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.

Why Healthy Cats Sometimes Act Sick

While he was completing his final year of veterinary school, Dr. Tony Buffington started noticing a relationship between stressful events or environments and evidence of certain “sickness behaviors” in cats. He happened upon a paper in the journal Feline Practice that detailed an increase in the number of cats suffering urinary tract disease symptoms in the San Fernando Valley, Calif., area during the aftermath of the quake. The paper theorized that the stress of the quake and subsequent aftershocks played a role in the symptoms.

Cats Stressed Sick
Buffington, a professor of veterinary clinical sciences at Ohio State University, recently led a team that observed a group of healthy cats and a group of chronically ill cats under controlled, enriched environments. The ill cats had a condition called feline interstitial cystitis, which is characterized by recurring discomfort or pain in the bladder, and an urgent and frequent need to urinate. The researchers occasionally took cats out of their environments, or otherwise disrupted their schedule. As the authors reported in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, the periods of prolonged enrichment eased the symptoms of the sick cats. During the brief periods of disruption, however, the healthy cats were just as likely as the sick cats to exhibit sickness behaviors.

Buffington says the findings provide two unique insights. One is confirmation that fairly simple environmental changes can lead to physical symptoms in healthy cats. “Happy cats are healthy cats, and their environment plays a role in that,” he says. “From the point of view of being a good pet owner, wise owners know what an enriched environment is and create it for their animals. That way, their animal stays healthy longer. There’s now good evidence for this.”

Second is the fact that the enriched environments took what were essentially lost causes and more or less cured them. “What surprised me most is that the affected cats were donated to us because they had such severe symptoms that they were going to be euthanized,” says Buffington. “But by changing their environment, we were able to resolve those symptoms. They were not completely cured, but by the end of six months their sickness behaviors were indistinguishable from those of healthy cats.”

How to Make an Enriched Environment
Creating one of these enriched environments is not terribly complicated, according to Dr. E’Lise Christensen Bell, an animal behaviorist at NYC Veterinary Specialists. In fact, many cat owners may only require a few additional steps from their current situation. She suggests doing the following:

  • Keep the day structured so that approximately the same feeding, play session, petting session, and litter box cleaning times are in place. Regularity of schedule is crucial.
  • Set up games and hunting activities for your cat throughout the day, such as rotating food-dispensing toys daily, hiding toys in boxes for your cat to find, setting up bird feeders outside for your cat to view, conducting training sessions and more.
  • Make sure your cat has easy access to hiding areas, such as small boxes or elevated, soft-surface resting spots.

Buffington notes that not all cats are going to respond the same. Some are more adaptable than others to unpredictable environments. He’s also sensitive to cat owners who may feel they are being told they’re not good caretakers, and stresses that veterinary professionals are themselves in the process of learning the importance of his team’s findings. “We veterinary professionals have assumed the authority to tell you that you should keep your cats inside, so we also shoulder the responsibility to tell people how to do it right,” he explains. “Having the right evidence-based advice is the best preventative healthcare you can do.”