Choosing and Caring for Your New Cat
In choosing a new kitten or cat, you should be careful to look for several things that indicate good health and temperament. First of all, the cat should have clear, bright eyes with little or no tearing, and the nostrils should be clean. Runny eyes, sneezing, or a nasal discharge can indicate a respiratory infection. The inside of the ears should be clean and free of any discharge. A black, tar-like discharge in the ear canal usually indicates an ear-mite infestation, while a pus-like discharge is often seen if there is a bacterial or yeast infection. The mouth and gums should be pink, with no evidence of ulcers or sores. The coat should be glossy, and there should be no bare spots, dry skin, dandruff, or any evidence of external parasites. The cat should not be too thin or have a protruding belly, since either condition can indicate the presence of internal parasites or some other medical disorder. If possible, make sure the cat has normal, well-formed feces.
The cat or kitten should be friendly and comfortable with people. A physically sound individual is active, bright, responsive, rambunctious, and eager to join in play. Beware of a cat that frequently runs and hides or sleeps more than normal.
Once a kitten has been weaned from its mother (usually at about 8 weeks of age), it is ready for adoption. Before accepting the new cat, a prospective owner should ask questions about vaccinations, nutrition, parasite control, and grooming.
Cats and kittens need to be protected from deadly infectious feline diseases. If you acquire a new kitten, it is important to find out what vaccinations it has received and at what age. If you obtain an adult cat, you should inquire as to when it had its last booster vaccinations.
A kitten usually will receive a series of two to four vaccinations. The actual number varies depending on a number of variables, including the type of vaccine, the kitten's age at the first visit, whether its mother was vaccinated, and its risk of exposure.
Feline panleukopenia (also called feline distemper) is a highly contagious and deadly viral disease of cats. Until recent years, panleukopenia was the most serious infectious disease of cats, claiming the lives of thousands every year. Thanks to the highly effective vaccines currently available, panleukopenia is now considered to be an uncommon disease. However, because of the serious nature of the disease and the continued presence of virus in the environment, vaccination is highly recommended for all cats.
Feline calicivirus (FCV) and feline herpesvirus type 1 (FHV-1) are responsible for 80-90% of infectious feline upper respiratory tract diseases. Most cats are exposed to either or both of these viruses at some time in their lives. Once infected, many cats never completely rid themselves of virus. These "carrier" cats either continuously or intermittently shed the organisms for long periods of timeperhaps for lifeand serve as a major source of infection to other cats. The currently available vaccines will minimize the severity of upper respiratory infections, although none will prevent disease in all situations. Vaccination is highly recommended for all cats.
In general, the first vaccinations to protect against panleukopenia and diseases caused by FCV and FHV-1 are given at six to eight weeks of age. Occasionally veterinarians will begin vaccination at an earlier age depending on the kitten's risk of exposure and amount of protection received from the mother. The vaccines are then "boosted" at three- to four-week intervals until the kitten is between twelve and sixteen weeks of age. Following this initial vaccination series, boosters will be given regularly to keep the cat protected.
Your cat should be vaccinated against rabies. The vaccine should be given at twelve weeks-of-age, then one year later. Thereafter, the vaccine should be given every one to three years, depending upon the vaccine type and local rabies vaccination requirements.
Feline pneumonitis, caused by a Chlamydia organism, is a mild to severe respiratory and eye disease. Chlamydia vaccines are available, often in combination with other vaccines. Although vaccination does not provide complete protection, it will reduce the severity of the disease.
Vaccines can help protect your cat against the feline leukemia virus (FeLV) infection. Ideally, the cat should be tested prior to vaccination, since the vaccine will offer no protection to individuals already infected with the virus. FeLV vaccines should be given twice at three- to four-week intervals; kittens can begin the series when between eight and twelve weeks-of-age. Afterwards, your cat should receive regular re-vaccinations ("booster" vaccinations) against FeLV. Since FeLV vaccines will not protect all cats, your veterinarians will discuss additional ways to help prevent infection.
Feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) is caused by a coronavirus. The currently-available FIP vaccine is administered intranasally to cats at 16 weeks of age, with a booster in three to four weeks, and then yearly. Cats in multiple cat facilities have a much greater risk of developing FIP than most household cats. If used appropriately and in conjunction with proper management, the vaccine has been found helpful in reducing the incidence of FIP in certain multiple cat environments. If your cat resides in a high-risk environment, you should discuss the vaccine with your veterinarian. (For more detailed information about vaccination, see Feline Vaccines: Benefits and Risks.)
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What to feed, how much to feed, and how often to feed are common concerns of first-time cat owners. First, you should find out what the new cat has been eating. Even if you don't expect to stay with that diet, you should continue feeding it some of its old food as you gradually switch it to the new. Whether you feed dry, canned, or semimoist food, be sure to purchase a product that meets the standards established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), preferably by animal-feeding trials.
Never give more than 5 to 10 percent of the cat's diet in the form of table scraps. Remember that raw meat may be a source of parasites and bacteria. If you feed a diet that meets the AAFCO standards you can be assured your cat is receiving an adequate supply of vitamins and minerals in the diet. Therefore, the use of vitamin and mineral supplements is unnecessary. In fact, the addition of a supplement without a veterinarian's approval may actually harm your cat. (For more detailed information on nutrition, see Feeding Your Cat.)
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Parasites that infect the intestinal tract of cats can be worm-like organisms (e.g., roundworms, hookworms or tapeworms) or microscopic organisms called protozoa (e.g., Isospora, Toxoplasma, Giardia) Most intestinal parasites deprive the infected cat of important nutrition, causing weakness and susceptibility to viral or bacterial infections. Although initially infecting the intestinal tract, Toxoplasma organisms usually cause disease in other parts of the body. Therefore, keeping your cat free of parasites is important for its long-term health.
Intestinal parasites can usually be diagnosed when your veterinarian analyzes a fecal sample. Occasionally, an owner may see an intestinal parasite in vomit or in feces that resembles a white, threadlike worm, or the parasite may resemble a rice grain near the cat's tail. If your cat is infected, proper medication should be obtained from your veterinarian. A fecal sample should be checked after treatment to ensure that the parasites have been eliminated. Because some intestinal parasites can also cause disease in human beings, have your cat checked at least annually for intestinal parasites. (For more detailed information, see Gastrointestinal Parasites of Cats and Toxoplasmosis.)
Heartworm disease is often thought of as a problem in dogs only, but the internal parasite, Dirofilaria immitis, can infect cats as well. If you reside in an area where dogs are infected, cats living in the area are at risk of infection too. Dirofilaria immitis is carried by mosquitoes, so both indoor and outdoor cats are at risk. Although infection can be serious or even deadly, it is easily avoided by monthly administration of preventative medication.
External parasites that infest cats include a variety of small to microscopic insects and arachnids that derive their nutrients from the cat's blood, tissue fluids, or skin cells. Fleas, ticks, lice, fly larvae and mites are external parasites that can be a source of much irritation to a cat. External parasites cause the most common skin disorders of cats and help transmit other diseases (e.g., bubonic plague, hemobartonella, Lyme disease, and perhaps cat-scratch disease). Common signs of external parasitism include intense itching, red crusty lesions or scaly skin. Your veterinarian can provide effective treatments and control methods for most feline external parasites.
Fleas, the most common external parasite of cats, are wingless, brownish insects that are powerful jumpers. Although fleas are small, they are visible to the naked eye. Adult fleas suck blood from the cat, so a heavy infestation can cause anemia, especially in young kittens. A condition called flea-bite hypersensitivity, the most common allergic skin disease of cats, affects individuals that are allergic to the flea's saliva.
There are many safe and effective flea-control products currently available on the market, but the most effective flea control strategies require simultaneous treatment of both the cat and its environment. Make sure that any insecticides used (e.g., sprays, dips, or powders) are safe for use on cats, because many flea products formulated for dogs can be very toxic to cats. Some insecticidal products cannot be used on kittens less than two to three months of age. Also, it's best not to use insecticides from the same class (e.g. organophosphates) in different forms on the cat or in the environment for fear of cumulative toxic effects.
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General Grooming Hints
Grooming is much easier if you begin the procedure when your cat is still young. This way, the cat will grow to accept grooming as a pleasant routine rather than as a desperation-based chore. A good brush or a steel comb is a necessity for any cat owner. By brushing or combing your cat regularly, you can keep its hair coat clean, shiny, and sleek. Any loose fur removed during grooming will not wind up on the furniture, and your cat will have fewer problems with fur accumulating in the gastrointestinal tract. An extra benefit is that by regularly grooming your cat, you have an opportunity to examine the skin for parasites or disease.
A second necessity for any cat owner is a good set of nail clippers. Trimming the nails regularly reduces the likelihood of damage caused by sharp claws, and lessens the possibility of a nail growing into the foot pad and causing infection. Again, if you start the routine when the cat is young, you will find the task easier as it gets older. Ask your veterinarian for a lesson on how to trim your cat's claws.
Spaying or Neutering
Traditionally, cats have been spayed or neutered at six months of age or older. However, many veterinarians recommend performing the procedure at an earlier age to further insure against unwanted pregnancies.
Spaying (ovariohysterectomy) is the surgical removal of the female reproductive organs (ovaries, oviducts, uterus). It is a recommended procedure for all female cats that will not be used in a breeding program. The removal of the reproductive organs eliminates the behaviors associated with the heat (estrus) cycle (i.e., kneading, howling, restlessness); greatly reduces the incidence of mammary cancer; and helps to decrease overpopulation.
Neutering (castration) is the surgical removal of parts of the male reproductive organs (testes, epididymis, parts of the vas deferens). The benefits, besides preventing impregnation of a female cat, include the reduction of excessive aggressiveness, urine spraying, and the pungent odor of intact-male urine.
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In Sickness and in Health
A sick animal often has a dull and patchy hair coat, because the skin is one of the first systems to be affected by disease. Another sign of illness is a lack of appetite. Persistent and severe vomiting (with or without diarrhea) and prolonged diarrhea alone are sure signs of illness. Red, watery eyes, which may be accompanied by nasal discharge or sneezing, also can indicate problems. Straining to urinate, bloody urine, or frequent urination signify disease. Any swelling that appears rapidly or continues to increase in size over time is a cause for concern.
Injuries such as those caused by car accidents, falls, being bitten by another animal, or being shut in the door are all potential hazards for cats and usually require veterinary treatment. Those injuries can be greatly reduced by keeping your cat indoors. If you want your cat to enjoy the outdoors, train it to a harness and leash.
In short, use good judgment regarding your cat's health. When in doubt, a simple telephone call to the veterinarian can usually determine if your cat should be examined.
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Prepared by the Cornell Feline Health Center,
Cornell University, College of Veterinary Medicine, Ithaca, New
York 14853-6401. The ultimate purpose of the Feline Health Center is to improve the health of cats by developing methods to prevent or cure feline diseases and by providing continuing education to veterinarians and cat owners. Much of that work is made possible by the financial support of friends. ©1997 by Cornell University. All rights reserved. Cornell University is an equal opportunity, affirmative action educator and employer.