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Brush up on your feline facts, veterinary team members, while you disabuse your well-meaning but ill-informed cat clients of some feline fallacies. Dont miss the client handout at the end!
Approximately 8,000 years ago, cats started living close to the farming communities in the Fertile Crescent, where they were tolerated for the mutually beneficial rodent control they provided. Since then, cats have been revered, reviled and everything in between. Their self-reliant nature differs from that of the pack/social species they live with, and they domesticated themselves rather than being domesticated by us.1 This mysterious origin has led to some myths about domestic cats. Here are a few things veterinary clients with cats might say-and the real feline truth. Bet you'll learn something you didn't know that your cat owners would love to find out.
At the end of this article, you'll find a handy-dandy client handout highlighting some of these myths.
Myths about cats not needing any special care
1. ‘Cats are low-maintenance companions'
“You can leave cats alone over the weekend,” say some cat owners. But cats actually like company, when they choose it. No different than people, every cat is an individual with its own personality that's partly inherent and partly shaped by its experiences and environment.
2. ‘Cats just need food, water, litter and a place to sleep'
That's all true, but it's just as important how many sets of these resources there are and where those resources are located. Food shouldn't be placed near water or the litter box. The litter box and water dish need to be fresh. Cats don't just need a place to sleep; they also need a way to observe their environment, exercise, express predatory behaviors and hide when they feel threatened.2
3. ‘I know when my cat's sick'
Actually, maybe not. Cats evolved to hunt and feed themselves independent from others, and because this requires traveling in potentially unsafe locations and possibly becoming prey for other species, cats are superb at hiding vulnerability that accompanies illness. In fact, by the time a cat shows subtle signs of sickness, it's likely been ill for some time. Therefore, it's important that we learn these understated cues and teach them to our clients.3
What's the deal with cats' eyes?
Cats are crepuscular (most active at dawn and dusk), and their eyes do have advantages over ours. They have a reflector (tapetum lucidum) that gives them an edge to see better in dim light than we can. Additionally, cats have a high proportion of rods in their eyes, which allows them to see in about one-sixth the amount of light than we can. But they can't see in complete darkness.
In some ways, cats don't see as well as we do: they can't see far objects (they don't need to for the type of prey they hunt), and they don't see the same detail and richness of color. But thanks to their acute senses of smell and hearing, as well as their speed and agility, they can detect prey but also escape quickly if they notice a predator close by.
4. ‘Using a laser and proper analgesia protocol ensures a smooth recovery after declawing.'
Sadly, this isn't the case. Regardless of technique and even excellent analgesia used, the anatomic relationships of those delicate feet are permanently altered following onychectomy, resulting in unnatural alignment and musculoskeletal compensation. Worse, however, is that nerves have been cut and those nerves and the surrounding tissue are forever damaged and can cause chronic neuropathic pain. Regardless, it has been shown that the behaviors of many cats change after being declawed.4
5. ‘Indoor cats don't need to be vaccinated'
Indoor cats need to be vaccinated as often as cats that go outside. The same is true for deworming, external parasite control and regular preventive healthcare visits to the veterinarian. Regarding vaccinations, cats at higher risk include those who board, travel or live in shelters. But this pervasive belief isn't just held by cat parents; some veterinary teams also believe it.
While Fluffy may not be free-range, his owner may fail to take into consideration potential contact with other animals on the balcony, rooftop patio, walks on a harness, in a catio enclosure, visits to an apartment neighbor down the hall, boarding, traveling, holidays with family and visits to the veterinary clinic.
6. ‘Cats always land on their feet'
Except when they don't. While cats have a remarkable ability to twist in midair to position for a feet-first touch down (thanks to their “righting reflex” and a flexible spine), there are times when they don't quite stick the landing. How embarrassing! High-rise syndrome, where cats fall from two stories or higher but survive, may still result in facial, dental and hard palate fractures; limb fractures and dislocations; trauma to the thorax; and shock.5
Myths about indoor (and outdoor) cats
7. ‘Cats don't need to go outside. They're perfectly happy inside'
It's true that keeping cats strictly indoors has become accepted as the responsible way to keep them safe in North America, but in many other countries it is believed that this results in boredom. By restricting or preventing outdoor access, we reduce hazardous encounters with cars and the accompanying worries for veterinary clients. Additionally, keeping cats indoors prevents deaths of small wildlife. But it isn't necessarily benign for the cat. We know that a lot of the chronic and recurrent illnesses that cats get are affected by distress that may accompany confinement if a cat isn't able to express its “catness.”6,7 As long as we house cats indoors, we need to counsel clients on what a cat needs to be able to express normal feline behaviors.8-12 (Your really enterprising cat clients might want to build their own “catio.”)
8. ‘Indoor cats aren't at risk for fleas or ticks'
Fleas and ticks hitch a ride into the house on dogs, and ticks hitch rides on people who've been hiking or out in the woods. With climate change, ticks are also being found in greater numbers and in different regions than previously seen. Models predict that with warming winters, suitable climates will be available throughout most of the United States and Canada.13 Ticks can also catch a ride on migrating birds from more southern climes.14
Fleas, of course, love to take up residence in homes, regardless of the weather outside. High-risk situations for flea infestation include outdoor access, living with other animals that go outside and living in pet-dense environments, including apartment buildings. Diagnosis of fleas on cats can be elusive due to the cat's fastidious grooming habits. Risks to cats include anemia, pruritic skin diseases and outright flea allergy.
Clients should be cautioned to use feline-specific products, because some retail and prescription flea or tick products for dogs may be toxic to cats.
9.‘Indoor cats don't get heartworms'
All cats, even indoor cats, living in regions with mosquitoes carrying Dirofilaria immitis are at risk for heartworm. Knowing the travel history and possibility of exposure in a heartworm area is important.15 (Seriously, you should be talking about feline heartworms.)
Myths about pregnancies-those of cats and their people
10. ‘It's better for her if she has one litter before being spayed'
This old chestnut comes from the same line of thinking that a woman isn't fulfilled until she has a child. A similar myth is that a cat should have at least one estrus cycle before being spayed.
The numbers are in and given how high they are, we can conclusively state that early spaying (and castration) at 6 to 12 weeks of age not only prevents pet overpopulation (and all of the hazards and deprivation that can be part of that lifestyle), but also does not affect growth rate, urethral diameter or behavior. One study did report, however, that early castrated males were “better pets” because they were less likely to wander and were more timid.16
Do vets believe the myth, “Cat owners won't change”?
Well, this one can be true. After all, educating people only goes so far. We need to make it easier for veterinary clients to change their behavior. If we're serious about changing outcomes, we need to enroll people in making small, painless, incremental changes. That requires that we check up on their progress and that we are committed to their success. Remember the adage: They don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.
11. ‘Pregnant women should get rid of their cats'
Contact with cats does not increase the risk of Toxoplasma gondii infection,17 as cats shedding oocysts in feces are rare, and these oocysts do not become infectious for 24 hours.18
Women can use pregnancy as an excuse to have someone else scoop the litter, but in reality, if feces is removed at least once a day and hands are washed after scooping, there is no risk. The same criteria apply for persons with compromised immune systems.
If your clients are still nervous about it, share this handout from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Myths about cat nutrition
12. ‘Cats only eat as much as they need'
Define “need.” The assumption is that “need” is strictly metabolic or physiologic, but stress eating is just as much a thing in cats as it is in people. So is eating out of boredom. The diets we feed our cats are so calorically dense that it's difficult to stay within caloric budget. Canned food is less dense but, because of spoilage, isn't usually left out all the time.
Endless free refills are a real problem. Bowl feeding isn't a challenge to a bored cat. Feeding puzzles and devices are far better suited for cats as they engage their innate curiosity. A cat's drive to hunt is permanently turned on, so things that make them think and induce their play and predatory behavior are good.19-21 But just because a cat is foraging for food, it's still possible to become overweight. Teach clients how to measure or weigh the amount of food offered.
13. ‘Cats can be vegan'
While cats do well eating a certain amount of plant material, they're obligate carnivores. They need meat. They are designed to hunt, and they need taurine, arachidonic acid, fatty acids and vitamins that are only found in sufficient amounts and in a form that cats can use in animal products.
14. ‘It's best for cats to eat raw meat'
Sure, if they eat the whole carcass, freshly killed, without having it cut up, handled, contaminated, refrigerated or transported. If one of your veterinary clients is willing to kill, or let their cat kill, multiple mice or small birds a day, then this mode of feeding works. Otherwise, there's a real risk for nutritional imbalance.
Cats fed raw food pose an infectious disease risk to children, kittens, elderly people, other cats and those who are immunocompromised in the home. The organisms of particular concern include Salmonella spp., Campylobacter, Clostridium difficile, C. perfringens, C. botulinum, Escherichia coli, Yersinia enterocolitica, Listeria monocytogenes and enterotoxigenic Staphylococcus aureus. Some veterinary clinics refuse to hospitalize cats or dogs fed raw food for the aforementioned reasons.
15. ‘Cats need milk'
Weaned cats do not need milk, although they may enjoy it. Kittens have plenty of lactase to digest their queen's milk. As they're weaned, however, their ability to digest milk may decline, resulting in gastrointestinal upset. Some cats tolerate cow's milk lifelong; others are not so fortunate.
16. ‘Grain is bad for cats, and they don't need carbohydrates'
Neither is true. The daily energy intake from a cat's native diet is about 52% crude protein, 46% fat and 2% nitrogen-free extract (the fraction that contains the sugars and starches plus small amounts of other nutrients).22 One study showed that when a cat is able to “get into the kitchen and design their own menu,” it will consist of 52% protein, 36% fat and 12% carbohydrate.23 And the types of carbohydrates that cats eat: grains eaten by their prey.
Myths about cat behavior and personality
17. ‘You can't train cats'
Sure you can. Cats, like almost anyone, will perform a desired behavior or behavior pattern if they receive a positive result in exchange. Unlike dogs or people, however, because cats have a lower “need” for companionship or acceptance they will perform their “tricks” when they feel like it. Plus, they get distracted readily. Check out these cats on America's Got Talent. Practical applications for cat training include teaching cats to love their carriers. A recent study showed that this reduced stress for cats visiting veterinary clinics.24 Here are some links:
18. ‘If they're purring, they're happy'
Kittens purr as young as 2 days of age, and they often purr while kneading-that massage that stimulates milk flow. A purring cat may be expressing contentment, but this behavior may also be for other reasons. Purring releases endorphins. So, a cat in pain may purr to self-medicate. Like a smile, it may also be an attempt at appeasement in a “threatening” situation when they're scared. Some cats use a “soliciting” purr that runs at similar frequencies to those of a crying baby to get their people (or maybe other cats) to provide them with something they want: attention, food, a warm body. Finally, normal purrs vibrate at a frequency that assists physical healing, a kind of physiotherapy. It has been suggested that this frequency is especially helpful for bone remodeling.
Centuries-old cat myths
The magazine Mental Floss published some legends and myths about cats, the good and the bad, from around the world:
“Cats steal a baby's breath.” (England)
“Cats are scorned women who like to eat babies.” (Jewish mythology)
“They'll eat you for Christmas dinner.” (Iceland)
“Cats caused the Black Death.” (Europe)
“Cats are urns for the souls of very holy humans.” (Buddhism)
“Cats predict the weather.” (England and Wales)
“Pregnant women shouldn't pick up a cat or let them sleep in their lap.” (Portugal and England)
19. ‘Cats hate dogs, water, other cats, people … '
Cats are self-reliant, making them-unless they're indoor-only-less dependent on humans for their physical resources. They've also evolved to function in solitude, making them less emotionally dependent. This doesn't mean, however, that they won't build intense emotional bonds with other cats, people, dogs or even other species. (They're unlikely to become co-dependent, though.)
Cats are small predators, but they're also prey, so their default survival mechanism is to be wary of anyone who isn't part of their family. This includes other cats. The socialization period, during which cats learn to be comfortable with things, is between 2 and 7 (or 8) weeks of age. They can still learn to adapt beyond this period, but exposure and situations need to be safe and repeated for trust to develop.
Most cats aren't fans of water. Perhaps this is a result of their desert origins. Yet some will drink from a running faucet and let water run over their heads. Some like to go swimming. The Turkish Van breed is noted for its affinity for water. Other breeds that supposedly like water (or dislike it less) are Turkish Angora, Maine Coon, Norwegian Forest Cat, Bengal, bobtails (American and Japanese) and Manx.
Ready for that client handout? It's right after the references!
1. Smith C. Cats domesticated themselves ancient DNA shows. Available at: https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/06/domesticated-cats-dna-genetics-pets-science/. Accessed June 21, 2019.
2. Ellis SL, Rodan I, Carney HC, et al. AAFP and ISFM feline environmental needs guidelines. J Feline Med Surg 2013;15(3):219-230.
3. Subtle signs of sickness. Available at: www.haveweseenyourcatlately.com/Health_and_Wellness.html. Accessed June 21, 2019.
4. Martell-Moran NK, Solano M, Townsend HG. Pain and adverse behavior in declawed cats. J Feline Med Surg 2018;20(4):280-288.
5. Vnuk D, Pirkic B, Maticic D, et al. Feline high-rise syndrome: 119 cases (1998–2001). J Feline Med Surg 2004;6(5):305-312. &
6. Amat M, Camps T, Manteca X. Stress in owned cats: behavioural changes and welfare implications. J Feline Med Surg 2016;18(8):577-586.
7. Slingerland LI, Fazilova VV, Plantinga EA, et al. Indoor confinement and physical inactivity rather than the proportion of dry food are risk factors in the development of feline type 2 diabetes mellitus. Vet J 2009;179(2):247-253.
8. Scherk M. Optimizing an indoor lifestyle for cats. Vet Focus 2016;26(2):2-9.
9. Jongman EC. Adaptation of domestic cats to confinement. J Vet Behav Clin Appl Res 2007;2:193-196.
10. Wagner DC, Kass PH, Hurley KF. Cage size, movement in and out of housing during daily care, and other environmental and population health risk factors for feline upper respiratory disease in nine North American animal shelters. PloS One 2018;13(1):e0190140.
11. Gourkow N, Lawson JH, Hamon SC, et al. Descriptive epidemiology of upper respiratory disease and associated risk factors in cats in an animal shelter in coastal western Canada. Can Vet J 2013;54(2):132-138.
12. Buffington CA. External and internal influences on disease risk in cats. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2002;220 (7):994-1002.
13. Sonenshine DE. Range expansion of tick disease vectors in North America: implications for spread of tick-borne disease. Inl J Environ Res Public Health 2018;15(3):E478.
14. Ogden NH, Barker IK, Francis CM, et al. How far north are migrant birds transporting the tick Ixodes scapularis in Canada? Insights from stable hydrogen isotope analyses of feathers. Tick Tick Borne Dis 2015;6:715-720.
15. Five myths and misunderstandings. Available at: http://www.catwellness.org/article.asp?ID=1069. Accessed June 21, 2019.
16. Spain CV, Scarlett JM, Houpt KA. Long-term risks and benefits of early-age gonadectomy in cats. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2004;224(3):372-379.
17. Elmore SA, Jones JL, Conrad PA, et al. Toxoplasma gondii: epidemiology, feline clinical aspects and prevention. Trends Parasitol 2010;26(4):190-196.
18. Public health considerations. Available at: www.abcdcatsvets.org/toxoplasma-gondii-infection-2/#public-health-considerations. Accessed June 21, 2019.
19. Dantas LM, Delgado MM, Johnson I, et al. Food puzzles for cats: feeding for physical and emotional wellbeing. J Feline Med Surg 2016;18(9):723-732.
20. Food Puzzles for Cats. Available at: www.foodpuzzlesforcats.com.
21. Sadek T, Hamper B, Horwitz D, et al. Feline feeding programs: addressing behavioral needs to improve feline health and wellbeing. J Feline Med Surg. 2018;20(11):1049-1055.
22. Plantinga EA, Bosch G, Hendriks WH. Estimation of the dietary nutrient profile of free-roaming feral cats: possible implications for nutrition of domestic cats. Br J Nutr 2011;106(S1):S35-S48.
23. Hewson-Hughes AK, Hewson-Hughes VL, Miller AT, et al. Geometric analysis of macronutrient selection in the adult domestic cat, Felis catus. J Exp Biol. 2011;214(6):1039-1051.
24. Pratsch L, Mohr N, Palme R, et al. Carrier training cats reduces stress on transport to a veterinary practice. Appl Anim Behav Sci. 2018:206:64-74.
Click here to download the handout.