February is #nationalcathealthmonth and so I thought it would be a good time to discuss some aspects of cat health that may get overlooked. Cats have a reputation of being easy to care for, happy-go-lucky independent creatures who can look after themselves and as such they get a lot less veterinary attention than dogs in general.
However, we do of course have a moral responsibility (and legally under the Animal Health Act 1980) to provide for their needs if we take them in. And cats, not being quite as domestically adapted as dogs, can suffer from quite a few physical and psychological issues from being in a human environment where their needs are not being met.
As vets we can see a lot of health issues in cats resulting from stress or lifestyle factors rather than infectious disease. It can help to 'think cat' - looking at their wild cousins as they retain a lot of their behaviours from living feral, to see how we can keep them happy and healthy.
Just take diet for example: a wild cat would spend a lot of energy and time during its awake hours stalking and hunting prey. In times past domestic cats were fed a bit of bread and milk at most and expected to help control rodents on the farm or smallholding. Contrast this with most pet cats these days: meals arrive Deliveroo-style in a bowl once or more per day, easy access, no mental or physical effort involved other than a bit of human interaction to get our attention!!
And this, as an eminent cat behaviourist put it, sadly means many 21st century pet cats end up as couch potatoes…overweight and bored out of their brains, grumpy and frustrated. So how can we out beloved felines are getting the physical and mental stimulation they need?
Well, there are lots of active ways to feed a dry food, for example, in activity feeders from pet shops - where a cat has to scoop or push something to release the biscuits. A quick search on Pinterest shows lots of creative homemade ideas as well. My cat Fezy used to gobble her food then move on to push out our other cat and finish it off. We just started feeding her from a 12/15 portion egg box - sprinkling the food over the pockets so she had to scoop the kibble out to get at it and move from section to section. This took her much longer, allowing the other cat to finish her bowl on the other side of the room before Fezy could muscle in and polish it off. A simple, cheap solution which reduced the stress in our other cat and ensured Fezy was not eating more than she should!
Don’t think toys are just for kittens either. We can allow cats to express natural hunting, stalking and pouncing behaviours by supplying toys such as boxes and tunnels and ‘fishing rod’-type toys to chase and stalk, changing or rotating them regularly to prevent boredom. Fezy is now 12 and enjoys her 5 minute playtime in the evenings - she even runs and chirrups to me to demand it once the kids are in bed!
Many of our cats on a dry kibble diet take in a lot less moisture than they would on a prey diet so it is important we ensure they have adequate opportunities to drink. This is especially important as they go into their senior years when kidney disease can be so common. However it is often difficult to get cats to increase their water intake, and if they eat a lot of wet food they may not drink much at all. But maybe just a change in presentation will make all the difference…
Just like this leopard, cats often prefer to drink from running/moving water (think dripping taps, water fountains), because in the wild this would be cleaner than a stagnant pond. They would also seek out a water source well away from where they had killed their prey, which might contaminate the water. So offering water well away from the feeding area can be all it takes to encourage your cat to drink more.
Also, notice the head position of the cats drinking from the puddle. Their eyes and ears are alert for threats because stopping to drink can leave you vulnerable. Being able to lap at the surface and retain the ability to look around is important for cats. Have you ever noticed your cat only drinks when you top up the bowl? If you have a deep dish they will not drink once they have to dunk their noses or whiskers in to drink, so keep the water level within a centimetre or so from the brim.
I'd love to see your creative ideas on how to feed your cats!
Photo of leopard by Dušan veverkolog on Unsplash
Photo of cats drinking by олег реутов from Pixabay