Browsing tag: cat

Caring for older cats – Part 2 – helping your feline through old age

Did you know that cats age the equivalent of 24 human years in their first 2 years of life?  After that, each cat year is about equal to 4 human years.  So my 18 year old Maddy cat is the same age as my 88 year old grandmother.  Doing that calculation helps put her age in perspective, and makes you wonder, am I taking care of her as I would care for my grandmother?  In my last blog I talked about some of the signs that your cat may start to show as they get older.  Observations such as changes in behaviour, toileting issues or changes in sleep patterns are all relatively common in older cats, but could actually indicate an underlying medical condition.  Any changes in your ageing cat should be discussed with your vet so that if there is any concern, the appropriate diagnostic tests can be run and treatment can be started if necessary.  But if you and your vet decide that your older cat is physically well, there are still lots of things that you can do to help them age a bit more gracefully.

Give them a nail trim

Most cats, especially those that go outside regularly, don’t need (and don’t want) their nails trimmed.  Older cats, however, don’t tend to need them much for hunting, tree climbing or fighting with their neighbours.  Although feline claws naturally shed with daily activity, the nails of older, less active cats tend to get overgrown and can even grow all the way around and into the pad of the foot, a very painful condition.  Even if they’re not overgrown, they still frequently get stuck on the sofa or their bedding, particularly if the cat suffers from arthritis and has limited movement.  Trimming the claws is relatively straightforward and most of the time you can do it at home.  Ask your vet or vet nurse for a demonstration if you are unsure.

Give them a toilet

Would you want your 88 year old grandmother to have to go downstairs, out the back door and down the garden to use an outside loo in the middle of the night?  Do your older cat a huge favour and give them a litter tray in an accessible location.  Make it big and uncovered with low sides if possible, as these are easier to use for older arthritic cats.  If you have lots of stairs, consider one on each floor.  Not only will they appreciate the shorter trip and be less likely to have accidents on your carpet, but many older cats have trouble going through cat flaps so the less they have to use it, the better.  Cleaning the litter tray also gives you an opportunity to notice any changes in urine volume or blood in the stool.

Give them a (gentle) brush

Old, stiff cats often find it difficult to groom themselves as much as they used to.  Their bodies just don’t bend that way anymore, or if they do, it hurts.  They also tend to sleep more and that leaves less time for activities like grooming.  I think they also just plain forget sometimes.  Cats that don’t groom themselves, even those with short hair, can get matted fur and this hurts.  By brushing your cat daily, you can help them remove dead hairs and dirt and prevent painful matts.  Long haired cats need a more thorough groom.   Be gentle though, particularly over the spine and legs as these are the areas most likely to be affected by muscles loss or arthritis.  While you’re at it, take a look for fleas or any new lumps or bumps on the skin and bring these to the attention of your vet.  If your cat objects, try a grooming glove or very soft brush rather than the typical wire cat brush.  If they still won’t let you near them, speak with your vet about a possible underlying cause and consider having some of the fur trimmed and matts removed by a professional with clippers.  Whatever you do, never try to cut out closely matted fur with scissors – I have seen some horrendous injuries as a result and it is simply not safe.

Give them what they want to eat

You may notice that your older cat doesn’t have the same appetite that he used to.  While this can be due to a decreased sense of smell or taste with age, it could also be the result of an underlying medical problem so it’s very important to speak with your vet.  If your older cat ever needs some encouragement to eat, here are some things that you can try if your cat finds eating to be a bit of a chore:

  • Warm the food up slightly (beware heating cat food in the microwave, it gets very hot very quickly!) to just below body temperature.  Warm food generally smells and tastes better.
  • Giving your cat a good stroke before or sitting with them during a meal can encourage them to eat.
  • Don’t leave food sitting out all day – if they don’t eat it within an hour pick it up and put down fresh food at the next meal.
  • Trying a new brand or flavour can encourage them to eat.  But at the same time, try not to leave out several bowls of different foods for them to choose from as this can be overwhelming.
  • Wet food is almost always more palatable than dry, especially for older cats who may have dental problems, so consider changing the type of food you offer.  You could also try adding a bit of water to the food or mashing it with a fork.

Make it easy for them

  • If your cat prefers to sleep on your bed, put a chair next to it so they can use it as a step to get up and down.
  • Consider keeping a food and water dish in the bedroom or just outside it so they don’t have to go far for the things they need.  Older cats (particularly those fed dry food) can become dehydrated easily.
  • Keep their environment quiet and warm, and try to avoid letting the children grab them at every opportunity.
  • Offer a horizontal scratching post instead of a vertical one, and don’t forget, they may be old but they still need mental stimulation.  They may choose to play with different toys as they age, but things like open cardboard boxes or bags can give them something to investigate and a large catnip toy can be batted and kicked around the house.
  • Try to keep their routines as constant as possible, as older cats can take great comfort in knowing that things always happen when and how they’re supposed to happen.

As your cat starts to age, take a good look at their daily activities and see if there is anything you can do to make things a little bit easier on them.  Your vet or vet nurse may have other suggestions, so it’s always a good idea to ask for advice.  You could even try asking elderly members of your own family for ideas – you might be surprised by what they come up with!  And remember, if you wouldn’t want your 88 year old grandmother doing it, you probably shouldn’t expect your 18 year old cat to do it either.

Caring for the older cat (part 1) – helping your feline friend through old age

Sammy is 12 years old.  That is a respectable age for a cat, so I was very happy to hear from his owner that he was still very well in himself and she had no concerns at all.  The purpose of my visit was a routine health check and vaccination and based on Sammy’s good report, I was expecting to issue him with a clean bill of health.  However as I began to collect a thorough history, it became apparent that things were not as simple as they had first appeared.  ‘Now that you mention it, Sammy HAS been drinking more than he used to, but I thought that was normal for older cats so I didn’t think twice.’  He had also had a great appetite lately, in fact he’d been eating an extra pouch a day, and he had been more talkative lately.  All things that his owner had associated with good health but could actually be signs of illness.  On physical exam it turned out he had lost some weight and muscle mass, and that he had a lump under his neck.  A blood test was recommended and the results confirmed hyperthyroidism.  He was started on medication and is now back to his normal self, his owner couldn’t believe the difference!  She was surprised how the changes had happened so gradually that she didn’t notice them, but was very happy to have her old cat back.  And Sammy certainly agreed.

The above scenario is not at all uncommon.  Cats are experts at hiding their illnesses, and sometimes they can become very poorly on the inside whilst appearing relatively normal on the outside.  And as in Sammy’s case, sometimes the changes that do happen occur so slowly that we just assume it’s a normal part of aging.

He’s turned into such a ‘grumpy old man’

One of the best examples of this is an older cat’s ‘grumpiness’.  It’s easy to assume that older cats have been through enough and now just want to be left alone, but could there be a cause for their change in attitude?  Perhaps they can’t see or hear as well as they used to and are more frightened by strange sights or sounds.  Maybe they have severe dental disease that causes them to hide away or change their eating patterns.  Is arthritis the reason behind their dislike of the brush or even your previously adored petting strokes?  These conditions frequently go unnoticed except for a change in behaviour, yet if diagnosed, there are many things we can do to make them more comfortable.

She just can’t seem to ‘hold it’ anymore

Another common but decidedly abnormal symptom is a change in urination or defecation patterns.  ‘She just can’t seem to make it to the litter tray anymore, bless her’ is a common complaint, yet one that doesn’t always get brought to the vet’s attention.  Cats are clean, proud creatures and don’t generally wet or soil the house without good reason.  Perhaps she has kidney disease and is having to cope with large volumes of dilute urine.  Could arthritis again be the cause behind her new dislike of the litter tray?  Small, covered or high-sided litter trays can be a nightmare for cats that find it painful to position themselves to defecate.  Maybe she has diabetes and the sugar in her urine has brought on a bladder infection.  Changes in urination or defecation should always be brought to your vet’s attention as there is usually an underlying cause.

All he ever does is sleep these days

Now I am the first to admit that I do not have as much energy as my 3 year old.  And my grandmother frequently complains that she’s not able to get out and about as much as she used to.  The difference between my son and I is mainly the 30 year age gap.  But my grandmother’s reasons may have more to do with her failing eyesight and worsening arthritis.  It’s certainly true that kittens are more active than their more mature housemates, and that some slowing can be expected with age.  But when your previously active older cat starts to sleep 23 hours a day instead of her usual 20, what might seem like a small change to you could indicate a big problem.  High blood pressure can cause depression and lethargy and can also result in blindness, making affected cats less likely to venture from their bed.  A cat who used to love going outdoors may find the cat flap too painful now that arthritis has set in.  Anaemia (not enough red blood cells carrying oxygen around the body) and its associated decrease in energy levels is another symptom that frequently goes unnoticed.

Some alarming statistics

In a recent study of older cats brought to the vet for routine vaccination, one third of those described as ‘completely healthy’ by their owners were found to be suffering from significant diseases such as kidney disease, high blood pressure or hyperthyroidism.  Two thirds had abnormally dilute urine, an early warning sign for kidney disease.

  • Chronic kidney disease is estimated to affect about 30% of cats over the age of 15
  • 10% of cats over the age of 9 are thought to suffer from hyperthyroidism
  • Cognitive dysfunction (a deterioration in brain function giving cats Alzheimer’s-like changes in behaviour) is estimated to affect over 50% of cats over the age of 15

And perhaps most alarmingly, a staggering 90% of cats over the age of 12 (which is not that old really) are thought to suffer from arthritis.  Only a tiny fraction of these cats are ever brought into the vet because they appear painful, and only a small percentage of those receive regular treatment for their pain.

‘Common’ does not mean ‘normal’

I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that although some things like drinking a bit more or losing a bit of weight may be COMMON in older cats, they are not NORMAL and may in fact indicate discomfort or illness.  If diagnosed (particularly if caught early), most of the above conditions can be treated successful and for those that can’t be cured, we can at least provide care that can dramatically increase the quality of their lives.  I’ll talk about some of the things we can do to help our aging feline friends next time but in the meantime, take a good long look at your older cat and think about some of the changes that might be taking place inside that they may not be telling you about.  If you discover anything that causes concern, bring it to the attention of your vet.  Sure, your grumpy old man may not enjoy being dragged out of his bed and into the vet (don’t be afraid to ask your vet if they would be willing to make a home visit), but the possibility of a more comfortable life far outweighs the temporary inconvenience.  Your cat has nothing to lose and everything to gain!

If you are worried about any aspect of your cats health, please book an appointment with your vet or use our symptom guide.

Are you ready for the year ahead? – the pet calendar with a difference!

So, here we are, another year ahead! Are you ready? What might 2014 hold for you and your pets?

January

Let the dieting begin! With a third of pets in the UK carrying too much weight, many of us will have animals who could join us on the tradition post Christmas slim down! Have a chat to local vets about the different things you can do. Cutting down on meals and treats, changing the make of food you give, altering how you feed them (for example changing from a simple bowl to a puzzle feeder); are all small changes that can make a big difference! Also, encouraging your pets to exercise more will speed up their slim down, not always easy for cats but if you have dogs, more walks will be beneficial to you both!

February

For me, this is one of the most depressing months of the year. The long, cold nights have been going on for what seems like forever & Spring seems a long way away. It is often also the time of year snow arrives, which can cause our pets as many problems as our cars! Take care to ensure any rabbits or other pets kept outdoors are well insulated against the cold and check your dogs feet carefully for ice balls and grit after road walks, both of which can cause painful problems. However, the weather can be fun as well! Don’t forget to throw a few snowballs for the dog (and maybe the cat as well!)

Also, what about Valentines day, will your pets be getting a gift?!

March

Spring is just around the corner! And summer ’isn’t that far away! If you are planning a getaway abroad with your pets, now is the time to start thinking about rabies vaccines and getting their passport sorted, so you aren’t on the last minute nearer the time. It is also a good times to book the kennels and cattery if they aren’t coming with you, the good ones will get booked up quickly!

April

Now the days are getting longer, use it as an opportunity to go out for more walks with your dogs. I often see them a bit porkier at this time of year when the early nights and working days mean they can’t be taken out as much but most soon lose the pounds around now!

Also, it’s Easter time! Which means chocolate eggs! Just remember to be careful and keep all these tasty treats out of reach of dogs. Chocolate is toxic to them, especially the dark kind, and can cause significant problems (and copious diarrhoea!)

May

Fireworks season may seem a long way away (and it is!) but if you have a pet who is scared of them, now is the time to start planning. One of the best ways of desensitising noise program. The best is SOUNDS SCARY, which is available as a download. It comes with full instructions, have been designed by a vet and can be very helpful! You won’t regret it!

June

Summer holidays are just around the corner! If your pets are not coming away with you, now is the time to check all their vaccinations are up to date, especially as if they have over-run it can take up to a month to get back on track. Also, most kennels will require dogs to have a kennel cough vaccine, which is most effective given a fortnight or more before they go in.

June is also often Microchipping Month at many vet practices, so if your pets aren’t done, now is a good time!

July

The holidays are here! Why not use this time and the longer days to explore your local area with your dog. Websites like walkiees.co.uk and dogfriendlybritain.co.uk have lots of information on dog friendly walks, beaches and attractions on your area.

Cats will also be spending more time outside (if it is sunny!) but some people worry about them wandering. Simple changes to your garden like planting cat nip, creating resting places in high positions and leaving areas over-grown for them to hide in will all encourage them to hang out in your back yard rather than doing too much exploring!

August

Hopefully the weather won’t let us down and we will have some sunshine! Warmer days are great for getting out and about with our pets but you do have to be careful, especially with dogs who have short noses. These breeds are particularly vulnerable to over-heating, which can be very dangerous, so should only be exercised during the cooler parts of the day. Also, make sure outdoor pets like rabbits get a chance to run about in the sun and that they have plenty of water and access to shade

September

Back to school – boo! As well as for kids, this can be a depressing time of year for dogs as well, who have been used to having the family around in the day and they can start acting out. Make the change less difficult by making sure they aren’t suddenly left alone for long periods and use ADAPTIL collars for those who are particularly anxious.

Also, why don’t they go back to school as well?! Dogs of all ages benefit from regular training classes and it is a great way of spending quality time with them.

October

Autumn is now well underway and the temperatures are dropping. Depressing but at least you don’t have to worry now about fleas, right? Wrong! This time of year is actually the worst for infestations because as the weather gets colder, our houses get warmer. By turning on our central heating we create tropical flea paradises for them to enjoy and reproduce at will, if we don’t keep out pets protected. So, if you haven’t treated your pets recently, now is the time to get to your vets for some spot-ons and if you do keep them covered, remember to continue, even in the winter months!

November

Fireworks season is upon us! Hopefully, if you started Sounds Scary in May, things will be better for scared pets but all benefit from some extra TLC when the sky lights up! Help indoor pets by drawing the curtains, preventing access to outside, creating a cosy den behind the sofa to muffle the noises and use ADAPTIL and FELIWAY plug-ins for particularly worried animals. Make sure outdoor animals are protected by ensuring their hutches are also well insulated against the noises and that they have lots of bedding to burrow in.

December

It’s Christmas! This can be a really fun time of year for sociable animals, with all the visiting and entertaining that goes on but others can find it very stressful, especially, if they are shy. If your pets don’t feel like greeting people, don’t make them, let them come round in their own time. Also, be careful with all the yummy food in the house! Chocolate is very tempting to dogs but can be harmful, as can anything with lots of raisins such as Christmas pud or mince pies. And if you have cats, make sure the tree is very stable! More than one kitty has been spotted peering out from between the branches or playing pat-a-cake with the baubles!

Finally, don’t forget to buy your furry friends a gift for under the tree – but I don’t need to remind you about that do I! What will you get them?!

My very best wishes to you and your furry families for a happy and healthy 2014!

Cat Henstridge BVSc MRCVS – Read more of her blogs at www.catthevet.com

Pets are not presents! – why giving bath salts is the best gift this Christmas

So, it’s Christmas, hurrah! Unfortunately that also means it’s time to start dashing round over-crowded, over-heated shopping centres with what seems like the entire population of this sceptred isle desperately trying to find the ‘ideal thing’ for relatives you never liked much in the first place, then giving up and buying bath salts on a three for two offer. Then it hits you, the perfect gift! A pet! Who can resist a small bundle of fluff and you will be in the good books forever! No! Bad idea!

The Dog’s Trust’s slogan ‘A dog is for life, not just for Christmas’ is over 30 years old and yet it is as relevant today as it was back then. Sadly, many people still buy animals as gifts at this time of year (it’s not just dogs) and although I am sure many go on to be adored family pets, many are given up in the New Year. Most charities report a spike in abandonments in January and many close for rehoming over the Christmas period to discourage impulse rescues.

If you are buying a pet as a gift, at any time of year, you have to make sure the recipient really wants one and has thought carefully about their care. Which, to be honest, rather defeats the point of it being a surprise and I think this is the part (the absolutely, flipping VITAL part!) that the gifter forgets. Dogs are probably the most labour intensive pet; they need walking, training (puppy poo on the carpet is never fun to clean up but is especially annoying on Christmas day when you have so much else to do) and most will live for at least ten years. They also need a lot of stuff; beds, collars, bowls etc – are you going to buy all that as well, or just dump the pup and run? All animals, from cats to rats and all inbetween, have to come with accessories, need a committed and knowledgeable owner and don’t forget you are signing them up for on-going costs; food, flea treatment and, of course, the dreaded vets bills! Will you be covering these as well, you generous present giver you?!

Also, think about it from the animals point of view. Whether they are an adult rescue pet or, more likely, an innocent, wide eyed (so cute!) baby animal, they are coming into a new home and environment which is stressful at the best of times. Now add in a huge sparkling tree, decorations, relatives, over-excited children and it is hardly a calm and relaxing introduction to their new family. A new pet should be the focus of attention in their first few days but this does NOT mean being manhandled by every visitor though the door and dressed in a festive outfit!

Look, I am all in favour of people owning pets (it keeps in me a job after-all) but I am more in favour of those animals being owned by people who really want them, who thought long and hard about having them and who can afford them. It may be that they were bought as a gift but, and this is an important distinction, not as a surprise. So, step away from the pet shop, put down the phone to the breeder, shut down rescue website and just give them the flipping bath salts!

Lost in translation – do you know what your cat is really trying to tell you?

‘Miaow!’  One simple word, so many possible meanings.  Is she happy?  Is she hungry?  Is she scared?  It’s all in the tone in which it’s delivered.  And that’s just the miaow – researchers have documented 19 different vocal patterns in domestic cats ranging from purrs to chirps to growls, along with countless body language cues.  Do you really know how to interpret them?  Test your feline language skills below…

A deep, rhythmic purr

We’ll start with an easy one – a purr means she’s happy, right?  Possibly, but that may not always be the case.  In fact, cats purr for many reasons.  Young kittens and mother cats purr during nursing, possibly as a way of maintaining contact and communicating contentment.  Adult cats purr when they’re in the company of other cats or humans that they are friendly with, especially during grooming or petting or resting together.  And as most cat owners probably already know, they also purr when they want something.  This ‘solicitation’ purr contains some of the high frequency peaks also found in a human baby’s cry, and it is commonly thought that cats use this to their advantage when asking for food at 5am.  But what many people don’t know is that cats will sometimes also purr when they are nervous or even painful.  We don’t know exactly why they do it, but the important thing to remember is that purring doesn’t necessarily mean that a cat is happy, you need to look at the rest of their body language for clues.  Think of it like a human smile – we do it when we’re happy, but also when we want something or when we’re nervous.

Blinking, half-closed eyes

If you said this is a sign of contentment, you would be absolutely right.  A cat who stares without blinking is alert and confrontational, while a cat with half closed eyes is relaxed and feels safe in their environment.  Interestingly, this is one of the few ways that we can truly speak their language.  I use it all the time whilst consulting – before starting my exam, I catch their eye briefly and then blink slowly as if to say ‘It’s ok, you’re safe here’.  They almost always respond by blinking back, and are then much more likely to relax while I do what I need to do.  But even this isn’t always the case, as a cat in pain can also have squinty eyes, but the rest of their body language will be very different.

The tail flick

This is a really useful one to know as it can save you a scratch or two!  If you are petting your cat and notice that they start to flick their tail quickly from side to side, I’d suggest you take a break because it probably either means that they’re getting fed up with what you’re doing or they’re getting playful and are ready to pounce!  Often accompanied with a widening of the eyes which may help you recognise their increasing level of alertness.

Wee on the carpet

This may not seem like a method of communication, or at least you probably won’t be thinking rationally enough to see it as such at the time, but cats frequently use urine and even faeces as a way of getting their point across.  One of the first words that comes to mind when you discover such an incident is probably ‘spite’, but try not to take it personally and instead try to figure out why it may have occurred.  It may be that they are painful and need to see the vet, or that they are unhappy with your neighbour’s cat who keeps peering in on them from the window.  If the culprit is an intact male cat, talk to your vet about castration because there is a good chance that the underlying reason is territorial.

Grooming

Although this is usually associated with relaxed, friendly cats or members of the same family, grooming may serve another purpose.  Like the nervous purr, cats sometimes groom each other’s heads and necks when they’re feeling intimidated or antagonistic, possibly as an attempt to avoid overt aggression.  Chances are they’re feeling pretty comfortable when they start grooming you, although I have on occasion had a ‘nervous licker’ during an exam and even known a few cats to lick forcefully before they bite.

Chirping

It’s a funny sound, almost like a very excited miaow but broken and muted at times.  Often associated with a tail twitch and very wide eyes, it is a sign of extreme interest.  My cat regularly ‘chirps’ when looking out the window at the birds on the feeder.  An amusing, hopeful sound indeed!

Scratching on your new leather sofa

Again, try not to push human emotions onto your cat and assume that they’re doing it to get back at you for going out to dinner instead of spending time with them the night before.  In actual fact, cats have scent glands on the bottoms of their feet and between their toes so scratching (including the visual signs that are left behind) is another method of letting other cats know that this is their territory.  Make an effort to find out the underlying cause, or at least be sure to provide them plenty of other more suitable places to ‘sharpen their claws’.

Hissssssssss!

No surprises here, if you hear this sound, back off.  Cats are instinctively tuned into this sound and are therefore easily frightened by any noise that resembles a hiss such as aerosol spray cans or our own frantic ‘psssssssst!’ when we catch them up on the kitchen counter.  If their hiss escalates to a spit, don’t just back off, turn and walk away.  Quickly.

If you were surprised by some of the answers above, spend some time observing your cat over the next few weeks.  You’ll be amazed by what you find when you know what to look for!  Even those fluent in ‘felinese’ can learn something new from their cats every day.  The more you understand what your cat is trying to tell you, the better your relationship will be so it’s definitely worth the effort.

Do you know when your pets are poorly?

It may seem like a silly question, of course you would know when your pets are sick wouldn’t you? They share your life, your home and you know them really well, just as you do other members of your family. However, what many people don’t realise is that our animals are extremely adept at masking signs of illness and often by the time we realise there is a problem, they have been struggling for a while.

This blog was inspired by a cat I saw last week. She was owned by some lovely clients; regulars with their other pets and they definitely have their best interests at heart. I didn’t blame them for not noticing sooner this one was poorly because a) felines are notoriously good at hiding illness and b), you know, I’m a vet, so really I should be quite good at spotting when animals are sick but I don’t expect others to be.

However, I think they may have realised they had left it a little long to bring her; several times during the consultation the husband mentioned that they had waited because she didn’t seem in ‘distress’ and here in lies the nub of the matter for this cat, and for many of the pets I see.

Animals are very, very good at hiding when they aren’t feeling well or are in pain. You could say they are made of much sterner stuff than us humans, and they probably are, but in the main this characteristic comes from millennia of evolution; in the wild sick creatures are soon picked off by predators. This means that even when they feel dreadful animals will do their level best to behave as normally as possible or they may simply go off and sit quietly in a corner or curl up and sleep much more than usual. What they won’t do it moan or groan (or winge and demand tea and sympathy!), the most we might get is a reduced appetite or a limp. This is especially true of problems like arthritis, cancer or kidney failure, all of which are common in older pets.

Sadly this little cat had the latter of these and I will tell you how this tale ends now; blood tests showed her renal function was so damaged the kindest thing was to put her to sleep. Many people would think it almost impossible to not notice a pet was so sick they were near death but this is not the first time I have dealt with a case like this and it won’t be the last.

Obviously you don’t want to be dashing down to the surgery every 5 minutes when a pet isn’t quite themselves but neither do you want to leave things too long. So what is best to do? My advice would be to always be aware of how your pets are and if they have seemed ‘off’ for more than a day, ring your practice for a chat. A good clinic should take the time to speak to you and help you decide whether there is really a problem or not or use the symptom checker on this website!

Cat Henstridge BVSc MRCVS – Read more of her blogs at catthevet.com

Toxoplasmosis gondii, Pregnancy and Cats – Fact vs. Fiction

Well over halfway through my second pregnancy, I am currently inundated with comments from clients, mostly positive, and it has added a bit of humour and lively conversation to my otherwise increasingly tiring days. ‘Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl?’ ‘How do you think your toddler is going to react to the new baby?’ ‘Are you going to come back to work after two children?’ But one question I wasn’t expecting came from a woman with a lovely ginger tom – ‘Are you sure you’re OK to examine my cat if you’re pregnant?’ I laughed and assured her that despite my expanding waistline I could still reach the table and her cat would be fine. But after a slightly confused and very embarrassed smile, she explained that she had recently been told by a friend that she would have to give up her beloved cat once she became pregnant because it wasn’t safe for pregnant women to be around cats. It had been a while since I had heard that myth and was saddened to hear it again, but I wasn’t terribly surprised. We spent most of the rest of the consultation discussing the real facts about toxoplasmosis, the disease in question, and she left very much relieved that her feline friend was not going to have to be evicted should she ever decide to have a baby, and determined to speak to her GP if she had any further concerns.

What causes toxoplasmosis?

Amber-on-grassToxoplasma gondii, the protozoal parasite responsible for causing the disease known as toxoplasmosis, is a tiny single-celled organism that can infect many different species from mice to sheep to humans. Cats, however, are the only hosts in which the parasite can reproduce, so in addition to being infected themselves, they can also release oocysts (which are essentially the eggs from which new organisms are created) in their faeces. These eggs are very resistant and can survive in some environments for months, allowing other animals to ingest them with their food. When other animals such as mice become infected with the parasite, it develops to form tiny cysts in their muscles and waits there until the animal is eaten by another cat so it can begin the cycle all over again. Most animals, therefore, are capable of spreading the infection through the consumption of their flesh, but only cats are able to spread it via their faeces.

What happens to cats that are infected with toxoplasmosis?

The short answer to this question is, well, usually not much. In fact, unless the cat is otherwise ill or immunocompromised (young kittens, or those with FIV or FeLV), most owners don’t even notice if their cat becomes infected. If cats do show symptoms, these usually include fever, decreased appetite and lethargy. Rarely, more serious cases may develop pneumonia, blindness or inflammation of the eyes, or more commonly, neurological symptoms such as personality changes, loss of balance, walking in circles, difficulty swallowing, or seizures.

How are people infected and why is it so dangerous?

People can become infected by handling the faeces of infected cats (but only during the few weeks after they become infected for the first time, after that they stop shedding the eggs), gardening in soil that has been defecated in by recently infected cats, or more commonly, eating undercooked meat of any kind as animals such as lambs and pigs can also be infected (the cooking process kills the organism). But as you’ll see below, all of these things are easily prevented with simple and common sense measures. There are three main health concerns when it comes to humans. The first and most well-known risk group is pregnant women. Expectant mothers that pick up the disease for the first time during pregnancy (ie, NOT those that have already been exposed to it earlier in life) do not usually show symptoms themselves but are capable of passing the infection on to their unborn child. In these cases, vision and hearing loss, mental disabilities and occasionally even death of the child are possible. So there is certainly cause for concern. The second group of people that are particularly at risk are those that already have immune systems that are deficient, such as those with HIV or AIDS or who are on chemotherapy. Finally, although the vast majority of people who become infected with the toxoplasma organism (and that includes a staggering one third to one half of the world’s human population!) show only mild flu-like symptoms if any at all, it has recently been linked to some pretty serious conditions such as brain tumours, attention deficit disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia and possibly even an increase in suicide risk. But because most people don’t know they have it, it isn’t something that is routinely screened for so a lot more studies need to be done before we know the true effects of the illness in all species, not just humans.

If toxoplasmosis can do all that, why would anybody own a cat??

Domino-sleepingBecause even though cats spread the disease, we are very unlikely to catch it directly from them. Cats are only capable of spreading the disease for the first 2-3 weeks after they are first infected. After that, they are immune to new infections and although they may later show symptoms, they are not later contagious. And then even if your cat was shedding eggs, there has to be direct ingestion of the contaminated faecal material by humans. Not many of us (perhaps toddlers aside…) will intentionally consume cat faeces, but we will sometimes come inside after gardening and grab a quick sandwich without remembering to wash our hands. This is not a problem with the cat itself, rather our own personal hygiene. It is extremely unlikely that you would pick up toxoplasmosis by petting your cat or being scratched or bitten by your cat, because the organism is not spread by the fur or saliva. You CAN, however, pick up toxoplasmosis by eating undercooked infected meat, particularly lamb and pork. Again, this is not your cat’s fault, rather our own lack of taste or culinary skills, and is by far the most common way of picking up the disease in developed countries.

What’s the best way to avoid becoming infected?

Use common sense, and if you are pregnant, take a few extra precautions and chances are you’ll be just fine. Unless you already have it, which is probably more likely than you care to acknowledge, but chances are you’ll never know it so you might as well do these things anyway!

• Don’t eat raw or undercooked meat or drink unpasteurised milk. And once you’re finished preparing raw meat, wash your hands and all surfaces that it may have touched.

• Wash fruits and vegetables before eating them, even if they came from your own organic garden.

• Wash your hands well after gardening and before eating, especially for children, goodness knows where those hands have been…

• Pregnant women, and people with suppressed immune systems, should not clean the litter tray (I don’t know many pregnant women who wouldn’t jump at the chance to make their partner clean the litter tray). Or if you must clean the litter tray yourself, wear gloves, wash your hands well and try to remove the stools daily as faeces that have been sitting around for a few days are more infectious.

Toxoplasmosis is a serious illness and can cause serious harm to both cats and humans. But contrary to what many people believe, living with a cat only slightly increases your chance of catching the disease and with the help of simple common sense measures like those mentioned above, this risk can be minimised. So yes, I’m perfectly happy to keep working and living with cats, and hopefully you will be too. But if you do have any questions regarding either your own health or that of your family, make an appointment to speak with your GP and make sure everybody is aware of the facts rather than the myths about toxoplasmosis.

If you are worried about your cat talk to your vet or use our Interactive Cat Symptom Guide to check any symptoms they may be showing and see how soon you should visit your vet.

What NOT to feed your cat.

Gizmo eatingClients often ask me what they should feed their cats. It sounds like a simple question, but the answer is far from straight forward. The biggest debate amongst veterinarians at the moment is whether or not a cat should be fed dry food or wet food, or both. Personally, I tend to lean towards wet food as it seems to be the more natural option for a lot of different reasons that I won’t go into in this article. But I don’t necessarily recommend that to all of my clients. My own cat, for example, loves almost any dry diet but seems to hate wet food, so this is clearly not a good option for her. Being fussy creatures by nature, in most cases, the best food for your cat is the one that they will eat. But this isn’t always the case. Read on to see some examples of what NOT to feed your cat…

“I feed my cat only the finest fillet steak! Costs me a fortune, so it must be good for her, right?”

Short and long answer to that one – absolutely not. It’s true that in the world of well-balanced, scientifically formulated complete pet foods, you generally get what you pay for. More expensive foods, on the whole, tend to be of better quality than cheaper ones. But that only applies to complete, well-balanced pet foods. Just because a human food is expensive (ie, humans really like it and therefore are willing to pay a high price for it), doesn’t mean it’s going to do your cat any good at all. Sure, a bit of steak here and there isn’t going to hurt them, but by feeding your cat exclusively the muscle meat of any animal, they will quickly become deficient in a wide range of vitamins and minerals. There is, for example, very little calcium in muscle meat, to name just one. Other expensive human foods can even be dangerous for cats, even in small volumes. So if you ever feel like splashing out on your cat’s diet, put back the caviar and foie gras and ask your vet for their recommendation instead.

“But sometimes all she’ll eat are her treats, so I just give her those!”

The problem with this one is that unless your cat is extremely ill and you’re happy to get them to eat anything at all, this simply isn’t true. Cats are absolute masters when it comes to training their owners at mealtimes. And they’re not stupid. A normal, healthy cat will not starve itself. But they’ll certainly have you believe that they will. A normal cat (again, we’re not talking about sick cats here) who only eats treats, or some rubbish, unbalanced cat food, does so because their owner keeps providing it. Take it away and offer a balanced cat food, and eventually they will eat it. They may make you feel like you are the most horrible human on the planet for denying them their favourite food, but they will eat it. OK, you may have to try a few different flavours before you find one that they won’t argue about with you, but there is a good cat food out there that they will eat. And they will thank you with their good health, though not necessarily in any other way… Look at it another way, if somebody offered you a salad and a chocolate bar, you’d probably choose the chocolate bar. But that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t eat the salad tomorrow if that’s all there was! A word of caution though, if you try to change your cat’s diet, always do so gradually by mixing it in for a few days to avoid stomach upset. And if they really do go for more than 24-48 hours without eating their new food, speak with your vet for advice because it can be dangerous for a cat to not eat for too long and there may be an underlying medical problem that you didn’t know about.

“My cats deserve a special treat, so I give them tuna for dinner every night”

And I’m not talking about a complete and balanced tuna-flavoured cat food here, but tinned tuna for humans. In this case, it’s not the tuna itself that’s the problem (unless of course your cat is unfortunate enough to be allergic to tuna), rather the fact that it is fed as a meal every night. Too much fish can have inappropriate levels of calcium and phosphorus, and could lead to other problems like thiamine deficiency if raw fish is fed too often. There can also be low levels of toxins like mercury in some fish that won’t harm you if eaten occasionally but can build up if eaten in large quantities. It’s also worth noting that it is particularly important not to feed more than just the very occasional small treat of liver, as eating too much liver can cause serious vitamin toxicities. Like most things, moderation is key. Again, you might enjoy eating pizza for dinner every night, but it probably wouldn’t do your body any good. If you’d like to give your cats a treat, try giving them a different treat each time, provided each one is safe and not too high in fat, and give just a small amount of it, not a whole meal’s worth.

“I’m sorry, did you say crisps?”

Of course, there are some human foods that shouldn’t even be fed in moderation. You’d be amazed what some people will admit to feeding their cats as treats ‘because they really seem to like it’. Sure, your cat may love crisps, but they have absolutely no nutritional value for them (or us, really…), and are simply high in salt, fat, and carbohydrates. They may not necessarily hurt them, but they certainly don’t need them, and it’s not difficult to find them a more appropriate snack. Common human foods that probably shouldn’t be fed to cats in any quantity, no matter how much they seem to like them, include sweet or savoury biscuits, processed sandwich meat, and chips among many other things. You could also add milk and cheese to this list, although I haven’t had much luck convincing clients to give these treats up as they are used so commonly. Cats would not and probably should not naturally drink milk, and can in fact be allergic to it, it is only our domestication of them that has created this ‘need’. And then there are things like onions, chocolate, alcohol, tea, coffee, grapes and raisins that can be toxic in even small quantities so these should never be given to cats.

Daisy pinching foodWhether the problem is finding a food that your cat seems to like, your cat constantly crying out for food, or your own overwhelming desire to treat them to something you think is nice, it’s important to remember that as the carer of this domestic animal you are generally in control of your cat’s diet. If your cat is overweight, chances are you’re feeding it too much, no matter how much they tell you they’re starving. If your otherwise normal, healthy cat will only eat the most expensive smoked salmon, it’s because you offered it to them and they decided it was good enough to hold out for. And if you’re unlucky enough to have a cat that hunts you down and cries for a tasty treat even though you know they shouldn’t have it, be strong and walk away, or better yet, try some kind of distraction such as a toy or a good stroke. It’s not always food they’re crying out for, sometimes it’s the attention of being fed. But if it persists, be sure to take them to the vet for a checkup because constantly crying out for food can actually be a sign of hyperthyroidism or other serious illness.

Whatever the cause, if you find yourself with a feline feeding issue, speak with your vet because many times the solution is easier than you think. And remember, just because your cat wants it, doesn’t mean it’s in their best interest to have it!

If you are worried about any specific symptoms your cat may be showing, talk to your Vet or try our Interactive Cat Symptom Guide to help assess how urgent it may be.

But can’t he just die in his sleep…..?

This week my Granny died, which was sad for us all but she was very old, had had a wonderful life and her family was with her at the end. She had been in a home for some time and was cared for very well. When she became sick and bedbound, the doctors and nurses worked together to keep her comfortable and pain free, until she slipped away in her sleep. I am lucky in that she was the first person I knew well who has died and this experience has made me understand why many people hope this is how their pets will go. However, to die in their sleep is rarely a pleasant or pain free experience for our animals.

Domino sleepingAlthough, just like people, our pets are living longer and healthier lives, inevitably there comes a time when their age catches up with them and illnesses develop. Advances in veterinary care mean we can do a lot for them but eventually we won’t be able to keep up with their problems. If they were people we would put them in wheelchairs or place them in a home where their needs could be catered for, for example being assisted to the toilet or spoon fed but this isn’t practical, or in most cases fair, to a pet who won’t understand what is happening (there are many people who would argue this is no kind of life for a person either but that is a whole other debate). For a pet, when they can no longer get up and out to do their toilet or feed themselves properly, or when their illnesses or pain can no longer be controlled with medication, this is the time as owners we should objectively assess their quality of life and decide whether it is fair to let them continue. Also, just as important is your quality of life, it is hard work caring for any pet, let alone an elderly one who may be incontinent or senile.

The vast majority of pets who reach the end of their natural lives are euthanased by their vet. This is inevitably a sad experience for their owners (and us) but is far preferable than allowing them to slip away on their own. Many people hope this will happen, having probably experienced death this way with people as I recently did myself, but it is very different for animals. Bodies are designed for living and will go on doing so regardless of how painful or unpleasant it becomes for the individual. When people die in their sleep they are usually heavily medicated and cared for to ensure they are not in any pain or dehydrated but this doesn’t happen for our pets. If an animal dies this way, they have usually suffered to a large extent; likely being dehydrated, malnourished and in pain. Although from the outside they might look peaceful, they are anything but; it is simply all their exhausted body can manage.

This is why when our pets become infirm and their quality of life declines to a point where living is a struggle and not the joy it should be, by far the kindest and most humane thing we can do as owners and vets is to euthanase them in a painless and peaceful way. I often say it is the one big advantages we have over human medicine; we can stop the suffering before it becomes too great. Although it may seem daunting your vet will talk you through the procedure and make sure you are happy with the process and your decision. You will be able to stay with your pet if you want to and most vets will come to your home if your request it. Euthanasia means ‘a peaceful death’ and as a pet owner it is the final act of kindness you can bestow upon your companion.

If you are worried that your pet may be ill, talk to your vet. Try our Interactive Symptom Guide to check any symptoms they are displaying and help decide how soon you’ll need to visit your vet.

Getting ready for an anaesthetic at the vets

At one time or another we all have to face our beloved pets having an anaesthetic which can be a scary process if it’s not properly explained. Fortunately most veterinary practices have a fantastic team of nurses that can help you understand the procedure. (NB. I have used “he” in the article for continuity but this goes for all dogs a

Labrador crop

and cats regardless of gender).

To give you a head start, here are some top tips:

1. The number one golden rule for preparing for an anaesthetic is no food after midnight (this does not apply to rabbits or guinea pigs). Also, some practices may give you an earlier time say nine or ten o’clock but the principle is still the same, basically no midnight feasts and no breakfast. The reason for this is two fold. The main reason is to stop your pet vomiting and potentially inhaling it. This can also prevent nausea on recovery. Another reason is to try and prevent any ‘accidents’ on the operating table which increases the risk of contaminating the surgical environment although to safe guard against this, some practices routinely give enemas and express bladders before surgery. So, while it breaks your heart to tuck in to steak and chips with Fido giving you the big brown eyes treatment console yourself with the knowledge that you are actually acting in his best interests to help minimise the risk of anaesthetic.

2. Give your pet the opportunity to relieve himself before coming into the surgery. Obviously this is easier with dogs but while we advise taking dogs for a walk before coming in we don’t mean a five mile hike on the beach with a swim in the sea, we mean a nice gentle walk around the block to encourage toileting. If you bring your dog in covered in dirt and sea water, you’re increasing the anaesthetic risk as we have to keep him asleep longer while we prep him. (See my previous article about how we prepare your pet for a surgical procedure).

3. Tell the nurse when she is admitting him whether you have noticed any unusual behaviour. Vomiting, diarrhoea, coughing or sneezing can all be indicators of problems and may need to be investigated prior to anaesthesia. Also tell the nurse if your pet is on any medication, when he last had it and bring it with you if you can. This way, if your pet needs to stay in after his operation, they will have everything he needs without adding extra to your bill.

Harvey blanket1. Some pets get a little worried when in a new place so it may be helpful to bring in a jumper of yours or a blanket that smells like home. Be prepared for this to come home dirty! Some animals have accidents on recovery and with some of the larger practices getting through over fifteen loads of washing a day (with different people doing the laundry) it may not be possible to locate your blanket once it has disappeared into the washing room abyss. It does help tremendously if the blanket is labelled with your name. That way, if it does enter the washing room, it can be found again. Eventually. Obviously with smaller practices it’s much easier to keep track of individual items.

1. Give the practice a phone number that you can be contacted on. This is something that has surgeons and nurses tearing their hair out on a regular basis. All too often we’re given a phone number only to call it and hear a message saying that the mobile phone has been switched off or to hang on the end of a ringing phone. The reason behind this is sometimes we need to contact you during surgery because we have found something unusual or that we weren’t expecting and need to gain your consent to a change of procedure. It’s your pet and your decision and we want you to be involved every step of the way but we need to be able to speak to you to do that. I’m not saying you need to be sat by your phone from the minute you drop your pet off but please give a phone number that you or someone who can get hold of you will answer. Or at the very least, a answering machine that you check regularly.

1. Have faith in your veterinary team! If they suggest extra procedures such as intravenous fluids or blood sampling it’s because they think it would benefit your pet. I had one incident where a long haired cat was coming in to be sedated and lion clipped (shaved basically as his hair was matted). As he was over eight years old and hadn’t had a blood test I suggested a basic profile just to check what the liver and kidneys were doing. The blood tests revealed elevated kidney values which meant that there was some degree of kidney disease present. Finding this early meant that we were able to recommend a special diet to help slow the degeneration down (it’s never reversible) and the cat is now more likely to be monitored before he gets too ill. 70% of the kidney needs to be affected before clinical signs appear, wouldn’t you want to know before it gets to that point? Also, if we can see there’s an irregularity before we do the surgery, we can provide additional care to further minimise the risk.

1. Ask questions. We would much rather sit with you and explain away your concerns than have you sit at home or at work worrying. Also, if you are going to search the internet for information about the procedure your pet is having, please use reputable sources such as this one or ones written by the veterinary profession. The last thing you need to be reading is a blog by Joe Smith (fictional) about his one off experience about x, y or z and scaring yourself silly. The whole process is stressful enough, don’t torture yourself!

Indie1. Bring your pet in suitably restrained. A cat needs to be in a cat carrier and a dog needs to be on a lead. A cat wrapped in a towel can easily become dinner for nervous, hungry German Shepherd. Don’t laugh, I’ve seen it happen! Yes this is a minority case but why put your pet at risk? We can’t predict how our pets will react in stressful situations (and coming to the vets certainly counts) so keep everybody safe by having control over your animal. Putting a cat in a carrier usually minimises their stress anyway as they feel safer and more secure and having your dog on a lead means that you can prevent him from bolting out of the door and on to the road.

9. That’s it! You are now fully prepared! Give your pet to the nurse to settle in and walk out the door. That’s actually easier said than done but in order to make this a smooth transition for your pet you need to be calm about it. Animals are very good at picking up stress and will become more worried about the situation the more worried you are. Obviously if your pet is aggressive the nurses may ask you to pop him in his kennel for them but the majority of veterinary professionals are more than capable of handling any type of animal and if you hand them the lead and walk out the door, nine times out of ten the dog will stare out of the door after you for a second or two then follow the nice sounding nurse who is being very enthusiastic and telling him what a good doggie he is through the door to the surgery. Don’t forget that we nurses are masters of cajoling and soothing. We have to work with vets as well after all!

If you are worried about a problem with your pet, please talk to your vet or try our Interactive Symptom Guide to check how urgent the problem may be.

More Useful Information

Examining your pet

Simple ways to check the health of your pet. Vets use these techniques as part of their clinical examiniation.

Medicating your pet

Arming you with the same simple techniques for stress free pill giving.

Worming & Flea Treatment

Information and advice in treating your pet for worms and fleas.