Simple measures, such as checking for any ear discharge, attending to dental care and feeling for external lumps, are an important part of routine healthcare. Keeping your cat indoors at night can help to reduce the risk of road accidents. Daily grooming is particularly important for long-haired cats to avoid matting but is beneficial to all cats, and provides an opportunity to examine your pet. Start by doing a little at a time, and try to do areas such asthe belly, under the tail and around the hindlegs. However, you will need to consult your vet about other important healthcare measures for your pet.
Why you should neuter your cat
Too many kittens grow up to be unwanted cats, and there are also health reasons for neutering your cat. Female cats come “on heat” at least every three weeks. During this stage they are restless, may miaow loudly and roll around, appearing to be in pain. Drugs to suppress heat are available but there is a risk of side effects. Recurrent heats may distress your pet, but they can be stopped by spaying. In addition, spaying prevents womb infections later in life and reduces the risk of breast cancer. A cat does not need to have had a litter first. The operation is usually done at around five to six months of age, although it can safely be done younger or older, and can also be performed on cats in early pregnancy. Male cats should also be neutered at five to six months in order to minimise the risk of contracting the cat form of AIDS (FIV) from fighting.
Cats that have not been neutered are also more likely to spray in the house (which smells strongly) and behave aggressively. In both cases the operation is straightforward and your pet will usually return home the same day. Female cats have a patch of hair shaved, either on the flank or the belly. Recovery is rapid – usually by the next day, although females may have to wear an Elizabethan collar to prevent interference with the wound for a few days. See your vet if your kitten seems poorly after the operation. In some breeds (such as Siamese) shaved hair may grow back a darker colour, but this returns to normal in time.
Most cats get fleas at some point. They are most common in summer and are hard to spot as they spend little time on the animal. Even if you have no other pets, fleas can be picked up outdoors in the summer. Routine treatment is recommended, especially for an itchy animal, and usually needs to be repeated monthly. Treatment is best supplied by your vet. One product which is now available kills ear mites and some intestinal worms at the same time. Most pet shop and supermarket products, including collars and powders, do not work as well as those supplied by your vet. Never use two treatments together unless directed by a vet. All other dogs and cats in your household need to be treated, as does the home, usually by using a spray.
Vacuuming can help to reduce flea numbers. It is best to vacuum the house before treating as the vibration stimulates hatching of flea eggs. When treating, pay particular attention to dark crevices, such as down the sides of chair cushions and round skirting boards, as fleas crawl away from light to breed. Some of the treatments given to your cat can also prevent flea eggs developing. This can be helpful in reducing flea numbers in the outdoor environment. Discuss their use with your vet. Never use a flea product designed for dogs on a cat, as they can be poisonous. Treatment of nursing mothers and young kittens is important, as they are vulnerable to serious anaemia from flea bites – ask the vet for a product that is safe for young kittens.
All cats should be vaccinated
Vaccination can prevent illness in your pet, but no vaccination can be guaranteed to work in every animal. Vaccines will not work if the animal is already infected. Cats can be vaccinated against killer diseases such as infectious enteritis and leukaemia, and against cat flu (not usually a killer, although it can be serious). As with people, not every flu strain is covered by vaccination but it may reduce the severity of disease. Kittens need two injections, usually three to four weeks apart, and annual boosters thereafter. Consult the vet as soon as you acquire a new pet. If you do not know whether your pet has been vaccinated, it does not hurt to repeat the course.
Are there any side effects?
Your cat may get a slight cold or fever following vaccination, and sometimes a lump will appear at the injection site. If this lump persists, or one develops at any time in the future, consult your vet. Serious allergic reactions to vaccination are extremely rare, and would happen immediately afterwards.
Kittens need de-worming against roundworm every two weeks until they are 16 weeks old. Adult cats should be de-wormed two to four times per year, and when feeding kittens. Treatment for tapeworms should be given twice yearly. Some tapeworms – which look like grains of rice in the faeces (or excrement) – are caught from fleas, so flea treatment is also necessary. A single tablet to treat all worms can be purchased from your vet. With pet shop products, use the correct dose for your pet’s body weight, and check which worms they control. Toxoplasma is a microscopic parasite which lives in the bowel and can be present in cat faeces. Infection cannot be prevented, though the chance can be reduced by discouraging hunting and not feeding raw meat. It can be harmful if passed to pregnant women, but is usually caught from handling or eating raw meat. Contact with cat faeces should obviously be avoided.
Teeth are important and, just like people, animals benefit from regular dental care. Teeth that are bad and heavily coated in plaque (containing bacteria) are a potential source of infection of other parts of the body, and can also spoil your pet’s appetite. Dirty teeth develop infections at the gum line. The gums recede, the teeth loosen, and the mouth becomes foul smelling. Daily brushing can prevent this process. Before starting, look inside your pet’s mouth. The teeth should be evenly white or off-white. If they are grey or brown it may indicate plaque accumulation. Is there an unpleasant odour? Are the gums pink where they meet the teeth or red and inflamed? Do the surfaces of the teeth look clean, or is there a grey-brown coating which looks like kettle scale? Unless the teeth look clean, or your pet is under a year of age, it is best to get your pet’s mouth examined by the vet.
Plaque in animals is hardened by saliva, forming a concretelike coating. Brushing will not remove this, and it will contribute to the accumulation of further plaque. An anaesthetic will be needed so your pet remains still. Plaque is then removed using an ultrasonic de-scaler. The vet will also fully examine your cat’s mouth, and remove any problem teeth which need to come out. Start the habit of brushing whilst your kitten is young – although you can train an older cat to accept it. Wait until your pet is in a relaxed mood before your first attempt. Keep initial sessions short. You will need a special brush from the vet or pet shop. Toothpaste designed for humans cannot be used; it is too frothy, and can cause stomach irritation. You may clean your cat’s teeth without using toothpaste, but a nice tasting toothpaste helps to make the procedure more acceptable.
Some toothpastes contain chemicals which may slow down the accumulation of plaque, however, the mechanical effect of brushing is probably more effective. Start by simply getting your cat used to you rubbing your fingers round their mouth. Most cats will appreciate this. Next, try slipping your finger gently inside the lips and rub the teeth – but be careful not to get bitten. You can then progress to using a soft cloth over your finger to rub your cat’s teeth until your pet gets used to handling. Dip the cloth in gravy or some liquid from a can of tuna to make it taste nice. The final stage is to try brushing with a toothbrush. Aim to hold it so that the bristles are at an angle to the teeth (about 45 degrees) and move the brush in a circular motion. As a cat’s teeth are quite small, doing this perfectly can be difficult. However, any brushing of the teeth you can achieve is better than none! Give a tasty snack when the session is over, and try to do it daily.
Other ways of trying to reduce plaque formation are not as effective as daily brushing. Gels and mouthwashes do reduce plaque formation to some extent and are useful for cats who will not accept toothbrushing. A special diet is another possibility. It is often said that dried foods and biscuits are good for the teeth and gums (although this might surprise our own dentist!), but few have been studied to see if they really reduce plaque long-term. One or two of these foods, on which studies have been conducted, are available through your vet. Some have a higher fibre content which acts like a brush on the teeth as they are chewed, whilst others create an antibacterial coating on the teeth which slows the accumulation of plaque. Ask your vet’s advice. Dental chews may be helpful. Select something tough and chewy and large enough that your cat definitely has to chew it. Cats are adept at swallowing small biscuits complete – they are not “designed” for chewing. Avoid things which are too hard as there is a risk of damage to the teeth. Daily brushing, however, is still the best course of action.