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.

Keep Your Cat Healthy This Halloween

Halloween might be fun for us humans, but it can be a haunting experience for our cats. While we’re dishing out candy, carving pumpkins and donning scary costumes, it’s easy to overlook the risks our cats might face.

“It’s one of those things people don’t always think about,” says Candance Labane-Godfrey, a past president of the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters. Labane-Godfrey and other experts offer 13 not-so-ghoulish tips to keep your cat healthy and safe this Halloween.

  1. Watch the pumpkin.
    Take special care if you carve a pumpkin for Halloween, says Labane-Godfrey. Cats have an affinity for pumpkin, she explains, but “carved pumpkins are prone to developing bacteria.” Consider using a realistic, artificial jack-o’-lantern instead.
  2. Douse the candles.
    The flickering flames from candles and their accompanying shadows might add to the creepy Halloween atmosphere, but that dancing flame also poses a temptation for your feline friend. Your curious cat may burn a paw swatting flames or knock over a candle -- a hazard for both you and kitty. Don’t underestimate your cat’s ability to jump if you place candles in an area you think is out of reach.
  3. Secure electrical cords.
    Halloween decorations have moved far beyond a simple carved jack-o’-lantern. These days, the fashionably ghoulish home requires some serious juice. Cats are sometimes tempted to chew on electrical cords, putting themselves at risk for electrical shock, says Labane-Godfrey. The plastic tubes used to disguise electrical cords in home offices or around entertainment centers also work to protect cords from your cat.
  4. Make a safe space.
    Secure your kitty in a calm, secluded place well before the Halloween festivities begin. With doors open frequently, there’s a greater chance of your cat escaping, reminds Dr. Tina Wismer, senior director of veterinary outreach and education for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
  5. Make slow introductions.
    If the party is at your place, consider leaving your cat in its safe space. At the very least, wait until your guests have arrived, and ease your cat into “introductions.”
  6. Use a break-away collar.
    Even if your cat remains indoors all the time, it’s a good idea to make sure your pal wears a break-away collar with ID tags, advises Labane-Godfrey.
  7. Guard the dip.
    At parties, we tend to leave food sitting out longer and in more varied locations than we do in everyday life. That shrimp left sitting for several hours poses a risk to your kitty as bacteria builds. Dips often contain onions, garlic or onion powder, which can damage your cat’s red blood cells if kitty gets into the dip, says Wismer. Remember that guests may leave plates of food in unexpected locations, so make regular patrols of party areas.
  8. Keep an eye on the alcohol.
    Drinks containing cream or milk products may tempt your cat, notes Wismer. “Cats are so much smaller than we are; it doesn’t take very much alcohol to end up with problems,” she says.
  9. Pick up glow sticks.
    Glow sticks, bracelets and necklaces help keep trick-or-treaters safe, but they’re also an irresistible temptation for cats. Make sure your kids don’t leave glow sticks lying around where your kitty can chew on them. The sticks and jewelry contain a bitter substance that will make your cat drool uncontrollably, says Wismer.
  10. Keep candy in a bowl.
    It’s fun for kids to come home and dump their loot on the floor, but it’s safer for your kitty if the candy is confined to a bowl or large container. First, artificial sweeteners and chocolate can be toxic to animals. Second, crinkly candy wrappers may seem like toys to cats. If your cat chews on a wrapper, it could cause an intestinal blockage that requires surgery.
  11. Avoid artificial spider webs.
    “Anything long and stringy that your cat can chew on can cause an obstruction,” says Wismer.
  12. Check decorations.
    Decorations and costumes often have dangly strings, tinsel or cords, posing a threat as well, cautions Dr. Joann Gaines, owner of Ridgeview Animal Hospital in Omaha, Neb. These sorts of obstructions can be life-threatening, she notes.
  13. Ditch the costume.
    Resist that clever or adorable cat costume you see in your local pet boutique. You’re likely to stress your cat, and costumes can sometimes limit movement, breathing or hearing. Remember too that you may stress or scare your cat if you appear in costume.

It’s critical to keep your cat in mind as you prepare to celebrate Halloween and other holidays, says Labane-Godfrey. “It can definitely be a risky time for cats because of some of the products and tools we humans use around holiday times.”


Are Tick and Flea Control Products Safe?

Erin Carter, a 43-year-old homemaker, never ran into problems when she used flea control and prevention products. It was when she forgot to apply them that the trouble began. “My tabby, Sparkle, had fleas on her skin, which ended up all over my home,” she said. “We had to bomb the house with chemicals a few times to make sure they were all gone.”

While stories like Carter’s are familiar to veterinarians, the Environmental Protection Agency has recently become more concerned about the harm anti-flea-and-tick chemicals may do. After an increase in reports of adverse incidents associated with these medications in 2008, the EPA has made product-labeling rules more stringent and has also increased safety review standards.

Below, Dr. Katy Nelson, a Virginia-based emergency veterinarian, weighs in on the pros and cons of using chemicals -- and more natural alternatives -- to keep your feline free of fleas.

Human Error
The more stringent EPA labeling requirements clearly reflect where the bulk of problems with flea and tick preventives lie: with cat owners who don’t use them correctly, giving incorrect doses or canine-only products on their cats.

“My biggest piece of advice is to really read the label,” says Nelson. “If you’re not sure about the instructions, pick up the phone and call your vet. Never assume a product made for a dog is safe for your cat just because the animals weigh the same.”

The Benefits of Traditional Products

Flea and tick products contain small amounts of chemicals that keep fleas and ticks at bay, protecting your cat not only from disease-carrying bites, but also from ingesting fleas -- often carriers of tapeworms. “Cats are good groomers. If a flea is biting them, they’re likely to eat it long before you see it,” says Nelson.

The risk of tick-borne illness is greater, as ticks carry more deadly diseases, including Lyme disease. Many traditional repellents also contain protection against flies and mosquitoes. Mosquitoes transmit heartworm larvae, so keeping your furry friend from getting bitten is crucial to its heart health as well.

Nelson, like most veterinarians, is a strong proponent of these products. “Since the preventives have been available, the incidence of heartworm, intestinal parasites and tick-borne diseases has gone down dramatically,” she says. “The risk of these diseases is much worse than the risk of using a preventive that contains chemicals.”

The Risks of Traditional Products

“Most of the risk is misuse,” emphasizes Nelson. For example, Canine Advantix contains a chemical compound that cannot be metabolized by cats and can cause them severe harm.

Side effects in cats have, on rare occasion, included skin irritation, vomiting and diarrhea, and even (in rare cases) seizures. It is unclear whether pet owners who reported these problems used the products correctly. Even if you carefully follow the directions, it’s a good idea to monitor your cat’s reaction to flea and tick products, especially the first time you use them.

Natural Pest Prevention

Some natural flea and tick repellents are ingestible, containing ingredients like garlic; others are “spot on” and contain active ingredients like peppermint and cinnamon oils.

“Natural products can potentially help some. But they don’t have the guarantees and the backing of veterinarians and the pharmaceutical companies, who will pay in full for disease treatment if your pet gets, say, heartworm while using their products,” says Nelson.

Even with their stepped-up standards, the EPA continues to recommend use of products containing chemical pesticides. “Most people use the products with no harm to their pets,” reports the EPA. “They can be appropriate treatments for protecting the public health -- both animals and humans.”

Nelson agrees and says she has seen very few incidents of flea and tick product-related sickness in her career. She says the worst she has observed is a cat having a slight reaction and getting an itchy face. However, it’s better to risk such a possible side effect than to deal with a house full of parasites and the diseases they can spread.

Drug Recalls Put Spotlight on Cat Anesthesia Safety

When Dr. Katy Nelson, a veterinarian, received a recall notice involving the cat anesthetic drug ketamine, she promptly scoured her practice’s supplies and pulled the affected lot numbers. Nelson and other pet health specialists are on the alert because The Food and Drug Administration has issued recalls for certain lots of the commonly used drugs ketamine and butorphanol -- used to control surgery-related pain -- after the deaths of at least five cats were linked to the drugs.

Your veterinarian should be aware of the recall, says Nelson, who practices in Alexandria, Va. “If you’re going to a reputable, accredited veterinarian, you really shouldn’t have to worry about any of these lots being on the shelf,” she says.

Ketamine is often part of a “cocktail” veterinarians administer when placing cats under anesthesia. The recall, however, underscores the importance of the careful use of anesthesia in cats. “Anesthesia for any animal should be taken seriously, especially for older animals or animals that have special medical conditions,” says Dr. Tracy R. Dewhirst, a Knoxville, Tenn., veterinarian who writes a pet advice column for the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Evaluating the Risk of Cat Anesthesia
Your veterinarian should use a risk protocol before placing your cat under anesthesia. Factors such as the type of procedure and your cat’s age and health should be considered. For example, anesthesia for a young cat being neutered would rate as less risky than an elderly cat in renal failure going to a neurologist for a brain tumor section.

Bad reactions to anesthesia can range from not waking quickly to arrhythmias of the heart and full cardiac arrest, says Dewhirst. “The worst case, cardiac arrest, is pretty rare,” notes Dewhirst. “I’ve had that happen once in 10 years of practicing.”

The use of anesthesia shouldn’t prevent you from providing needed procedures for your kitty, such as spaying, neutering or dental cleaning, says Nelson. Although Nelson’s practice averages 10 to 20 anesthetic procedures a day, only two to three anesthetic reactions occurred over the entire last year.

A Cat Anesthesia Checklist

Asking the right questions can help ensure your cat’s safety when anesthesia is used. Dewhirst and Nelson say the following checklist will ensure your veterinarian is practicing safe cat anesthesia:

  • Ask about anesthetics. Most veterinarians use a “recipe” or “cocktail” of drugs that work well in anesthesia. For example, ketamine is particularly valuable in the pain management of cats, says Dewhirst. Make sure your veterinarian is aware of any recalls, and ask about the mixture of drugs. Be wary of inexpensive clinics offering discounted cleanings and spaying and neutering, cautions Nelson. These clinics might simply inject your cat with an anesthetic rather than using a mixture of injectable and gas anesthetics, which works better.
  • Pay for the blood work. Pre-anesthetic blood work is not just a way for your veterinarian to pad the bill. “The biggest risk with cats is if they have underlying medical problems. A lot of times we can’t know that just by looking at the animal,” says Dewhirst. Blood work and perhaps a urinalysis give us a lot of information about what’s going on inside a cat metabolically and with its organs. Some clinics allow you to opt out of blood work before a young cat undergoes anesthesia, but if you do, you’ll be taking a risk, warns Dewhirst.
  • Ask about monitoring equipment. Your veterinarian should be able to watch your kitty’s blood pressure, heart rate, heart rhythms, oxygen levels and respiratory rate. “Things happen all the time under anesthesia, but because we monitor it so closely, we’re able to offset it,” says Nelson. Ask if your cat will have a tube down its mouth to secure the airway.
  • Opt for pain management. Many practices will allow you to choose whether to pay for post-procedure pain medication. Make sure pain relief is provided as your kitty wakes up, advises Dewhirst.
  • Know about post-procedure monitoring. Monitoring should continue after the procedure, until your cat is alert, says Dewhirst. Ask your veterinarian what you should expect as your cat recovers from both the procedure and the anesthesia.

These guidelines should alleviate any concerns about cat anesthesia. “It’s very safe as long as your veterinarian is doing the proper monitoring,” says Nelson.

Declawing Cats: Risky Procedure or Simple Manicure?

San Francisco is a self-described “pet-crazy town.” It’s impossible to walk down its hilly streets without seeing happy dogs on leashes and cats warming themselves in windows. Cats are so loved in the City by the Bay that this year the organization CATalyst Council named San Francisco one of the “top ten cat-friendly cities in the nation.”

But a debate on cat declawing has the city’s fur flying, with concern spreading throughout the state of California, the country and even abroad. At immediate issue is a California bill, SB 762, which becomes law on Jan. 1, 2010. The law prevents California cities from restricting procedures performed by veterinarians. As a result, animal rights activists across the state are scrambling to ban cat declawing.

Proponents of the Ban
San Francisco’s Animal Welfare Commission crafted the city’s proposal to ban cat declawing. Member Sally Stephens says, “It comes down to animal cruelty and mutilating an animal for the convenience of its guardian.” Armaiti May, DVM, a veterinarian in Santa Monica, Calif., is supporting a similar proposal in her city. She echoes Stephens’ view. “Declawing is a completely unnecessary procedure,” says Dr. May. “It causes pain, complications and behavioral problems like litter box aversion.”

What Exactly Is Cat Declawing?
Santa Monica City Council member Kevin McKeown says that cat declawing is a misnomer. “We are not talking about a pampering manicure for cats,” he says, explaining that the procedure involves amputation of the last bone in each of the cat’s toes.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) supports McKeown’s assessment. A fact sheet concerning declawing that was issued by the society mentions that if the procedure was performed on humans, it would be comparable to cutting off each finger at the last knuckle.

Three Methods of Declawing
At present, there are three primary declawing procedures.

  1. Onychectomy This is the more traditional surgery, involving standard surgical equipment. Most pet hospitals are capable of performing an onychectomy. It is usually the least expensive declawing option.
  1. Laser Declawing According to the HSUS, “a small, intense beam of light cuts through tissue by heating and vaporizing it, meaning there’s less bleeding and a shorter recovery time.” But the laser is simply a replacement for a steel scalpel blade, the HSUS adds.
  1. Tenectomy A tenectomy doesn’t remove claws, but it deactivates them by severing the tendons that extend the toes. Since cats cannot properly maintain their claws after the procedure, owners must watch out for ingrown nails and infection.

Tenectomy supporters have claimed it results in less pain for cats, but studies suggest otherwise. Sylvie Cloutier, a research assistant professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University and her colleagues examined cats that underwent either of the two procedures. They found no evidence to support the view that tenectomy is less painful than onychectomy. In fact, both cat groups experienced “peak pain” after the surgeries.

Opponents of the Cat Declawing Ban
Many San Francisco residents were surprised when the city’s SPCA did not support the proposed ban on declawing. The SPCA’s position statement says, in part: “Our mission is to save animals’ lives, and we understand that, in some instances, this procedure may be the only way to prevent abandonment, relinquishment or euthanasia.” It continues: “We are cognizant of the fact that, unlike the SF/SPCA, a number of animal welfare agencies do not have the resources to address behavioral problems in shelter cats and the cat-owning public, thus making euthanasia an unavoidable option.”

Alternatives to Cat Declawing
Unless a cat is suffering from an underlying health condition, such as a cancerous nail bed tumor that would warrant declawing of a paw, my hope is that if you are considering cat declawing, you will seek out what Lindsay Pollard-Post of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals calls the “many humane and effective ways” to prevent cats from damaging furniture or causing scratches.

The single most important thing you can do is to regularly trim your cat’s nails. This simple task will allow you to examine your pet’s paws for cuts, infections and other abnormalities.

PETA recommends these additional alternatives:

  • Buy or construct two or more scratching posts If your cat has attractive options for maintaining its claws, it should avoid other areas for scratching.
  • Consider purchasing a “scratching box” These are inexpensive boxes, often made of sisal or cardboard, which you place on the ground. My cats love them.
  • Use double-sided tape products Cats don’t like the sticky feel and will avoid the taped item.
At the end of the day, the decision will still probably rest in yours and your veterinarian’s hands, with your cat’s health at stake. As Jennifer Conrad, DVM, director of the The Paw Project mentions, she has “an obligation to do what is best for the animals, and not what is most convenient for their owners.”