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Your Cat: The Owner's Manual Hundreds of Secrets, Surprises, and Solutions for Raising a Happy, Healthy Cat
By Becker, Marty
Grand Central Life & Style Copyright © 2012 Becker, Marty
All right reserved.
FRESH STARTS AND NEW BEGINNINGS
Everyone has a unique idea of the “perfect” cat, and how a cat lover arrives at that vision doesn’t seem to have a lot to do with logic—it has to do with love. And that’s fine, really. Aside from being careful about the few cats or kittens with truly severe health or behavior problems, you really can just follow your heart when it comes to choosing a feline companion.
This is just one area where cats have a definite advantage over dogs. Getting a dog is like walking through a minefield with so many dangerous missteps that you cannot see: breeds that are a horrid match for many lifestyles, some breeders (large puppy mills as well as smaller operations that are either careless or clueless) you must avoid for your own good and for the good of the dogs, and even the occasional rescue or shelter dog who just has too much baggage to handle. That’s why, when I was writing Your Dog: The Owner’s Manual, I devoted huge sections to helping you choose a dog, paying very careful attention to both the big picture (breed-related health and temperament problems, and bad breeders versus good ones) and the small picture (problems with an individual puppy or dog).
But with cats, I’m going to tell you: If you want a female adult cat with tuxedo markings… go for her! If you dream of a big, long-haired orange male tabby kitten, no problem!
With just a few cautions—yes, there are kitten mills just as there are puppy mills, but they’re easily avoided—you really can have the cat of your dreams. Check the shelters! Check with rescue groups! Adopt two—contrary to popular belief, most cats are very social. They not only enjoy but also need company.
Blinded by love? It’s pretty much okay. Love will get you a long way—even love at first sight. And I know all about that. After all, I’ve been married for more than three decades to a woman I adored from the day I met her. And she and I have both been known to take home pets on impulse, although that last part is pretty typical among us veterinarians. We tend to collect hard-luck cases. (My very funny friend, Dr. Tony Johnson, an emergency and critical care specialist at the Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine, has an entire family of pets all named for what they were suffering from when he met them in the ER. There’s Arrow, the cat who’d been shot by one; and Crispy, the burn-victim cat; and I’m sure I don’t have to explain about his dog, Tripod.)
That tugging of heartstrings is a fine impulse, and I want you to act on it, more than once, when it comes to cats (with marriages, stick to one, or at least one at a time). After you get your cat or kitten home, then the work (and the fun!) begins. And that’s what this section is all about.
Now, let’s get choosing.
Look at you: you need a cat. And, just as important, there’s a cat out there who needs you. Preferably (or should that be purr-fur-ably?) two.
WHERE TO BEGIN: REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS
Some people are born into cat-loving families, while others have cats thrust upon them through marriage to a cat lover, an inheritance from a family member, or sometimes a cat who just shows up at the door. And then there are those who independently make the decision to take up life with a cat. However you came to love cats, welcome. You are a member of an exceptional club. You are entering into a unique relationship that can be joyful, entertaining, sometimes frustrating, but in the end always rewarding. Life with a cat is special, if you know what to expect and how to play the feline rules. Dogs can bend to human will. Cats? They’ll bend a little, but not much.
Cats are surrounded by myths and misconceptions. It’s no wonder that they are often misunderstood. I want to help you separate fact from fiction when it comes to this interesting and intriguing animal.
Remember: cats are not small dogs.
When you are reading about different cat breeds or reading the personality descriptions of cats at a shelter, you may come across some that are described as “doglike.” It’s true that some cats, like dogs, will follow you around, play fetch, or go for walks on leash. But that is where the resemblance ends. Cats differ from dogs in many ways.
First of all, their nutritional needs are different. Cats are what biologists call “obligate carnivores,” which means they must have meat in their diet to survive. Lots of meat. While dogs can exist on a diet that contains large amounts of grain, cats need meat protein to be at the top of their game. Meat contains a nutrient called taurine that is essential for heart and eye health and normal cell, muscle, and skeletal function. Cats can’t synthesize taurine on their own, so they must get it from their diet. Cats also have other nutritional requirements that vary from those of dogs, such as the type of vitamin A they can use. That’s why you should never feed your cat the same food you give your dog. Cats don’t need carbs; when they go on a diet, it is high protein like the Atkins diet, which is often referred to as the Catkins diet.
A cat’s physiology is different, too. Cats metabolize drugs differently than dogs or people. It’s very dangerous to give a cat the same drug you or I or the small dog next door might take, even if it’s for the same type of problem. Take pain, for instance. I’ve seen clients kill their cats by going to the medicine chest and giving their cats aspirin or Tylenol (acetaminophen). The same holds true for parasite treatments. Never apply a flea or tick treatment or a shampoo made for dogs to your cat. Always call your veterinarian first and ask if a particular medication is safe for your cat and at what dose.
Another difference between dogs and cats is the way cats express pain. Well, it’s not really different. It’s almost nonexistent. It’s much easier to notice pain in a dog because we tend to interact with dogs directly. We take them on walks and we see whether they’re limping, for instance, or moving more slowly. Or see them hesitate to jump up on the couch or the bed, or climb into the car or up the stairs. With cats, it’s much more difficult to see the changes in mobility that signal injury or arthritis. Unless you happen to see your cat while he’s doing his business in the litter box, you might not notice that he’s having more difficulty squatting or no longer does that Rockettes-high kick to cover his scat. You also might not notice that he doesn’t jump to the top of the bookcase or cat tree anymore, and you might like it that he no longer jumps on the kitchen counter. Notice that he hasn’t been able to groom himself very well lately? Perhaps all you notice is that he’s been sleeping more lately, and hey, that’s what cats do, isn’t it?
Because cats are both predator and prey, they make a point of hiding any kind of weakness. They know instinctively that displaying pain puts them at risk from other predators, so they do their best to mask it. There’s a big neon sign in the wild that flashes “Sick Is Supper!” so cats have evolved to keep pain hidden. That stoicism works to their disadvantage when it comes to veterinary care. The signs that a cat is in pain are so subtle that most people miss them, unless they are keen observers of their cats.
I know this is only the first chapter of the book, but the following mantra is so important it deserves to be stressed: Cats can’t take care of themselves, and they need to see a veterinarian regularly. It’s a mystery to me why people are so much less likely to provide veterinary care for their cats than their dogs. Cats are the most popular pets in America, yet veterinarians are seeing a decline in veterinary visits for cats. That’s a shame, because cats need and deserve great veterinary care to ensure that they live long, happy, healthy lives. They might be intelligent and independent creatures, but they can’t doctor themselves—at least not yet. Providing your cat with regular veterinary care is a good investment, and it’s one of the responsibilities you owe your cat when you bring him into your life. Cats have been called the “pet of convenience” for how easy it is to care for them, but they shouldn’t be considered self-supporting, because they do rely on us for adequate food, water, shelter, preventive care, and treatments for accidents and illnesses. There are literally millions of cats living in homes suffering needlessly from arthritis, asthma, urinary problems, dental disease, metabolic conditions, parasites—I could go on and on—just because their owners didn’t know what to look for or to take them to the veterinarian (who does know what to look for) for regular examinations, preventive health care, and treatment.
Making Veterinary Visits Fun
I think one of the reasons people avoid taking cats to the veterinarian is because the visit can be stressful to both cat and person. It doesn’t have to be, though. Here are three easy steps you can take to help your kitten or cat feel comfortable on the way to the clinic and during the examination.
Buy a carrier that loads from the front and the top (with two doors, in other words) and that is easy to break into two parts (so the cat can be left in the bottom half during a veterinary exam). Accustom your kitten to a carrier. Leave the carrier sitting open in the house so your kitten can explore it, nap in it, even eat meals in it. We call it making the carrier “fun furniture.” Line it with a blanket or towel to make it extra comfy, and put treats inside it as an occasional surprise. Get a product called Feliway, which is a synthetic version of the feline cheek pheromone (cats use this like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, applying it themselves to everything of which they approve) and spritz the bedding inside of the carrier from time to time and especially before taking a trip to the vet. When your kitten does need to go for a ride in the carrier, the experience won’t be scary. You can use the same techniques with an adult cat.
Schedule veterinary visits at a time when your kitten or cat hasn’t just eaten. She’ll be less likely to suffer motion sickness and more interested in getting tasty treats from veterinary staff. Bring something that is familiar and smells like home to the cat.
Make the first appointment with the veterinarian a fun one. No shots, just a weigh-in and some treats and petting from the staff. Think of it as a “getting to know you” visit. Trips like this are also a great opportunity to teach your cat that car rides can be pleasant.
OTHER CAT MYTHS AND THE TRUTH
If you’ve never had a cat, you may have some misconceptions about the feline species. Here are eight myths you may have heard about cats, along with the real scoop on what they’re like.
1. Cats Are Standoffish
One of the most common beliefs about cats is that they are independent and aloof, preferring their own company to that of people. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s true that cats in general are less “needy” than dogs, but most cats love spending time with their people, whether they’re playing with toys or just sitting in a lap motor-purring. Know that being a lap cat is genetically influenced. Feline behaviorists used to think you could turn any cat into a lap cat, but it’s not so. When cat lovers understand that sitting within eighteen inches is being friendly enough for some cats, they’ll feel better about not having a full-on lap cat and accept their pets as they are.
2. Cats Are Not Affectionate and Don’t Need Attention
This is another common misconception about cats. Cats are great companions for people who are away from home during the day, and it’s true that cats are more able than dogs to stay on their own if you must be away overnight, but don’t assume that they can get by with little or no attention. On the whole, they like it better when you’re around. It’s not unusual for cats to follow their people around like little shadows and to hop into a lap just as soon as one is available. Cats can even develop separation anxiety if they are left alone too frequently or for long periods. But don’t expect all cats to enjoy prolonged stroking and petting—sometimes it overstimulates them. Massaging often works better than endlessly stroking the fur.
3. Cats Require Access to the Outdoors to Be Happy
Cats love the outdoors, no doubt about it, but it’s full of dangers for them: speeding cars, marauding dogs, crazy cat attacks, parasites, and poisons set out for pests, to name just a few. But with the right environmental enrichment and regular playtime and exercise, indoor cats can live happily and never miss the great outdoors.
4. Cats Can’t Get Along with Dogs
We tend to think of them as dire enemies or cartoon warriors, but more often than not, cats and dogs can be fast friends. It’s not unusual to see them curled up together for a nap, grooming one another, or playing a game of tag. Foster interspecies friendships by introducing cats and dogs at an early age, while they are still open to new experiences. Even older cats and dogs can become best buds, though, with proper introductions. Don’t just throw them together like you would two stepchildren from polar opposite parts of the world. That can be stressful and dangerous for all involved. Planning and patience win the day.
If you have a dog and are planning to add a cat to your household, start by confining the cat to a small area such as a guest bath or bedroom. He’ll feel safe there, but he will still be able to hear and smell your dog. Spend lots of time with him in his safe room so he doesn’t feel isolated.
In a couple of days, your cat will be feeling more comfortable in his new home, and you can schedule a first meeting with the dog. Put the dog on leash and open the door to the cat’s room. Put the dog in a sit-stay or down-stay position, and don’t let him lunge at the cat. Let the cat decide whether or how closely to approach the dog. Don’t feed them that day before this exercise and give tasty treats to both animals for good behavior.
For the next couple of weeks, keep the dog on leash when the cat is present, and make sure the cat always has an escape route if he doesn’t want to be near the dog. Increase the amount of time they spend together, and keep giving plenty of rewards and praise for behaving nicely toward each other. When they’re calm around each other, you can take off the leash and let them begin what may well become a lifelong friendship.
5. Cats Can’t Be Trained
Surprise! With the right motivation, which for most felines means rewards for correct behavior, cats are highly trainable. You can teach a cat just about anything you want to teach him, as long as it doesn’t require opposable thumbs or barking for a treat. The benefit of training is that it is an interspecies communication system. Once you learn how to train your cat, there’s almost no behavior problem you can’t overcome.
6. Cats Spread Toxoplasmosis and Women Who Are Pregnant Should Get Rid of Their Cats to Protect the Fetus
Not true at all! Do you think that female veterinarians and veterinary technicians stop working with cats during the nine months of their pregnancy? No way. In fact, they have no higher levels of exposure to toxoplasma than the general population. With certain easy precautions, the risk of infection to the developing fetus is virtually nil.
There’s more on this in Chapter 9, but the important takeaway is this: no matter what well-meaning relatives and friends (and even some doctors) tell you, you don’t have to get rid of your cat when you’re expecting.
Have someone else clean the litter box, and if that’s not possible, wear gloves when you do so. Cook meat well, and wash your hands thoroughly after handling meat. The risk of getting toxoplasmosis from gardening is much greater, and you should always wash vegetables well, and wear gloves when gardening. These precautions will minimize risk, and your cat can stay to help raise your child. (Pets are good for children, you know.)
7. Cats Will Harm Babies by Sucking Their Breath or Lying on Them and Smothering Them
If you didn’t follow the advice for dumping your cat during pregnancy, chances are someone will insist you need to do so when you have an infant in the house. This mistaken fairy tale of killer cats probably began because cats enjoyed curling up near babies and sharing their warm, soft bedding. When the babies died from other causes, the cats got the blame for the death. The truth is that women, babies, and cats have lived together safely for thousands of years. Of course, you should always supervise your baby and cat when they are together, and it’s best that they don’t share a bassinet, but you don’t have to worry that your cat has it in for your baby.
8. Cats Eat Grass and Other Plants Because They’re Sick
Nope, they’re just connoisseurs of the green stuff. Cats love the taste and texture of grass, young shoots sprinkled with dew or rainwater. Grass also provides roughage that helps to work food through the system, so eating grass needn’t be discouraged. In fact, if you have an indoor cat, you should plant grass for him or her.
ENJOYING A CAT FOR WHAT HE IS
Having a cat is like bringing a bit of wild nature right into your home. The little lion who lounges on your sofa is not really so far removed from his big cousin, the king of beasts. When you watch your house cat stalk a grasshopper and then see a lion on television stalking a zebra, the similarity is unmistakable.
No matter what their size, cats are lethally armed warriors cloaked in elegant camouflage. Their loosely connected spines allow them to coil up in a ball, then spring up or out, landing softly and silently. Their retractable claws whip out like switchblades when they’re needed and stay sheathed when they’re not. Large, close-set eyes, natural night vision, and a broad head and short jaw allow them to spot prey and deliver a perfectly placed killing bite. Cats are adapted to every environment, from forests and plains, to mountains and jungles, to deserts and snowy steppes.
I’m not trying to scare you, far from it. I want to open your eyes to the wonder that is the cat. When you live with one of these miniature predators, you have a front-row seat to nature at work, right there from your sofa. If you can accept that a cat will always carry a little bit of the wild inside him, a little bit of an unpredictable nature, you will come to appreciate him all the more.
Specially Designed for Forward Movement
Cat claws are designed to move a cat in a forward direction. And if that direction is up a tree, it’s difficult to head back down. The gracefully powerful movement of a cat heading up a tree is counterbalanced by the crashing and (if he’s lucky) controlled free fall he’ll use to get down.
Most cats do find their way back down, of course, which is a good thing these days. With municipal budgets being what they are, few fire departments are allowed to respond to the “cat in tree” calls anymore.
We don’t recommend that you get out that tall ladder, either. The chances of you getting seriously hurt while reaching for a scared cat—and scared cats aren’t safe to handle, even if they’re yours—are generally better than your cat getting injured when he decides it’s time to head down for dinner. You may be able to whet his appetite by opening a can of tuna, salmon, or mackerel and letting the wonderful fishy smell drift upward.
WHAT KIND OF CAT DO YOU NEED/WANT?
You want a cat. You’re ready for a cat. You know what it takes to keep a cat, and to keep a cat happy. You look at those “pet of the week” pictures and think, “I ought to run to the shelter now!” Or you look at Petfinder.com and scan the ads like it’s a dating site. This one? Nah, too much fur. This one? Hmmm, “no kids.” That one? Sweet face, but what about the calico one here? Click. Click. Click.
Choice, choices, choices. They’re endless and you can make a lot of good ones. But you can’t know what will work for you, your family, and your lifestyle until you narrow the choices.
Now, as a veterinarian, I’ve treated all kinds of cats. Males, females, docile to downright ornery, kittens to feline AARP members, long-haired to no-haired (either hairless breeds like the Sphynx or ones suffering from medical conditions). While there have been a few individual cats I could have lived without knowing—and like every veterinarian, I have the scars to prove it—I can’t say there’s any type of cat I don’t love.
But I do see a lot of mismatches, and I feel just awful when a relationship’s not working out. Many times problems can be fixed, or at least managed with some—and sometimes a lot—of effort. Life is full of compromises, true, but if you start out with some commonsense foundations when you’re looking for a cat, you’ll have a better chance of making that perfect match.
KITTEN VS. CAT: PROS AND CONS
When most people think about getting a cat, a kitten is the first thing that springs to mind. Think again! Kittens are a kick, no doubt about it, but they’re not always easy to live with. Few things are as adorable as a kitten at play, but even fewer things are as destructive as a kitten at play.
Kittens climb up the back of the sofa and launch themselves off it. They climb up the curtains to get a better view out the window. They leap up to the fireplace mantel and knock over one of the pair of antique vases you inherited from Grandma—or, worse yet, a family member’s cremains and then use the contents as a makeshift litter box (I’ve actually known this to happen!). And kittenhood can last up to three years before the little bundle of cuteness even thinks about settling down into sedate cathood.
Anyone who decides to get a kitten should be aware that this tiny feline firecracker will need a lot of attention, exercise, and play to help him stay out of trouble. He needs consistent, appropriate outlets for his youthful exuberance. Whereas puppies have an oral fixation, kittens have a climbing/scratching one. Most of all, he needs an owner who can set limits in a kind and intelligent way so the kitten learns what is acceptable behavior and what is not.
What’s good about kittenhood? Lots of things. Kittens are like modeling clay. If they get a good start with plenty of handling at a young age, you can shape them through training—yes, cats can be trained!—to become the cat of your dreams. Young kittens are especially receptive to touch between two and eight weeks of age. With early exposure to kind and gentle human hands, plus kittygarten classes (they do exist, and they’re great for socialization!) before they are twelve weeks old, kittens are less likely to develop behavior problems as they grow up.
No Catnip for Kittens
Not all cats like catnip. The ability to appreciate the herb is genetic, with slightly more cats in the fan club than not. These hardwired preferences aren’t immediately apparent, though, since kittens under the age of three months don’t react to catnip at all.
Among those cats who do like catnip, you’ll find two basic kinds of reactions: your cat may seem to become either a lazy drunk or a wired-up crazy. Credit a substance called nepetalactone, which is found in the leaves and stems and causes the mood-altering behavior.
You don’t have to house-train a kitten. They come fully programmed to dig before elimination and will look for a scratchable (freshly turned, soil-smelling) substance from three weeks old. Up until then, Mother Cat is licking their rumps to stimulate elimination. All you need do is make the box available and block off any other choices until the lightbulb goes off.
Kittens are full of life. One of the things I love best about kittens is their crazy energy, the feline equivalent of a sugar high. Toss a small ball or dangle a peacock feather and they fly around the room like animated hockey pucks (or old video games of Pong), bouncing off walls and turning flips. Watching a kitten at play is more entertaining than any reality show.
Kittens are endearing. With their big eyes, they draw us in, then mark us as their own, rubbing their cheeks against us and leaving a secret scent of pheromones that tells other cats “Mine! All mine.” And who can resist the softness of their pawpads, whiskers that seem internally lit, and that glorious fur coat?
What Big Eyes You Have, My Dear!
I don’t know about you, but I just melt when a kitten stares up at me with those big, beautiful eyes. Those eyes, which are huge in proportion to a kitten’s body size, may be one of the reasons we are attracted to kittens and feel protective toward them. Kittens are born with their eyes closed because the eyes are still developing, but even at birth they are already 75 to 80 percent of their eventual adult size. The eyes open when the kittens are about ten days old, and they continue to grow, although not to the same extent as organs like the heart or liver. Don’t stare straight into a cat’s eyes. It is very rude in cat language. Only humans stare into eyes. Dogs find it a challenge as well. A cat kiss is different from what humans might think—start unfocused, eyes half closed, then blink slowly and you’ve done the kitty kiss.
By the way, the reason why cats often head toward the only person in the room who doesn’t like cats? Because that person is probably the only one who isn’t looking at the cat!
Kittens bring out our protective side. There’s a special bond people develop with a kitten. Don’t get me wrong. We can develop special relationships with adult cats, too, but it’s not unusual to feel a certain investment in a kitten. He’s little and vulnerable and relies on us for his very survival. That can forge a bond like no other.
It’s easy to see why people are attracted to kittens, but don’t overlook the benefits of life with a more mature mouser. If the mere thought of kitten antics makes you tired, and you’d like a more restful companion, consider adopting an adult cat, one that is three years or older. No kitten, however cute, can beat an adult cat in providing calm, loving companionship. While kittens are undoubtedly entertaining, adult cats have an advantage in the behavior department. They are past the destructive stage and into the lap-sitting age. They know the litter box drill and are usually already spayed or neutered and vaccinated. And if you get your cat from a shelter, they might be able to tell you up front about the cat’s personality and habits: likes other cats or hates them, loves dogs or hates them, great with men and women, not appropriate for families with young children.
Don’t think you’ll be getting a golden oldie. Cats can live to be fifteen years or older, so a three-year-old cat is just getting started in the game of life. Even a ten-year-old cat has plenty of good years left in him. Bringing home a preowned cat with high mileage has special benefits. People who have adopted late-in-life cats marvel at their kind, loving, and more relaxed nature and unconditional love.
Worried about big vet bills? The good news is that middle-aged cats and even those entering their geriatric years are generally very healthy. Indoor cats can live long lives with little veterinary intervention as long as they eat a high-quality diet, are kept clean and parasite free, get appropriate preventive health care, and receive regular veterinary exams.
If you like the idea of acquiring an adult cat but have an interest in a particular breed, consider adopting a retired show or breeding cat. Breeders like to find “retirement” homes where these cats can still get the attention they are used to, even though they are no longer in the show ring. Consider this type of adoption, too, if it’s important to you to know a cat’s medical and behavioral history. To find a retired show or breeding cat, talk to breeders at shows, join a cat-oriented e-mail list and explain what you’re looking for, or contact breeders through one of the many cat registries.
When it comes to life span, life is full of uncertainties. Sometimes a kitten may not live as long as the healthy middle-aged cat you adopt. You just never know, so don’t rule a cat out simply on the basis of age.
The best thing about acquiring an adult cat of any age is that what you see is what you get. His personality is already established: placid or playful, outgoing or reserved, equable or anxious, talkative or quiet. Choosing an adult cat means being able to choose the cat that best suits your own personality and lifestyle. When you make that perfect match, both you and the cat win.
ADOPTING PAIRS (ADULT OR KITTEN)
If one cat is good, does that mean two are great? You bet! We give cats the time we can spare and the love we can share from our busy schedules, but that’s not always enough. Sometimes a furry friend of the feline persuasion helps to fill a cat’s day when his people are away. They can both hear the flutter of a fly’s wings or hear a mouse creeping in a crawl space… you can’t. They can get crazy on catnip together, groom each other with those raspy tongues, or chase each other playfully in a game of zoom-around-the-room, or just lie on the cat tree together soaking up the sun.
One of the many myths about cats is that they prefer to live alone, but that’s not necessarily true. A pair of cats will play together, groom each other, and share catnap time. Two kittens will wear each other out, then collapse in a heap.
Just know that introducing cats isn’t going to be without difficulties. Shelter and colony studies show it takes one year for a new (adult) cat to be accepted into a group, so when people want to get another cat, they have to expect challenges for a while. (Burmese and Ragdolls and Birmans are different; they seem to see “one of their kind,” and feline experts have seen them “fall in love” as soon as another one of their breed arrives.)
Want an even better reason for acquiring cats in pairs? Veterinary studies show that when cats have company, both are healthier. Animals with buddies are sick less often, require shorter stays when they are hospitalized, and live longer.
A pair of cats can be from the same litter or close to the same age. The friendship usually works best if they are of the opposite sex. Two males or two females may each seek to be top cat, even if they are spayed or neutered.
Another pairing that works well is an older cat and a younger cat. The presence of a kitten can enliven an adult cat who may have lost some of his spark or put on a little pudge. And an older cat can teach a kitten the ropes: the best places in the house to hide and climb, the best way to demand a meal, how to choose the best lap for sitting, or how to follow the sun. It’s a win-win-win!
Odds Are Out
When it comes to cats, remember that three can be a crowd and that for a cat, being that odd one out is no fun. Cats seem to get along best in even-numbered groups. When there’s an odd number of cats, one cat may get picked on or develop aggression toward the other cats in self-defense.
DO YOU WANT A PEDIGREED CAT?
Most cat lovers share their homes with “the cat next door”: one of the millions of random-bred cats who come in every coat color and pattern imaginable: orange, tabby, calico, tuxedo, pointed like a Siamese or ticked like an Abyssinian, to name just a few. It almost seems as if there’s no reason to purchase a pedigreed cat such as a Persian, Maine Coon, Siamese, Himalayan, or one of the many other exotic cat breeds. But looking beyond appearance, choosing a pedigreed cat offers some advantages.
A pedigreed cat is one whose ancestry can be traced for generations back to forebears with the same characteristics—a cat with a family tree, in other words. You might buy a pedigreed cat for any number of reasons. One is the variety of unusual coat types they sport. These cats range from the practically bald Sphynx, who has the comforting feel of a soft, fuzzy hot water bottle, to the velvety waves of the Cornish Rex. The Exotic looks like a Persian, but his short coat is easier to groom.
You may be attracted to cats who stand out for their beautiful markings. They include the Birman, with white mitts on her paws; the Siamese, whose color points range from dark seal point to palest lilac; and the spotted Egyptian Mau.
Other pedigreed cats are just a kick to live with. The Abyssinian is intelligent, inquisitive, and active. You are most likely to find him surveying his domain from the top of the refrigerator or taking you for a walk so he can meet his adoring public. The playful but bossy Turkish Angora lords it over other animals in the household, including dogs, and may even enjoy a good swim. Japanese Bobtails play fetch, “sing” and talk to their families, and make good travel companions.
Sure, you can find these behaviors and sometimes the look of a certain breed in random-bred cats, but the advantage of a pedigreed cat is consistency. If you want a cat with a specific look or personality, this is the way to go. And pedigreed cats from reputable breeders have been bred for good health and temperament. The truth is, it’s hard to go wrong with any cat, but a pedigreed cat allows you to expand your options, and that’s always a good thing.
ORIENTAL VS. HEAVY: BODY TYPES AS AN INDICATOR OF ENERGY LEVEL
Have you ever heard the saying “All cats look alike in the dark”? That might be true when the lights are off, but cats actually come in several different body types. Even more interesting, body type can clue you in to the cat’s likely activity level, from layabout to lively. What? You thought cats slept eighteen hours a day? Well, that’s pretty much true, but it’s the six hours they’re awake that you have to worry about. Some cats are satisfied to do nothing but adorn your sofa during their waking hours and lick themselves in hard-to-reach places as a self-grooming ritual, no doubt about it. But others you’re more likely to find jumping across the stairwell to get a better view out the window, perched atop the shelf in your bedroom, or swinging from the chandelier. In general, here’s what you can expect from cats slinky to solid.
You know those cats who look like supermodels? The ones with the angular heads, tubular bodies, long legs, and long tails? They are busy, curious, talkative, and, yes, energetic. If you didn’t know any better, you might think they were fragile, but you would be mistaken. Hiding beneath that skinny-kid-at-the-beach look is a solidly muscular body, ready for action. These are the cats you’ll find walking on a leash, loudly commenting on your activities, and just generally running the household. Cats who fit this description are described as Oriental and include the Siamese, her close relatives the Balinese, Oriental Shorthair, Oriental Longhair, and the Cornish Rex. Again, you can find random-bred cats with these characteristics, although perhaps not to the physical extremes of their pedigreed pals.
Other slender and athletic cats are the Abyssinian, the Somali, the Japanese Bobtail, and the Turkish Angora. They have a little more substance than the Oriental breeds and are often described as having a “foreign” body type. And like their Oriental cousins, they are highly active. The Aby, for one, is a pistol, and the Japanese Bobtail is said to start getting into trouble earlier than other cats. When cats like this aren’t climbing to the top of a grandfather clock and reaching for the whirling blades of the ceiling fan, you can often find them riding on their person’s shoulder or going for a walk on leash.
While cats (pedigreed cats, especially) do range somewhat in body type from slinky to bulky, all cats share the same basic design that makes them top-notch track stars. The average domestic cat can reach speeds of about thirty miles per hour. Cats also excel at the high jump. From a sitting position, they can jump six times their own length (this would be like the average human jumping from the ground to the top of a three-story building). Their powerful thigh muscles coil and release incredible energy, allowing them to escape the bounds of the earth and fly—at least high enough to get them to the top of that counter or shelf.
Cats with what’s known as a semiforeign body type start to look more sturdy than slim. Their activity level tends to be moderate, but cats are like the rest of us; they are individuals, and some like to dance to a faster beat than others. The Devon Rex and the Sphynx are likely to be energetic, for instance, while the Egyptian Mau and the Tonkinese are playful but not necessarily high octane.
The cats that most of us are probably familiar with have stocky bodies with heads that are rounded or slightly wedge-shaped. They’re known for having calm, easygoing personalities, but that doesn’t mean they don’t like to play. Besides the domestic shorthair and domestic longhair—sometimes known as random-bred cats—this type includes American Shorthairs, British Shorthairs, Bombays, Chartreux, and Scottish Folds. Expect these cats to enjoy play in short bursts, especially if you introduce them to a kitty fishing-pole toy or the joys of chasing a peacock feather around the house. In between playtimes, they are satisfied to snooze on the sofa.
The most restful cats tend to be those with compact, rounded bodies. Breeds that fall into this body-type category include the Persian, the Exotic (a short-haired Persian), the Burmese, and the Manx. They are built for lap-sitting, not leaping. The Manx, who enjoys climbing to high places, is the exception to the rule.
Then there are the big cats. No, not lions and tigers, just domestic cats that have been, well, supersized. Hefty breeds such as the Maine Coon, Bengal, Norwegian Forest Cat, Ragdoll, and Siberian fall into this category. Some of these jumbo-size cats can weigh twelve to twenty pounds. They are easygoing but agile and athletic, and they can often be found peering down from the highest spot in the room.
How Many Bones?
No one really can say how many bones a cat has, and the Manx is one of the reasons why. A long-tailed Maine Coon cat will have more vertebrae than a Manx with no tail, or a Manx mix with just part of a tail. And a cat with extra toes—they’re called polydactyl—will have extra bones as a result.
The range is usually put between 230 and 250, with the average cat counting about 244 bones, if cats could or cared to count.
Anyway you count it, the average cat has about thirty more bones than we do. But we have something cats don’t: collarbones. Not that a cat would consider that a disadvantage. Without a collarbone, cats can fit their bodies through openings the size of their heads. Assuming they aren’t overweight, of course.
Two cats with identical tails and paws will still have a different bone count if one of the pair is male and the other female. That’s because males have a tiny bone called the os penis.
THE FUR FACTOR
One of the best things about living with a cat is stroking his soft, beautiful fur. Whether he has the kinky coat of a Cornish Rex, the long, straight coat of the Persian, or the short, thick coat of the typical domestic shorthair, a cat’s fur is a pleasure to touch.
The luxurious coat of the cat is made up of hairs that are produced by cells beneath the skin called follicles. A follicle consists of a hair bulb—where the hair originates—and a follicular sheath. The hair passes through the sheath to emerge at the skin’s surface. Cats have up to three types of hairs, and the type of coat they have depends on variations in the size and numbers of those hairs.
Guard hairs are the first line of defense against cold and wetness and help to protect the skin from injury. Coarse, thick, and straight, they taper to a fine tip. More insulation and protection is provided by wiry, midlength awn hairs. The undercoat is made up of downy-soft secondary hairs. Up close, they look crimped or rippled. The secondary hairs, which are the most numerous of the three types, help to regulate the cat’s body temperature.
Saved by a Whisker
Whiskers, also known as vibrissae or tactile hairs, are thick, stiff hairs located on either side of the muzzle, above the eyes, and on the lower back side of the front legs. Whiskers are arranged in neat rows, with the shorter ones at the front, the longer ones at the rear. These specialized hairs can detect slight air movements and help the cat feel his way through the environment, especially in the dark. One way they do this is by allowing him to measure the width of an opening he might like to squeeze through. If his head and whiskers can fit through, the rest of his body can, too. It’s like having a built-in ruler that works on a dead run.
Some cats have genetic mutations that cause them to have coats that are curly (the Devon Rex and the Cornish Rex) or wiry (the American Wirehair). Cornish Rex cats lack guard hairs altogether, and in the Devon Rex the guard hairs are soft instead of coarse. Although the American Wirehair’s springy coat can feel like steel wool, it is surprisingly fragile and needs special care.
Now for the bad news. The messy truth about cats is that they shed, and shedding is one of the top complaints of pet owners. Sometimes it seems that there is more fur on our clothing and furniture than—on them! It’s true that some cats shed less than others, but even “naked” cats such as the Sphynx leave sparse, fine hairs in their wake. The related belief that some cats such as the Rex or Siberian won’t trigger allergies isn’t true. Some of these cats can cause a less potent allergic reaction that allows mild allergy sufferers to share their lives with them, but all cats produce saliva, urine, and dander (dead skin flakes), which are the real sources of allergens, not fur.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t live with a cat if you’re the allergic type. And it doesn’t mean that you can’t live with a cat if you’re the fussy housekeeper type. Most people can live with pet allergies, with the help of an allergist (the human kind), and most people can reduce the amount of fur they find on their floors, furniture, and clothing. These strategies and techniques can help to keep sneezes, sniffles, and flying fur under control:
Wipe the cat’s coat daily with a damp towel or large disposable scent-free wipes. This helps to keep the coat free of dander. If you’re highly allergic, assign this task to someone in the family who isn’t allergic to the cat.
Brush the cat weekly or even daily to remove dead hairs that will otherwise float off the cat and onto your belongings. I particularly like a product called a FURminator, which can take so much hair off the cat that you’d swear your cat is going to be bald. You should only use the FURminator sparingly (about once a month) but use a brush much more often. The great thing about regular grooming is that you can get rid of excess cat hair at the time and place of your choosing. Much better to have piles of hair in the laundry room than thousands of cat hairs sprinkled all over the house like fallen snow.
Even better, wipe or groom the cat outdoors or in a garage, reducing the amount of fur found indoors.
Get a sticky-tape roller like what you see at the vet’s office from any pet store, or try a product such as the Pledge Fabric Sweeper for Pet Hair. Get in the habit of using electrostatically charged products such as Swiffer on your floors to pick up fur. Better to use a Swiffer and toss dust, dander, pollen, and spores in the trash than to have those things hitchhike on your cat and end up causing skin problems for the cat—or allergy problems for you, when your pet curls up next to you like he’s a four-legged dust bunny.
Consider bathing your cat. I know; you’ve heard all your life that cats hate water, but if you acquire your kitten at an early enough age, you can teach him to become accustomed to and even enjoy bathtime. Honest! Ask your veterinarian to recommend shampoos, conditioners, wipes, and more.
Vacuum frequently. Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter, which traps very small particles, such as cat dander. This is another job for a person without allergies. If you can’t pawn off this chore on another family member or a housekeeper, wear a face mask while you vacuum, as well as when you groom the cat. And here’s a tip for when you have company: well-meaning cat owners don’t vacuum right before guests arrive. Regardless of the vacuum used, this will lift the cat allergens, which are very light and will remain in the air for hours. Your guests will actually suffer more than if you didn’t vacuum at all.
Purchase a HEPA air filter or air purifier. Cat allergen is very light, small, and sticky, so it floats more than other allergens, making it more likely to be trapped by the filter.
Keep over-the-counter antihistamines on hand. Liquid formulas work fastest, followed by the chewable type. For severe allergies, ask your allergist about prescription antihistamines and decongestants. Medications that can help include nasal sprays, topical steroid sprays, and eyedrops. A cat-friendly allergist can help you find a combination that works best based on your symptoms and sensitivities.
Reduce the surfaces that can trap allergens. Leather or vinyl furniture is better than fabric, and wood or tile floors are better than carpet. Use washable throw rugs, and launder your bedding in hot water.
Invest in kitty couture. No, I’m not kidding. Dressing your cat in a T-shirt, sweater, or body suit helps to keep your home a fur-free zone. If you introduce your kitten to the fashionista lifestyle while she’s young, she’ll soon come to expect getting dressed as a regular part of the day. And since your cat is wearing clothing at home, no one will know unless you tell them. It will be our little secret.
Make your bedroom a cat-free zone. If you’re not willing to do that, at least keep the cat off your bed. When that’s not possible or desirable, use dust mite covers on mattresses and pillows. Cat allergen particles are tiny, and the covers can help prevent them from getting into bedding. Then accustom yourself to a stuffy nose and puffy eyes. For most people, the companionship is worth it.
The Shot That May Stop the Suffering
About 10 percent of people are allergic to cats. An allergic reaction occurs when the immune system interprets benign substances, such as cat dander, as invaders and launches a counterattack. Currently the only solutions are to stay far away from felines, get multiple injections of kitty allergens to help the body build up a tolerance, or just suffer through it.
If you try all the techniques above to keep your house clean, and still suffer dreadfully from allergies, consider allergy shots. This involves starting with an injection of a dilute dose of an allergen and slowly building up to a maintenance level that’s continued, usually monthly, for three to five years. Allergy shots aren’t a cure, but they redirect the immune system away from an allergic-type immune reaction to a more normal immune reaction.
The downside is getting injections and the investment in time required. Most physicians require patients to receive the injections in their office as a safety precaution in case an allergic reaction occurs.
Factors to consider are that allergy shots work better in young people and in people who have only a few sensitivities rather than being sensitive to everything across the board.
But there may be hope! Immunologists have developed a vaccine by isolating the protein shed by cats that causes the most allergic reactions and, more specifically, by determining which segments of the cat protein binds to and activates immune cells. The researchers have made synthetic versions of these segments, called peptides. A mix of seven peptides makes up the vaccine. The idea, the researchers write, is that the human immune system will encounter these peptide strands, which fit into the immune cells like a key to a lock, and recognize them as harmless. That action stops the human sniffling-and-sneezing inflammatory response in its tracks—no buildup with an endless series of shots needed—even when the peptides are attached to real cat proteins. An early clinical trial on eighty-eight patients resulted in no serious side effects. A single injection reduced the skin’s inflammatory reaction to cat allergens by 40 percent. To get the equivalent response with current antipollen allergy treatments, patients would need to get twelve weeks of treatment with pollen extract. The vaccine is being developed by Adiga Life Sciences, a company established at McMaster University, with clinical trials continuing to determine the optimal dose for the vaccine.
Is There Such a Thing as a Hypoallergenic Cat?
You may have heard about specially bred cats with a mutant gene that prevents them from producing Fel d 1, the protein that causes people to be allergic to cats. Or that certain cat breeds such as the Rex varieties or the Siberian don’t cause allergies. Are they fur real?
The short answer is no for most people. No matter what you read on the Internet, all cats—short-haired, long-haired, curly-coated, wire-coated, hairless, or mutant—produce saliva, urine, and dander that carry allergens.
People with mild allergies may be able to tolerate some cats and not others, for a combination of reasons. Some cats make less antigens than others, and some houses contain less pollen, mold, or dust mites than others, reducing the total effect of allergens in the environment. But what about that mutant gene that knocks out Fel d 1? Although that particular protein causes most of the difficulty, cats produce other proteins that can also cause trouble.
Before you decide to try your luck with a reputedly hypoallergenic cat, remember that allergies can change or build over time. Still, your best bet is to seek out a light-colored, short-haired, spayed female cat. Male cats produce more allergens than female cats, and there is some evidence that dark-colored cats produce more allergens than light-colored cats. In fact the worst bet for allergies is probably a dark, intact, male cat.
LOOKING FOR LOVE IN ALL THE RIGHT PLACES
Excerpted from Your Cat: The Owner's Manual by Becker, Marty Copyright © 2012 by Becker, Marty. Excerpted by permission.
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