, a veterinarian in California.

4. My cat gets its teeth cleaned:

a. Once a year

b. Twice a year

c. Every five years

Optimal answer: a. Once a year

Annual cleanings are recommended, but Dr. Katy Johnson Nelson, a Virginia-based veterinarian, says some cats need more. “Just like some people have more cavities, some cats have significantly more severe dental disease than others. Your veterinarian will be able to determine how often they need those teeth cleaned,” she says. Between cleanings, brush your cat’s teeth at least weekly.

5. I bring my cat for vaccine renewal:

a. Yearly or sooner

b. Every three years

c. Every five years

Optimal answer: a. or b. Yearly or sooner, or every three years

Core vaccinations are given every three years, others last a year or less. Discuss this with your veterinarian and know the schedule for each vaccine.

6. I enrich my cat’s environment by:

a. Leaving toys out

b. Creating a window perch

c. Dedicating part of a room to my cat, with toys and structures

Optimal answer: c. Dedicating part of a room to my cat, with toys and structures

“Even though cats can be elusive, dedicating a part of the room to them -- with toys, perches and attention -- is essential to making them feel part of the home,” says Nelson. This simple step can help prevent behavior problems and unwanted pounds, and it can even prevent disease.

7. I exercise my cat:

a. Daily

b. Weekly

c. Seriously? Exercise my cat?

Optimal answer: a. Daily

To keep your cat lean and healthy, and to prevent many behavioral problems, daily exercise is key. “Two to three five-minute play periods using interactive toys, laser pointers, dancing feathers or whatever your cat enjoys is just as important as nightly chin-scratches,” says Ward.

8. I let my cat roam outside:

a. Never

b. All the time

c. Only when I go out

Optimal answer: a. Never

“Today’s outdoor environment poses many dangers for cats,” says Ward. “Whether being struck by a car, attacked by a dog or poisoned by trash, it’s always better to keep your kitty indoors.” Cruz recommends a microchip implant, just in case.

9. My cat’s food bowl is made of:

a. Plastic

b. Ceramic

c. Metal

Optimal answer: b. or c. Ceramic or metal

“Plastic is associated with allergies, ulceration of the lips and chin acne,” says Nelson. Plastic is also more likely to retain bacteria.

Score:

Eight to nine correct: Congratulations! You are doing a great job of safeguarding your cat against medical problems. But remember that as your cat ages, you’ll need to adapt too. Maintain a close relationship with your vet and your cat will live a long, happy life.

Five to seven correct: Looks like you’ve got a decent foundation when it comes to safeguarding your cat against medical problems, but there’s room for improvement. Go back over your incorrect answers and take action on them!

Zero to four correct: Oh no! We’re sorry to say it, but at 50 percent or less, you scored an F. You’ve got some work to do when it comes to safeguarding your cat against medical problems.