Coping With the Loss of a Cat

Dealing with the death of a cat is difficult for any owner -- no matter the age of your pet.

Dr. Trisha Joyce of New York City Veterinary Specialists, and Dr. Wallace Sife, a clinical psychologist and founder of the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement (APLB), offer advice on managing the end, grieving and moving on.

End-of-life Decision-making
While a small percentage of cats may die peacefully at home from old age, most pet owners will at some point be faced with the decision to end their cat’s suffering. “Sometimes it’s an uncomplicated decision -- say an animal stops making red blood cells,” says Joyce. “But just as often it’s a slow process, like gradual kidney disease. The cat still has a good day every once in a while.” In the latter situation, Joyce recommends the following:

·         Make a list of the things your cat enjoys, like sunbathing or spending relaxed time with the family. Consider whether it still engages in any of these.

·         Give yourself an objective measure -- a point at which you will let the pet go. For example, “Once my cat’s weight has dropped to X number of pounds, I will put him down.”

·         Seek guidance from your veterinarian and other pet owners who have had to make a similar difficult decision. The APLB’s website offers chat rooms addressing the topic.

“Owners will say to me ‘I can’t kill my cat,’ but that’s not what euthanizing is,” says Joyce. “I think of it as releasing the animal. It’s the last and most selfless decision we make for a pet we have cherished and cared for.”

Memorializing a Beloved Cat

Deciding how to mark a cat’s passing is a very personal decision. Some pet owners choose the formality of a proper funeral in a pet cemetery, and others cremate and scatter their pet’s ashes. Many veterinary hospitals offer to create a clay imprint of a cat’s paw as a keepsake.

Sife suggests making a contribution to an animal group in your pet’s name, planting a tree in its honor, volunteering with shelter animals or setting up a memorial on the APLB’s website. “We’ll light a candle for the cat each year on the anniversary of its death,” he says.

Coping in the Aftermath

Everyone deals with loss differently, although cat owners can expect to go through the same stages of grief as anyone who’s experienced the loss of a loved one. Sife suggests reading one of the many books on the topic, including his own, The Loss of a Pet. “The pain is unavoidable, but a book can help to normalize the experience,” he says.

Most important may simply be allowing yourself to grieve. “It can be hard because society doesn’t allow public grieving as much with pets. People feel less comfortable saying ‘I’m going to take a day off of work because I just put my cat to sleep,’ but it’s legitimate,” says Joyce. She adds that some of her clients have found support groups for people who find they need more comfort than they are getting from friends.

Adopting a New Companion

While a pet can never be replaced, at some point many cat lovers may want to bring home a new pet. Sife advises against seeking out a look-alike. “That may be a way of refusing to accept the loss,” he says. Joyce also advises waiting until the raw part has passed.

If you’re thinking about getting a new cat, consider adopting a stray cat from a local shelter. Saving the life of a cat without a home can be one more way to honor the memory of one that’s passed.

The Dangers and Risks for Outdoor Cats

The Humane Society of the United States supports indoor-only living for cats, but some owners remain convinced that life in the “great” outdoors can be beneficial. A new study on the secret lives of feral and free-roaming house cats solves the mystery. One message is clear: Living outdoors poses countless threats to cats. Here, learn why the life expectancy for outdoor cats is shortened by about 10 years versus that of indoor-only house cats.

Roaming Over Widespread Territories
Richard Warner, an emeritus professor of natural resources and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and his colleagues conducted the study, which was recently published in the Journal of Wildlife Management. Using radio transmitters and other high-tech equipment, the researchers tracked every move of 42 owned and unowned cats living at the southern edge of Champaign and Urbana, neighboring cities in Central Illinois.

As anticipated, feral cats had larger territories than the pet cats and were more active throughout the year. Even the researchers, however, were surprised by one mixed breed male, which had a home range of 1,351 acres, the largest tract of all cats tracked.

“That particular male cat was not getting food from humans, to my knowledge, but somehow it survived out there amidst coyotes and foxes,” says co-author Jeff Horn. “It crossed every street in the area where it was trapped. [It navigated] stoplights and parking lots.”

The average home range for pet cats was 4.9 acres, but as Horn says, “That’s a lot of backyards.” They ran, stalked prey, slept, rested and often encountered feral cats looking to establish dominance over an area. For example, each morning during the study, one feral cat waited for a particular pet feline to emerge in its garden. The feral animal would then attempt to chase away the house cat.

Dangerous Encounters
All outdoor cats can encounter various wildlife, in addition to the viruses and illnesses harbored by both feral cats and other species.

"For example, Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite spread primarily by cats, may cause neurological, reproductive and even respiratory problems in humans, cats and wildlife, depending on the species affected," says co-author Nohra Mateus-Pinilla of the Illinois Natural History Survey. “Rabies, cat scratch fever, feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus are also of concern to pet owners whose cats encounter other cats outdoors. Vaccination of pet cats will reduce but not eliminate the threat of disease transmission.”

Warner agrees. “Two of the leading causes of cat deaths in that study were other cats and disease, and both of these leading causes of death are sitting here waiting for these owned cats outdoors.” This concern about disease doesn’t even take into account other threats, such as ingesting poisons, getting hit by a car, running into neighbors who hate cats and more.

The Solution
Adam Goldfarb, director of the Pets at Risk Program at the Humane Society of the United States, admits that in a perfect world, cats would be able enjoy the exercise, fresh air, sights, smells and sounds of the outdoors. The answers then are to help provide your cat with related experiences inside, or to fully control your pet’s time outdoors. Goldfarb suggests following these four steps:

  • If possible, train your cat to tolerate a leash. Your cat would still be exposed to germs, but at least many of the other dangers would be eliminated. Up-to-date vaccinations are critical.
  • Set up an indoor-outdoor enclosure where your pet is protected, such as by screens. Make sure proper shade and water are provided. Supervise your cat.
  • Cats love to climb, so establish vertical space for them in your home. You can get creative with cat trees, secure dedicated shelving or other cat-friendly items.
  • Most importantly, spend daily time interacting with your cats, whether that involves playing, training or just sitting on the couch with them.

Goldfarb urges owners not to buy into the stereotype that cats are somehow loners. They love receiving attention and hanging out with their owners. Just like a satisfied human mate, a healthy and content cat will easily let go of its roaming ways in exchange for a better, safer life indoors with you.

Allergic to Cats? New Vaccine Could Help

Did you know that 8 to 10 percent of the population is allergic to cats? If you’re one of those individuals, then the itching, watering eyes and sneezing associated with cats are all too familiar.

Now, a new vaccine holds promise of not just diminishing cat-allergy symptoms, but of curing the problem altogether. An added perk is that, unlike drugs that come with a laundry list of scary side effects, this vaccine has next to none, according to its creator Mark Larche and his team. Here, Larche, a professor at McMaster University’s School of Medicine, explains how the cutting-edge new vaccine could help you or your cat-allergic friends and relatives.

Cat Allergy Cause and Effect
It is a common myth that cat fur itself causes all of the sneezing and wheezing in those who suffer from pet allergies. What’s on the fur, however, turns out to be more important. “Allergies to cats are caused by proteins that are secreted by the cat and spread onto its fur by grooming,” says Larche. “Our vaccine is composed of synthetic fragments of one (the most important one) of these proteins.”

To identify the protein and to learn more about it, he and his team analyzed blood samples from 100 patient volunteers who are allergic to cats. Doing this allowed the scientists to see which components of the protein activate T-cells in certain people. T-cells are helper cells that fight infection in the immune system.

“Allergies are a form of hypersensitivity,” explains Larche. “We all make immune responses to allergens that we encounter in the environment, but most people make a tolerant response that results in no inflammation. However, for reasons that are incompletely understood, some people make the wrong kind of response -- an allergic response.” By providing low doses of the allergen -- tweaked so they don’t contain the parts that may stimulate the immune system -- the researchers came up with the new vaccine.

How Patients Receive Treatments

The vaccine is still only available in drug trials, but it appears that four to eight doses may be required in the first year, with possibly none required for subsequent years. Larche thinks a needle-less injection system could be used to administer the needed doses in the future.

Stephen Durham, head of the Allergy and Clinical Immunology department at Imperial College London, says the data about the new vaccine is very encouraging. “A significant proportion of cat owners develop allergy to their cats, which varies from bothersome eye and nasal symptoms through to moderate-severe disease or even life-threatening asthma attacks,” says Durham. “Avoidance strategies may be impossible or refused.”

Durham mentions that traditional allergy shots pose a risk of serious side effects, “particularly in asthmatics.” This new vaccine promises to provide “good symptom-control and disease remission, while avoiding the risk of side effects,” he adds. Cat-allergy sufferers both with and without asthma have participated in the trials, and so far so good.

Other Ways of Curbing Cat Allergies
Until the new vaccine becomes widely available, the Humane Society of the United States suggests that you try these five steps if your household includes one or more cat-allergy sufferers:

1. Clean your house often to remove dust and cat dander. Vacuum or wash curtains, furniture covers, pet beds and other items.

2. Bathe your pet often. Consult with your veterinarian to make sure that you are doing this correctly and using products that will not deplete your cat’s skin and fur of necessary oils.

3. Set up an allergy-free area. Close this area, such as the bedroom, off to your cat.

4. Consider purchasing a HEPA air cleaner, perhaps just for the allergic individual’s bedroom. Central heating and cooling systems can also be outfitted with stronger filtration systems to help clean the air.

5. Make sure it’s a cat allergy. Many things in the home can cause allergic reactions. Even people who are allergic to cats can be allergic to other things, so be sure the individual receives a thorough checkup from an appropriate specialist.

Some very good news is that the same research know-how that resulted in the new cat-allergy vaccine is being applied to allergies caused by dust mites, ragweed, grass, birch tree and moulds. In the future, most allergies may therefore figuratively bite the dust.

Pregnant Cat Care

Virginia-based veterinarian Dr. Katy Nelson has three words of advice for cat owners thinking about breeding their cats: Don’t do it. “Just because your cat is cute and your neighbor’s cat is cute does not mean they should get together to make kittens,” says Nelson. “You need experience and know-how to breed. It’s not something to be taken lightly.”

Nelson suggests spaying and neutering to avoid unplanned pregnancies. If you do find yourself tasked with the care of a pregnant kitty -- known in the cat world as a queen -- there are important steps you can take to ensure a healthy pregnancy and delivery. Below, Nelson weighs in on how to provide the best prenatal and postnatal care for your pet.

Veterinary Visits

When you first suspect your cat is expecting, it is important that her veterinarian examine her in order to confirm the diagnosis. “Infections to the uterus can mimic pregnancy, with an enlarged midsection and discharge,” says Nelson. “These infections can be life-threatening, so it’s important to rule this out.”

Once your vet establishes your cat is indeed pregnant, her vaccination schedule should be checked to make sure she is up-to-date. “Maternal antibodies last 12 weeks in kittens. They benefit from having a fully vaccinated mother,” explains Nelson.

Queens gestate their babies for about nine weeks. Your cat will see her doctor two or three times during this period. The veterinarian can help you anticipate what to expect during labor, including how many kittens may be in her litter.

Nutrition and Exercise

Because her most pressing need during pregnancy is for more calories, a pregnant cat should be fed a nutrient-dense kitten formula immediately after her status as a mother-to-be is confirmed. She should also have access to plenty of water.

Like a pregnant human, a pregnant cat can benefit from regular exercise. “It’s hard to get a cat to exercise, but present her with toys that she enjoys,” says Nelson. Play with her in ways that keep her moving. If her muscles stay toned, she’ll have a safer labor and delivery.”

Labor Day

In advance, prepare a private, quiet place for the birth to occur, and keep the room warm. “Like human females, a female cat doesn’t want 10 people in the room when she’s in labor,” says Nelson. She suggests providing your pet with a birthing area -- a comfortable bed or box filled with newspapers she can shred. Nelson also suggests a room with a tiled floor to make cleanup easier.

Your veterinarian should speak with you about the signs that your cat is going into labor. “She may become very aloof, or on the flip side, very clingy,” says Nelson. Follow your queen’s lead: if she doesn’t want company, don’t force it on her. “Her hormones are raging. She’s very protective of these arriving babies. Read her body language and take it seriously.” Keep the number of a 24-hour veterinary clinic on hand in case there are labor complications, such as strong contractions without a delivery for more than two hours.

Postpartum

The most important consideration for your new mother is nutrition, specifically a higher caloric intake. She should continue to eat kitten food until her babies have weaned (about eight weeks after birth). “If the litter is more than three kittens, intense nutritional support is in order,” says Nelson. Consult your cat’s veterinarian about how much food she’ll need.

You should also be tuned in to the mother’s overall health. Postpartum cats can develop eclampsia, which results from a calcium imbalance and can be life-threatening. It usually happens within a week of delivery, and signs include shaking, seizures and lethargy. If your cat exhibits these, get her to the vet immediately.

With the right medical and nutritional support, every cat can have a healthy pregnancy and a happy Mother’s Day -- every day.

Who Works at Your Cat’s Veterinary Office?

When you take your cat to the vet, there may be a number of people working there, other than the veterinarian. These individuals can include a veterinary assistant and a veterinary technician, among others. Don’t know the difference? Below, veterinarian Trisha Joyce of New York City Veterinary Specialists explains the roles that these individuals play in the typical office of an animal doctor.

Veterinary Receptionist
There typically is a difference between the receptionist at your veterinarian’s office and the one at your dentist’s, for example. The former likely has a love of animals and some degree of on-the-job training that allows him or her to determine whether your pet needs immediate care. Veterinarians often choose their receptionists carefully, as they are the first to greet every patient that walks in the door. “They are the folks that get your information, find out what’s wrong, and decide if the animal needs immediate care,” says Joyce. They do not need a higher degree, but often use the job as a stepping-stone in order to gain experience and move up in the field.

Veterinary Assistant
Veterinary assistants are trained by veterinarians on the handling and restraint of animals. “Almost anything a veterinarian does with an animal requires two people,” says Joyce. “You can’t place a catheter or draw blood by yourself.” Veterinary assistants help veterinarians and veterinary technicians to keep an animal still during a variety of procedures. They are also often tasked with the housekeeping of the office. “They walk animals, clean cages, do laundry,” says Joyce.

Veterinary assistants receive on-the-job training and are not required to have any particular level of formal education. Some are happy to remain assistants, while others take the job as a means to an end. It can be a good a way to build a resume before applying to veterinary school, admission to which is very competitive.

Veterinary Technician
Veterinary technicians, or vet techs, come in two varieties: licensed and non-licensed. Licensed veterinary technicians spend two years in school and come out with associate’s degrees. After finishing school, they must pass a credentialing exam in order to obtain their license. “It’s very specialized study,” explains Joyce. “They get a good understanding of disease and are trained in doing invasive procedures like inserting catheters.”

Non-licensed veterinary technicians are trained on the job and their skill level varies according to experience. “You can have a fabulous one who’s been working for 25 years and really knows her stuff, or a high school kid who just likes animals,” says Joyce. She acknowledges that the latter can be less than desirable, and notes that it pays to ask your veterinarian whether the techs in her office are licensed, especially if they are assisting in complicated procedures involving anesthesia.

Veterinary Technologist
A veterinary technologist attends a four-year college, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in veterinary technology. Despite this difference in training, they perform the same duties as the technicians in the clinic. “We group technicians and technologists all into one category,” says Joyce. “If you’re going to a four-year college and decide you’re interested in working with animals, it’s a degree you might choose -- though not too many colleges actually offer it. What it really comes down to in the office is still licensed versus non-licensed.”

Veterinarian
After completing a bachelor’s degree, a veterinary student attends four more years of school to earn a degree in veterinary medicine. The fourth year is generally spent working in a hospital or medical practice. Veterinarians are trained in basic science like anatomy and physiology as well as other care like nutrition, diagnostics, surgery and dentistry. It is increasingly common for veterinarians to continue training for at least a year after graduation, and more than that if they want to specialize. “You can spend as long doing your training as you would in med school,” says Joyce.