To keep your cat healthy, you must be able to recognize what is normal for your pet so you can tell when something isn't right. Changes in appetite, drinking habits, litter-box routines, grooming, and even a change in the sound of your cat's voice can all mean trouble -- and should mean a trip to the veterinarian.
Physical changes are important, too. A monthly hands-on examination will help you become aware of changes that could signify something serious.
Before starting a hands-on exam, though, stand back and study your pet for a few minutes. Consider her posture, activity level, gait, coat and overall appearance to gauge an impression of current health. Trouble signs include exposed skin, thin or dry coat, ribs showing, sluggishness, limping, or just lack of "spring" in her step.
Pick up your cat and head for the bathroom scale. Note your weight with your cat, then yours alone. The difference is your cat's weight, and it should be between 8 and 10 pounds. Your cat is normal if a comfortable pad of fat lies over her ribs but you can still feel the ribs if you press your hands in gently. A difference of a pound up or down is fine over the course of a few months; anything more or rapid weight loss is reason for concern.
Now for the hands-on part. Here's what to look for:
-- Nose. Your cat's nose should be moist and clean, not dry, scabbed or cracked. There should be no discharge or bleeding.
-- Eyes. Probably the most beautiful part of any cat, eyes should bright, moist and clear, centered between the eyelids, with pupils of equal size. Eyes that are dull or sunken, that appear dry or have thick discharge are not right. Take your cat into a darkened room, then quickly turn on a light. The pupils should contract quickly, with no difference between them.
-- Ears. The skin should be clean, dry, smooth and without wounds. The ear canal should be clean and almost odor-free. Crust, moisture, discharge or strong odor in the ear canal is bad news, as is pain at the touch or an unusual way of holding her head or ears.
-- The mouth. Your cat's teeth should be clean and white, with gums that are uniformly pink. Press on your pet's gum with your finger or thumb and release quickly. The color will be white but should return to the same color as the surrounding tissue within one or two seconds. This is a sign your cat's circulatory system is working well. Problem signs here include loose or missing teeth, tartar, or gums that are red, pale, inflamed or sore.
-- Breathing. It should be hard to hear your cat breathe, and her chest wall should move easily in and out as she does. Most of the act of breathing should be performed by the chest wall; the stomach should barely move. "Crackles" or wheezes indicate a problem, as does labored or rapid breathing.
-- The abdomen. Start just behind the ribs and gently press your hands into the abdomen. Proceed toward the rear of your pet, passing your hands gently over the abdomen. Some bumps should be there -- They're the internal organs, such as the kidneys. You should find no other lumps, bumps or masses, though, and your pet should feel no discomfort as you press gently into her.
-- Hydration. Check to ensure your cat has enough fluids by pulling the skin just behind her shoulder blades into a tent and then releasing quickly. Your pet's skin should snap immediately back into position. Another good sign of hydration is that the gums just above the teeth are moist when touched.
Chances are your cat will check out fine, in which case your exam should turn into a long, loving petting session. If anything came up that worries you, see your veterinarian to ensure your cat's good health.
Warmer weather always means an increase in the number of "skunkings." While it's important to keep your pets away from wild animals because of the threat of rabies, the truth is that some skunks are pretty quick on the draw when it comes to spraying. Your pet doesn't even need to get that close to get zapped.
Keep this recipe and ingredients at hand, just in case: Take 1 quart of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide (available from most drugstores), 1/4 cup of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate, for you science types) and 1 teaspoon of liquid soap, such as Ivory. Mix and immediately apply to the stinky pet. Rinse thoroughly with tap water. Do not mix in advance or try to store in a closed container.
PETS ON THE WEB
Summer is not a safe time to travel with pets, particularly when it comes to air travel. Time spent waiting to be unloaded or loaded in the heat can be lethal, which is why many airlines place an embargo on air travel for most pets in the warmer months. The Humane Society of the United States keeps a cheat sheet of airline pet policies on its Web site, at www.hsus.org/ace/11860. If you plan to fly with your pet, talk to your airline well in advance to make sure you're in compliance with their policies and clear on the fees.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: We have the worst Jekyll-and-Hyde cat in the world when it comes to going to the veterinarian. Shannara is a holy terror, and she seems to want to take a piece out of anyone from the minute the carrier comes out of the closet. Our veterinarian says she's used to cats like ours, but I just wonder if there's any way to make things easier on our vet, on us and our cat. When not faced with a trip to the veterinarian, she's the sweetest little thing! -- V.K., via e-mail
A: Work with your veterinarian to come up with a strategy to make the visit easier for you all, and realize that the staff will have to handle your pet firmly to prevent injuries to your cat and the people around her. Be sure you're using a hard-sided carrier for these trips -- never try to hold an angry cat in your arms, or transport her in something that lends very little protection, like a pillowcase.
You might also consider using a mobile veterinarian. Although your cat won't be any more pleased to see a veterinarian who makes house calls, at least she'll be spared the trauma of travel.
The temptation when you have a cat who hates the veterinarian is to avoid routine preventive veterinary care entirely. It's not uncommon for cats like these to never see a veterinarian after that first visit has gone so horribly wrong. If you go this route -- and I'm not recommending it, just acknowledging it as a choice many cat lovers make -- the responsibility for spotting illness falls squarely on your shoulders. Be aware of changes in your cat's body, attitude or behavior, all of which can indicate illness and necessitate a trip to the veterinarian's, whether your cat likes it or not.
Q: Do you know whether a dog's mouth is cleaner than a human's? Doesn't seem right to me, but I have a bet on this. -- J.F., via e-mail
A. I brush my teeth two or three times a day and visit the dentist regularly for a thorough cleaning. With my dogs, I'm sadly hit-or-miss on brushing: I try to manage it once or twice a week. They do get dental cleanings from their veterinarian on a regular basis, but still ... their dental care isn't as good as mine. And I bet in this matter I'm a pretty typical pet lover.
But there's another reason I don't trust the cleanliness of the canine mouth: A dog's opinion of what's desirable or even edible is very different from our own. Most dogs cannot pass up any opportunity to munch on the solid contents of cat boxes, or eat any other kind of poop, rotting food or other disgusting item they find on walks.
While I don't get too worked up about doggy kisses, I sure don't think they come from the cleanest of mouths. I'm not sure what side of the bet you're on, but I wouldn't put my money on any dog's mouth being cleaner than a human's.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to writetogina(at)spadafori.com. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.
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