February is National Cat Health Month!
According to figures on the ASPCA's website, there are an estimated 74-96 million owned cats in the United States. We won't get into a debate over that fairly wide margin, or over just who "owns" whom when it comes to cats. Suffice to say that a lot of us share our homes with one or more feline companions!
However, these cats visit their veterinarians far less often than do our canine companions. Here are the top reasons cats make a trip to the vet, according to VPI Pet Insurance:
- Renal (kidney) failure
- Bladder infection
- Stomach upsets
- Ear infection
- Tooth infection
Now, these are likely based on the claims this insurance company has received, but it's interesting that a wellness check is not anywhere on that list! Many of the conditions listed above cost a lot to treat. How many of them could have been prevented, or their severity lessened, with proper wellness maintenance?
So why aren't we taking our cats to the vet for checkups? Many people say it's too stressful for the cat, it's too hard to get them into their carriers. More often, it's because they have the mistaken idea that cats are somehow self-maintaining and don't need veterinary care.
It's true that cats mask the symptoms of illness until they are quite seriously ill; this is a survival trait that harkens back to their wild roots. And if they "seem fine" we want to think they are. Perhaps in our busy lives, we're just not paying enough attention to early symptoms of health issues in our cats. And we don't want to be on the other end of the spectrum, grabbing up our kitties and running to the vet for the least little thing...do we?
Cats should be seen at least annually by their veterinarians. This gives you a chance to make sure your cat's vaccinations are up to date and that you have proper flea prevention for your cat's age and weight. Older cats and those with existing health issues need to go more frequently. We should also be doing monthly health checks at home, which can be incorporated into a loving cuddle session. An added bonus: the more our cats get used to being handled and checked over by us at home, the more comfortable they'll be when the vet does similar things in the office!
Checking Kitty's Health at Home
While petting your cat, notice the condition of the skin and coat. Is it sleek and shiny? A dull coat could indicate a lack of essential fatty acids in kitty's diet. Geriatric cats will get a "greasy" appearance to their coats because they don't groom as thoroughly as when they were younger. Bald patches in the cat's coat could mean a flea infestation or an allergic reaction to something in the diet or environment. Some cats will also lick bald patches in their coats due to stress.
Continue petting as you discretely check the condition of your cat's body. Look down at the cat from above while he's standing. Are there any bones showing? If so, your cat is underweight. Does kitty have a sculpted "waist" or does the silhouette bulge with obesity? Can you feel the ribs with your fingers while your thumbs are along the cat's spine? Good; that's a healthy weight! You can also check for dehydration by pulling up a section of skin along the cat's spine area to see if it springs back into place immediately. If not, find out why your cat isn't drinking enough water.
Examine your cat's paw pads and claws. Acclimating kitty to having the paws handled is very important. You should be trimming your cat's claws every few weeks to keep them from getting too sharp and growing down into the pads. This is much easier if your cat doesn't mind having the feet manipulated. You should be able to hold each paw gently, pushing out the claw to check on its condition and length. Swollen pads could be indicative of pillow foot, or could mean an injury.
Look into your cat's eyes. Are they clear? Any redness or swelling may indicate an injury or infection. Most cats will produce tears or a discharge from their eyes due to a piece of dust or hair getting into it, but if there's a more serious looking discharge or crusting, it could indicate a health problem. Some cats get a brownish stain from yeast around the eyes, and there are products to treat this. But an underlying health issue should be ruled out by a veterinarian.
While you're smooching on kitty's face, take a look at the nose. This is a common area for cancerous lesions to show up. Just like our own noses, it's more exposed to the sun. Unusual bumps that didn't used to be there could be serious. Ginger kitties may develop black freckles there, which are okay as long as they're flush with the skin and not sticking up. And cats are more sensitive to environmental pollutants, so if you live in a dusty environment or you smoke, consider getting an air filter for the areas where your cat spends a lot of time.
Examine your cat's ears, both inside and out. Look for any injuries or bleeding, wax buildup, dirt or other foreign debris. Dirty ears may actually be a sign of ear mites, which can get out of hand quickly if not treated. Cats are usually good about cleaning their ears, especially if they have mutual grooming sessions with their companions. They tend to like the taste of ear wax...likely part of God's purpose for this is so they'd keep their ears clean! Older cats or those with an injury that restricts their access to their ears may need help. There are products to help you keep your cat's ears clean, if you need them.
Most cats are a little funny about having their mouth examined, but they'll get used to it the more you do it. If you can, get them accustomed to having their teeth brushed daily. This will not only keep their teeth and gums healthier, but also make things easier when it's time to examine kitty's mouth more thoroughly. This is another place where cancerous lesions can be noticed, so pay attention to any new lumps, lesions, or sore places. Gums should be a healthy pink, not red, and should not be bleeding or swollen. The teeth should be clean and white, not covered with tartar.
Something we can forget when checking kitty's mouth is to examine the lips and chin. Ginger kitties can get black freckles on their lips and chins just like on their noses, but sometimes these can become skin cancers. So keep an eye on them. Cats can develop a condition called rodent ulcer on the chin; it's usually not serious, but should be diagnosed by a vet to make sure it's not something else. Feline acne can also develop there if you're feeding your cats from a plastic dish or not keeping it clean enough.
Listen to your kitty's breathing. You don't need a stethoscope to do this, just notice if it's regular and unlabored. Cats typically breathe faster than we do, especially if they've been playing. But any wheezing or panting may be indicative of a respiratory problem. There are many things that can cause a feline upper respiratory infection, and a vet's diagnosis should be obtained.
While playing with your cat, observe how kitty moves. Is anything different from usual? Is the cat favoring a particular paw, or walking painfully from arthritis? Cats that appear dizzy may seem amusing to some, but there's nothing funny about it. Such behavior could be indicative of a serious condition that warrants examination by a veterinarian.
Any changes in your cat's eating habits may also be cause for concern. Cats who don't feel well will not eat properly. While all of them can be a little finicky at times, observe your cat's behavior if she's off her food to see if other symptoms may indicate that a trip to the vet is in order.
You don't have to do all of these checks at once, but try to work at least one of them in while loving on your cat. Do a different one every few days, and you've got a monthly health check done!
Next up: We'll look at what should be included in an annual veterinary exam for a cat.