Cat Behavior and Medical Conditions
URINATING IN THE HOUSE
1. Always go to your vet before doing anything else to make sure there is no blood in the urine or stones blocking the cat from urinating. The cat may also be suffering from a urinary tract infection and medication may be the answer to your problem. If you think of the litterbox as the cat’s “telephone,” he is certainly not going to broadcast that he is not feeling well. He will try to hide his illness by soiling the carpets and floors rather than use his box.
2. Cats are clean animals by nature and their litterboxes should be kept very clean, especially if you are using a covered box. The ammonia fumes from the urine get trapped and the cat may not want to step inside. The litterbox should be cleaned twice a day and fresh litter added as needed. The litterbox should be washed and disinfected at least once a week with a gentle cleaning solution not dangerous to the cat.
3. The rule is one litterbox for each cat plus an extra one. This may not always be possible if you don’t have enough space, but make very sure you keep the litterboxes VERY clean. Many cats don’t like to share litterboxes and some cats urinate in one box and poop in the other.
4. Is there a litterbox on each level (upstairs and downstairs) or at each far end of your house? This can really help, especially with very young, very old or ill cats.
1. Is your cat spayed or neutered? If not, problems can occur when there is a territory dispute in the house.
2. Is the litterbox in a quiet, out-of-the-way place where the cat is not disturbed when using it?
3. Is the cat being bothered by another cat or dog or child when trying to use the litterbox?
4. Have you tried changing the type of litter you are using? Many cats prefer litter that feels like garden soil rather than the feel of some of the pellets or stones on the market today. Also, your cat may not like scented litter and you might want to try the non-scented type.
5. Is the litterbox the correct height and size for the cat? Senior cats and kittens usually need lower sides on the litterbox. Large size cats like to “stretch out” when using the litterbox.
1. Is the food of a good quality and does your cat enjoy eating it?
2. Do you take your cat to the vet each year and have his teeth checked? Infected teeth and gums can be a major source of pain and illness. Have his ears and feet checked as well. Bring a stool sample and have his urine checked.
3. If you allow your cat to go outside, he may have lost interest in his litterbox because he has a much larger “territory” to take care of outside. Sometimes the inside and the outside become the same to the cat and he makes no distinction when he urinates. Keep him inside and see if this changes things.
ONE MORE THING:
In the last few months, we have taken in cats from owners who have been told that their cat was displaying bad behavior because the urine seemed normal. In several cases, we had x-rays taken and found stones or gravel in the urinary tract. Two of the cats actually required abdominal surgery to remove stones that they could not possibly pass on their own. They now use their litterboxes regularly. It is believed that the cat associates the litterbox with pain and therefore stops using it. Please ask your vet to take x-rays before making a decision about “bad behavior.”
Always remember that you can call your local cat rescue organization or your vet for advice on house-soiling problems. It isn’t always bad behavior!
DEALING WITH FELINE ACNE
Feline acne is a localized infection and almost always affects the chin area. It usually starts as small, oily black plugs in the chin — much like blackheads — sometimes progressing into inflamed pustules or pimples. The condition is caused by infected (or plugged) hair follicles. Grooming the chin area is difficult for kitty, which leads to a build-up of dirt and oil, and eventually, acne. Possible causes of feline acne vary, and include food allergies, contact allergies, lack of cleanliness, and even stress. However, plastic food and water dishes are major culprits. Plastic is a magnet for bacteria (which may irritate your cat’s skin, causing the acne) and dirt that work their way into scratches and nicks, continually infecting your cat.
Switching to glass, ceramic or stainless steel bowls is the best solution, along with thoroughly washing your cat’s dishes every day. Cats with flat faces, such as Persians and Exotics, are particularly susceptible to feline acne and may need your assistance in cleaning their chins after meals. Treatment options vary, but most veterinarians will recommend daily cleaning of the affected area with an antibiotic soap, followed by a topical ointment, either antibiotic or anti-fungal. Oral antibiotics may also be prescribed, as well as a scrub with hydrogen peroxide.
NEVER try to pop or drain the pustules, as this spreads the infection and furthers the problem. When feline acne does not respond to topical treatment, there are a couple of things to consider. The first one is whether or not it really is feline acne. It may be one of the conditions that can mimic feline acne, such as ringworm, food allergies, yeast infections, or demodectic mange. If it is feline acne and conventional treatments aren’t working, your veterinarian should culture one of the pustules, and then choose an oral or systemic antibiotic based on the culture results. Feline acne can turn into serious infection, so don’t take it lightly. Talk to your veterinarian about the best course of action.
Detection and Treatment
Your veterinarian knows what to look for and where to look. Beckman and the American Veterinary Dental College recommend all cats have a professional dental examination and cleaning each year. Cats with a history of resorptive lesions should be seen twice annually. During the exam, your veterinarian will look at your cat’s mouth and teeth for red gums and unusual tissue growth. X-rays are almost always necessary to detect developing resorptive lesions and determine the extent of the damage.
Your cat will be sedated with general anesthetic during these procedures so that all surfaces of the teeth and gums can be examined and cleaned with the least amount of stress and discomfort to your pet. (See “Veterinarians Recommend Anesthesia for Dental Cleanings” for more about anesthesia and dental exams.) If your cat is diagnosed with tooth resorption, your veterinarian will likely recommend removing the tooth. The goals of treatment are to relieve your cat’s pain, prevent the disease from continuing, and restore function of the mouth. Usually, attempts to save the tooth are unsuccessful. “Restoration isn’t recommended because this condition comes from inside the tooth, unlike human cavities which are on the outside of the tooth,” explains Beckman.
Although feline resorptive lesions are being studied, the cause is not known. One theory is that they are the result of periodontal disease. Many cats do have both conditions, although some have lesions only. Your best bet is to combine annual veterinary exams with regular at-home care. Your veterinarian can show you how to brush your cat’s teeth and use oral rinses. Be sure to use toothpaste made specifically for cats. Never use baking soda or human toothpaste Cats don’t spit – at least not when you want them to – and ingesting human toothpaste or baking soda can cause stomach upset. Also, many types of human toothpaste contain Xylitol, a sweetener that is highly toxic to dogs and possibly other animals as well. The Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) awards a Seal of Acceptance to products that meet their standards. The list is on the VOHC website.
What Is Periodontal Disease?
Periodontal disease is the most prevalent of all veterinary disease — not just dental diseases, but all veterinary diseases combined. It affects the supporting structure of the teeth, and eventually leads to breakdown of tooth attachment. Plaque causes gingivitis, which is an early stage of periodontal problems. Gingivitis is reversible, but if not treated will progress to periodontal disease. Dental care of dogs and cats is one of the most commonly overlooked areas of pet health care; however, it is necessary to provide optimum health and quality of life. Diseases of the oral cavity, if left untreated, are often painful and can lead to more serious health problems including heart, lung and kidney disease.
There are two critical components of your pet’s veterinary dental care: oral examinations and dental cleanings. Veterinary dental care begins at the puppy and kitten life stage. As your pet ages, your veterinarian will look for developmental anomalies, the accumulation of plaque and tartar, periodontal disease and oral tumors. Veterinarians can perform a basic oral examination on patients that are awake. However, when a cleaning is required, your pet will need to be induced under general anesthesia wherein a thorough examination will be done prior to the cleaning. Dental cleanings performed while your pet is awake is not only dangerous for the team member performing the cleaning but dangerous to your pet as well.
Since there is an element of risk associated with any medical procedure, it is important that safety precautions are used. Among the many standards in the dentistry section, AAHA accreditation requires that veterinarians perform thorough examinations of the teeth and structures of the oral cavity in patients presented for dental procedures and only properly trained practice team members perform dental procedures. Additionally, AAHA Standards recommend that dental procedures are accompanied by pain assessment and appropriate pain treatment.
SHELTER CONDITIONS AND STRESS
“It was kind of a ‘no duh’ moment,” said Moyer, when he realized shelters were not very sheltering for felines. “Cats are different in so many physiological and medical ways. And yet we treat them like they’re small dogs.” Dogs love novelty, change of scenery, and, in most cases, car rides. “Cats – not so much,” he said. One of his more counterintuitive discoveries was that keeping the cages sparkling clean makes cats sicker. That’s because a cat will get comfort from anything familiar – even a piece of old newspaper covered in cat dander. When you remove what the cat considers its possessions, however meager, “cats will wig out,” he said. Disinfecting their cages with chemicals scares them even more by destroying any scent that has become familiar.
Cats also need more space than the same-size dogs, he said, and typical 2-foot-square cages force them to eat close to their litter boxes. That distresses them just as it would for people to eat in the bathroom. Stress makes cats sick by allowing latent viruses to emerge and spread, he said. Strays carry a number of pathogens, including herpes and calicivirus. And while these illnesses may not be deadly, cats that get ill in shelters are likelier to be euthanized.
“There’s no shortage of cats,” Moyer said. So there’s usually little hope for an asocial, frightened cat in a shelter, even though these animals might be capable of friendly, affectionate behavior under better conditions. Research is starting to back up the observations that cats need different conditions from dogs, said Julie Levy, a shelter specialist with the University of Florida School of Veterinary Medicine. “Every shelter in the United States was built around the concept that you can stuff a cat in a small cage,” she said. “It’s extremely stressful for the cats – they have no control.”
Luckily, cat shelter care is evolving fast, said Aime Berman, medical director for the Philadelphia SPCA. She said she was excited about a new set of guidelines laying out five “freedoms” that cats need to maintain emotional and physical health – including cage space and behavioral enrichment. One such tool she uses are special cat videos that show dogs, cockroaches, and other cats cavorting. The cats become more active after viewing them, she said. The downside is that abiding by these freedoms is expensive, considering how many people here abandon cats or fail to get them spayed or neutered.
More than 18,000 cats were taken into Philadelphia’s shelters during 2010, according to the SPCA’s website. Of those, only 103 were reunited with owners; 7,280 were euthanized; and 1,677 died or could not be accounted for. Only 3,583 were adopted. Moyer says he’s convinced that cats are better off avoiding shelters. He and others at the Penn vet school do the surgeries for programs that try to limit stray-cat populations by neutering or spaying them, and putting them back out on the streets. Such cats also get rabies shots. Several thousand Philadelphia strays are neutered or spayed every year by SPCA and other animal-welfare groups. Moyer said students at the Penn vet school were on track to do about 3,700 such surgeries this year, some of which are strays to be returned to the streets.
In the city, “cats can live a pretty respectable cat life,” he said. “We tend to think their lives must be nasty, brutish, and short, but they live about as long on average as house cats.” There’s often ample food among the rats, mice, pigeons, and Dumpsters. In more-suburban areas, however, stray and feral cats may create problems by eating songbirds. And unvaccinated strays can pick up rabies from raccoons or other wild animals. Florida’s Levy has done studies showing that so-called trap-neuter-return programs can control smaller populations. In one Florida study, such a program reduced a growing colony of 100 feral cats to just 10 geriatric cats. In Philly, however, there are hundreds of thousands of stray cats, and they may be multiplying faster than they can be trapped and neutered.
Levy sees the ultimate hope in nonsurgical contraception – maybe an injectable vaccine that cats could get, replacing the need for surgery. Some new research shows that cat fertility is curbed by a vaccine that was developed to control deer. When injected, she said, the vaccine blocks a hormone in the brain called GnRH – a kind of master switch behind the whole reproductive cycle. It works in males and females and also seems to make cats behave as if they were neutered. So the male cats are not compelled to fight or spray urine around.
Moyer said he didn’t want to take away from the hard work that’s done in shelters – much of it by volunteers. The problems faced by cats in shelters are caused, ultimately, by irresponsible people who fail to spay or neuter their pets or who get a pet without considering that it’s a years-long commitment.
SPECIAL NEEDS OF SENIOR CATS
Courtesy of Cornell Feline Health Center and the American Association of Feline Practitioners
Just as people are living longer than they did in the past, cats are living longer too. In fact, the percentage of cats over six years of age has nearly doubled in just over a decade, and there is every reason to expect that the “graying” cat population will continue to grow.
So how old is my cat, really?
Cats are individuals and, like people, they experience advancing years in their own unique ways. Many cats begin to encounter age-related physical changes between seven and ten years of age, and most do so by the time they are 12. The commonly held belief that every “cat year” is worth seven “human years” is not entirely accurate. In reality, a one-year-old cat is physiologically similar to a 16-year-old human, and a two-year-old cat is like a person of 21. For every year thereafter, each cat year is worth about four human years. Using this formula, a ten-year-old cat is similar age wise to a 53-year-old person, a 12-year-old cat to a 61-year-old person, and a 15-year-old cat to a person of 73.
Advancing age is not a disease
Aging is a natural process. Although many complex physical changes accompany advancing years, age in and of itself is not a disease. Even though many conditions that affect older cats are not correctable, they can often be controlled. The key to making sure your senior cat has the healthiest and highest quality of life possible is to recognize and reduce factors that may be health risks, detect disease as early as possible, correct or delay the progression of disease, and improve or maintain the health of the body’s systems.
What happens as my cat ages?
The aging process is accompanied by many physical and behavioral changes:
• Compared to younger cats, the immune system of older cats is less able to fend off foreign invaders. Chronic diseases often associated with aging can impair immune function even further.
• Dehydration, a consequence of many diseases common to older cats, further diminishes blood circulation and immunity.
• The skin of an older cat is thinner and less elastic, has reduced blood circulation, and is more prone to infection.
• Older cats groom themselves less effectively than do younger cats, sometimes resulting in hair matting, skin odor, and inflammation.
• The claws of aging felines are often overgrown, thick, and brittle.
• In humans, aging changes in the brain contribute to a loss of memory and alterations in personality commonly referred to as senility. Similar symptoms are seen in elderly cats: wandering, excessive meowing, apparent disorientation, and avoidance of social interaction.
• For various reasons, hearing loss is common in cats of advanced age.
• Aging is also accompanied by many changes in the eyes. A slight haziness of the lens and a lacy appearance to the iris (the colored part of the eye) are both common age-related changes, but neither seems to decrease a cat’s vision to any appreciable extent. However, several diseases—especially those associated with high blood pressure—can seriously and irreversibly impair a cat’s ability to see.
• Dental disease is extremely common in older cats and can hinder eating and cause significant pain.
• Although many different diseases can cause a loss of appetite, in healthy senior cats, a decreased sense of smell may be partially responsible for a loss of interest in eating. However, the discomfort associated with dental disease is a more likely cause of reluctance to eat.
• Feline kidneys undergo a number of age-related changes that may ultimately lead to impaired function; kidney failure is a common disease in older cats, and its symptoms are extremely varied.
• Degenerative joint disease, or arthritis, is common in older cats. Although most arthritic cats don’t become overtly lame, they may have difficulty gaining access to litter boxes and food and water dishes, particularly if they have to jump or climb stairs to get to them.
• Hyperthyroidism (often resulting in overactivity); hypertension (high blood pressure, usually a result of either kidney failure or hyperthyroidism), diabetes mellitus; inflammatory bowel disease; and cancer are all examples of conditions that, though sometimes seen in younger cats, become more prevalent in cats as they age.
Is my cat sick, or is it just old age?
Owners of older cats often notice changes in their cat’s behavior, but consider these changes an inevitable and untreatable result of aging, and fail to report them to their veterinarian. Failure to use the litter box, changes in activity levels, and alterations in eating, drinking, or sleeping habits are examples. While veterinarians believe that some behavior problems are due to the diminishing mental abilities of aging cats, it is a mistake to automatically attribute all such changes to old age. In fact, the possibility of some underlying medical condition should always be the first consideration. Disease of virtually any organ system, or any condition that causes pain or impairs mobility can contribute to changes in behavior. For example:
• A fearful cat may not become aggressive until it is in pain (e.g., from dental disease) or less mobile (e.g., from arthritis).
• The increased urine production that often results from diseases common to aging cats (e.g., kidney failure, diabetes mellitus, or hyperthyroidism) may cause the litter box to become soiled more quickly than expected. The increased soil and odor may cause cats to find a bathroom more to their liking.
• Many cats that do not mark their territory with urine, even if exposed to intruding cats, may begin to do so if a condition like hyperthyroidism develops.
• Cats with painful arthritis may have difficulty gaining access to a litter box, especially if negotiating stairs is required. Even climbing into the box may be painful for such cats; urinating or defecating in an inappropriate location is the natural result.
• Older cats may be more sensitive to changes in the household since their ability to adapt to unfamiliar situations diminishes with age.
The take-home message? Never assume that changes you see in your older cat are simply due to old age, and therefore untreatable. Any alteration in your cat’s behavior or physical condition should alert you to contact your veterinarian.
How can I help keep my senior cat healthy?
Close observation is one of the most important tools you have to help keep your senior cat healthy. You may wish to perform a mini-physical examination on a weekly basis. Ask your veterinarian to show you how to do it and what to look for. You will find it easier if you just make the examination an extension of the way you normally interact with your cat. For example, while you are rubbing your cat’s head or scratching its chin, gently raise the upper lips with your thumb or forefinger so you can examine the teeth and gums. In the same way, you can lift the ear flaps and examine the ear canals. While you are stroking your cat’s fur, you can check for abnormal lumps or bumps, and evaluate the health of the skin and coat.
Daily brushing or combing removes loose hairs, preventing them from being swallowed and forming hair balls. Brushing also stimulates blood circulation and sebaceous gland secretions, resulting in a healthier skin and coat. Older cats may not use scratching posts as frequently as they did when they were younger; therefore, nails should be checked weekly and trimmed if necessary.
Many cats tend towards obesity as they age. If your cat is overweight, you should ask your veterinarian to help you modify the diet so that a normal body condition can be restored. Other cats actually become too thin as they get older, apparently as part of the normal aging process. But progressive weight loss can also be caused by serious medical problems such as kidney failure, cancer, diabetes mellitus, inflammatory bowel disease, liver disease, hyperthyroidism, or some other condition. Subtle changes in weight are often the first sign of disease; ideally you should weigh your cat every month on a scale sensitive enough to detect such small changes. Keep a record of the weight, and notify your veterinarian of any significant changes. To ensure proper nutrition, select a nutritionally balanced and complete diet for your cat’s stage of life, and one that is formulated according to guidelines established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). Specific dietary changes may be necessary for cats with certain medical conditions. Your veterinarian can be of invaluable assistance in helping you select the most appropriate diet for your senior cat.
Exercise is important, not only for weight control but overall health. Older cats frequently become less agile as arthritis develops and muscles begin to atrophy. Regularly engaging your cat in moderate play can promote muscle tone and suppleness, increase blood circulation, and help reduce weight in cats that are too heavy. During times of exercise, be alert to labored breathing or rapid tiring that may suggest the cat has a disease. It may also be necessary to relocate litter boxes to more accessible locations to prevent elderly cats from eliminating in inappropriate locations. Purchasing a litter box with low sides, cutting down high sides, or constructing a ramp around the box may help older cats gain entry more easily.
Reducing environmental stress whenever possible is very important since older cats are usually less adaptable to change. Special provisions should be made for older cats that must be boarded for a period of time. Having a familiar object, such as a blanket or toy, may prevent the cat from becoming too distraught in a strange environment. A better alternative is to have the older cat cared for at home by a neighbor, friend, or relative. Introducing a new pet may be a traumatic experience for older cats, and should be avoided whenever possible. Moving to a new home can be equally stressful. However, some stress can be alleviated by giving the older cat more affection and attention during times of emotional upheaval.
Cats are experts at hiding illness, and elderly cats are no exception. It is common for a cat to have a serious medical problem, yet not show any sign of it until the condition is quite advanced. Since most diseases can be managed more successfully when detected and treated early in their course, it is important for owners of senior cats to carefully monitor their behavior and health.
If you can’t answer “yes” to all of the following statements, please call your veterinarian as soon as possible.
• is acting normally; seems active and in good spirits
• does not tire easily with moderate exercise
• does not have seizures or fainting episodes
• has a normal appetite
• has had no significant change in weight
• has a normal level of thirst and drinks the usual amount of water (about an ounce per pound of body weight per day, or less)
• does not vomit often
• does not regurgitate undigested food
• has no difficulty eating or swallowing
• has normal appearing bowel movements (formed and firm with no blood or mucus)
• defecates without difficulty
• urinates in normal amounts and with normal frequency; urine color is normal
• urinates without difficulty
• always uses a clean litter box
• has not developed any new offensive behavioral tendencies (such as aggression or urine spraying)
• has gums that are pink with no redness, swelling, or bleeding
• does not sneeze and has no nasal discharge
• has eyes that are bright, clear, and free of discharge
• has a coat that is full, glossy, and free of bald spots and mats; no excessive shedding is evident
• doesn’t scratch, lick, or chew excessively
• has skin that is not greasy and has no offensive odor
• is free of fleas, ticks, lice, and mites
• has no persistent abnormal swellings
• has no sores that do not heal
• has no bleeding or discharge from any body opening
• has ears that are clean and odor free
• doesn’t shake its head or scratch its ears
• hears normally and reacts as usual to its environment
• walks without stiffness, pain, or difficulty
• has feet that appear healthy, and has claws of normal length
• breathes normally without straining or coughing
How can my veterinarian help?
Just as your observations can help detect disease in the early stages, so too can regular veterinary examinations. Your veterinarian may suggest evaluating your healthy senior cat more frequently than a younger cat—for example, every six months instead of once a year. If your cat has a medical condition, more frequent evaluations may be necessary. During your cat’s examination, the veterinarian will gather a complete medical and behavioral history, perform a thorough physical examination in order to evaluate every organ system, check your cat’s weight and body condition, and compare them to previous evaluations. At least once a year, certain tests—including blood tests, fecal examination, and urine analysis—will be suggested. In this way, disorders can be found and treated early, and ongoing medical conditions can be appraised. Both are necessary to keep your senior cat in the best possible health for the longest possible time.
Valley Cats Inc.,
23705 Vanowen Street, Box 130
West Hills, CA 91307-3030
Tel: (818) 883-5252
Donations and volunteers are always needed to help us accomplish our mission of rescuing and finding homes for our cats and kittens. We appreciate anything you can offer. All donations go directly toward helping our rescued cats and kittens. We are a volunteer-based organization.