Health Topics

Common Myths About Feline Health and Behaviour

(This article was originally published in the July / August 2012 Issue of Pets Magazine and is reproduced here with the permission of the publisher.)

By: Dr Rosalyn J. Macdonald, DVM - Bytown Cat Hospital, Ottawa, ON

As a feline veterinarian, I encounter cats and their people on a daily basis. Over the course of my career, I have gained many insights into these unique creatures, and have been able to shed some light on some issues that can be frustrating - and even dangerous - for both cat and owner. Here are nine common issues that I frequently come across. There are more, of course, but the point is to never assume you can tell everything that's going on with your companion. Remember: regular veterinary care, and never being afraid to ask questions, is key to a healthy, lively cat!

Myth: If a cat is purring, it means he is happy.

Fact: All of us who have cats in our lives are familiar with the contented cat and his purr. What causes the purring sound is a bit of a mystery - we know that most cats purr when they are very happy (some will even drool at the same time), but it is not always a sign of happiness. Cats often purr when under extreme stress or when they are in pain. It is theorized that a cat's purr is symbolic of comfort, and so purring may come when he needs it (as in the case of pain or illness), or when he has found it (e.g., sitting on your lap).

Myth: When a cat is meowing, he must be hungry.

Fact: Cats meow for a wide variety of reasons, not simply because they want food. If indeed the cat is acutally hungry, it is never a good idea to feed him "on demand;" rather, it is better to provide a measured quantity of food that is allowable for the day. Giving food each time the cat meows will lead to overfeeding and obesity, and will train your cat to repeat the meowing behaviour. Consider the possiblility that your cat is trying to interact with you for play or attention, and try a little distraction from the food bowls. Keep a toy and a grooming comb on hand. You will quickly find out whether your cat is hungry or simply bored.

Myth: My cat is really overweight, so it's safe if she doesn't eat for a few days.

Fact: Any cat whose food intake is suddenly reduced is at risk for a life-threatening illness known as "fatty liver" (hepatic lipidosis). It is not normal for a cat to stop eating. The risk of developing fatty liver disease is particularly high in overweight and obese cats. Always discuss any changes in appetite or food intake with your veterinarian promptly. This problem can also occur when you try to put her on a diet and cut back the food too quickly. Your veterinarian can help you make a plan for safe weight loss for your kitty.

Myth: I would know if my cat were in pain.

Fact: Cats are good at masking some types of pain for a long period of time. For her, it is a matter of survival. For example, in middle-aged and older cats, it is very common to see decaying teeth on physical examination. These decaying teeth have exposed nerves, and are very sensitive to touch. However, these changes have coccured gradually, and she has had to learn to tolerate this discomfort and pain in order to survive and continue to eat. It is quite likely that no changes in her eating habits will be noticed despite the pain.

Sometimes, cats will show signs consistent with pain that you may think are the result of old age. General indications that your cat may have pain are: change in attitude (less playful), change in sleeping habits (sleeping more or shifting positions frequently), change in litter box habits and change in appetite. An annual physical exam (or semi-annual in a geriatric cat) will help ensure that your cat does not live with chronic pain.

Myth: Cats experience loss of blood related to their "heat" cycle.

Fact: Although vaginal bleeding is a normal part of a dog's heat cycle, it is never normal to see blood from your cat. Potential causes of blood at the hind end are anal sac infection or abscess, cat bite abscess, trauma, blood from the bowel or urinary tract and pyometra (a uterine infection) in unspayed cats. In a pregnant cat, blood may indicate loss of the pregnancy. It is important to have your cat examined by a veterinarian if you ever see evidence of bleeding.

Myth: It is important for a cat to have at least one litter before being spayed.

Fact: There are many downsides - and no upside - to your cat having a litter. If your cat becomes pregnant, it means she has been exposed to a number of serious health risks. Even a single heat cycle exposes her to a marked increase in the chances that she will get a serious cancer of the mammary tissue later in life.

The second risk in getting pregnant is spread of the feline retroviruses, feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). They are serious and life-threatening infections typically spread through mating or biting activities.

In addition to a direct negative impact on your cat's health, the pregnancy will result in kittens, contributing to serious overpopulation issues.

Myth: My cats won't mate with each other - they are from the same litter.

Fact: Cats have no preconceived notions about who they should and shouldn't mate with. Their sexual behaviour is influenced by three main things: hormones, instinct and availability. Do not assume that your cats will not mate simply because they are related.

Myth: My cat is never outdoors, so she doesn't need any vaccinations.

Fact: Just like the common cold that affects people, some cat viruses are airborne or transmitted by fomites (for example, your shoes or clothing). The "core" vaccination that every cat sould have is known as FVRCP, and the vaccination schedule will be determined by your veterinarian. Another virus of particular note is rabies. An indoor cat has a low risk of contact with rabies, but not a zero risk. It is not uncommon for a bat to enter a house or an appartment, and bring the risk right into your home. Vaccination against this virus is mandatory in many jurisdictions.

Myth: I need to have my cat declawed to protect my furniture.

Fact: Cats love to scratch! There is no denying this basic fact. However, if you understand the reasons for the scratching behaviour, you can protect both your sanity and your furniture without declawing the cat. Cats will scratch for three main reasons:

  • As a dominance behaviour, to mark the object with a "scent" from their foot pads.
  • To remove the outer sheath from the claw.
  • To have a good stretch.

In order to accomplish these objectives, the object being scratched needs to meet certain criteria:

  • It must be sturdy enough to catch the claws without toppling over on him when he scratches it.
  • It must be in an area socially relevant to the humans and other cats in the house.
  • It must be tall enough to enable a good strectch.

Now think about the unused scratch post you have in your home - is it tucked away in a corner? Does it wobble a little from side-to-side? Is it tall enough for your cat to stand on his hind legs and reach up with his front ones? From the cat's point of view, your sofa meets all the criteria perfectly and there is the added bonus of attention (eye contact, vocal acknoledgement) when caught scratching it. Irresitible! If you attempt to make the scratching post fit the criteria and reward your cat when he shows interest in it, he will quickly learn to use the post to meet his needs. If the post seems acceptable to you, but not to your cat, consider using plastic nail covers or frequent nail trims to avoid damage to your belongings.