Don’t be fooled by your cat’s independence, vets are urging owners to check the welfare needs of our feline friends which often get overlooked.
By Justine Shotton, Senior Vice President, British Veterinary Association
We love cats. A few minutes flicking through Instagram and the thousands of cat pictures, videos and memes posted each week tells us everything we need to know about how much we revere our feline companions. It’s strange then that despite being the unrivalled stars of the internet, vets are reporting around a quarter of the cats they see are not having their welfare needs met, according to data from the British Veterinary Association’s most recent Voice of the Veterinary Profession survey.
Cat owners are passionate about their moggies, so what’s going on? One explanation could be that we are all being fooled by the fierce independence and somewhat aloof nature cats display. Whilst they don’t need daily walks like their dog counterparts, there are some key considerations needed to ensure cats are happy and healthy.
WHAT WE FEED CATS MATTERS
Just like us, cats need a complete and nutritionally balanced diet to stay fit, strong and be able to fight disease. Two fifths of vets say obesity is among the most pressing health and welfare issues affecting cats in the UK right now, reporting a significant increase in the number of overweight cats coming into practices with illness and issues directly linked to weight gain.
What we feed our cats matters. Cats are obligate carnivores and require essential nutrients, such as taurine and preformed vitamin A, many of which are found in meat. Alternative diets are becoming increasingly popular, with pet owners seeking to be more environmentally sustainable and prioritise animal welfare for all species. However, there is currently insufficient life-long scientific evidence to support feeding cats a vegetarian or vegan diet. More research is ongoing, but it’s currently much harder to get the balance of nutrients right when feeding your cat a non-traditional diet. It’s important to speak to your vet to discuss the nutritional needs of your feline friend.
Whether you opt for wet or dry food, or a combination of both, make sure you feed your cat the correct quantities for their age and size. Keep treats to a minimum. I know it can be hard to resist giving your cat a bit more dinner or a few more treats when they are mewing at your feet – but saying no now will be kinder in the long run.
If your cat’s appetite doesn’t seem to be satisfied by their recommended food allowance, speak to your vet. It could be a sign your cat needs worming or might suggest more serious underlying issues, like inflammatory bowel disease.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PLAY
Keeping cats active and encouraging natural behaviours is essential to physical and mental well-being. Ensure your cat has plenty of stimulation of predatory play – this can also reduce unwanted hunting behaviour and your cat bringing in wildlife. Cat trees, scratching posts and toys all encourage natural behaviour.
If cats are to be kept solely indoors, it is vital owners provide additional mental stimulation and opportunities for play. Owners of indoor only cats should be particularly alert to signs of stress such as urine spraying or cystitis. Ideally, providing outdoor access will allow your cat to express more of its natural behaviours and the freedom they value – but remember to ensure they are fully vaccinated, micro-chipped and neutered before letting them roam.
Vaccinating your cat will keep them safe from a whole host of diseases, including feline infectious enteritis, which causes severe, life-threatening gastro-enteritis; feline herpes virus which can cause respiratory problems; and feline leukaemia virus, which affects the immune system.
If you travel with your cat internationally, you’ll also need to get them rabies vaccinated. Most of these conditions are not easily treatable, so prevention is key to protecting your pet. It’s essential to spay your cat to prevent unwanted litters. Kittens can become pregnant at just four months, so make sure you speak to your vet at their kitten vaccination appointments to get this booked in.
It’s really important to know that cats in general are most content being the only cat in the household. They are naturally solitary animals, with defined territories, and having many cats in one household often leads to aggressive behaviour sparked by anxiety as they struggle to find the space they need, particularly for unrelated individuals. You don’t have to worry about your cat being lonely – finding a companion cat for your kitty could actually make them very stressed. Stress and anxiety in cats as a result of living in a multi-cat household is among the top three cat welfare concerns reported by vets.
Signs of stress in cats include cystitis and spraying – if you have more than one cat in a household, make sure you provide multiple areas for each cat to retreat to, and have at least one more food bowl, water bowl and litter tray in the house than the number of cats (e.g. have three litter trays for two cats).
Keeping cats’ teeth healthy is really important. Cats don’t get cavities like we do (from too much sugar, for example), but commonly get gingivitis (inflammation of the gums) due to plaque and tartar build-up, as well as other feline dental issues such as stomatitis and resorption of teeth. For most dental conditions, tooth extractions under general anaesthetic are the best way to ensure your cat isn’t in chronic pain, and to prevent worsening infections or conditions.
Vets always recommend brushing your cat’s teeth daily. Believe it or not, cats tolerate brushing reasonably well, so it’s best to start trying it out from the time they are kittens. There is some evidence that feeding dry food may help to keep cats’ teeth healthy, but there are other advantages of wet food too – so do talk to your vet who will be able to advise you based on your cat’s health, age and lifestyle, as to what diet is best.
Don’t forget cats should also be taken for regular veterinary checks, where your vet will also check the health of your cat’s teeth.
DEALING WITH TICKS AND FLEAS
Most cats will come into contact with fleas at some point and they can be a chronic source of irritation. Speak to your vet for advice on your cat’s level of risk for fleas, ticks, and other parasites such as worms – they’ll be able to advise you which treatments are best for your cat’s needs, taking into account their individual circumstances and considering factors such as the number and range of animals and people in your home, your cat’s lifestyle and their temperament. Please be aware that some products, particularly those only appropriate for dogs, that contain permethrin, can cause serious health problems or even death in cats, so always talk to your vet before giving your cat any medicine or treatment.
Tick prevention and removal is also important, so speak to your vet about the risks to your pet in your area based on their lifestyle. If you find any ticks on them, remove them completely using a commercially available tick-remover or fine-pointed tweezers (taking care not to leave the head), even if they are dead – your vet can show you how to do this.
If you have any question about keeping your cat healthy, speak to your vet. They will always be happy to recommend steps you can take to prevent issues arising. And remember, it might seem like cats are a ‘low maintenance’ pet, but good care and attention to preventative health with ensure you give you cat its best life and prevent the onset of much more serious and expensive issues later down the line.
BVA is the largest membership community for the veterinary profession in the UK. We represent the views of over 18,000 vets and vet students on animal health and welfare, and veterinary policy issues to government, parliamentarians and key influencers in the UK and EU.
For more information visit www.bva.co.uk