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Advice for Pet Owners
Caring for Cats

Paul Maza
Veterinarian and Lecturer
Wednesday, July 30, 2008 11:00 AM

Maintaining the well being of cats everywhere is the goal at the Cornell Feline Health Center. In addition to providing online videos on topics like brushing your cat's teeth and giving your cat medication, it also gives cat owners and veterinarians the opportunity to receive expert advice on their pet with a phone call to the Feline Consultation Service.

Paul Maza, a veterinary consultant for the Feline Consultation Service, can share his wisdom on how to keep your cat healthy and happy. He is also a lecturer of anatomy at Cornell's College of Veterinary Medicine and the recipient of the 2008 Teaching Excellence Award from the Student Chapter of the American Veterinary Medical Association. He was online Wednesday, July 30, at 11 a.m. ET to answer questions on cat health.

Submit your questions and comments before or during the live discussion.

Please join us again Wednesday, August 6 at 11 a.m. ET for a discussion on pet care with the Animal Doctor Michael W. Fox. And check out washingtonpost.com's new pets section anytime!

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Dr. Paul Maza: Hi Everyone -- thank you for the opportunity to help you with some of your feline health related questions. I'm very happy to have been asked to chat with you.

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Crofton, Md.: We have a wonderful cat who is approximately 14 years old (she was a treasured find at our local SPCA). She had a small tumor in her mouth that has grown to about 3 centimeters in size in just a few months. I have been told that it's likely cancer. We have decided on pallative care and quality of life. She's enjoying gourmet kitty food and getting lots of rubdowns and TLC from us. My question is: what are among the likely causes for these growths? Environmental? Viral? Is there anything else that you can suggest we do to keep her comfortable in the days (weeks? months?) that she has left?

Dr. Paul Maza: Sorry to hear about your kitty's oral growth. Unfortunately, cancer, in specific, squamous cell carcinoma, seems to be the most common type of cancer of the cat's oral cavity. However, oral growths can be benign, such as a benign growth or an inflammatory lesion. The best way to be sure of what the lesion consists of is to have a biopsy and histopathology performed. Also, your veterinarian may suggest performing radiographs to see if the growth has invaded the jawbones in the area. TLC is one of the best ways to keep your kitty comfortable. Monitoring her closely to make sure she is able to eat well is important. You can also ask your veterinarian about pain control medication if you think she is uncomfortable and unwilling/unable to eat.

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Reston: Hi, Dr. Maza. My very affectionate and gentle cat runs and hides when she thinks I may be coming to get her to brush her teeth. As a result, I don't brush her teeth because I don't want her to fear me every time I get home from work. I just have to look at her funny and she hides until she figures out I am not going to pick her up and start brushing. How can we get through this? She's completely fine with claw clipping, which can't be high on comfort level either. Thanks!

Dr. Paul Maza: I know how you feel. My cats have done the same thing. You might try holding off on brushing just for a little while, to desensitize your kitty from the fear of having you come at her with a toothbrush. When you have some quiet time with her, you can brush or pet her to make her feel comfortable, then try to re-attempt to work on her teeth. Maybe start out slowly but just having her feel comfortable with lifting up her lips briefly, then work towards being able to touch her teeth and gums briefly. If that goes well, simply using a gauze square or tissue to wipe her teeth and gums is a good way to starting brushing her teeth. Just like with people, it is the actual brushing of the teeth and gums that is more effective, rather than any toothpaste. However, your veterinarian may have a solution that you can put onto the guaze square to help with cleaning the teeth and gums.

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Washington, DC: Dr. Maza, what is your opinion on chemotherapy for cats? My 14-year-old male cat was recently diagnosed with a stage three sarcoma that necessitated the removal of his left rear leg. While they were able to remove the entire tumor, the oncologist recommends chemotherapy to reduce the chance of the cancer reappearing someplace else in his body. A CT scan showed that his lymph nodes and other organs were cancer-free. I don't want to put my cat through another major medical procedure if nothing is apparent right now. Do you have a recommendation? Thank you!

Dr. Paul Maza: Hi! Sorry to hear about your kitty and his sarcoma. I agree with your veterinarian that multimodal therapy including chemotherapy provides the best prognosis. We often hear about complications, stress and physical trauma with chemotherapy in humans, but cats seem to tolerate chemotherapy much better. Of course your veterinarian will monitor your kitty very closely including doing regular bloodwork and other tests. The most common side effect of chemotherapy in cats seems to be gastrointestinal issues, such as nausea and vomiting. Ask your veterinarian about using antiemetics such as metoclopramide, ondansetron and/or maropitant. Thanks!

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Dumfries, Va.: I was told by my vet a few years ago that my cat is overweight so we changed his food to diet control food. Problem is my cat is still overweight and growing. He is a 7-year-old DSH. My cat only eats his food, no human food or extras, and we try to limit his intake but I travel a lot and will leave out extra when he is left alone. Other than that, he appears to eat normal. A friend of mine told me that diet food does not work because cats will continue to eat because it does not have enough nutrients to really fill them up. Any suggestions on how to help a fat cat?

Dr. Paul Maza: This is a very common situation many of us find ourselves in with our kitties. Weight management programs in cats is a lot like weight management programs in people. It takes an unwavering commitment towards achieving our goals, and it always takes a long time (months) to achieve our goals. I think it is good so far that you are not feeding extra food. I do think the diet cat foods are the proper way to go. There is an increased amount of fiber in the diet foods, which help a cat to feel more satiated or full, with much less calories. The diet food should still have the proper amount of protein and other nutrients for optimal nutrition. One of the main keys to diet management is portion control, just like with humans. Have your veterinarian consult you on the optimal weight your cat should be, and feed the diet food according to the optimal weight. This is one of the most important steps. You might need to have someone come over to feed the proper amount of food while you're away. Also, exercise is

Dr. Paul Maza: just as important. If you are traveling a lot, your kitty is sleeping a lot. Calorie expenditure as well as portion control is a good way to get started. Start with just a couple extra minutes a day with getting your kitty to play, such as using a laser pointer moved about on the wall or floor. You can gradually increase the amount of exercise as your cat gets more fit.

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Herndon, Va.: Thank you for taking my question. This is more of a public health question. In your opinion, what is the best way to curb the number of unwanted litters of kittens? Is the larger problem stray and feral cats, or unspayed family pets? Are you aware of any successful programs? (I thought the state of Utah had had some unprecedented success...do you know anything about their program?) Our humane society is, of course, very concerned about this issue, and I appreciate your expert opinion.

Dr. Paul Maza: Hi - this problem occurs in all areas of the country, rural to urban. You may have read about many different programs to help alleviate overpopulation, such as trap/neuter/release programs for stray and feral cats. Also, many areas have high volume spay/neuter clinics that will sterilize pet cats as well as barn and feral cats, and cats in shelters. I myself work in spay/neuter clinics in my spare time, for a non profit organization called Shelter Outreach Services, run by a good friend of mine, Dr. Leslie Appel, who has consulted many organizations including the Humane Society of the United States in trying to deal with overpopulation. Overwhelmingly, it is quite apparent that education of pet owners as well as the general public on the importance of reducing overpopulation of dogs and cats is the most important aspect of reducing unwanted litters of kittens. This may be the root of the problem, as many unwanted kittens from pet cats may become stray or feral if kicked out of the home.

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Anonymous: Paul, here's the scoop: we adopted an older male (about 5 years old) who had been living in our garden for months -- we neutered and brought him inside. Short time later younger male (about a year old) started coming around for dinner and soon adopted us. The older male LOVES the younger male (still not neutered) -- they sleep together, wrestle and go in and out like they were joined at the hip. Can cats be homosexual? Sometimes the younger male mounts the older one and when I catch them doing this they look embarrassed and run away. It doesn't bother me but I'm curious how normal this is for cats. Thanks for taking my question.

Dr. Paul Maza: It's great that the two cats get along so well. Often, two males may have territorial issues, especially if one or both have not been neutered. I don't know about sexuality issues in animals, but I think that your two kitties just have a great bond with one another. The mounting issue may be an act of establishing dominance. It definitely can be a hormonal issue, so I would strongly recommend having him neutered as soon as possible.

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Calgary, AB, CA: We recently got a 4-year-old Siamese from a cattery (retired and neutered show cat and stud). While his health is fine and he is eating and drinking and using the litter box reliably and happily, his social integration with our family is not good. He has been confined to the master bedroom and bath, and we spend lots of time with him, but he is still very nervous and tries to hide whenever we approach. When we do manage to pick him up, he's happy and purrs and settles down for a bit, but then slinks off. We also try to keep him interested with toys and games (a flyer toy, etc.) and quiet conversation. I've sprayed some Feliway around the place a couple of times a day. He's been with us now for 2.5 weeks, but does not indicate any readiness to be more sociable or explore more of the house. Is there anything else we can do to help him settle and feel more confident?

Dr. Paul Maza: It sounds like you are doing well so far with some socializing of your new cat. Unfortunately, socialization can take much longer than two to three weeks. Any particular cat can have different behavioral issues when entering a new house. It could be that your kitty was used to being around a lot of other cats, and finds it odd to be by himself. Or, your house could still seem like a new environment for him. Since his health, diet and litter box behavior seems to be okay, I would try to keep the same routine for a few more weeks, and hopefully he will come around and be more social. You can ask your veterinarian for a recommendation of an animal behaviorist if necessary, and the behaviorist can visit your home and try to discern any particular areas to work on.

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Westfield, N.J.: I recently adopted a 16-year-old female cat and her 15-year-old son who belonged to a close friend who died. Mama Kitty is perfectly housebroken and doing well; her son was exclusively an outdoor cat his entire life and had NEVER used a kitty box. They are now living on my screen porch because the male cat rarely uses the two boxed I put out there for them, and also frequently sprays the furniture, drapes etc. when I let him inside. Is there hope for teaching an old cat new bathroom habits? And what about the spraying, which seems to have abated somewhat in the several months I've had them but still happens occasionally?

Dr. Paul Maza: Sorry to hear about your friend who passed away. Being in a new environment can really stress a cat out. We like to think that a cat instinctively knows that he/she should use a litter box, however that behavior was forced on cats when we moved them into our homes. So, urinating outside, as the male cat used to do, was the more natural thing. When he comes inside, he may be attempting to "mark" territory by spraying on objects. That behavior may be abating due to him being in your home for several months. You can try different styles of litter boxes, such as covered vs. uncovered, high sides vs. low sides, etc. Also, you might try a variety of litter types, such as clay, clumping, paper litter, etc. You might try Feliway, a synthetic pheromone that can help to reduce anxiety issues in some cats. There are sprays, and also infusers that you can plug into an electrical socket in your home. Overall, many behavioral issues can be from both moving to a new home, as well as losing their companionl.

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dirty sheet street: Dr. Maza, we recently adopted a very sweet cat from a rescue organization. He likes to sleep on the bed near my feet. I've notice, however, that he sometimes leaves a "poop print" on the sheet where his little kitty butt has been. When I observe him during the day, his butt looks clean. He doesn't leave poop prints anywhere else in the house. I'm not sure if it matters, but his stools are somewhat soft (unlike the hard pellet-like turds our other cat produces), and he will only eat dry food. Is there anything I can do short of shutting him out of the bedroom to prevent the daily change of sheets?

Dr. Paul Maza: I suppose that while your kitty is sleeping, his anal sphincter may be relaxed a bit, allowing some feces to pass, and during the day while he is awake this does not happen. Or, the soft stools could be related to the issue. I would recommend asking your veterinarian to perform a fecal test to check for intestinal parasites, which could lead to soft stools. Also, your veterinarian can perform a physcial examination to determine if there are any physical reasons for leaking stool. One simple resolution may be to place a towel at the foot of the bed where he sleeps, and change that towel daily, instead of the entire bed's sheets.

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spaying older cats : Dr. Maza, my in-laws both grew up on farms where cats were left to run about and catch mice and were not taken to the vet. They live in the country now and have an unaltered, male outdoor cat. He (the cat) is probably between 8 to 10 years old, and I'm not sure if he's ever been to the vet. Are there any reasons NOT to get him altered now (e.g. Is he "too old?" Would the procedure be too traumatic for him?) And just so I can help convince them, does a 10-plus-year-old cat still have the ability to mate and produce liters? Thank you for your time.

Dr. Paul Maza: Good question! Male intact cats, no matter the age, can significantly add to the overpopulation problem in domestic, stray, and feral cat populations. That in itself is one great reason to still have that kitty neutered. Another reason to have him neutered is to help reduce/prevent some behavioral issues that may be related to being unneutered. The testosterone that intact cats have in their systems may encourage them to roam more, to spray and mark territory more, and to be more aggressive and fight. And, if they fight more, there of course may be health issues such as bite and scratch wounds, abscesses and transmission of infectious diseases such as feline immunodeficiency virus. Neutering a cat to reduce testosterone levels may decrease these behaviors and their consequences. So, having a cat neutered, even at his age now, is important both as an overpopulation issue as well as an issue with his own health.

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FIP: My adorable 5-month-old Somali kitten died recently of FIP. I know there is controversy about the vaccine, but I was just interested in what you think. My old cat (he died at 16.5 years old) had the vaccine when he was a kitten. Do you know if any strides are being made to create a safe vaccine for this horrible disease?

Dr. Paul Maza: Sorry to hear about your kitty. FIP certainly is a horrible disease. There is ongoing research to find a vaccine that is effective, but as of now, any so-called "FIP vaccine" is not effective at preventing the onset or infection of feline infectious peritonitis. This is because the virus that causes FIP is a common virus in cats, a coronavirus. In a very small percentage of a cat population, this common coronavirus may mutate to a form that causes FIP signs. Any vaccine right now is a vaccine to reduce infection of coronavirus, but not the mutated form that causes FIP. There are studies working towards producing a vaccine against the mutated form, but the vaccine used currently is not effective in most situations. Some studies suggest that the vaccine may be helpful in places where coronavirus and FIP may be endemic, such as certain affected catteries and shelters.

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19-year-old cat: We have a 19-year-old cat who is failing. He is losing weight (he is at 7.5 pounds, having lost half a pound in less than six months) and probably has dementia (can't remember that he has eaten, pees outside the box, panics if he doesn't see us). That being said, so far his quality of life seems okay. He spends a lot of time with my retired husband. We have three other cats, and it is pretty clear the old man has lost his dominant position. Even so, they usually leave him alone. He isn't sick (we have taken him to the vet); he is just failing. I know at some point we will need to put him down. How do you know what that point is?

Dr. Paul Maza: Sorry to hear about your kitty. I am glad to hear, though, that you are most interested in his quality of life, and that it is good presently. I would encourage having your kitty examined by your veterinarian, and having some diagnostic tests done such as a chemistry panel, thyroid hormone level, complete blood count (CBC) and a urinalysis to provide a database of information about the health of your cat. There may be systemic health issues that might account for the changes in behavior. Overall, though, I agree that monitoring his quality of life is most important. Some things to watch out for that might indicate a decline in the quality of life include: decreased appetite (from his normal appetite), decreased socialization, unwillingess to move about, sleeping much more than normal (if that's possible in cats), and of course any health related issues such as vomiting and diarrhea. You might gauge it like this: if you consider him OK right now, in the future you can then subjectively count the days where his is OK, versus the days he is not himself. If the bad days greatly outnumber the good, it might indicate his quality of life is diminishing.

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Springfield, Va. Hello. I have a cat that I adore in every regard except that he has an overly sensitive stomach. He's been on the same specialty food for a very long time but he will go through patches (a couple days in a row, usually a couple of times a month), where he won't be able to keep any food down. It all comes back up on our carpets. And I'm not talking hairballs -- this is his actual food that keeps coming up. Then he'll be fine for a while, and then the cycle starts again. I can't keep doing this. It's frustrating to care for a chronically sick animal, not to mention the damage he's doing to our carpets. I work full time and cannot/will not home-cook food for him. I'm about to give him up over this. Do you have any other suggestions?

Dr. Paul Maza: Sorry to hear about the health issues in your kitty. I would recommend a complete physical examination by your veterinarian, and include a chemistry panel, thyroid hormone level and complete blood count to begin with. Chronic vomiting certainly can be very frustrating for both yourself and your cat. Some conditions that may cause chronic vomiting include inflammatory bowel disease, chronic pancreatitis, hyperthyroidism, kidney and/or liver dysfunction, to begin with. Your veterinarian can help with sorting out how diagnose these and other conditions. Certainly a cornerstone of treatment for some these conditions is a specialty diet, but there may be some other treatment options depending on the diagnosis.

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Arlington, Va.: I have three cats. Is it reasonable to assume that they keep themselves busy by playing, or do they need more toys and game time with me? The youngest one (5) seems a little bored at times, though he likes chasing the laser light. I'm in an apartment and work days. Any suggestions? Thank you.

Dr. Paul Maza: Having multiple cats is one great way to keep them all busy, but most likely while you are gone during the day, they are sleeping. So, a dedicated playtime when you come home from work or in the evening is a great way to interact socially with your cats, as well as encouraging them to exercise, and burn off calories to help with maintaining a proper body condition. The laser lights are great for most cats. Other toys cats love are those feathered objects at the end of a string, attached to a pole, and bounce around with you moving the pole around. You may have to start out slowly with exercise time, and increase the amount of time as your cats get more fit.

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Alexandria, Va.: Thank you for taking our questions! My question is kind of odd, but I hope you can answer it. My cat is a loud bather, and the noise really bothers my husband. If we're sitting in a room and she starts bathing -- especially if we're eating -- he goes crazy. Often it ends up that either he leaves the room or we move her to another room, but sometimes he'll make noise (clapping, snapping) to distract her from bathing, to avoid either of them having to move. I am worried that she will come to think she's doing something wrong, because we sometimes use clapping to discipline bad behavior like clawing. Should I be worried that she might stop bathing if we keep this up? (That would obviously be worse than the loud bathing.)

Dr. Paul Maza: Yes, I agree that trying to use some negative reinforcement, such as loud noises, to keep him from making loud noises while grooming himself may result in your kitty not grooming himself regularly. It might be hard, but I would suggest trying to ignore the grooming sounds, or simply leaving the room until he is done grooming.

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Sterling, Va.: Thank you for taking my question. My three cats are 100 percent indoor pets. We also have a lab who (of course) spends a lot of time outdoors: in the yard, on walks, at the dog park. After my cats tested negative for FLV and FIV, I didn't think there was a need to continue these vaccines. Do they need to get these vaccines even if they are indoors? And is there any risk of our dog picking up these (or other feline diseases) while outside and then transmitting them to our cats?

Dr. Paul Maza: I agree that vaccination for FIV and FeLV in your cats is most likely not necessary any longer. However, I would recommend continuing calicivirus, herpesvirus and panleukopenia virus vaccinations, at least every three years for indoor only cats. FIV and FeLV are disease transmitted mainly through direct contact between cats, so your dog cannot bring them in to the house and infect your cats. Fleas and other parasites are possible, however.

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Dr. Paul Maza: Hi everybody - thanks for the great questions. I hope that I was able to give you some helpful information. I am terribly sorry to those whose questions I did not get to. Hopefully there will be similar opportunities like this in the future. Also feel free to ask your veterinarian to help you with your feline helath related concerns. Have a great day!

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