Cat care

I've always done my utmost to ensure my cats were as healthy and happy as possible. Although I have no veterinary training, I take a keen interest in pet care and I would like to share my findings with other cat lovers. Always keep one important thing in mind: Your cat has no way of telling you if he/she has a sore stomach or headache or any other condition. You have to pay close attention to body language, and you must know that although your cat will happily drink milk, it will most likely cause pain and diarrhoea later (the cat certainly has no idea - contrary to the common myth cats do *not* instinctively know what is good and what is bad for them). If you ever suspect something might be wrong, take your cat to the vet immediately. It's better to go one time too many.

Warning about plants/flowers

Poison ivy is, as the name suggests, poisonous, as well as a long list of other common flowers and houseplants. Some are only mildly toxic, others are deadly. Of course, it's hard to know exactly how dangerous a plant is, which is why I panicked when Fergus nibbled half a leaf of my spider plant for an afternoon snack. I fed him mustard-water in an attempt to make him sick, but the leaf never came back up and neither did the mustard, so I think I may have done him more harm than good that day.

Some exotic flowers are lethal. The following has been snipped from the website belonging to the Perth branch of Cats Protection:

"Many of you will have read in the newspapers about the painful and tragic death of a Siamese cat which brushed past some lilies in a bouquet. She subsequently groomed the pollen from her coat and suffered the most horrible death.

ALL lilies are poisonous. They are the most beautiful flowers and tiger lilies are being included more and more in flower arrangements but cat owners must be aware that they are highly toxic. So all you ladies who receive (and all you gents who give!) bouquets from your loved ones, please keep the flowers well out of the way of your cats. Better still, when ordering, request that lilies are not included."

A lot of cat books will have a chapter or at least a few paragraphs about poisonous plants and possibly a list of them. There is a bit of info here.

A bit of feeding guidance

Never feed a cat:

* crisps, peanuts or other salted snacks (pets can't handle the amounts of salt humans can)
* chicken bones (when the cat chews them they may splinter which can be fatal)
* chocolate, grapes/raisins, citrus, onions (many human foods are toxic to animals - read more here and here)
* cold food straight from the fridge (they need their food to be at least room temperature - remember, "in nature" cats would eat their prey while it's still warm)

Here is a very comprehensive list of foods and plants that are dangerous to cats.

You should also not keep your cat on a diet including tuna or shrimp as there is too much magnesium in these seafoods. A single shrimp once in a while might not do any harm, but a diet containing large amounts of magnesium may be harmful in the long term.

Milk

You should never give a cat milk. It contains lactose - milk sugar. Cats, humans and other mammals are born with the ability to produce lactase, the enzyme that splits up lactose in the digestion process. However, mammals stop producing lactase when they are weaned (unless they have a mutation in the lactase gene, which is common in humans). Without lactase, the milk sugar can't be digested. For cats and hedgehogs in your garden, milk will likely cause stomach pains and diarrhoea. In the case of hedgehogs, it may even kill them. If for some reason you feel your cat *must* have dairy, you can buy lactose-free "cat milk" at most pet stores. (And if you want to feed your local hedgehog, get a tin of good quality dog/cat food with lots of meat in it.)

Some cats may be able to tolerate low-lactose products such as cream, especially if they have been fed it on a regular basis since they were kittens, but there is no need to give cats milk products of any kind.

Zingara Faramir

Picture of the Somali kitten Faramir is taken from the Zingara Cattery's photos page. The Somali is the long-haired version of the Abyssinian.

Veg

Although you shouldn't feed your cat vegetables it does need access to some sort of green stuff. If it's an outdoors cat it may eat grass outside, otherwise you can buy "cat grass" seeds (try Homebase or another gardening store) to plant indoors. Grass in small amounts (let the cat decide how much!) aids digestion, in large amounts it induces vomiting - if the cat has eaten something bad it might instinctively feel an urge to eat grass. Cats with no access to grass might be tempted to chew on your potted plants. Of course, sometimes they'll have a whole garden of grass but they'll *still* have a taste of your ficus, the little rascals...

Hairballs

At pet stores you can buy tubes of "hair ball remedy" or "anti-hair ball paste" which is a thick, usually brown, semi-liquid substance. The paste helps the hair pass through the digestive system (cats can't digest the hair they swallow) instead of building up and getting stuck in the stomach. It's particularly essential for long-haired cats. The cat should be fed a little of the paste on a regular basis in spring when it sheds its seasonal coat. Make sure the type you buy isn't based on paraffin oil, which is very unhealthy. Anti-hair ball paste should not be given regularly all year round because the oil substances (which move the hair along) also coat the inside of the digestive system and hamper the ability to absorb certain vitamins, so long-term use can cause nutritional deficiencies. Most cats love this stuff - just let them lick it straight from the tube. This should be combined with a thorough weekly grooming (daily for long-hairs) with a pet brush.

And finally, a note on vitamins...

There is no need to buy any! Most cat foods contain rich amounts of everything a cat needs already. Some brands even contain *too much*, especially magnesium. If the cat gets too much magnesium it can cause urinary tract problems in the long run. As with all other animals, including humans, too much of one thing can also cause strain on the liver and kidneys after a certain age. Check if the type of pet food you buy states it has reduced/controlled magnesium levels.

But water is good for you!

Quite often, cats won't drink as much water as they should. It's impossible to explain to a pet *why* water is good for them, so you have to make it attractive (easy) for them to have a drink. I was worried that Sebastian wasn't drinking enough, especially in summer. Then I read somewhere that "in nature" cats aren't used to finding food and drink in the same place, and they might drink more if their water is placed somewhere away from the food. I put an extra water bowl in the living room, next to Seb's scratching post, and it actually worked. He started drinking more as the water was close by and convenient and he walked past the bowl all the time so he was reminded of it. Seamus and Gizmo have their water bowl in the hallway, which is the middle of the flat, so they walk past it all the time, and I think this central location does help "remind" them to drink. Remember to keep the bowl clean and change the water every day.

Teeth

Regular dental checks are extremely important. The mouth is an often overlooked area, but bear in mind that your cat has no way to communicate a toothache to you, and that it will quietly accept it and suffer inflammation, gingivitis and periodontitis, perhaps without showing any signs of discomfort (other than when eating - do you watch your cat eat?). Serious inflammation of the mouth may be carried in the blood stream to other organs and eventually cause death. It is essential to regularly examine your cat's mouth to check the gums are pink, not red, and that all the teeth look healthy without tartar build-up. Your cat will probably not be too keen on this kind of handling at first, but will quickly get used to it, especially if followed by lots of praise and a treat. Seamus has a tendency to get inflamed gums, and Gizmo has had five teeth removed due to neck lesions, so they have been taught to sit still while their teeth are routinely brushed. It took a month to get Gizmo anywhere near the toothbrush without panicking, but with patience he eventually learned not to fear the brush.

If you start brushing your cat's teeth, a little tip: It makes it easier if one person holds the cat while another does the brushing (our cats usually try to run off!). You will need a very small toothbrush and special cat toothpaste, which you may be able to buy from your vet or pet store. Although expensive, I recommend this kit which also contains a booklet with tips for "beginners" as well as a finger toothbrush to introduce the concept of dental hygiene to your feline! To avoid spreading any infections, each cat should have their own toothbrush. Keep in mind that cats' gums are more sensitive than those of humans and dogs, so be gentle.

More info

You can download some leaflets here - the "Pets and Poisons: keeping your animal safe" leaflet especially is a must.
Also, the Blue Cross has a collection of factsheets here which is a great resource for information about all types of pets.

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