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Find information on animal health topics, written for the veterinary professional.

Providing a Home for a Cat

By John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhD ; Susan Aiello,

Pet ownership carries responsibilities that should not be taken lightly. Just like dog ownership, cat ownership carries both ethical and financial responsibilities. However, the rewards of pet ownership far outweigh the responsibilities. Research has also shown that the bond that can develop between people and animals as a result of owning and caring for a pet has significant social and health benefits (see Health Benefits of Pet Ownership).

Keeping Indoor Cats versus Outdoor Cats

People often wonder if they should keep their cat indoors, or also allow their cat to go outdoors. It is far safer for cats to be kept indoors. Cats that roam outside can get into fights, ingest poisonous substances (for example, antifreeze), get hit by cars, or find myriad other sources of trouble. Outdoor cats frequently pick up both external parasites (including fleas and ticks) and intestinal parasites (for example, from eating infected rodents). Outdoor cats also tend to kill wild birds and other small animals. In addition, outdoor cats that are not spayed or neutered add to the population of stray and unwanted kittens. Outdoor cats can spread diseases (including feline distemper) to other cats and can be exposed to rabies through encounters with infected wildlife. Unfortunately, once cats are accustomed to going outdoors, it can be difficult to break them of the habit.

Diet

Proper nutrition is an important and often overlooked aspect of pet ownership. The pet food industry is large, offering many choices, and all cat foods are not of equal quality. Name-brand cat foods are backed by scientific research and quality control to provide complete, balanced nutrition for your pet. This is especially important with cats, which require high-quality fat and protein in their diets, as well as certain amino acids (including taurine) that are not found in dog or people food. Cats should never be fed dog food as a regular diet. Diets that are specifically formulated for the various stages of a cat’s life (including kitten, adult, and senior) are widely available in grocery stores, pet shops, and other outlets such as pet “superstores.” Specialty diets for specific problems (such as obesity, feline lower urinary tract disorder, or kidney disease) have also been developed; many of these diets are prescription diets that are available only through veterinarians.

Dry food promotes healthy teeth and gums.

Most adult cats can be fed 1 to 2 times daily, although kittens require more frequent feeding (see Kitten Care : Diet). Meals should be provided in a quiet corner, away from the hustle and bustle of family life. Some cats are notoriously finicky eaters, and you may need to experiment with different canned and dry foods to find those that your cat likes. For adult cats that do not overeat and gain weight, dry food can be left out all the time so that they eat whenever they want.

One of the biggest problems in pets is overfeeding, which can lead to obesity, other serious diseases such as heart disease and arthritis, and a shortened lifespan. Only the proper amounts of a quality cat food, with few (if any) table scraps, should be fed. Your veterinarian can provide an estimate of the proper type and amount of food for your cat to maintain your cat’s ideal weight.

At the other end of the spectrum, you should also take notice if your cat is not eating enough. Lack of appetite can be a sign of serious illness. If your cat refuses to eat for more than a day, a prompt visit to your veterinarian is recommended.

Fresh, clean water should always be available to your cat. Although cats need less water than dogs and some cats get all the water they need from moist, canned food, access to water should never be restricted unless specifically instructed by your veterinarian.

Exercise

Sedentary cats tend to gain weight and are prone to certain medical conditions such as liver disease. Although it is much more difficult to exercise a cat than a dog, exercise can be encouraged by selecting certain toys that promote greater physical activity. For example, one popular type of toy is a short, flexible pole with a feather or other small object attached at the top. You hold the bottom of the pole and “bounce” the object for the cat to jump after and chase. You may need to try a variety of toys until you find ones that appeal to your cat.

Litter Boxes

Litter training is generally easy, because cats are naturally clean animals that seek a place to bury their waste. However, the litter box must be kept clean, or cats may refuse to use it and will soil outside the box. Solid waste should be removed every day, and the entire box cleaned at least once a week. In households with more than one cat, there should be at least one litter box per cat. In houses with multiple floors, it is also a good idea to provide a litter box on each floor.

The litter box should be placed in a secluded, low-traffic area that is readily accessible to cats. There are many different types of litter to choose from, but most cats prefer small, clumping particles (such as clay-based products). The preferred location and type of box will vary from cat to cat, which may necessitate a little trial and error. Sudden changes in the type of litter or the location of the litter box can lead to soiling outside the box. However, soiling outside the box can also be a sign of illness or behavioral problems and may require veterinary attention.

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