Written by Hazel King – Animal Behaviourist
You love your cat. So what do you do if you think it might not be well? Possibly an even more important question is – would you, or have you noticed that your cat is not in the best of health?
Taking the first question first – obviously the best thing to do if you think there might be something wrong with any animal in your care is to take appropriate action. Some things can be dealt with at home, e.g. a minor bout of vomiting may be treated by withholding food for a few hours, and then only feeding easily digestible food for a day. If it continues, or gets worse, consult a vet.
But what disturbs me is how frequently I’ve heard that people didn’t take their cat to see a vet because they were afraid of bad news. Well, actually, the bad news is that by not treating the condition when it first started, you (yes, you!) made it worse.
Yes, there are some conditions that are always going to be bad news, however quickly you act. But far more conditions are treatable, if they’re caught early. Not all are fatal, but leaving them untreated can condemn the cat to unnecessary discomfort or outright pain for years. And the treatment doesn’t have to be expensive.
The purpose of this article is to urge you to be aware of your cat’s health and to take action as soon as anything starts to go wrong – or before.
To illustrate my point, here are a few facts about diabetes:
- Diabetes in cats is not uncommon.
- If your cat develops insulin dependent diabetes, you’ll need to give it injections every day at the same time. Think of what this will do to your social life, among other things. Many diabetic cats are euthanised simply because of the logistics of treating them, not because the treatment itself is problematic.
- If diabetes is caught very early, the symptoms may even be reversible.
- Diabetes in cats has much the same causes as it does in humans, obesity being a major factor.
- Vets report that most of the pet cats they see are overweight.
- Obesity is a co-morbidity factor in many diseases (not just diabetes). This means that being fat contributed to the cat’s death.
There are two lessons to take out of the points above. Firstly, you need to feed your cat correctly to maintain optimum health. And secondly, if you suspect any kind of disorder, consult your vet immediately.
What do I mean by feeding correctly? This is a huge field, but I’ll try to be brief. Cats should be fed a sufficient quantity of a suitable food – just enough for its needs, not more. I’ve often gone into a home and seen a large bowl brimming with food for just one cat.
The cat can do one of two things – if it’s very bored, it may eat all of the food – a sure route to obesity and ill health. Or it will snack when it’s hungry, leaving the rest of the food to go stale. This food may then possibly be eaten by insects, rats (especially if it’s outside), or by neighbourhood cats who invade your cat’s territory. This invasion can cause all kinds of other problems. Not great.
Even worse is if you don’t take the old food away at least once a day and provide fresh food in a clean bowl. Eating due to boredom is, unfortunately, common. Many people have realised that allowing cats the freedom to roam is very dangerous, given our busy roads, and they keep their cats on their property. This is excellent, but, especially if it means that the cat spends most of its time indoors, you must find ways to replace the mental and physical activity that it has lost due to not roaming outdoors. One way of alleviating boredom and feeding issues is by using puzzle feeders.
A puzzle feeder is anything which means the cat has to work to get its food instead of just walking up to a bowl and eating. There are only two firm rules: Firstly, the food you use comes out of the cat’s daily ration (to prevent obesity). You could even completely replace your bowls with puzzle feeders. Secondly, you need to start with easy puzzles and work up to difficult ones, because a cat that doesn’t win won’t play.
Puzzle feeders force the cat to eat slowly, so that the same amount of food lasts longer. Having to get the food out of something makes the food more interesting and simulates hunting. This alleviates boredom. It can even help with behavioural problems.
If you ask Google, you’ll find lots of ideas for puzzle feeders, but my own favourite starter is an egg box. Yes, simply the cardboard box in which you buy six eggs at the supermarket. Put a few bits of dry food where the eggs would normally go, put the box on the floor, and let your cat work out how to get the food out.
Show him what you are doing, but don’t help him to get the food – it’s good for his mental health to work on problems like this. Once he knows how to get the food out, just flip the lid over so that it’s closed but not fastened. And when he’s worked that out, close the box with the little tabs. Just one thing before you start: make sure that holes in the box are large enough for the food to fall out fairly easily.
Another way that cats are overfed is rewards. People often think of food as a reward or a way of showing their love, but there are many other things you can use. One of my own cats, for example, is completely unmoved by food but loves to be brushed. We have wonderful bonding sessions whilst eliminating fur balls. Find that special scratch or game that your cat loves, and use that as a reward.
As far as “suitable” food is concerned, I’d like to go back to the second question in my opening paragraph. Would you notice if your cat isn’t in the best of health? We all know that cats are predators, but they’re small enough to also be prey animals. A characteristic of prey animals is that they tend to hide signs of a health problem, because they feel vulnerable. That means that you need to know what is normal for your cat, and be aware of anything out of the ordinary.
One thing that is a sign of several health problems is drinking more water, and passing more urine. This is why I personally have always been happy to clean litter trays several times a day. In animal husbandry, what comes out is as important as what goes in, and if your cat uses the garden, you may miss important signs of a developing disorder.
One of these disorders, which is very common in cats, is kidney failure. And that brings us back to suitable feeding. Kidney failure cannot be cured, but it can be managed. A cat with kidney failure can suffer considerable discomfort, nausea, etc. But with appropriate care the cat can live comfortably for years. You need to consult your vet to get the correct diagnosis and advice on treatment and maintenance. This advice will probably include feeding the appropriate kidney support diet.
Did you know that the first prescription diet was developed to support a guide dog in kidney failure?
All those “expensive” special foods are not just there to separate you from your money. They are carefully researched and developed, and they do work. They’re not as expensive as you might think, because you generally need to feed less than you would with cheap food. And they can save on vet bills by promoting better health.
Give your kitten the best possible start in life by feeding a veterinary-recommended kitten food. Switch to a quality maintenance food when the young cat turns one year old. Prevent tooth decay by feeding oral support food. And ease your elderly cat’s later years with the appropriate prescription diets.
As I write this, my 11-year-old Burmese is hurtling about the house like a kitten. Not very long ago, I realised that I hadn’t seen her in a tree or jumping onto high things for a while. Yes, we all stiffen up a bit as we age, and arthritis is as painful for cats as it is for humans, but she’s made it clear that you don’t have to suffer if you eat a joint support diet.
To conclude, possibly the best way to show that you love your cat is to feed for optimal health. Be involved with the cat so that you notice anything that may be going wrong.
And take early action to treat any such problems.