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The Great Cat Watch: Scrutiny, Surveillance, Vet Visits


October, 2005

“We should all watch our dogs go to the bathroom,” begins Dr. James Richards, director of the Cornell Feline Health Center at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, Ithaca, NY. “We should also see what’s in the litter box, but most of us don’t,” he begins to laugh. “Certainly, I understand why you’d want to avert your gaze to what’s inside (the box). The truth is that by gauging what your cat eats and then what comes out the other end, you have an important barometer of your kitty cat’s health,” he says.

The Great Cat Watch for Wellness Sake is a publiceducation push supported by the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) and sponsored by Fort Dodge Animal Health (a veterinary pharmaceutical company) as a part of their National Pet Wellness campaign.

“Cats can be understated in their behavior and have a very serious illness, and the owners’ never know it,” adds Dr. Jane Brunt, incoming president of AAFP.

“But there are some subtle signals to watch for,” adds Richards. “Watch for any change in behavior. So, say your cat usually greets you at the door and now doesn’t. Or even the other way around, if your cat is typically pretty aloof, and is now clingy. Or it’s possible that your cat is acting the same around human family members but is interacting differently with other pets in the house.”

Other clues of potential illness include a quiet cat beginning to sing the blues, or a usually demonstrative vocal cat acting like a demure wallflower. Changes in water drinking habits and/or grooming patterns might also indicate something is the matter.

Even bad breath may suggest a problem. The best way maintain dental health is by brushing. But the reality is that most of pet owners don’t. So Richards suggests sniffing your cat’s breath weekly, and if you detect a change, see your vet.

“We see a heck of a lot of oral disease in cats, and by catching a problem early sometime extractions may be avoided,” says Brunt. “It’s true the vet visit will cost money – but it’s cheaper than later having a cat undergo oral surgery to extract a tooth.”

While missing the litter box could well be a behavior problem, it may also be a result of a health problem, such as constipation or kidney disease, even arthritis; a cat may physically have a tough time stepping into the box. Sometimes a cat who’s feeling just lousy won’t bother to use a litter box several rooms away.

“Dogs are more demonstrative, and more likely to tell us they’re not feeling well,” Richards says.

Many cats are like that uncle everyone seems to have – where even if he’s run over by a truck and looks flat as a pancake, he’d reply, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.’

Sometimes, the only way to determine if anything is wrong is through a veterinary exam. And because cats age far quicker than people, a lot can happen in a short period of time. An initiative to encourage twice yearly vet exams, called National Pet Wellness, is now being encouraged by the American Veterinary Medical Association. Brunt says more than once a cat’s come into her facility in Baltimore, MD for an exam, and the heart sounds perfect when she listens with her stethoscope. But only six months later, another exam reveals a heart murmur, which could be indicative of a life threatening heart disease called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Blood work might be perfect in January, but in June reveal diabetes or early onset kidney disease.

Just as high blood pressure is a silent disease in people, the same is true for cats, according Richards. The only difference is that in cats, high blood pressure is rarely a stand alone illness; it’s almost always accompanied by another serious problem such as kidney disease or hyperthyroidism.

“Certainly, catching disease early enhances our ability to treat,” says Brunt. “But early detection also means less suffering for the cat. In fact, early detection may save a life. Early detection might also save clients money.”

Brunt offers an example of a cat with cancer. The tumor was removed. “Since the cancer (a connective tissue sarcoma in this particular case) was discovered very early, the owner saved money because no further treatment was suggested,” she says.

To learn more check out October in National Pet Wellness Month, more about that initiative at

Did you know…

  • On average, cats urinate twice daily and defecate once.
  • A healthy cat sleeps about 16 to 18 hours a day – but only about half that sleep is long in duration, otherwise cats snooze in spurts, called catnaps, of course.
  • Cats visit the veterinarian about half as often as dogs do, although there more cats than dogs. There are 61.6 million canine pets, and about 90 million cats, according to the 2005/2006 American Pet Product Manufacturers Association Sourcebook.

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Steve Dale is a certified animal behavior specialist who has been a trusted voice in the world of pet health for over 20 years. You have likely heard him on the radio, read him in print and online, and seen him speaking at events all over the world. His contributions to advancing pet wellness have earned him many an award and recognition around the globe.

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