By Helen Anne Travis
As the emergency veterinary medicine team leader at BluePearl Veterinary Partners, Dr. Sonja Olson says she’s seen too many cats wind up in the emergency room with life-threatening injuries and health conditions that could have easily been prevented. In some cases, a few extra steps on the owner’s part could have saved the animal’s life.
While there will always be factors beyond our control, there are precautions we can take to protect our cats from sickness and stress, diseases, and dangerous situations. Here are 11 things you can start doing for your cat today to help her live a longer, healthier, and happier life.
Regular wellness exams and routine lab tests can help veterinarians find and treat many life-threatening health conditions before they become a problem. They’re especially important for cats, who are excellent at hiding when they’re sick or in pain, Olson says. Bringing your cat to the vet on a regular basis also ensures she’s up to date on all recommended vaccines, prescription flea and tick for cats and heartworm medicine for cats.
Don't be afraid to shop around until you find a vet that you—and your cat—love, Olson says. Having a good relationship makes it easier for the doctor and staff to help your cat. They know her medical history and baseline temperament, and can usually tell with a phone diagnosis whether a strange new behavior necessitates immediate medical care.
Keeping your cat indoors is one of the easiest ways to help her lead a long and happy life, Olson says. She’s less likely to be exposed to traumas, like being hit by a car, and toxins, like a tasty puddle of antifreeze. She’s also less likely to encounter disease-carrying pests and parasites. “When cats leave our home, we lose the ability to protect them,” Olson says.
That said, you have to make sure your house is a safe space for your cat. “Be careful with house plants,” warns Dr. Judy Morgan, a New Jersey-based holistic veterinarian. Some popular indoor plants, including lilies, are highly toxic, she says, so it’s best to consult a toxic plants list (e.g., ASPCA’s Toxic and Non-Toxic Plants List). “If your cat is craving greens, try growing wheat grass,” Morgan says. “Cats love it.” Pet grass gives kitties a safe alternative to potentially dangerous house plants.
During warmer months, you should also be cautious with cats around open windows. Keep window screens shut and ensure that they are secure enough that your cat won’t fall through them.
To help your cat live her best life, she needs a high-moisture, species-appropriate diet, Morgan says. Feed her wet and dry cat food, as kibble alone won’t do the trick. Morgan and Olson also stress that cats are natural carnivores who need plenty of meat in their diet.
If you have more than one cat, feed them separately and monitor each one’s consumption, Morgan says. Food avoidance could be a sign of dental pain or a medical condition. “Do not allow free-feeding,” she says. “This leads to weight gain and makes it less likely that you will notice problems right away.”
An overweight cat is an unhealthy cat, the doctors agree. Carrying a few extra pounds can lead to a host of health conditions, including liver problems, diabetes, and arthritis. Being overweight also puts unnecessary stress on an animal’s joints and organs.
Feed your cat as recommended by your veterinarian. Exercise and playtime should also be a part of your cat’s daily routine, Morgan says.
Weigh your kitty once a month and call your vet if you notice any dramatic gains or losses, she says.
In addition to helping her stay svelte, exercise and play can also prevent stress, resulting in happier and healthier cats, the doctors say. “Indoor kitties definitely live longer, but they need to be able to perform typical cat behaviors, like hunting, pouncing and interacting,” Morgan says.
Interactive play helps cats tap their natural instincts. Remember, they’re predators in the wild, Morgan says. “If you use something like a laser to play with your kitty, make sure to give them something tangible to ‘kill’ and ‘eat’ at the end of the chase.” Cat toy mice are a feline fave, as well as cat toy balls.
Other natural cat behaviors include climbing and scratching. Give cats plenty of horizontal and vertical play space with a cat tree. A cat scratching post can help them release stress while protecting your couch. Olson also recommends giving indoor cats a place to interact with nature, whether it’s a comfy cat window perch or an elaborate “catio.”
Not only does a regular brushing keep your cat’s coat shiny, it also allows you to get familiar with her body and immediately recognize any changes in shape, texture, or tenderness, Morgan says. Call your vet if you notice any new lumps, bumps, or sore spots, as they could be a sign of any number of painful and potentially serious medical conditions.
Another part of your daily cat care ritual should be mindfully cleaning the cat litter box. This will keep your house smelling fresher and allow you to immediately notice any changes in bowel or urine habits, Morgan says.
Call your vet if your cat has diarrhea or blood in her urine or stools, she adds.
Cats need access to fresh clean water at all times. This you probably know. But you might not realize a simple tweak in how you provide the water can help your cat stay better hydrated.
Because cats originated as desert animals, they’re very particular in how they like to consume water, Morgan says. They don’t like their whiskers to touch the side of their cat bowl. Switching to wide, flat food and water dishes can prevent whisker fatigue, a stressful condition for cats.
A cat water fountain is also a good solution, Morgan says. Just make sure to change the filter often.
Dental issues can cause a host of medical problems—everything from painful lesions to abscesses to infections, Olson says. If left unchecked, dental diseases can also lead to kidney and heart problems, Morgan says.
Cleanings, X-rays, and even extractions may be required to keep your cat’s mouth and body in tip-top shape, the doctors say.
As the old adage goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” It’s better to be hyper-vigilant about any changes in your cat’s behavior then to assume a new symptom will just go away on its own, the doctors say.
Call your vet if your cat exhibits excessive vomiting, which could be a sign of bowel issues, kidney problems, or pancreatitis, to name a few, Olson says. Coughing, sneezing, and breathing issues could be a sign of asthma or cardiac disease. And peeing outside the litter box could indicate urinary tract problems or painful bladder issues that could lead to blockage and even death.
Sometimes, no matter how hard we try to keep them indoors, cats may find their way out of the house. A door or window may be accidentally left open, or a cat may dart past your legs as you walk in.
Get all pets, even indoor ones, microchipped, Olson advises. Make sure you also keep the registration and your contact information up-to-date. This ensures anyone who finds an escaped pet knows how to get a hold of you, which could be a lifesaver should your pet end up at the pound. “You want to create some sort of trail back to you so they’re not put down,” Olson says.