Environmental Enrichment for CATS:
“Cats are NOT small dogs” was the first sentence on the first day of feline medicine lectures by my professors in Veterinary school. And how true this has proved to be over the years. There are lots of similarities but some of the most notable differences of cats from the canines is behavior. So as more cats are living together indoors it is more important to be aware of their living conditions and to improve their health and welfare by making sure their needs are met in the environment.
There are several areas that can be of concern to our cats that are often not obvious to us but can become behavioral problems exhibited by unacceptable actions (i.e. urinating outside the litter box). One of the most important areas is access to the three basic resources (food, water, and litter box). These should be located in quiet area (not next to washing machine), semi private area (low foot traffic area), and in multiple sites (especially in multi-cat household where one member “guards and teases” others at the resource for “fun or spite”). A key point with “litter box etiquette” is to always have the same number of litter boxes as the number of cats in the household “plus 1”. For instance, if you have 3 cats there should be 4 or more litter boxes available in the home.
Another important area to consider is structures for the cats within the environment. This includes scratching posts, places to climb, perch, rest and hide. There are several commercially made “cat condos” which most cats like and we encourage clients to start kittens early so they know it’s “theirs”. Some cats like to explore so owners could also hide toys for them to search for.
Social contact (with the owner as well as other cats in the household) is a very important area as well. Cats are nomadic by nature and do not form packs or groups in the wild. So when put indoors some have a harder time adjusting to this closeness. Therefore each one should be observed and if necessary be separated for a while if need be. A lot of cats enjoy alone time too. If they are being a bully then a time-out in a spare bedroom is good to give the others a break. Remember just because you love them does not mean they will like each other (very few people would let their ex-spouse rent a room from them no matter how cordial their relationship).
One area that will be different for every cat is their human interaction. Most cats will play games (feather on a stick, laser pointer light chasing, small fake mice, etc). Some prefer the petting or grooming (brushing) interaction. Our job is to see what they enjoy the most and to avoid interactions that may stress them (i.e.: chasing the cat). For those of you that have kitties that tend to bite when being petted, keep in mind that to many cats petting should be on their terms. Most cats will not object to petting that stays around the head and neck region. When you go beyond that “magic line” between the neck and shoulders, some cats will consider that too much and give you a little warning nip. That will be your cue that this particular cat prefers a “less is more” approach to contact.
Also consider audio, visual and olfactory areas too. These are things like a radio or television playing while the owner is away. Access to a window or fish tank can be very beneficial as well. Cats often will like catnip or pheromones which are commercially available.
Lastly, it is a good idea to rotate toys on a regular basis (weekly) to provide some novelty.
Last week we saw an older German Shepherd that had an extremely large tumor in its abdomen. After speaking with the owner and gathering a history, it seemed that this tumor had been growing for the past 2-3 months. There were a few very subtle signs that he noticed in retrospect, however he didn’t recognize the seriousness of these seemingly minor changes. Many times animals can have serious disease and unfortunately we don’t realize until it’s too late. It is an animals instinct to show no signs of weakness, even in our domesticated pets. It is that reason, coupled with the fact that they can not tell us when they feel bad, that many things get overlooked. There are some little things that we can look for in our older pets however to help us recognize and diagnose diseases earlier in the process and hopefully help them live a longer life. Fortunately for our patient mentioned earlier, we were able to successfully remove the mass and he has recovered amazingly well. Below, I will outline some of the things that could indicate an underlying disease and some things that should not be ignored.
1.) Excessive water consumption (polydypsia) and excessive urination – I think this is probably the most common clinical sign owners describe to us in older animals, especially cats. While some animals may consume a lot of water just because they really like it, others may begin to drink more as they get older because of an underlying disease. Things such as hyperthyroidism in cats and kidney disease are a very common cause of this. Other common causes are diabetes and hyperadrenocorticism (Cushings disease). There are other less common things including some cancers that can cause this as well. If you notice that you are filling that water bowl more frequently, cleaning large amounts of urine from the litter box, or letting your dog out to urinate more often, then possibly you should have your veterinarian check over your pet.
2.) Change in eating habits (lack of appetite or a ravenous appetite) – While people like a lot of variety in their diet, animals do not really seem to care if they eat the same food day in and day out for years at a time. When I hear that an older dog or cat has suddenly lost interest in their food then I get a little concerned. Many times owner will tell me that their pet didn’t seem to like their food anymore so they switched types and then they ate it ok for a few weeks then lost interest in that one as well. A lot of times this is a very non-specific indicator that something else is going on. We would have to dig a little deeper to determine the cause. All that being said, I will say that occasionally I run across a little dog or cat that is just extremely picky and really does like a little variety. These animals have usually been like that their whole life but it is when an animal suddenly develops this pickiness that it is a concern. On the other side of the coin is the animal that can’t seem to eat enough. This also can lead us to suspect certain endocrine diseases.
3.) Sudden weight loss – this usually goes along with the change in eating habits. If your pet is not eating great and you notice weight loss then you should definitely take it in to see the doctor. Just because your pet is older it should not lose a significant amount of weight quickly. If your animal has lost 10% of its body weight in just a few months, that is significant. Just because your pet is older doesn’t mean it should lose weight. Now, of course as an animal ages it will very gradually lose weight and muscle but we are concerned when this happens fairly quickly. Some diseases, such as diabetes and hyperthyroidism, can cause weight loss even though they seem to have a ravenous appetite.
4.) Change in body shape – Sometimes although the scales may indicate that your pet weighs the same it may look “different”. The belly may be bigger and rounder or you may be able to see the spine better than you ever have before. Muscle atrophy can cause them to look much thinner. Sometimes this happens in the muscles of the back causing the spinal column to be more prominent and easily seen and sometimes this happens on the head and face. This is something else that can happen slowly as patients age, but shouldn’t be ignored if it comes on quickly. Some disease processes can cause a pot belly appearance and that may be one of the only clinical signs you notice. The german shepherd I mentioned earlier with the abdominal mass had a “bloated” looking abdomen. The owner said some days the abdomen looked bloated but other days it looked ok. If something seems to get better but comes back again it is best to check it out.
5.) A lesion on the skin that doesn’t seem to be getting better – I often see pets that have a red or ulcerated area on the skin that the owners thought was just a scrape and have been treating topically with neosporin or something similar. Sometimes it will get better and reappear and sometimes it just doesn’t heal up like it should. These things should be looked at because sometimes there are skin tumors that can be difficult to distinguish from a “hot spot”. If your doctor determines that it is a mass or if they suspect it could be a malignant tumor, it is always best to have these things taken care of sooner than later.
6.) Sudden change in behavior – Any change in behavior is an important sign. If your animal has always been very active and suddenly doesn’t feel like running after the ball, going on walks or joining the family as it usually does then maybe it is because something just isn’t right.
These are just a few things that may help you pick up on a problem a little sooner. No one knows your pet like you do and if you feel like something just isn’t quite right then trust your gut and if nothing else call your veterinarian to seek some guidance. As our pets become geriatric, which can be as early as 7-8 years old in large breed dogs, it is a great idea to have an exam at least once a year. We also recommend yearly blood work which includes a CBC, chemistry profile and thyroid level. Many times the blood comes back completely normal which is excellent. However, sometimes this blood work picks up some abnormalities before your pet even exhibits any clinical signs of illness. Early detection can be the difference between a happy pet and a very sick pet sometimes.
Please feel free to call any of us at Heritage Veterinary Hospital if you have any concerns about your pet!
Dr. Stephanie Bradley
Everyone always told me “just wait until you have kids. . . your dog will take the backseat and won’t get near as much attention as she gets now”. It’s not that I didn’t believe that human children would require more attention and obviously there is a different kind of love for a human over an animal, but my dog was truly my baby. I have noticed, as a veterinarian, once our “regulars” have babies we don’t see them as often as we did before. Still, I just didn’t see that happening to me and my dog. I was going to be different and give my little Lexi the same amount of attention as she was used to getting. I could snuggle with a dog and a baby at the same time!
I got Lexi as a gift from my family about 8 years ago after I graduated from Veterinary School, several months before my husband, Kyle and I got married. She is a Cavalier King Charles spaniel and was about the cutest puppy in the world! I treated her like my child. My friends actually liked to tease me for this very reason. She went everywhere with me. I took her to training classes and taught her every trick I could think of. She had a necklace and dressed up occasionally, especially on OSU game days. She had an OSU t-shirt she wore to show her support for our cowboys. She is very smart and I’m pretty sure she can understand a lot of what I say to her. She was my little shadow and there was a permanent place on the couch next to me.
You may have noticed that I am talking a lot in past tense here, not because Lexi has died but because I now have 3 children. Luke and Logan are my 2 year old twins and Leighton is my 6 month old baby girl.
My twins were born in October 2009. It started out not too bad (for Lexi that is). I think she was a little curious at first about these two loud, crying babies. That probably quickly changed from curiosity to annoyance as her sleep was interrupted nightly. Since she sleeps in my bed, she was disturbed each time I had to get up and tend to the babies. But, her life was truly ruined (in her eyes) as these babies (not just one but two) became mobile and started crawling around, grabbing fists full of long ear and tail hair. At first she was able to escape to the safety of the couch, but it wasn’t long before they were pulling up and able to reach her even there.
So, this brings me to a more serious note of protecting your babies and your pets from each other. I get this question a lot as a veterinarian. “How should I introduce my dog to my new baby?” First of all, NEVER trust any animal 100%. Even the nicest dog or cat in the world is still an animal. If annoyed enough or pushed to their limit by hair pulling and toy stealing they may act instinctively and their only defense mechanism is growling or sometimes nipping or even biting. I consider Lexi one of those super nice dogs. There have been a few times though that one of my boys has grabbed some hair and before I could get to her to help her she has turned around and sort of nipped at them. She was not trying to bite them but merely trying to get loose and stop the painful attack on her ear. When introducing your pet for the first time to your new little bundle, make sure you are in a calm, quiet, familiar environment. If you are really concerned that your dog may be too hyper or react badly you can have it on a leash so you have better control. Also, make sure to never leave your baby unattended with your pet. Have a crate or a gated off area where your dog can go to get some peace and escape from your child if needed. There were many times when my twins first discovered how fun it could be to chase my dog and cat that I had to take the animals to my room for a break from the kids. When it comes to feeding your pets, keep their food in a place the kids can’t get to. This is for your pets, and for your sanity as well. Kids love to play in the water bowl and eat the dog food. I have had to dig some dog food from my son’s mouth on more than one occasion. He has probably eaten more dog food than I’d like to admit. More importantly, many dogs are very food aggressive or protective over their food and their treats and toys. This seems to be when most accidents and injuries occur to children.
Cats are a little easier because they tend to be pretty good at staying up and out of the way. My cat actually thinks it is fun to tease the kids and get just close enough to where they think they can get her, and then she runs away. There have been a few times that she was too slow and got dragged a little ways by the tail. She didn’t come back to play for awhile after that one. With cats, you will need to make sure that the litter box is in a place where the kids can’t get to it. The food and water can be put up where the kids can’t reach it, but the cat can hopefully jump up easily enough to eat and drink. Personally, my biggest concern with my cat and my babies was that she might snuggle them to death. She is a super sweet kitty and loves to lay right by your side. I was afraid that she might jump in their crib at night to snuggle and the babies wouldn’t be able to move, causing them to suffocate. Luckily, this wasn’t an issue but they do make netting to put over cribs for this very reason if needed.
You all know your furry babies better than anyone else and many of you may have absolutely no concerns about how they will react when you bring a new baby home. Some, however aren’t so lucky and have problems with the transition. There are even a few who are never able to make it work out. We are always here to answer any of your questions and to help counsel you through difficult times or decisions you may have to make.
As far as Lexi goes, she is still my little 4 legged baby but does not, unfortunately, get the attention she once did. I feel guilty sometimes when I see her laying off to the side watching, while I play with the kids. I try to give her extra attention in the evening once the boys are in bed, but even that is hard since I now have a 6 month old that would like some one-on-one time without her brothers around. Not to mention that once everyone else is asleep is the only time that the laundry gets done, toys get picked up and other house cleaning gets taken care of. Life is not all bad for her. She still gets to go on walks, still comes to work with me everyday and she gets a lot more treats now. The boys have found out that it is fun to share their food with Lexi and they drop a ton on the floor. I’d say mealtime is Lexi’s favorite time of day now. I know that as the kids get older she will have some fun little playmates!
Happy New Year!!
Dr. Stephanie Bradley