Month: July 2018

Emergencies – what to do

Immediate veterinary attention can mean the difference between life and death for an injured cat following all but the most minor of accidents. Getting your cat to your vet (where all the necessary equipment is on hand) is quicker and gives the cat a better chance than calling a vet out to the scene of the accident. The most important thing to remember in an emergency is – don’t panic! – this could cause further anxiety for an already frightened animal and it wastes valuable time.

If it is your own cat that is injured then you should take it to your own vet if possible. However, if the incident occurs when you are away from home you will need to find the nearest veterinary practice. If there are no passers by or local residents to help, find a telephone box and call directory enquiries or ask at the closest police station, post office, village shop, etc.

Whether you are near home or away, always telephone the veterinary surgery first as many practices have branch surgeries which are not open all day every day. Alerting the practice staff means that they can give important advice and are ready to deal with your cat immediately upon arrival, which may greatly improve its chances of survival.

Any cat in pain is likely to be unpredictable and aggressive. If it can still walk it will probably try to run away and hide. A proper travelling box of plastic or fibreglass is the best way to carry the animal securely and prevent it escaping. If there is no box available a cardboard carrying box like those available from veterinary surgeries or animal welfare charities may be used instead.

However, an animal which has collapsed or has been involved in an accident (and so may have spinal injuries) should be moved as little as possible to avoid causing further damage. A sheet of wood, heavy card or even a blanket held taut can serve as a makeshift stretcher – the cat should be lifted gently on to the stretcher and put carefully into the back of the car.

If the vet clinic is within easy walking distance, or if there is no way of getting there by car, it may be possible to carry a cat with only minor injuries. However, it is very important to avoid getting injured yourself as a cat bite can be serious. Wrapping the cat in a blanket or coat will help to restrain it. The cat’s body should be held with one arm, supporting its weight with your forearm, while using the other hand to hold it firmly but gently beneath the chin. Some taxi firms will carry animals – but make sure you warn them when you book the taxi that you have a sick pet.

The aim of any first aid is to keep your cat alive and comfortable until it can receive proper veterinary treatment. The most important tasks are to ensure that your cat can breathe comfortably, to keep it warm and to control any bleeding.

If the animal is unconscious, check its mouth for any obstructions such as chunks of food and pull the tongue forward. A pencil slid across the back teeth can prevent you being bitten while your fingers are in its mouth. Wrapping the animal in a blanket will prevent it losing body heat, but if no suitable material is available newspapers, kitchen foil, etc may be used instead.

Serious bleeding is more likely to occur inside the cat’s body and will therefore be invisible. Paleness in the membranes around its mouth and eyes will show there is a problem. Bleeding from a skin wound should be minimised by applying a pressure pad with a bandage and cotton wool. A tourniquet may help stem the flow of blood from an injured limb or tail. However, unless someone has some training in first aid, the injury may be best left alone until the cat arrives at the veterinary surgery.

Any accident or injury which threatens the cat’s life will constitute an emergency but three possible problems are:

Road accidents

If you see a cat hit by a car and it is still lying in the road the immediate job is to prevent it from being run over again. Despite the risk of causing further damage, the cat should be moved to a safe place although avoid putting yourself at risk (remember that it may be difficult for drivers to see you at night). Approach the cat slowly and deliberately to avoid scaring it even more.

Not all road accidents are witnessed but if you see a cat which is limping, dishevelled, possibly with oil marks on its fur it may have been in such an accident. It may have suffered severe internal injuries and need urgent veterinary attention.


Sudden attacks of violent vomiting and/or diarrhoea, dribbling from the mouth, staggering and sudden collapse are all possible indications that a cat has been poisoned. If you believe that you know what the cat has eaten, it may help to take the packet, a sample from the plant, etc. with you to the vets.

If you do not know what caused the problem, scrape a sample of vomit or diarrhoea into a jar and take it for tests. Keep the animal warm and quiet until you can get it to a veterinary surgery.

Burns and scalds

The damage caused by fire or hot liquids can be reduced by soaking the wound in plenty of cold, clean water to cool the skin as quickly as possible. Do not attempt to treat the injury with ointments etc. Get the cat to a vet as quickly as possible since delays can increase the pain and the risks from shock and loss of bodily fluids.

To prevent unnecessary suffering in animals, it was made illegal many years ago for unqualified people to carry out veterinary treatment. Therefore, cat owners can only carry out first aid on their animals to save life or prevent further injury until the patient can be cared for by a vet. However, it is sensible for a caring cat owner to keep a first aid box at hand to deal with minor scratches etc or to save time in a genuine emergency. This could contain:

  • a range of bandages and dressings of different sizes
  • a blanket
  • a length of soft cord
  • scissors
  • disposable gloves.

Unless instructed by your vet, it is not advisable to treat wounds with ointments or TCP as cats will often lick off anything applied to the skin and can make themselves ill swallowing distasteful substances.

Deafness in cats

Deafness is quite common in cats. Around three in every four white cats are deaf because of a defective gene that causes the inner ear to fail to develop normally. Some of these cats are deaf in only one ear and their owners will often not realise that there is a problem.

Deafness is also common in older cats, probably due to age-related degeneration in the inner ear, as seen in older people.

Other reasons for deafness are less common in cats than in people or dogs. Long-term ear infections, growths in the middle ear or external ear canal and medications given by veterinary surgeons to treat these conditions are probably all important causes. Head trauma and brain tumours are possible causes. However, deafness can result from anything that damages the conduction of sound waves from the ear hole through the ear canal and ear drum to the bones of the middle ear or which affects the conduction of impulses through the nerves to the brain.

Deafness in one ear is not usually detected and actually causes few problems. If the cat is lying curled up with her good ear buried and the deaf one exposed then her hearing would be impaired and an owner may notice a lack of response to noises. However, cats who are deaf in one ear probably take care to avoid lying in such a position and generally keep their good ear pointing in the right direction, even when relaxed at home.

Being deaf in both ears causes more significant problems and most owners notice that their cat does not respond to noises – the opening of doors, the fridge, food packages, calling their name etc. and fail to respond to noisy people, animals and machinery. Deaf cats tend to ‘sleep well’. Many cats will wake to some extent when someone enters a room, even if it’s just a slight opening of an eye or a twitch of the ear; deaf cats will tend to remain sleeping. This is something that owners of older cats may notice as their pet’s hearing deteriorates with age.

A common finding is that deaf cats do not mind vacuum cleaners and it is quite unusual for cats to be completely comfortable when hoovering is going on near them. Some deaf cats even enjoy the sensation of actually being groomed by a hand-held vacuum cleaner. Of course there are some hearing cats that tolerate these sorts of things and this may be more common in some breeds – for example Ragdolls. Owners of old cats may notice that they now tolerate the noise of a vacuum cleaner when previously they did not – this may be the most obvious sign of growing deafness.

Similarly, deaf cats may make odd noises because they can’t hear what they are saying. One of the reasons for older cats starting to howl and yell around the house may be deafness or an owner may just notice that their older cat is making a different cry than they did when they were younger – but there are other possible causes for this besides deafness.

Hearing can be tested by observing the reaction the cat makes to a sudden, unexpected loud noise. A hearing cat is expected to turn its ears towards the noise, and may also move their whole head and possibly move their body into a more alert position.

There are problems with this test. It cannot detect deafness in a single ear, only a totally deaf cat will fail to react. It is also possible to think that a deaf cat can hear if, for example, it reacts to a visual clue if it sees an object being dropped or hands being clapped or it may be able to feel vibrations when something hits the floor. The opposite might also happen – a well-adjusted, non-fearful and relaxed cat may react to a first noise but will quickly react less and less obviously to subsequent noises.

This test will be easier to interpret in a cat well known to the owner in its normal environment and is more difficult to interpret in, for example, a kitten amongst its littermates or a kitten newly introduced into a house or a cat being examined in an unfamiliar veterinary practice.

The only truly reliable test is one similar to that used for the testing of hearing in humans and involves sophisticated equipment available only in a few centres. Your veterinary surgeon would be able to advise you of a centre that offers testing if necessary.

The test is well tolerated by most cats but involves playing noises into each ear in turn and then detecting the nervous impulses invoked by these noises in the brain. It is called BAER (Brainstem Auditory Evoked Response) testing. This test will not be necessary for the vast majority of cats with a suspected hearing problem as testing will not usually make any difference to the cat or how they are helped and managed.

Cats with normal hearing use the sounds detected by both ears to accurately pinpoint sounds. They use this skill in hunting to detect prey when it is out of sight, for example in long grass. Hunting ability may be reduced in cats with impaired hearing but there are many other factors that will affect this success (time dedicated to hunting and the number of available prey, for example).

When a cat is deaf in both ears it is much more significantly handicapped. Vocalization is an important way of communication between cats and deaf cats may be less good at communicating. Of course, visual clues of ‘body language’ and olfactory clues from pheromones and scent marking are important in cats so this miscommunication may not be obvious. But deaf cats might get into fights more often or be socially ostracized within a group. They may find it more difficult when young kittens and are more likely to be rejected by their mother.

The reduced ability to recognize danger is probably the most serious handicap faced by totally deaf cats especially if they have to face the hazards of the outdoor environment. Apart from other cats, which have been mentioned above, road vehicles and dogs are probably the greatest dangers. Both cars and dogs are usually noisy and being able to hear this danger is an important clue for normal cats. Further examples of dangerous noisy items are farm and garden machinery, household appliances and trains.

As mentioned above, hunting is a natural feline behaviour and one which will be significantly affected by being totally deaf. However, being deaf will not totally stop hunting success and cats that enjoy hunting will not be put off by their failures.

It is unlikely that there will be a treatment to help deafness in your cat. The most common causes – a genetic defect or age-related degeneration – have no appropriate treatment. It is only some of the unusual causes such as disease blocking the passage of sound through the external ear canal from infection, or a resectable mass that can be helped by treatment.

Cats with these conditions will usually have other obvious signs of disease rather than deafness being the major problem noticed by owners. They will have ears that are dirty, smelly and irritating. The cat may scratch and shake its head or might also have a head tilt, usually to the side with the greatest problem. Other signs of underlying disease include wobbliness, from damage to the balance organs, which are also found in the inner ear.

Cats that are deaf in just one ear can be treated just as normal but totally deaf cats should have some special care. The main difference is that deaf cats cannot go outside without running greater risks from common problems and so should be kept indoors for life. Most cats can live happily indoors, although a few cats that are used to being outside much of the time can be significantly stressed by being confined.

Some cats are more likely to be deaf, so avoid obtaining a totally white kitten from a breeder. Buying this kitten may just encourage irresponsible breeding. If there is a rescued or stray cat that may be deaf and you think that you can offer a suitable safe environment for her then that is different.

Any white cat should be checked for deafness prior to breeding. This is where BAER testing is important because only cats with normal hearing in both ears should be bred and BAER testing is the only reliable way to check for deafness in one ear. Cats that are deaf in just one ear are significantly more likely to have deaf kittens than cats with normal hearing.

Deafness causes significant welfare problems and breeders should aim to avoid producing kittens likely to be deaf. However, individual deaf cats can be given a reasonable quality of life by thinking about their special needs. Deafness is also quite common in older cats and considering this is one aspect of providing a good home for a geriatric companion.

Dental disease in your cat

Dental disease is very common in cats. Surveys show that after the age of three years, about seven out of ten pets have some kind of tooth disorders. If left unattended these may cause irreversible damage to the cat’s teeth, gums and jaw bones. Dental disease can be prevented by stopping the build up of plaque.

Plaque is a yellowish white deposit made up of bacteria and debris which forms around the surface of the teeth. In time it hardens to become yellowish brown tartar (sometimes called calculus) at the base of the tooth which gradually spreads until it may cover the whole of its surface.

As well as the visible tartar there may be other indications of disease. Foul breath is very common and the pain resulting from advanced dental disease may cause difficulties in eating. If your cat dribbles excessively and sometimes this is flecked with blood or shows signs of pain and discomfort such as head shaking and pawing at its mouth it may have problems with its teeth.

The tartar hidden below the gum line is the main cause of problems. It contains bacteria which will attack the surrounding gum tissue causing painful inflammation (‘gingivitis’) and infection can track down to the tooth roots. Pus may build up in the roots and form a painful abscess. This inflammation wears away tissue from the gum, bones and teeth and, as the disease becomes more advanced, the teeth will loosen and fall out.

Bacteria and the poisons they produce can also get into the blood stream and cause damage throughout the body in organs such as the kidneys, heart and liver.

If your pet has advanced disease and is in obvious pain, your vet may need to take x-rays of your cat’s head, under general anaesthesia, to see whether there are any deep abscesses. Any loose teeth will have to be removed because the disease is too advanced to be treated. Your vet may prescribe antibiotics before doing dental work if there are signs of infection. Then your cat will be given a general anaesthetic so that your vet can remove the tartar, usually with an ultrasonic scaling machine.

Finally, your cat’s teeth will be polished to leave a smooth surface which will slow down the build up of plaque in the future. However, it is inevitable that plaque will re-appear. To keep your cat’s teeth in good condition it is likely that they will need regular scaling and polishing, in some cases at intervals of between six and twelve months.

In the wild your pet’s teeth would be much cleaner because its diet would contain harder materials than are found in commercially tinned or packaged foods. Cats and dogs naturally eat the bones, fur, etc of their prey which wear away the deposits of tartar.

Replacing soft foods with dry or fibrous materials will slow the build up of plaque. The extra chewing involved helps control infection because it stimulates the production of saliva which has natural antibiotic properties.

There are special diets available to help maintain clean teeth, please ask your vet for further advice.

Brushing your pet’s teeth is just as important in preventing dental disease as brushing your own. Ideally your cat should get used to having its teeth cleaned from an early age. Wrapping a piece of soft gauze around your finger and gently rubbing the pet’s teeth should get it used to the idea. You can then move on to using a toothbrush specially designed for cats or a small ordinary toothbrush with soft bristles. Toothbrushes which fit over the end of your finger are available for cats and dogs.

Your vet can supply you with suitably flavoured toothpaste which your pet will enjoy. There are also some mouth washes and antibacterial gels that can help reduce plaque deposits and prevent infection. Do not attempt to use human toothpaste which will froth up in the mouth, your pet will not like the taste and it could do it serious harm.

At first your pet may resist but with gentleness, patience and persistence most pets can be trained to accept having their teeth cleaned. A regular brushing every day or at least three times a week will significantly reduce the risk of your pet suffering serious problems or needing frequent general anaesthetics to treat advanced dental disease.

Preventative healthcare for your pet is very important. Regular brushing of your pet’s teeth from a young age can prevent the need for veterinary dental attention.

Epilepsy (seizures)

If you have witnessed your cat having a seizure (convulsion), you will know how frightening it can be. If your cat has had more than one seizure it may be that they are epileptic. There are medications that can control seizures, allowing your cat to live a more normal life.

A seizure (also known as a fit) is a short event with an abrupt start and end. The term seizure can relate to a problem in the nervous system (epileptic seizure, narcolepsy/cataplexy, acute balance loss) or a disease in another organ (e.g. heart disease causing syncope). The term paroxystic event is usually used to describe seizures of uncertain origin.

An epileptic seizure is not a disease in itself but the sign of abnormal brain function. Many types of epileptic seizure are described in humans, dogs and cats. The most common type is the generalised tonic-clonic epileptic seizure (also known as grand mal seizures). Partial epileptic seizures affect only part of the body and are much more difficult to differentiate from non-epileptic seizure (particularly movement disorders).

Epilepsy means repeated epileptic seizures due to abnormal activity in the brain. It is caused by an abnormality in the brain itself. If the seizures occur because of a problem elsewhere in the body, for example a low sugar level, this is not epilepsy.

Epileptic seizures can be caused by problems inside the brain (intra-cranial causes) or outside the brain (extra-cranial causes).

Extra-cranial causes

Extra-cranial causes of seizures include intoxication and metabolic diseases. In these cases, the brain is perfectly healthy but reacts to a toxin or a change in the blood make-up (usually caused by liver or kidney disease, salt imbalance, low sugar level, or an under-active thyroid gland). This type of seizure is also described as reactive epileptic seizures. Diagnosis of extra-cranial causes of epileptic seizures is based on blood tests or a known history of access to a toxin.

Intra-cranial causes

Intra-cranial causes are divided into primary and secondary epilepsy. In secondary epilepsy, the epileptic seizures are a sign of a disease in the brain.  This disease might be a brain tumour, an inflammation or infection of the brain (encephalitis), a brain malformation, a recent or previous stroke or head trauma. Epileptic seizures may be the only sign of illness or there may be other signs (circling, blindness, wobbliness, restlessness and/or sleepiness). To confirm a diagnosis of secondary epilepsy an underlying brain disease must be identified using MRI or CT-scans of the brain and tests on the fluid surrounding the brain (CSF analysis).

In primary epilepsy (also known as idiopathic epilepsy), there is no disease in the brain but the epileptic seizures are caused by a functional problem (an imbalance in the messengers in the brain).

Primary epilepsy is the most common cause of epileptic seizures in young adult cats, although not as common as in dogs. The number of seizures each cat has is extremely variable between individual cats (from many seizures a day to a seizure every few months). Animals with primary epilepsy are typically normal in between seizures.

The diagnosis of primary epilepsy can only be made by excluding all other causes and results of all investigations (blood test, MRI scan or CT-scan of the brain and CSF analysis) will come back normal.

Primary epilepsy is the most likely cause of seizures if your cat:

  1. has its first seizure at a young adult age
  2. is normal between the seizures

Identification of the exact cause of the epileptic seizures is essential in choosing an appropriate treatment to control them.

Amputee cat care

There are a number of reasons which may necessitate the removal of an animal’s leg. The two most common of these are severe trauma, for example after a road traffic accident, or as management of a leg cancer. As a general rule, cats cope far better with amputation than people imagine they will. Humans of course only have two legs, so losing one leg means a reduction to only one. Cats have four legs so losing one still leaves them with three.

Owners often assume that cats experience the same emotions as we do, this may not be true. However, we do know that cats are supremely good at adapting to new situations. Vets with the most experience of managing cats who have undergone amputation consistently report that these animals do not show any signs of an emotional disturbance. Most cats that have a leg amputated do so for relief of a severe, often life-threatening, illness. Almost invariably these patients have an extremely painful condition affecting the leg that is to be removed. In many cases the patient is immediately happier and more relaxed after amputation.

It is extraordinary how quickly most animals become mobile after amputation of a leg. Patients that have no other mobility issues, for example osteoarthritis, should be mobile within their kennel within 24 hours of the operation. Young cats can be expected to start walking on three legs after only 12 hours.

Following amputation your cat will usually stay in the hospital for a few days after surgery. The veterinary team will need to examine the patient regularly to ensure the wound is healing properly and to provide appropriate pain relief. During this time the patient will make their early adjustments to being three-legged. Within three days of surgery most cats would be able to jog for 5-10 metres.

For two weeks after surgery the cat’s exercise will need to be significantly restricted to allow the surgical wound to heal. During this time, patients should be allowed to potter about a garden or have lead exercise for a maximum of 5-10 minutes at a time for toilet purposes. The cat will begin to adjust and to train their muscles for moving in a different way.

Once your cat returns home after amputation they will have a large shaved area, with a line, or lines, of stitches or staples where the operation was performed. Often there is substantial bruising under the skin where blood may have trickled during surgery. This is not painful, like a normal bruise.

Surgery of course would be painful if appropriate pain-relief was not administered. Your vet will probably prescribe a strong pain-killer, such as methadone, in combination with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory pain-killers. These drugs will normally be given before surgery to stop pain developing and then are continued after surgery. Typically the strong pain-killer is given for one to three days while the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory pain-killer is given for one to two weeks and therefore is continued at home once the patient has been discharged from the hospital. In some institutions additional pain relief is also provided using a local anaesthetic in the surgery site before surgery and for one to three days afterwards. This adds even further to the comfort for the patient.

Patients whose pain relief strategy is well thought-out and well-managed are very comfortable throughout.

Phantom limb pain is a debilitating condition affecting some human amputees. They experience an extremely uncomfortable pain, which their brain tells them affects the leg or arm that is no longer present. Importantly phantom limb pain has never been reported in animals. Clearly we could not rely on animals telling us that they are experiencing phantom leg pain for a diagnosis to be made, but if cats were in pain after the operation they would show some signs of this.

Owners should not expect to have to perform any significant wound management. You should check the wound every day to look for signs of inflammation or soreness. These include redness, swelling, heat, discharge and pain. This is because there is a risk of post-operative bleeding or infection with any operation and prompt recognition of the signs of either of these can mean that the consequences for the patient can be minimised.

If you are concerned about the appearance of your cat’s wound you should make contact with your veterinary team. It is better to ask and to find that there was nothing to worry about than to leave something and then learn you should have acted sooner.

Some cats are far from active before amputation and this does not change after surgery. The only modifications that might be necessary for them to enjoy a perfectly good quality of life might be to simply ensure that their favourite bed is removed from the sofa and onto the floor so that they do not encounter difficulties getting into it.

More active cats may require a little more imagination on the part of their owner to ensure that they can still enjoy a high perch in the house or garden. In the immediate short term, a few weeks after surgery, stools or boxes can be used as steps to assist the cat in climbing onto a favourite spot on the bed or the lounge furniture. Once they are more agile, some owners will construct imaginative wooden ramps that might provide a safe route from the ground to a favourite perch on the roof of a shed in the garden for example.

In most cats exercise is restricted for the first two weeks after surgery. During this time they adapt perfectly well to being three-legged and by the end of the two weeks they would be able to move satisfactorily about a single floor of the house. Slim cats without other complicating factors, such as other injuries, will be able to navigate up and down stairs after two weeks. Obese cats take longer to adjust; this may in part be a motivation issue. Both for their own emotional well-being and for the health of their remaining limbs, weight loss is a very important factor in their further management.

There is no doubt that once a patient has undergone amputation, the leg on the other side of the body has to do the work of two. Your cat will need to adjust the way it stands and moves and this results in a degree of redistribution of weight-bearing. Muscle or tendon injuries are exceptionally rare in amputees. Obese cats do have an increased risk of suffering other complicating medical complaints such as diabetes mellitus. Weight loss is a critical part of the post-operative management of obese feline amputees.

There are some patients who are simply not good candidates for amputation. In cats one should give consideration to the impact that amputation would have on their usual lifestyle and whether this would cause a significant emotional disturbance. Some cats derive their only pleasure from sitting on top of the shed roof. If they cannot realistically be expected to do this again, amputation might not be appropriate.

Osteoarthritis is frequently listed as a reason for not performing amputation but there are exceptionally good medications for arthritis and in the view of this author, arthritis alone does not constitute a valid reason for choosing not to perform amputation, particularly since the conditions we are treating by amputation are typically intractably painful and this pain can be cured by a single surgical procedure.

In order for a cat to cope well after amputation they do need to be able to adapt to life on three legs. Cats with spinal problems are usually unable to do this. Obese cats and cats that have diabetes mellitus are not good candidates for amputation but this does not mean they should not have surgery if it is required. However, it is critical that the veterinary team and the owners in such cases appreciate the importance of weight control or diabetes management.

It is sadly true that cancer is one of the reasons for considering amputation in cats. Some cancers of the bones do spread (metastasis) prior to the diagnosis of the lameness and many are actually spread from other body areas. Surgery must not therefore be regarded as a cancer cure.


Anaemia means a shortage of red blood cells in the circulation. Anaemia is not a disease but it is a sign that there may be something seriously wrong in the body. There are many different causes of anaemia in cats and in most cases your vet will need to perform a variety of tests to work out what is wrong. Severe anaemia can be life-threatening and requires urgent treatment.

Red blood cells are important cells that carry oxygen around the body. Red blood cells are mainly made in the bone marrow but also, in the liver and spleen. Their red colour comes from a pigment called haemoglobin.

The red blood cells pick up oxygen whilst travelling through the lungs and transport this to the body tissues, where it is exchanged for the ‘waste gas’ carbon dioxide. The red blood cells transport the carbon dioxide back to the lungs where it is removed from the body in exhaled breath.

Red blood cells are active for around 70 days, after which they are removed from the circulation. Continuous production by the bone marrow ensures that the total numbers remain the same.

In the early stages, there may be few symptoms of anaemia. If the anaemia develops slowly it can become quite severe without the animal showing signs because the body has time to get used to the lower oxygen levels.

The first sign of anaemia may be low energy levels and general weakness due to reduced oxygen supply to the muscles. Anaemic animals often have a poor appetite. If you lift your cat’s lips you may notice that its gums are pale or even white, although do not be alarmed when you check your cat as gums in normal cats often look quite pale.

Your vet will need to examine your cat closely to identify the signs of anaemia. Depending on what is causing the anaemia, there may also be other changes such as jaundice (yellowing of the skin and membranes of the eyes, nose and mouth). A diagnosis of anaemia can usually be made on a single blood test, however your vet may need to perform a number of tests to find out what is causing the anaemia. It is important to establish the cause of anaemia in order to treat the underlying condition.

Stress in cats

A number of factors can cause cats stress. Such factors include moving house, a new member of the family (a new baby or a new animal joining the household) or something of shorter duration such as a visit to the vets. It is important to be able to recognise both potential stressors (things that cause stress) and the symptoms of stress in order to help prevent and alleviate it and keep cats happy.

Cats can show their stress in a number of ways but there are certain key signs to look out for in your cat’s facial expressions and body posture.

  • When a cat’s pupils are very large they indicate that the cat is aroused and that arousal may be due to stress associated with pain, fear or anxiety.
  • A cat that is stressed for a short time (e.g. from a startle or the approach of an unfriendly cat) may raise its back in an arch, flatten its ears and erect its fur.
  • A cat that is stressed for longer periods of time (for reasons such as living with a cat it does not like, or an inability to cope in a boarding cattery) may not groom and have a scruffy looking coat or may appear dull and lifeless, often curled up with its head pressed closed to its body.

Cats tend to express their stress either actively or inactively depending on their temperament. An active type cat that is stressed will often vocalise excessively and if confined (e.g. in a vet cage or boarding cattery) may attempt to escape or spend long periods of time trying to gain attention. Conversely, an inactive type cat often exhibits stress by being as quiet as possible and trying to find a place to hide. It may hide its head or whole body under its bed or hide somewhere within the house.

Cats that are stressed can often change their feeding and toileting patterns. They may withdraw from eating or eat excessively and they may start toileting outside of their litter boxes.

Many factors can cause stress and what one cat may find stressful, another may not. However, cats are often stressed by a change in their lifestyle, routine and/or environment. Examples include:

  • a visit to the vets
  • a stay in a boarding cattery
  • a new baby
  • other cats in the neighbourhood
  • building works or renovations to the home
  • a new pet.

For sensitive cats, something as minor as a new piece of furniture or a change in position of the litter tray can be stressful.

In some extreme cases cats can pull their fur out (or more commonly groom an area so much the hair is removed) when they are stressed. However, there are a number of medical reasons why a cat may over-groom or lose its fur including skin complaints and allergies. If you notice your cat is losing fur or has bald patches, take it to the vet for an examination. Cats may also groom very little or stop completely if they are stressed, therefore any change in normal grooming should be monitored and reported to your vet.

There is a lot of debate on the topic of welfare of the indoor only cat. If a cat has to be kept indoors only (e.g. due to a disability or living close to a busy road), it is important its behavioural needs are met in order to prevent it getting stressed. Foraging games, interactive play, hiding places, scratching posts, high walkways and vantage points at windows are all important ways of enriching the indoor environment in an attempt to prevent stress.

The first step would be to put your cat’s carrier in a nice safe quiet place in a room in your current house that your cat spends lots of time in. Place your cat’s favourite treats and toys in the carrier to encourage your cat to use it. Building the association that the carrier is a nice place will help your cat cope with the journey to the new house. Synthetic pheromone sprayed in the carrier 30 minutes before travelling may also help with the journey.

Once at the new home, confine your cat to one room initially until he or she is confident and secure and the unpacking has finished. Make sure you take the cat’s old bedding to the new house so he or she has something that smells familiar. Alternatively, placing your cat in a cattery while the house move takes place means the cat does not need to experience the stress often associated with packing and unpacking homes.

There are a number of things that may stress your cat about a visit to the vets. It may be going in the cat carrier, travelling in the car, waiting in the waiting room where there are strange smells and sights (and even dogs) or it may be the actual vet examination itself. It is common for a combination of these events to stress a cat.

In order to try and make the visit as stress free as possible for your cat, leave the cat box open in the home at all times. Try making it a positive place by putting food and toys in there. A synthetic pheromone spray can be sprayed in the box 30 minutes prior to travelling to help the cat cope during the journey.

Travelling time and waiting time are both known stressors to cats so don’t make any extra stop offs to or from the vets. At the vets, place the carrier high up if possible and try to keep in an area of the waiting room away from dogs.

Stress is a part of life for all animals but too much can cause behavioural and medical problems. Within the home there are a number of things that can be done to try to minimise stressors. These include providing:

  • Adequate numbers of litter trays for the cats residing in the home (general rule is one per cat plus one)
  • Plenty of places to gain food and water (separately) within the home
  • A choice of places to rest (up high, away from the hustle and bustle of the household)
  • Opportunities for your cat(s) to express hunting behaviour (through play and foraging games)
  • A secure home. Make sure no neighbouring cats can enter your cat’s home (a magnetic collared cat flap or microchip scanning cat flap can help prevent unwanted cats in the home).

Yes, if you think your cat is experiencing stress, the vet should always be your first point of contact. Not only can the vet check for medical causes of stress, they can advise you on further help if the problem appears to be behavioural.

Cats do not have the complex emotional social groups that people enjoy. While company may make a person feel less stressed, this isn’t necessarily the case for a cat. Adding another cat to an environment where the existing cat already feels stressed is only likely to heighten the stress the cat is feeling.

Spraying: urine marking in the house

Cats are usually meticulous in their toileting habits and seldom soil or mark indoors. It is not surprising that when your cat does do this you may be upset and unsure about what to do. Understanding why cats can sometimes soil in the house may help to tackle the problem. In most cases this occurs because the cat is anxious or unsettled.

Your cat uses both urine and faeces (droppings) to mark its territory. This gives information to other cats about the sex, age, state of health, etc. of your cat and warns them to keep away. It is also reassuring for your cat to be surrounded by its own familiar smell.

When a cat is scent marking with urine it does not squat. A spraying cat stands up facing away from the object it is marking and squirts just a few drops of urine backwards. The tail is raised vertically and the tip will probably flick from side to side. The reasons for a cat spraying indoors (using urine as a marker) are quite different from those that make it urinate indoors and it is important to differentiate between the two.

All cats, male or female, neutered or un-neutered are likely to spray outdoors. Un-neutered animals are far more likely to spray. Having any cat neutered will reduce the risk of problems but spraying may still occur for emotional rather than sexual reasons.

On some occasions a fully housetrained cat causes problems, not through spraying but because it has decided to use somewhere other than its litter tray to go to the toilet. This usually means that it is not happy using the litter tray. Cats are choosy where they relieve themselves and like somewhere clean and quiet. If the litter is dirty, the tray too close to the cat’s feeding or sleeping area or in full view of the rest of the room your cat may refuse to use the tray. Sometimes you just need to put in a deeper layer of litter or change the brand used. This behaviour is quite different from spraying.

Indoor spraying occurs due to psychological disturbance in your cat. Your vet may want to check your cat for various conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease, bladder problems, etc. which may cause it to urinate in the wrong place at the wrong time, but these diseases will not make your cat spray.

It is only natural to be annoyed when you find that your cat has soiled inside your home. But shouting at your cat or rubbing its nose in the mess will not stop it happening again. Your cat will not understand why you are upset. It is likely that your cat sprayed because it was frightened or insecure, so punishment will only make this worse.

Cats usually spray against a vertical surface at the entrance to the house or room – door frames are a favourite spot. They can mark anywhere such as pieces of furniture, curtains or household equipment. Sometimes cats will mark any unfamiliar object which has been brought into the home and occasionally even people may be sprayed!

Rub down the affected area with a damp cloth and then use a biological odour eliminator. Your vet will be able to recommend a suitable product. Standard disinfectants are not very useful. Some contain ammonia (a normal constituent of cat urine) and this will make your cat think that another cat has marked over its spot and may encourage it to re-spray the area.

Unfortunately the smell may persist for up to 4 weeks despite your best efforts at cleaning. Using a natural cat scent spray (pheromone) in the area may make your cat less likely to spray there again. These scents can be detected by cats but cannot be detected by people.

When the area is clean move your cat’s feeding bowl nearby as cats will not spray near their eating area. Make sure the food bowl is filled with dry food (not canned food which will go stale). Remember, unless the reason for spraying is removed your cat may simply start spraying elsewhere.

If you can find out why your cat is spraying there is a good chance it can be stopped. This may need thorough detective work by you and your vet.

  • Perhaps an aggressive new cat has moved into the area and your cat feels threatened?
  • Could a rival cat have come into your house through your cat flap?
  • Have you bought a new kitten or a dog, or is there is a new baby in the house?

Sometimes it helps to give your cat the security of having a small territory completely to itself. It is sometimes useful to shut off the cat flap and let your cat in and out yourself – this way your cat will feel that its indoor den is secure and safe from intruders. Keep its bed, litter tray and water bowl in a room where it can feel safe.

Treating areas where your cat spends a lot of time with a pheromone (natural cat scent) may make your cat more relaxed. Let it out regularly for food and give extra affection (even if you already give it plenty) but watch it carefully. Once the problem is controlled you can reintroduce your cat to the rest of the house gradually, room by room.

Sometimes your vet will suggest drugs to tackle the anxiety that is causing your cat to spray. These drugs may help in the short-term but it is vital to work out the underlying reason why your cat is unhappy. If the problem is complicated or persistent you may need the help of an animal psychologist (usually called a pet behavioural consultant). Your vet will be able to put you in touch with one.

Scratching in the house

Claw scratching is a normal feline behaviour. However, the occurrence of this behaviour indoors can be very unpleasant for the owner as it can cause expensive damage. Scratching indoors may indicate that the cat does not feel completely secure in its surroundings. In order to stop this destructive behaviour the owner must first understand why their cat is scratching in the house.

Cats scratch objects for two reasons:

  • to maintain good condition of their claws
  • to leave a message in that location.

When the claws are dragged down a surface a smell, which is unique to the individual, is deposited on the surface. This scent and the visual signal of the scratch marks and discarded claw husks provide a strong message to other cats, as well as to the cat itself.

Noting where your cat is scratching may give clues as to the reason for the scratching behaviour.

Many cats have limited or no access to outdoors and therefore have to maintain good claw condition inside the house. For this function, a cat will find one or two suitable scratching sites and use only them. Cats prefer to scratch on tall, sturdy objects that have a vertical weave; unfortunately in many cases the back of the sofa fits the bill far better than typical commercial scratching posts do!

Cats that particularly enjoy their owners’ attention or those who are under-stimulated in the home might also learn that whenever they scratch the furniture or wallpaper their owners interact with them, but when they use their scratching post they are ignored. Consequently, they continue to scratch on inappropriate surfaces as a way of getting attention.

However, if the scratched areas are widespread throughout the home, and in areas of conflict, like doorways and windows, it is more likely that the cat is scratching for communicative reasons as a result of feeling insecure in these areas. The most common reason for this type of scratching is the presence of another cat; however, other environmental changes can also lead to this behaviour.

If your cat is scratching furniture or wallpaper to maintain its claws, you should cover the scratched surface with thick plastic sheeting to prevent the cat from scratching there. Then place an appropriate scratching post directly next to the scratched area. Ideal scratching posts have a heavy base to provide enough resistance when scratching, are tall enough to allow the cat to fully stretch out while scratching, and have a vertical weave to allow the cat to drag its claws downwards without snagging.

You can encourage your cat to use this new post by placing tasty food rewards on it and praising your cat whenever it uses the post. Once the cat is consistently using the new post the owner can gradually move it to a more convenient location and remove the plastic sheeting from the protected surface.

If your cat is scratching furniture as a marking behaviour then you must first identify what is worrying your cat in this part of its territory and remedy this. Simply preventing your cat from scratching is inadequate; because this behaviour is an expression of your cat’s anxiety.

You may be able to work out what is worrying your cat from the locations it is scratching in, e.g. if your cat is scratching internal doorways or other areas where household cats have to pass each other frequently then the ‘scratching’ cat might feel threatened by the others. However, if the cat is scratching external doorways and window frames then it is more likely to be worried by something outside, such as a neighbouring cat coming into the garden.

You must deal with your cat’s anxieties in order for it to feel more secure in its surroundings and to permanently stop its motivation to scratch the furniture. In addition to reducing your cat’s stress, you can also encourage scratching on an appropriate surface. Cover the scratched area with a protective material and place a more appropriate scratching surface next to it.

Scratching is a natural behaviour that cats should be allowed to exhibit. Shouting, or otherwise reacting to a cat, when it scratches furniture can actually cause the cat to scratch more frequently as it becomes more anxious in its environment or because it learns that scratching is a successful attention seeking behaviour.

This advice will deal with most cases of indoor scratching; however, in some cases the problem is too complex for owners to address without help. It may then be necessary to ask your vet for a referral to a clinical behaviourist.

Noise phobias

If your cat is afraid of loud or sudden noises life can be miserable for both of you. Thunderstorms can become a major trauma and unless you live in a remote part of the country there is almost no way of avoiding fireworks. These loud sounds can turn your pet into a nervous wreck. There are some simple tips to make the whole experience more bearable for you both, but to find a solution to the problem you will need to seek some expert help.

Cats that are fearful of loud noises and unusual sounds can show a range of behaviours that vary from one individual to another. It is likely that the cat will display a fearful posture with the body hair erect and the ears flattened back. Some cats will quickly flee to a safe spot that may be behind or under a piece of furniture.

It is possible for some cats to display aggression when their owners try to coax them from under the bed or retrieve them from their hiding spot. There are times when the aggression is directed towards another cat in the household.

Noise phobia simply means an unnatural fear of noise. Fear can be difficult to gauge in animals and is based on observation of body postures. A fearful cat will show an increase in heart rate, often pant and possibly urinate and defaecate inappropriately.

Fleeing or hiding are instinctive, and protective postures are adopted. The cat tries to make himself as small as possible, cringing close to the ground with the ears flat against the head and tail tucked under the body. Defensive aggression may also be exhibited but whether an animal fights or flees depends on its genetic make up and also the perceived threat and environment.

Fear is a normal reaction in many situations. If your cat has been scared on one occasion, perhaps when caught outside during a thunderstorm, it can lose confidence in its immediate environment and become withdrawn and display behaviours akin to the human condition of agoraphobia (fear of open spaces).

The reason why some cats are fearful of noises whilst others appear to be almost ‘bomb proof’ usually relates to their early environment. A cat that has been reared in a noisy and stimulating environment (such as the home) up until the age of 7 weeks, has been sufficiently exposed to a range of stimuli to make it less likely to develop fearful behaviours as an adult, particularly if they are homed into an equally challenging environment.

Cats that are reared in a quiet or secluded setting, such as a cattery, and not homed until the ages of 10 or 12 weeks of age are more likely to display fearful and nervous behaviours as an adult as they have not received sufficient exposure to a range of sounds. Phobias may be the result of just one exposure to a particularly intense stimulus or gradually build up as the result of continued exposure.

There are, of course, genetic factors that can predispose a cat to display fearful behaviours but these cats would display a generalised fear of all stimuli, not necessarily just sounds.

If your cat displays a fearful response to sounds, you must be aware that your responses can inadvertently worsen the behaviour of your pet. If the cat is aggressive when it is frightened and you try to punish the cat to prevent the aggression occurring in the future, the cat may become increasingly aggressive on subsequent occasions.

At the other extreme, if you try to comfort and reassure the cat then it will gain nothing long-term as your actions may induce aggression from the cat as it tries to withdraw. As a general rule, it is better to allow the cat to withdraw to a small, dark place that appears safe and offer rewards in the form of food, interactions or play when the cat reappears so that they learn to overcome the fear more quickly in the future.

A cat that is feeling insecure within its home may respond more adversely to sounds so it is important that the cat’s security is assured by providing raised platforms, feeding little and often, as well as the use of an appeasing pheromone signal (such as Feliway©) that can ensure the familiarity of the home environment.

Time should be spent identifying the sound that elicits the fear response and finding ways to distract the cat or teaching it to respond differently.

In some cases, the cat can be desensitised to the sound by exposing it to a level of the stimulus that does not cause a response. This can sometimes be achieved with the use of a sound recording that is played at a low volume, but the owner may need to consider creating similar noises themselves. The low volume sound needs to be combined with a positive experience, such as feeding, for the treatment to have any benefit. With time, and as your cat gets used to the noises, the volume of the sound is increased.

In some cases, your veterinary surgeon may suggest trying some medication to aid progress by reducing the level of anxiety displayed by your cat. If you are concerned about any aspect of your cat’s behavior seek help from your veterinary practice. All behavioural problems are most easily dealt with if they are faced up to at an early stage. If your vet is concerned they may wish to refer you to a specialist animal behaviourist.