With cat conscious owners becoming more the norm than the exception, today's cat is more likely to be kept safely indoors. Or, if he or she is a really lucky kitty, they are released into an outdoor enclosure during the warmer months.
This is all about keeping the family cat safe from cars, poisons and diseases to which outdoor cats too often fall victim. Cats are living longer nowadays, and 20 years of age is not at all uncommon. The current record for longevity is an amazing 38 years — equivalent to one of us living to 250. That's unheard of and exceptional. However, if we take good care of our cats, give them quality food and regular medical and dental checkups, most of us can hope to have our beloved pet at least into the later part of his or her second decade.
However, of all the things an owner can do to ensure the longest possible lifespan for their beloved companion, being mindful and present on a daily basis to the general condition of their health tops the list. Far too often even well-meaning and loving cat parents may take their cat for granted, feeling all is well so they must be healthy. They may not notice the subtle changes that can be the slow and subtle harbingers of future problems.
With cats being the masters of disguise, I have complied a list of seven things a clever owner can watch for on a daily basis:
1. Observe your cat when he or she eats and drinks.
Is it always the same amount and at the same frequency? If not, how has it changed? Is he or she drinking more or less? Water intake is critical, and closely linked with a multitude of health problems, including urinary tract health. Appetite changes for a variety of reasons as well. A voracious appetite may be due to a change in metabolism, and a decline has many causes from dental problems to digestive and kidney issues to name just a few. Canned food is always recommended.
2. Litter box watch.
If you are savvy enough to catch your cat in the act, is he or she straining? With straining, you may see vocalizing, restless activity, or multiple attempts to go. This indicates a serious problem and necessitates a trip to the vet. Otherwise, are they pooping daily? What is the consistency of the poops? If they are too hard (like pellets) or too soft, there is a problem. How often does your cat urinate? It should be two to four times daily, without straining. If you use clumping litter, the clumps should be golf ball to baseball size (depending on the size of your cat).
As always, cats like a clean litterbox (don't you hate it when you go to the toilet and it wasn't flushed?), at least one box per feline, and the box should be twice the length of the kitty (under-the-bed storage containers work nicely). A cat that eliminates outside the box should be seen by your vet.
3. Does your cat vomit?
It amazes me how often the answer to this question is "No," yet we go on to discuss that the kitty brings up hairballs once or twice a month, occasionally its food, or a bit of water or bile once in a blue moon. Perhaps a dietary change is in order, but often a digestive condition is present and without investigation can evolve into something serious. Vomiting, including hairballs in my opinion, is not OK.
4. Does your cat cough?
Coughing is more the norm for dogs which, like ourselves, use coughing to clear their throat. Cats do not do this. If your cat is coughing, it means something is irritating the throat or lungs. Many serious conditions in cats first present with coughing including asthma, allergies, infections and heart disease, to name a few. A coughing cat should see the vet, even if it's only once in awhile. And if you think it's just a hairball, see No. 3 above.
5. How does the coat look?
The general appearance of the fur is often a good indicator of underlying problems. In a healthy cat, the coat is smooth and glossy. Cats groom often. If your cat starts to look unkempt and is not attending to its coat, that’s a sure sign something is happening and a trip to the vet is warranted.
6. Much can be learned watching a cat just walk.
They hide illness or injury as it is in their nature in the wild to do so. Watch for an even gait when your kitty walks and good balance when jumping. Is there hesitation to jump up or down? Does your cat seek out a long route to where it wants to go in order to avoid a straight up or down jump? Does he or she avoid going downstairs to the litterbox and is now leaving you “presents” on the main level?
Musculoskeletal pain can have many causes, from injuries resulting in sprains, dislocations or fractures, to arthritis and joint disease. Just as with people, there are medications and treatment options including laser therapy and acupuncture available that can greatly help your pet. As the poet once said, cats show no angles to the wind: healthy cats are poetry in motion and jerky gaits or favouring one limb over another indicates a problem. An x-ray may be in order, and of course the advice of your vet.
7. Lastly, how is your cat's breath?
Have you seen any drool or smelly discharge? Is there a reluctance to eat though he or she seems hungry? Is there vocalizing and head shaking while chewing? Any of these signs may indicate a dental problem. Cats in the wild live for maybe five years, but an indoor cat may easily live three or four times this long. Their teeth, however, were not intended to last that long without routine dental care, and most middle-aged house cats have at least one dental issue.
This shouldn't be overlooked or let slide. Bad teeth have been linked to kidney and liver disease as well as heart problems, as the bacteria from infected gums can enter the bloodstream and cause plaques to form in the arteries.
So if you are nodding or saying “Yes” to the questions above, a vet who keeps up to date on good dental practices will give you sound advice. And if you are lucky enough that your kitty's mouth is in top shape, there are many options available to keep it that way, from vet-approved water additives such as Healthy Mouth, to applying enzyme paste, to specialized food and treats.
These are a few of the signs that any cat owner can learn to watch out for. When you see a problem, act — don't wait. Often problems will only get worse, and the cost of fixing them will be greater, and in the meantime your stoic fur person will suffer in silence.
As always, I'd like to end with a plea and a strong recommendation to all cat owners and people with pets to get pet insurance. With the multitude of plans available, there is one out there that can fit into virtually any budget for less than the price of a cup of coffee a day.
Dr. Nicole Baran is the owner and operator of Sudbury Regional Cat Hospital.