Saturday, December 20, 2008

Why We Spay/Neuter Our Cats

Now that the City of Los Angeles has passed an ordinance requiring that cats and dogs over the age of four months be spayed/neutered, it is of course the law that we do so. But long before any such law was passed we still had plenty of reasons to do so, and NO good reasons not to. And because this weekend is the Winter Solstice (a very auspicious date in the feline reproductive calendar), what better time to address the subject?

Cats are seasonal breeders. The females begin coming into estrus ("heat") when the days start getting longer at the solstice. Intact male cats pick up on olfactory and behavioral cues and get rather testy about defending their turf from other males (and other cats in general) when the breeding season begins. So this time of year we hear a lot of caterwauling and fighting outdoors, and abscesses due to bite wounds skyrocket in frequency.

Spaying (ovariohysterectomy in females) and neutering (can apply to either but generally used to refer to castrating males) are important in avoiding cat fights and the resulting injury and illness. Of course, they are also the means by which we decrease pet overpopulation. Few people can take much in the way of a female cat in heat's yowling and carrying-on, and fewer still can tolerate the pungent reek of intact tomcat urine - fortunately neutering solves these problems.

Male cats, if not neutered in a timely manner, WILL begin to spray their urine as a territorial marking behavior. And female cats if allowed to go through repeated heat cycles will be at drasticallly increased risk for mammary cancer down the road.

Our recommendation is to neuter the males at 8 months of age. We feel that it is critical for them to approach puberty - sex hormones are importent in physical development and neutering too early puts the cat at risk of hip fractures, urinary obstruction, and possibly obesity and diabetes. It is extremely rare for tomcats to begin spraying before 10-12 months, so we have a margin of safety built in (and if spraying does begin, neutering stops it cold in 99% of cases).

We advise owners to spay female cats at 6 months of age - most cats will not be coming into estrus before that age, and if they do it need not delay the surgery at all. It is very important to keep them indoors at all times until they have been spayed because we do NOT want them to get pregnant - spaying a pregnant cat can be very expensive and quite dangerous for her.

If you live in the City of Los Angeles and are concerned about running afoul of the new ordinance by delaying surgery, please feel free to discuss this with me. I put a premium on doing the surgery at the time that is most medically appropriate for my individual patients, and can issue a letter of exemption provided that you follow my advice on when to do the procedure and keeping the cat indoors at all times beforehand.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Have a Happy (and safe) Holiday!

Help your kitties enjoy the holidays safely by keeping them away from potential problems during this special time.

Food/Beverages: All alcohol is toxic to cats and should never be given to them. Homemade eggnog is rich enough to cause an upset tummy even if it isn't the homemade version potentially contaminated with Salmonella bacteria. "People" food is a bad idea in general because of its tendency to cause vomiting/diarrhea. And put that turkey wishbone in a safe place to avoid choking a sneaky cat on the prowl. After people finish the big meal, a small (1 tbsp) snack of roast turkey breast is okay for our feline friends in most cases.

Holiday Plants: Poinsettias, while not actually poisonous, contain a highly irritating sap which can cause vomiting so severe it can require days of hospitalization so keep them out of reach. Water in Christmas tree stands contains pine resins which can cause liver damage - keep it covered securely so kitty can't drink it. Holly, mistletoe, and lilies of all kinds are extremely poisonous to cats.

Potential Foreign Bodies: Tinsel and ribbons pose not just a choking hazard, but most importantly can tangle in and slice up a cat's intestines if swallowed, causing fatal injury. Never allow a cat access to any of these "linear foreign bodies". Styrofoam, "angel hair", and small ornaments can cause intestinal blockage or injury. Ornament hooks and thin glass ornaments can cause mouth lacerations if chewed on and deadly injury if swallowed.

Toxins: Old bubbling lights and decorative fireplace salts contain very toxic chemicals. If you have candles burning, keep your matches where the cat cannot chew on them. Potpourri oil simmering pots are dangerous because the liquid is caustic - we treated a cat with terrible chemical burns in its mouth a few years ago due to licking at potpourri liquid.

Gifts: Give your cat safe toys such as small mice, plastic bell balls, crinkly mylar balls, small stuffed fabric objects, and of course catnip! Avoid toys with tiny loose parts, any linear material longer than 2 inches, or toys made of sisal rope. If you give kitty a fishing pole-type toy with fish (or mouse) attached, remember that this type of plaything is for adult-supervised play only, and must be stowed securely where kitty cannot get at it afterwards because the "fishing line" is just another linear foreign body waiting to happen.

Don't let all these potential hazards scare you - it is possible, with a little advance planning, to have a very merry Christmas, and a happy and safe one for kitty!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Keeping Your Adult Cat Healthy

Cats between the ages of one and eight are physically in their prime. Subtle changes can, however, occur in healthy-appearing adults that may lead to trouble later. For example, up to 50% of cats seen by veterinarians are overweight or have dental disease. These and other conditions pose a threat to your cat’s health and need to be managed now, before they become advanced disabilities.

Some risk factors for disease are inherited and so cannot be eliminated, but many such as inappropriate nutrition can be modified or eliminated. Your veterinarian will be able to discuss your pet’s risk factors based on history, physical examination, and results of diagnostic tests if performed. You also must play an important role by following your veterinarian’s advice to keep your cat healthy.


Annual examination: Routine annual examination can often detect early signs of illness during a treatable stage. Your veterinarian is trained to look for subtle physical evidence of disease, but cannot do it unless you actually bring the cat in to be examined!

Dental disease: Periodontal or gum disease is very common in cats over 2 years of age. Poor alignment of teeth (as in Persians) and consumption of canned foods are risk factors for dental disease. Your cat’s oral health can be managed by feeding dry food only, use of a damp cotton gauze on the teeth and gums daily (start training early in life), and professional cleaning/polishing as recommended by the veterinarian.

Vaccinations: Vaccinations are critical for preventing serious illness or death due to a number of dangerous viral diseases in cats. Housecats are almost as susceptible to infectious diseases as outdoor cats are because owners can track viruses into the home, cats can escape inadvertently, and contact with other cats can occur through screen doors or if an owner brings another cat into the home. We recommend annual vaccinations for distemper, respiratory infections, feline leukemia virus, and of course rabies.

Spaying/neutering: Please spay/neuter your cats in a timely manner. Females do not benefit from having a litter, and our animal shelters are terribly overburdened with unwanted pets. Spaying your cat while young is highly effective in preventing breast cancer. Male cats will fight, spray urine, spread FIV (a fatal virus), and become a neighborhood nuisance if not neutered. Though Los Angeles now requires spaying/neutering by four months of age, we find 6 months in females and 8 months in males is most medically appropriate and can provide a waiver until then.

Nutrition: The role of good nutrition in your cat’s health should never be underestimated. Far too many cases of urinary tract disease, intestinal disease, and skin trouble are completely avoidable by feeding only a high-quality diet such as Science Diet or Max Cat. Never feed your cat “people food”, table scraps, fish in any form, dairy products, garlic/onions, or generic cat food. Avoid canned cat food unless your veterinarian specifically recommends it. And of course never give your cats treats or supplements before discussing with your veterinarian.

Behavior: Inappropriate behavior is a leading cause of death in the cat due to euthanasia or abandonment, and much is tragically unnecessary. See your vet promptly in the event of a behavior problem, since many have their roots in disease (which can and should be treated), and most purely behavioral problems are quite treatable with environmental modifications and/or medication. Remember, the longer your cat’s behavior continues untreated, the less likely that any treatment will be effective.

Litter box: Provide your cat(s) with adequate toilet facilities. Cats are obsessively clean given half a chance, and you can avoid many behavioral and medical problems if you don’t slip up here. The rule of thumb for box count is: one per cat, plus one. If you have space to do this, DO. Use a top quality unscented scoopable litter (PetSmart’s Exquisicat Scoop is our favorite), scoop daily (dispose of scoopings in trash), keep the litter box away from the cat’s food/water and bedding, avoid using a cover on the box, and avoid the electric self-cleaning boxes (they frighten most cats).

Grooming: Good grooming is an important part of your cat’s overall health. While most cats groom themselves effectively, some need help in the way of combing and brushing, occasional shaving, and rarely bathing. Routine brushing allows you to notice skin lesions early, while they are small and easily treated. Be sure to bring any abnormalities to the doctor’s attention during your cat’s examination – they can be easily overlooked.

Environmental hazards: Outdoor cats live an average of only 2-3 years, while well-cared for housecats live an average of 15 years. Keep your cat indoors as much as possible, and make your home “cat safe”. Clean water, fresh food, a cozy home, proper exercise, a clean litter box, and loving human companions will all go a long way toward ensuring your cat a long healthy life.

Parasites: Cats are susceptible to a number of internal and external parasites depending on whether they stay in or go out, and how much time they spend outside. Some of these parasites are merely annoying, some are dangerous to your cat’s health, and some can be spread to humans who can then become seriously ill. Be sure to discuss parasite control with your veterinarian during your cat’s annual exam. Modern parasite controls are very safe and effective compared to what we had to rely on even 15 years ago.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

How to Feed Your Cat - Part 2 - Canned Food vs. Dry

I am frequently asked whether or not cats should be fed dry food (kibble) only, or canned food in addition to kibble. My answer in the case of normal, healthy cats is dry food only, with the caveat that it be a top quality dry food.

Poorly formulated dry food often contains fish meal of various types, always a no-no unless it's medically unavoidable, and also can have too much plant protein in proportion to animal protein. Fish sets the cat up for skin, urinary, and gastrointestinal problems (which can be dangerous and not merely annoying), and too much plant protein makes for urine that is too alkaline (can set up more urinary problems).

Canned food has its own inherent problems. It can lead to far too many vomiting and diarrhea complaints, leads to excessive dental problems (if you eat mush you get "mush mouth"), is a very expensive way to get calories into your cat, and has been linked to risk of hyperthyroidism.

There may be circumstances in your cat's life that call for canned food as part of a medical management plan, but for everyday feeding a well-chosen and top quality kibble is just fine. And in the majority of cases, free-feeding is acceptable.