News Item | PAWS Chicago

Cat Wellness Helpful advice to keep your kitty in tip top shape

by Dr. Barbara Royal, DVM | May 01, 2010

Cats! They are the number one pet in America, and we spend more annually on cat food than we do on baby food.

Aloof, cuddly, sensitive, selfish, sweet, tough, complicated, playful, silly, elegant, unpredictable, and incredibly resilient, cats are highly entertaining. Their bodies are perfectly designed for stealth and hunting. Sharp claws and teeth, a Velcro tongue, flexible spine, muscles that can spring them seven times their height, night vision six times better than ours, and a fourteen times stronger sense of smell than we have. An astonishingly powerful design, beautifully packaged into sweet softness. They are unique and specialized, and cat ladies and gentlemen who understand this will raise cats with distinct health benefits.

Many feline medical problems I routinely see are often linked to either stress or poor nutrition. These include: Obesity, inappropriate urination, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, kidney and liver disease, hyperesthesia (itchy skin), allergies, thyroid disease, asthma and even behavior issues. If you have an obligate carnivore (an animal that MUST eat meat to survive), a Felis catus, living in your home, it is best to feed a proper carnivore diet. It makes perfect sense to nourish the body with food it is designed to digest. Having once helped to hand-raise a baby Sumatran tiger, I’m thoroughly aware that, digestion-wise, cats are only a stalk, spring, and a jump away from their ancestral roots. 

Specific nutrition requirements are essential for a cat’s survival. For example, they require taurine in their diet or they become blind and develop heart disease. They must eat every day and can get quite ill (hepatic lipidosis) if they don’t eat regularly. 

Cats are hypersensitive to many human foods and medications, and small amounts can be deadly. (So ask a vet before you give a human treat or medication—even topically.) As kittens they learn what is food and what isn’t. Once they come to trust a specific type of food, it can be difficult to change. Cats have evolved to be very finicky about what they put in their mouths. This indicates that suitable food, from an evolutionary standpoint, is vital for the survival of the cat species. 

Cats are fascinating to work with. Of course, the rule about cats is that there is no rule about cats. But that adds to their mystique and the fun. I want to decipher them from every angle. I try to find out what’s going on in their heads, how they react to their world, and then use my observations as part of the data to treat cat issues. 

Felines are not pack animals but they do enjoy a few BFFs. There is a delicate social balance among cats that may be invisible to the human eye. It can be useful to know whether a cat is top, bottom or in between in the family hierarchy. High stress levels in cats can really wreak havoc on their health. A typical cat sitting on a window ledge can be harboring many stressors, but showing few signs of it. She may be thirsty or needing to go to the litterbox, but her sister may be blockading the exit by sitting on the nearby chair. A serious territory war may only be seen in a slight tail flick, or a slow change in posture. But even these unseen stressors can increase adrenal gland activity, blood glucose levels, muscle tension, or gastrointestinal transit time. All very useful for a short war, but not useful for daily life in close quarters. And certainly not helpful for long-term health. 

Poor nutrition puts stress on the body making a cat less efficient at fighting pathogens and less able to maintain optimal health. My diet no-no’s for cats are no corn, no wheat, and no white potato. These guidelines help not only health problems but also behavior issues. The protein content should be at least 30% (dry matter) and canned or raw foods are better than dry in many respects. Expecting a cat to live in harmony with many other cats while feeding a high-carb diet is like feeding a bunch of kids sugar and expecting them to play nice in a small room. It always ends in tears… and scratches. 

Anytime you change diets, be sure the cat will eat the new food and that it agrees with her. Slow changes are best – over 10-14 days. Offer food first thing in the morning or when hungry, just before a meal is served. If the cat doesn’t eat it, feed what she will eat. It’s no use trying to “force” a cat to eat the food. Cats typically won’t eat what they don’t want. Calm and gradual coaxing is often the only effective method. 

Exercise is also helpful for feline weight loss. But it’s difficult to convince the cat to get on the treadmill. “Walking” on a leash for most cats is usually dragging on a leash – and more exercise for you than the cat—which could be a good thing for you… 

If your cat is treat-motivated, you can throw a treat up or down a hallway or staircase and he will run and retrieve. I have even had cats walking in my underwater treadmill at my clinic. These cats either had an injury, arthritis or other musculoskeletal problem that was ameliorated by water therapy. However, with most overweight animals, a really good diet alone, over time, will work wonders. 

There are myriad reasons why cats avoid using the litterbox: Medical issues— UTI, crystals, stones, painful urination or defecation, growths in the bladder, other physiological issues— uncleaned litterbox, too few litterboxes, litter type not favored by cat, doorway mat not comfortable (plastic grasses, etc), litterbox location/ temperature/distance or box size (for example: too small, covered) not good for cat, or, as already mentioned, social pressure (blockade by a dominant cat). 

For cats with urinary issues, a low-carb, canned food or raw food diet should be seriously considered. The increased water content, higher protein and decreased carbs that tend to be in canned and raw foods is healthier for your carnivorous cat. Whoever designed dry kibble, certainly didn’t understand the nature of a cat. Kibble is not better for the teeth. It is not better for these cats’ health (remember what they eat affects the pH of the urine. A proper pH is essential to avoid crystals or stones which can cause discomfort when urinating, making a cat not want to go back in that painful litterbox). It is always best to consult a veterinarian. Definitely have a urine sample checked when faced with a maverick cat urinating out of the box. Some of these conditions can be life-threatening, so be sure to start with a veterinary consult. 

While many troubling conditions improve with decreased stress and diet change alone, I often use other modalities when necessary. Acupuncture is a great healing technique for many medical issues in cats – including stress, kidney disease, diabetes, allergies, and asthma. Felines are surprisingly tolerant of needles and respond well to Chinese Medicine. I generally prefer a light touch with my cat patients, and so do they. A little bit of prevention and holistic intervention goes a long way. My cat patients always amaze me with their complexity. The more I can do with nutrition, logistical household support and educated common sense, the happier and healthier the cat will be. 

A cat needs to experience its cat-like essence. Sometimes cats just aren’t happy as indoor cats and need to be allowed to go outside if possible. This can relieve a significant amount of tension. Or, if you’re lucky, your cat might tolerate a harness and take walks with you. My neighbors watch incredulously as I parade by with my dog on a leash and my cat accompanying us, indicating our true direction with a flick of his tail. 

Cats are unique creatures, exquisitely sensitive, yet they are still little tigers at heart.

Logistical solutions to ensure a cool cat:

  • Owners with multi-cat households should be aware of each singular cat’s nature—this minimizes the stress of living in a large group. 
  • Procure the right number of litterboxes—best is the number of cats you have (N) plus 1 more. 
  • Choose a quiet place for the box that is easy to access, and is not in an area that gets too hot or cold. 
  • Clean the litterbox daily (cats have a superior olfactory sense) and use an unscented, clumping litter. 
  • Don’t use an uncomfortable mat (plastic grass or such) in front of the box. 
  • Have “safe places” for each cat— hiding spots or a protected area where they like to hang out. 
  • Maintain multiple food and water stations. Are they easy to get to? Cats are desert animals, and by the time they feel thirsty, they may be a bit dehydrated already. And if they are feeling intimidated, it may add to a health problem. If you’re fighting kidney/urinary tract issues or diabetes, plentiful water is a must. 
  • If your cat is overweight, move the food to a place where the cat has to do a little exercise to get to the bowl – like up a stairway, over a little homemade obstacle course or down a hallway from a favorite hang out. 
  • Feed your cat a “Catkins” diet—a low-carb diet. Feeding a cat a high carb diet is a disaster for a carnivore in many ways. Carb-heavy diets increase the incidence of obesity, are associated with diabetes, inflammatory bowel problems, and allergies. Without the carbs, cats with these conditions improve and lose weight. 
  • If you need to give pills or medicine, coat with butter, put in freezer for a minute to make it easier to hold. 
  • Minimize contact, where possible, with plastic bowls (exacerbates chin acne and allergies). 
  • Make sure there is generally low stress associated with the food bowl or litter box or living situation.