Your Cat: The Owner’s Manual: Hundreds of Secrets, Surprises, and Solutions for Raising a Happy, Healthy Cat — Chapter 1
Our Expert Dr. Marty Becker shares the first chapter of his new book with Vetstreet.com readers. "Your Cat: The Owner's Manual" will help owners solve problems and enhance their bond with their cats through a tip-filled book on everything from finding the right cat to preventing health problems and bad behavior. The book will be available for purchase at Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com, Booksamillion.com and Indiebound.org.
Excerpt From Chapter 1: Where to Begin: Realistic Expectations
Some people are born into cat-loving families, while others have cats thrust upon them through marriage to a cat lover, an inheritance from a family member, or sometimes a cat who just shows up at the door. And then there are those who independently make the decision to take up life with a cat. However you came to love cats, welcome. You are a member of an exceptional club. You are entering into a unique relationship that can be joyful, entertaining, sometimes frustrating, but in the end always rewarding. Life with a cat is special, if you know what to expect and how to play the feline rules. Dogs can bend to human will. Cats? They’ll bend a little, but not much.
Cats are surrounded by myths and misconceptions. It’s no wonder that they are often misunderstood. I want to help you separate fact from fiction when it comes to this interesting and intriguing animal.
Remember: Cats are not small dogs.
When you are reading about different cat breeds or reading the personality descriptions of cats at a shelter, you may come across some that are described as “doglike.” It’s true that some cats, like dogs, will follow you around, play fetch, or go for walks on leash. But that is where the resemblance ends. Cats differ from dogs in many ways.
First of all, their nutritional needs are different. Cats are what biologists call “obligate carnivores,” which means they must have meat in their diet to survive. Lots of meat. While dogs can exist on a diet that contains large amounts of grain, cats need meat protein to be at the top of their game. Meat contains a nutrient called taurine that is essential for heart and eye health and normal cell, muscle, and skeletal function. Cats can’t synthesize taurine on their own, so they must get it from their diet. Cats also have other nutritional requirements that vary from those of dogs, such as the type of vitamin A they can use. That’s why you should never feed your cat the same food you give your dog. Cats don’t need carbs; when they go on a diet, it is high protein like the Atkins diet, which is often referred to as the Catkins diet.
A cat’s physiology is different, too. Cats metabolize drugs differently than dogs or people. It’s very dangerous to give a cat the same drug you or I or the small dog next door might take, even if it’s for the same type of problem. Take pain, for instance. I’ve seen clients kill their cats by going to the medicine chest and giving their cats aspirin or Tylenol (acetaminophen). The same holds true for parasite treatments.
Never apply a flea or tick treatment or a shampoo made for dogs to your cat. Always call your veterinarian first and ask if a particular medication is safe for your cat and at what dose. (Click on the page numbers below to continue to the next part of Chapter 1. )
Another difference between dogs and cats is the way cats express pain. Well, it’s not really different. It’s almost nonexistent. It’s much easier to notice pain in a dog because we tend to interact with dogs directly. We take them on walks and we see whether they’re limping, for instance, or moving more slowly. Or see them hesitate to jump up on the couch or the bed, or climb into the car or up the stairs. With cats, it’s much more difficult to see the changes in mobility that signal injury or arthritis. Unless you happen to see your cat while he’s doing his business in the litter box, you might not notice that he’s having more difficulty squatting or no longer does that Rockettes-high kick to cover his scat. You also might not notice that he doesn’t jump to the top of the bookcase or cat tree anymore, and you might like it that he no longer jumps on the kitchen counter. Notice that he hasn’t been able to groom himself very well lately? Perhaps all you notice is that he’s been sleeping more lately, and hey, that’s what cats do, isn’t it?
Because cats are both predator and prey, they make a point of hiding any kind of weakness. They know instinctively that displaying pain puts them at risk from other predators, so they do their best to mask it. There’s a big neon sign in the wild that flashes “Sick Is Supper!” so cats have evolved to keep pain hidden. That stoicism works to their disadvantage when it comes to veterinary care. The signs that a cat is in pain are so subtle that most people miss them, unless they are keen observers of their cats.
I know this is only the first chapter of the book, but the following mantra is so important it deserves to be stressed: Cats can’t take care of themselves, and they need to see a veterinarian regularly. It’s a mystery to me why people are so much less likely to provide veterinary care for their cats than their dogs. Cats are the most popular pets in America, yet veterinarians are seeing a decline in veterinary visits for cats. That’s a shame, because cats need and deserve great veterinary care to ensure that they live long, happy, healthy lives. They might be intelligent and independent creatures, but they can’t doctor themselves—at least not yet. Providing your cat with regular veterinary care is a good investment, and it’s one of the responsibilities you owe your cat when you bring him into your life. Cats have been called the “pet of convenience” for how easy it is to care for them, but they shouldn’t be considered self-supporting, because they do rely on us for adequate food, water, shelter, preventive care, and treatments for accidents and illnesses. There are literally millions of cats living in homes suffering needlessly from arthritis, asthma, urinary problems, dental disease, metabolic conditions, parasites—I could go on and on—just because their owners didn’t know what to look for or to take them to the veterinarian (who does know what to look for) for regular examinations, preventive health care, and treatment.
Buy a carrier that loads from the front and the top (with two doors, in other words) and that is easy to break into two parts (so the cat can be left in the bottom half during a veterinary exam).
Accustom your kitten to a carrier. Leave the carrier sitting open in the house so your kitten can explore it, nap in it, even eat meals in it. We call it making the carrier “fun furniture.” Line it with a blanket or towel to make it extra comfy, and put treats inside it as an occasional surprise. Get a product called Feliway, which is a synthetic version of the feline cheek pheromone (cats use this like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, applying it themselves to everything of which they approve) and spritz the bedding inside of the carrier from time to time and especially before taking a trip to the vet. When your kitten does need to go for a ride in the carrier, the experience won’t be scary. You can use the same techniques with an adult cat.
Schedule veterinary visits at a time when your kitten or cat hasn't just eaten. She’ll be less likely to suffer motion sickness and more interested in getting tasty treats from veterinary staff. Bring something that is familiar and smells like home to the cat. Make the first appointment with the veterinarian a fun one. No shots, just a weigh‑in and some treats and petting from the staff. Think of it as a “getting to know you” visit. Trips like this are also a great opportunity to teach your cat that car rides can be pleasant.
Other Cat Myths and the Truth
If you’ve never had a cat, you may have some misconceptions about the feline species. Here are eight myths you may have heard about cats, along with the real scoop on what they’re like.
1. Cats Are Standoffish
One of the most common beliefs about cats is that they are independent and aloof, preferring their own company to that of people. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s true that cats in general are less “needy” than dogs, but most cats love spending time with their people, whether they’re playing with toys or just sitting in a lap motor-purring.
Know that being a lap cat is genetically influenced. Feline behaviorists used to think you could turn any cat into a lap cat, but it’s not so. When cat lovers understand that sitting within eighteen inches is being friendly enough for some cats, they’ll feel better about not having a full‑on lap cat and accept their pets as they are.
2. Cats Are Not Affectionate and Don’t Need Attention
This is another common misconception about cats. Cats are great companions for people who are away from home during the day, and it’s true that cats are more able than dogs to stay on their own if you must be away overnight, but don’t assume that they can get by with little or no attention. On the whole, they like it better when you’re around. It’s not unusual for cats to follow their people around like little shadows and to hop into a lap just as soon as one is available. Cats can even develop separation anxiety if they are left alone too frequently or for long periods. But don’t expect all cats to enjoy prolonged stroking and petting—sometimes it overstimulates them. Massaging often works better than endlessly stroking the fur.
3. Cats Require Access to the Outdoors to Be Happy
Cats love the outdoors, no doubt about it, but it’s full of dangers for them: speeding cars, marauding dogs, crazy cat attacks, parasites, and poisons set out for pests, to name just a few. But with the right environmental enrichment and regular playtime and exercise, indoor cats can live happily and never miss the great outdoors.
4. Cats Can’t Get Along with Dogs
We tend to think of them as dire enemies or cartoon warriors, but more often than not, cats and dogs can be fast friends. It’s not unusual to see them curled up together for a nap, grooming one another, or playing a game of tag. Foster interspecies friendships by introducing cats and dogs at an early age, while they are still open to new experiences. Even older cats and dogs can become best buds, though, with proper introductions. Don’t just throw them together like you would two stepchildren from polar opposite parts of the world. That can be stressful and dangerous for all involved. Planning and patience win the day.
If you have a dog and are planning to add a cat to your household, start by confining the cat to a small area such as a guest bath or bedroom. He’ll feel safe there, but he will still be able to hear and smell your dog. Spend lots of time with him in his safe room so he doesn’t feel isolated.
In a couple of days, your cat will be feeling more comfortable in his new home, and you can schedule a first meeting with the dog. Put the dog on leash and open the door to the cat’s room. Put the dog in a sit-stay or down-stay position, and don’t let him lunge at the cat. Let the cat decide whether or how closely to approach the dog. Don’t feed them that day before this exercise and give tasty treats to both animals for good behavior.
For the next couple of weeks, keep the dog on leash when the cat is present, and make sure the cat always has an escape route if he doesn’t want to be near the dog. Increase the amount of time they spend together, and keep giving plenty of rewards and praise for behaving nicely toward each other. When they’re calm around each other, you can take off the leash and let them begin what may well become a lifelong friendship.
5. Cats Can’t Be Trained
Surprise! With the right motivation, which for most felines means rewards for correct behavior, cats are highly trainable. You can teach a cat just about anything you want to teach him, as long as it doesn’t require opposable thumbs or barking for a treat. The benefit of training is that it is an interspecies communication system. Once you learn how to train your cat, there’s almost no behavior problem you can’t overcome.
6. Cats Spread Toxoplasmosis and Women Who Are Pregnant Should Get Rid of Their Cats to Protect the Fetus
Not true at all! Do you think that female veterinarians and veterinary technicians stop working with cats during the nine months of their pregnancy? No way. In fact, they have no higher levels of exposure to toxoplasma than the general population. With certain easy precautions, the risk of infection to the developing fetus is virtually nil.
There’s more on this in Chapter 9, but the important takeaway is this: No matter what well-meaning relatives and friends (and even some doctors) tell you, you don’t have to get rid of your cat when you’re expecting.
Have someone else clean the litter box, and if that’s not possible, wear gloves when you do so. Cook meat well, and wash your hands thoroughly after handling meat. The risk of getting toxoplasmosis from gardening is much greater, and you should always wash vegetables well, and wear gloves when gardening. These precautions will minimize risk, and your cat can stay to help raise your child. (Pets are good for children, you know.)
7. Cats Will Harm Babies by Sucking Their Breath or Lying on Them and Smothering Them
If you didn’t follow the advice for dumping your cat during pregnancy, chances are someone will insist you need to do so when you have an infant in the house. This mistaken fairy tale of killer cats probably began because cats enjoyed curling up near babies and sharing their warm, soft bedding. When the babies died from other causes, the cats got the blame for the death. The truth is that women, babies, and cats have lived together safely for thousands of years. Of course, you should always supervise your baby and cat when they are together, and it’s best that they don’t share a bassinet, but you don’t have to worry that your cat has it in for your baby.
8. Cats Eat Grass and Other Plants Because They’re Sick
Nope, they’re just connoisseurs of the green stuff. Cats love the taste and texture of grass, young shoots sprinkled with dew or rainwater. Grass also provides roughage that helps to work food through the system, so eating grass needn’t be discouraged. In fact, if you have an indoor cat, you should plant grass for him or her.
Enjoying a Cat for What He Is
Having a cat is like bringing a bit of wild nature right into your home. The little lion who lounges on your sofa is not really so far removed from his big cousin, the king of beasts. When you watch your house cat stalk a grasshopper and then see a lion on television stalking a zebra, the similarity is unmistakable.
No matter what their size, cats are lethally armed warriors cloaked in elegant camouflage. Their loosely connected spines allow them to coil up in a ball, then spring up or out, landing softly and silently. Their retractable claws whip out like switchblades when they’re needed and stay sheathed when they’re not. Large, close-set eyes, natural night vision, and a broad head and short jaw allow them to spot prey and deliver a perfectly placed killing bite. Cats are adapted to every environment, from forests and plains, to mountains and jungles, to deserts and snowy steppes.
I’m not trying to scare you, far from it. I want to open your eyes to the wonder that is the cat. When you live with one of these miniature predators, you have a front-row seat to nature at work, right there from your sofa. If you can accept that a cat will always carry a little bit of the wild inside him, a little bit of an unpredictable nature, you will come to appreciate him all the more.
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