Friday, September 30, 2011

Does your kitty have cabin fever?

Have you ever been jealous of a friend or neighbor who has a well-trained dog that will walk on a leash, come when he’s called and sit up on command? Believe it or not, many cats are just as trainable with the clicker training method, and tasty treats. Not only will you wow your family with your savvy cat, but you will also be providing daily enrichment for your cat.

Kaiser is a Bengal who knows 51 tricks.

Cats are very smart – they find lots of ways to entertain themselves all on their own. A cat may spend 14-15 hours a day resting or sleeping in the wild, but they also spend about 5 hours hunting and traveling from place to place*. This hunting behavior is mental stimulation and exercise. Many indoor cats are unable to provide this much entertainment for themselves daily. To prevent behavior problems, and to burn excess calories, you can provide 5-10 minutes of exercise once to twice daily, or alternate with a 10-15 minute training session.

A brown tabby cat with a mouse toy
A mouse toy
How do you play with your cat? The best cat toys are ones that are interactive. While jingle bells are great dual-purpose toys that can be tossed for a cat (and maybe even be used to train your cat to fetch) or that the cat can bat independently, most cats need a variety of toys to keep them entertained. Too many similar toys can cause a cat to become bored. Not all cats will like every type of toy, however. Some cats prefer toys that simulate birds (feather wands, chirping toys, suspended toys), some prefer toys that mimic rodents (stuffed toys, balls and mouse-shaped toys) and some prefer toys that simulate crawling bugs (laser pointers, knotted strings) Sometimes it takes some trial and error to find out what your cats like. A variety of ball-type toys of different textures, a laser pointer, toys on the ends of rods or wires, food puzzles, and even a bird feeder near a cat-friendly window or a fascinating fish tank are some of the types of toys and entertainment that cats love. Even with a variety of toys available, it is usually a good idea to put some toys away for a while from time to time and then rotate them with the toys your cat is currently playing with. Older toys will develop novel appeal when the cat has not seen them for a while.

A black and white kitten with a ball or "bug" toy
A bug toy
Toy reviews
How to choose a toy
Matching toys to your cat’s personality
Great cat toys don’t have to cost a lot of money, either. Here are some sites with some creative DIY toys.
Homemade food puzzles
A huge list of creative homemade toys

As for training, cats respond very well to food rewards, which is part of the clicker training method. Basically, you make a sound and associate it with a food reward. Once your kitty figures out that the sound equals food, they are yours to command! You can use this method to train your cat to sit, come, beg, high five, shake, turn off lights, and even complex activities such as navigating an agility course with tunnels, hoops and see-saws.
One thing to keep in mind when planning training sessions is how many treats you give during the session. Treats should make up no more than 10-15% of your cat’s daily intake. If you find yourself using too many treats during training sessions, you can always take a portion of your cat’s daily diet and use that as a reward, remembering to decrease the amount of food offered at mealtime. You can also break treats into small pieces – after all, to a cat a tiny ant is considered a delicious snack!

An orange tabby kitten with a feathery "bird" toy
A bird toy
While it is not a good idea to deprive your cat of food simply for training purposes, many cats will respond better to training sessions just before meal time – this only works, however, if your cat is on a meal-fed schedule versus having food available free choice. If your cat has food available all day long, try to keep an eye out for the times your cat visits the bowl regularly and try to plan your training sessions near that time. Cats are creatures of habit, so it isn’t usually too difficult to figure out their routine. If you can’t figure out your cat’s schedule, then just make sure you have a fabulous treat available that your cat will love.
High-energy play sessions and rewarding training sessions will build on your relationship with your cat as well as helping to keep your cat physically and mentally alert and engaged.

Ohio State University’s Indoor Pet Initiative
FabCats, a UK site about environmental enrichment for indoor cats
How to address the different activity needs of cats
A scholarly article from the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery with recommendations for environmental enrichment, and dealing with frustrated and anxious or fearful cats
Two articles about feline clicker training strategies
Clicker training your cat
Can you train your cat?

*For those of you who noticed that doesn’t add up to 24 hours, most of the rest of the day is spent grooming, and about 40 minutes a day is spent eating. Shop for cat toys at our Amazon Affiliate Store:

Friday, September 23, 2011

I found a....feral? Stray? Does it matter?

A grumpy-looking feral tomcat

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.
Mark Twain 

On September 19th, we had three cats brought into the hospital for exam that were “found cats”. Some found cats are strays and some are ferals. How do you know what the difference is?

A feral cat is a cat that was born or grew up in the wild and is unfamiliar with human contact. These cats do not seek out human companionship, and often will hiss, growl or attempt to escape from human advances, no matter how friendly. Feral cats are often un-neutered, or bear scars from fighting or frostbite.

Three stray cats being fed by an elderly woman
These cats are unlikely to be feral.

On the other hand, a stray is a cat that is tame, or only slightly shy when exposed to people. They are often cats who have become lost or who have been abandoned from their homes. Many stray cats are neutered or front declawed. They often make homes near humans – under porches, in garages, or in backyards, and are often reliant upon humans for food. They may come beg at your doorway or seek you out when you are outside.

If you see or trap a cat in your yard, Alley Cat Allies has a great comparison chart with visuals to help you determine if you are encountering a feral cat or a stray.

Both feral and stray cats do have the potential to trust humans and become good companions, but it is much harder to acclimate feral cats to humans. Generally the best time to tame feral cats is when they are kittens younger than 12 weeks of age. After that, it becomes increasingly difficult to tame them, and there are some feral cats that will never become socialized well-enough to bring indoors.

A large number of feral tabby cats
Cats in a feral colony

It is estimated that there are more than 60 million feral cats in the U.S. and additional lost or abandoned stray cats. There are probably feral cats living in your neighborhood that you never see! Since cats are only asocial, not antisocial (they don’t hate living in groups, but they don’t require social groups to survive and can live on their own, if needed), feral and stray cats often form loose social groups called colonies near food sources such as dumpsters or areas where there are large numbers of prey. Feral cats maintain a territory of up to several acres, and their hunting grounds may intersect with various other stray and feral cats. Un-neutered cats within the colony will breed and produce more feral cats – each female has an average of 1.4 litters per year with an average of 3.5 kittens per litter. This is why when a person with good intentions starts feeding a stray or feral cat in their backyard, they soon find that there are quite a large number of cats suddenly coming to eat!

A wild-born cat has an average lifespan of only 4-5 years, but may occasionally live to be up to 8 years of age. An indoor cat that is released into the wild will often survive a much shorter amount of time due to a lack of crucial survival skill development that feral cats learn from their mothers in the wild. In contrast, indoor cats live an average of 12-16 years, but can occasionally live into their mid-twenties with good preventive health care.
If you have a new cat that is visiting your house, it could be a:
  • Feral cat
  • Stray with feral tendencies
  • Lost pet or indoor/outdoor pet
  • Neglected cat owned by people who just don’t care.
A feral gray tabby cat that has been ear-tipped
This feral cat has been ear-tipped.

To keep feral populations down, it is recommended that stray cats be caught and fostered until the owner can be found, or photographed and posted as a lost pet in local neighborhoods and businesses. Feral cats that would not make good pets can be caught, tested for Feline Leukemia and FIV and then neutered so that they cannot reproduce (called a “Trap/Neuter/Release”). Often these cats are ear-tipped so that they are not caught and taken in for surgery on a repeated basis. If the cat you are seeing has a tipped ear (about ¼ of the left ear is removed), it is because someone has neutered and released this cat at some point in its life.
If you are having a problem with feral cats, there are resources online that can help you humanely deter and control feral cats that are causing problems.

Indy Feral Incorporated nuisance prevention tips Indy Feral Inc. is a charitable organization operating in Marion County Indiana that has sterilized 22,329 feral cats since 2002 and found homes for 2,717 friendly cats/kittens removed from colonies. This year alone, they have spayed or neutered 895 cats (January through September 2011). That gives a small picture of just how big the feral cat population is in the U.S.!

Alley Cat Allies brochure on deterring feral cats  Alley Cat Allies is a non-profit organization based out of Bethesda, MD which has resources on becoming a rescuer of feral cats, or manager of a feral colony, including traps and information on raising feral kittens.

Last but not least, the ASPCA has compiled a good resource of feral cat information, including suggestions on how to socialize feral kittens.
And of course, if you have questions about a cat in your area - what to do with it, how to catch it, or other concerns, our staff would be happy to help answer your questions as well!

Oh, and the three we saw on the 19th? All three were strays. None of them were microchipped.

One was kept by the family that found him. We neutered him, treated him for fleas and worms, combed out his mats (he is a Persian mix, but due to the fleas, only had a mohawk of hair down his spine, and no hair on his tail!) and examined some healing wounds on his side.

Another went to Backdoor Friends Purebred Cat Rescue. He was  already neutered and front declawed and a purebred shaded-silver Persian.

The third cat went home with the family that found him while they decided what to do with him because he was FIV positive (deciding between keeping him and taking him to a sanctuary for FIV positive cats). We neutered him, extracted a painful, infected, broken canine tooth and treated him for worms. He subsequently escaped back outside and is a stray again - but this time, someone is out there looking for him, hoping to bring him home.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Does An Apple a Day Keep the Veterinarian Away? - Feline Health Myths, Part 5

Myth: Cats lose weight because they are old.

A thin cat with poor hair coat associated with poor diet
Unhealthy weight loss is often accompanied with a change in hair coat.
Reality: This is a great myth to talk about right now, since September is Senior Cat Month!  It is generally true that older cats will lose weight, but old age is not a cause of weight loss. Cats don’t diet, so your obese cat is not likely losing weight because he didn’t like his silhouette in the mirror. If you look more closely at these older cats that are losing weight, some may be eating normally, some may be eating less, and some may be ravenous! 

The older cat that is eating normally or less than usual: Is your cat drinking more water than usual? Are you noticing larger clumps of urine in your litterboxes when you scoop? Your cat may be showing signs of kidney disease.

Is he no longer jumping up on the counters like he used to? Do stairs seem to intimidate him? If so, then your cat may be suffering from arthritis, or may be experiencing some changes to his vision. His food may be in an area where he can no longer easily access it.

Does he drool? Or does his breath smell bad? Many cats seem to ignore extremely painful dental disease, but others will decide not to eat as much food if their teeth are painful.

Are there no other signs besides weight loss? Or maybe your cat’s stools are less than ideal – runny or malodorous? It is possible that your cat has chronic inflammation in the intestinal tract, or lymphoma, which is a cancer that attacks the intestinal tract.

A cat eating dry kibbleThe older cat that is ravenous and/or vomiting: If your cat is vomiting more than usual or ravenously hungry, it can be a sign of hyperthyroidism. The thyroid gland is located in the neck region and can become overactive as cats age. The gland may grow in size, too, and can sometimes be felt by running a finger over the underside of the neck. This has effects on the metabolism, heart rate and energy level of a cat, generally speeding things up. This gives them less time to digest their food, which can cause runny stools. The changes to the heart can cause high blood pressure and can cause damage to the heart muscle itself. A high energy level may make your cat seem kittenish again, but may also cause him to keep you up at night with inappropriate yowling or high activity levels. Thyroid problems can also cause increased thirst and urination which can mask kidney damage. Fortunately, hyperthyroidism is very treatable – but the sooner it is treated, the less lasting damage is done to the body.
Another reason your cat may be ravenous or eating normally but losing weight may be diabetes. Often diabetic cats will drink more and urinate more than normal. They eat a lot because their bodies cannot use the sugar (glucose) that is in their food to make energy. Instead, the sugar is circulated in the blood and then eliminated in the urine. In order to make energy, the body starts to use another method to produce energy, which can result in muscle loss and a severe medical condition called ketoacidosis.

A large, obese orange tabby cat showing his belly
A word about healthy weight loss in obese cats:
It is a good idea to encourage weight loss in overweight senior cats, to avoid problems such as arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, or other heart and respiratory complications.

Just like with humans, there is no easy quick weight-loss miracle - getting a cat to lose weight in a healthy way takes time, and a combination of diet and exercise. An overweight cat on a weight loss plan should not lose more than half a pound in four weeks. 

One pound of weight loss may not seem like much, but for a 10 pound cat, it is 10% of its body mass - that's equivalent to 15 lbs. in a 150lb. human.  

The American Veterinary Medical Association recommends wellness exams every 6 months in senior cats because they age much more quickly than humans do. If you have noticed that your cat is losing weight or if it has been more than 6 months since your senior kitty’s last exam, it might be time to schedule a checkup!