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In my years as a veterinarian, I’ve given a lot of advice — in print, online, over the airwaves and on national TV and, yes, in person. Do this, not that. Avoid this, choose that. I've seen my colleagues do the same, over exam room tables, at conferences and in various forms of media. The other day, though, it struck me: Most of the advice we share is specific to dogs. I guess that makes sense — after all, dogs hit the road with us, on everything from walks around the block to cross-country tours. We take them out in all kinds of weather, so we have to worry about icy paws and overheating. We share our food with them, constantly. And we're always noticing things about their behavior that we want — or need — to fix.
But what about our cats?
Cats seem to do a better job of taking care of themselves — or do they? I started running through all the preventable problems cats run into, and I noticed that quite a few of them pop up like weeds as spring turns to summer. So, yes, your cat does need you.
Here are my top five feline seasonal risks and how to avoid them.
Toxic topicals: Products for fleas, ticks and mites that are made for dogs can kill your cat. My best advice is to ask your veterinarian for a product recommendation that’s safe and effective for felines and is a good fit for your specific cat. In most cases, your veterinarian will recommend an FDA- and/or EPA-approved product. That’s step one. Step two is up to you: Follow instructions to the letter and ask your vet if you have any questions. And if your cat has a reaction to the product, call your veterinarian immediately. (By the way, some flea-control products that are labeled “herbal” or “natural” can also kill your cat, so talk with your vet before trying any of these.)
Heartworm disease: When people think about parasites and cats, they’re typically thinking of fleas and maybe ear mites and possibly ticks, if you’re in an area that’s heavily infested. But what about heartworms? Dog owners are aware of the risks of these parasites, but they also affect cats. Coughing and difficult breathing may be a sign of heartworm disease, not just hairballs or asthma, as many cat owners assume. And while heartworm disease may present differently in cats than it does in dogs, prevention is key for both species. Ask your veterinarian for heartworm prevention recommendations.
Abscesses: The aftermath of a cat fight is often an abscess: a swollen, hot pocket of infection, pus and debris that often must be surgically treated, held open with drains and addressed with a course of antibiotics. Once you’ve nursed your cat through one abscess, you’re not going to want to repeat the experience. Neutering male cats will reduce fighting but won't completely eliminate territorial battles. The best way to avoid an abscessed wound is to keep your cat inside and out of harm's way.
Poisoning: While your cat is safer inside, the great indoors offers some hazards as well. Most cats are pickier than dogs about what they eat, which is why feline poisoning isn’t always as big a problem — but that’s not to say it doesn’t happen. Many cats love to eat plants, and some of those are toxic. Check your houseplants against the ASPCA's list of toxic plants to determine which ones could harm your cat, and then remove those that are a danger from any area your pet has access to. And just in case you miss one or two, or your cat finds herself in an off-limits part of your house, make sure your veterinarian’s number, the emergency veterinary clinic number and the number of the ASPCA's Animal Poison Control Center (APCC) are where you can find them instantly. (Note: The APCC charges for consultations, so have a credit card ready when you call.)
Falls: Many cats do fine with jumps or falls from relatively low heights, the kind that would be found in a typical feline environment. But the minute the weather warms up and apartment dwellers start opening their windows, cats risk taking a tumble, resulting in injury and death. It’s a miracle that cats can survive a fall at all, but their ability to rotate into an optimal “feet down” landing position has saved many a cat from a high-rise fall. Surprisingly, cats can — and do — survive falls from higher floors (although they are often severely injured), but a cat can be killed by a fall from a lower balcony or floor. How is this possible? The theory is that a couple of more floors may give a cat enough time to get into the best position for landing. There are limits, though: Nothing will save a cat who falls from 30 floors or so. The best prevention, no matter what floor you live on: sturdy, well-secured screens.
While this list covers some of the warmer weather hazards your cat can face, please keep in mind that probably the biggest risk to your cat’s health and happiness is obesity. Keeping cats indoors keeps them safe from many risks, but the sedentary lifestyle that often results can create other serious problems. A fat cat is not a healthy one. Check out The Indoor Pet Initiative, run by my colleague and longtime friend Dr. Tony Buffington of The Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. You’ll find plenty of ideas for indoor enrichment that will keep your cat more active. Exercise is essential for staying lean. If your cat is already overweight or obese, talk to your veterinarian and discuss how to slim your pet down safely. Summer is always a good time to start.
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