Monday, August 8, 2011

Does An Apple a Day Keep the Veterinarian Away? - Feline Health Myths, Part 1

Historically, cats have been the subject of a variety of myths, both positive and negative, so it comes as no surprise that their health is a subject of myth as well.

Cats should drink milk.
Small kitten drinking milk
Some cats don't tolerate milk, some do
Reality: While most cats do love dairy products, most cats are lactose-intolerant because they lack the certain enzyme needed to digest it. Too much milk in your cat's diet can actually cause vomiting. In the wild, cat species do drink their mother's milk until they are weaned - around 6-8 weeks of age - and then never touch a drop of milk again. This myth likely started because farmers would put out saucers of milk for young kittens as they transitioned from a milk-only diet to a diet of barn rats and mice - a diet that is a bit rougher of a transition than to that of the highly palatable and readily available commercial diets of today's typical indoor kitty.

Spaying or neutering a cat will cause it to gain weight.
Reality: When spaying or neutering occurs around 6 months of age, it coincides with a cat's natural decrease in metabolism. This is the time that cat owners should switch from kitten food to a quality adult food. Making sure that your cat is balancing dry food with 3-6oz daily canned food will help with weight control, as canned food contains about 80% water. Your cat will feel full while taking in fewer calories than if she were eating a dry-food-only diet of highly concentrated calories. Think about it this way: eating a bowl of salad or hearty soup is often more filling than an calorie-equivalent serving of potato chips or cookies.

The other factor in feline weight gain is usually inactivity. As a cat matures, he tends to play less frequently and less vigorously - possibly as much due to how we interact with our cats as due to their age. We must often come up with ways to keep our mature cats active and interested in activity, such as food puzzles, scheduled "play times", and training sessions with a portion of the daily kibble as a reward. Yes, you can teach an old cat new tricks!

Pregnant women should not own cats.
Reality: It is true that some cats are infected with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii which can cause a disease called toxoplasmosis. It is possible for this disease to be contracted through the cleaning of the litterbox. However, this disease can also be contracted through the eating of undercooked meat (50% of cases), eating unwashed produce or through gardening without gloves, so cats are not the only culprit.

Instead of thinking of re-homing your cat, have other people empty the litter box daily. Toxoplasma oocysts (eggs) aren't infectious for the first 24 hours after they're excreted, so daily cleaning (which your cat prefers, anyway) will decrease the risk of tranmission even further.If no one else can clean the litter, wear gloves and a mask to clean and wash your hands thoroughly afterwards. Don't plan to get a kitten while pregnant, and try to limit your cat's hunting. If you feed a raw diet, it would be best to discontinue doing so while pregnant, both to decrease the risk to your cat, and also to limit the handling of raw meat while pregnant.

Cats are nocturnal.

Cat eyes shining in the dark
Glowing tapetum lucidum
Reality: While cats can see in 1/6th the light that humans can, making it appear that they can see in total darkness, they do need some light to see. The tapetum lucidum ("bright tapestry") is a shiny cover across the back of the retina that helps reflect and enhance ambient light, which increases the cat's ability to see in low light. It is also what makes cats' eyes "glow" in the dark, or in flash photography.  In actuality, most cats are highly active in the early morning and early evening, making them "crepuscular" animals rather than "nocturnal".

Garlic is a good, natural flea repellant for my cat.
Reality:  Whether or not garlic is a good flea repellant, all members of the genus Allium (onion, garlic, leek, chives, shallots, and scallions) can be poisonous to both dogs and cats. Toxicity can cause damage to the red blood cells (RBC), resulting in Heinz body anemia. In particular, cats are 2 to 3 times more susceptible to RBC damage from these components than other species. While specific studies have not been done with garlic as to the safe levels of ingestions, acute onion toxicosis occurs in animals that eat more than 0.5% of their body weight at one time (less than 2 Tbsp. for a 10lb. cat). However, smaller doses given regularly over a period of time will cause the same problem.

Dietary ash and magnesium are what cause feline urinary crystals.
Struvite crystals in urine
Struvite crystals in urine
Reality: While this was thought to be the main cause of crystals in the urine ("crystalluria") in the past, many pet food manufacturers responded to these concerns by decreasing the amount of ash (and phosphorous) and magnesium in their diets. What we know now is that maintaining a more dilute urine and more neutral pH by feeding primarily canned foods is the best way to prevent cats from developing urinary crystals. In addition, thoughtful litterbox husbandry - making sure the litterbox is a pleasant place for your cat so that he visits regularly to empty his bladder instead of holding his urine, and providing sufficient quantities of fresh water and encouraging your cat to drink by adding ice cubes or providing a pet fountain will help as well.

There are many more myths out there, so stay tuned for Part Two! Are there any myths you have heard that you want us to address?