dr Mason Bell
February is National Cat Health Month, a time for cat owners to check in on their feline’s wellness. Veterinarian Mason Bell, Ph.D., weighed in on the most common problems cats face and what owners can do to give their furry friends a long, happy life.
Bell co-owns Hillcrest Animal Hospital on Shelby Road, and he noted the most common issues his staff sees in cats are obesity, urinary tract disease, kidney problems, diabetes and parasites.
Obesity, while exceedingly common, is not often addressed. Cats often tend toward laziness, Bell said, so overfeeding for their activity level is easy to do. Annual checkups are a good time to evaluate whether it really is all just fur.
“If we can keep them at a healthy weight they’re going to live longer, so just checking their weight every year and adjusting how much food they’re getting, and simple things (like) that can … pay big dividends for the life of the pet, the health of the pet, and the happiness of everybody,” Bell said.
Overweight cats are put at greater risk for diabetes. Both diabetes and kidney disease are detectable through annual blood screenings. Early diagnosis yields more treatment options and better results, especially for kidney disease.
“We try to mimic human medicine as close as we can with our capabilities,” Bell explained, “But with some things, we’re very, very limited. So until we get the ability to do kidney transplants, we have to really rely on food and other medical types of therapies. And the earlier we can do those things, the longer we can preserve their kidneys.”
Some cats are also predisposed to urinary tract infections. In males especially, the symptoms of an infection may signal kidney stones or other blockages.
“Urinary tract infections can be common. Just physiologically some cats have tendencies to form urinary crystals or stones, which can lead to infections or blockages in male cats, which is a really severe problem.”
Parasite prevention is also vital to pet health. A cat does not need to go outside to become a snack for pests — fleas, for example, can hitchhike indoors on humans or other pets.
“It can get an infestation started without you directly seeing a flea-ridden animal come in contact with them,” Bell said.
Fortunately, fleas are usually straightforward to eliminate, he added, but staying on top of preventative medication keeps parasites from gaining a foothold at all.
Annual exams are an invaluable tool in evaluating a cat’s health. Besides performing blood screens and weight checks, vets can also examine them for less visible injuries and illnesses.
“It’s very important to do annual wellness exams in cats because they’re even better than dogs at hiding disease,” Bell noted.
Most cats also dislike leaving home, especially after being shoved into a carrier, and their anxiety keeps owners from scheduling checkups. It also limits what vets can do. Bell said the new Hillcrest facility works hard to reduce feline stress by keeping separate waiting rooms, boarding spaces and ICUs for dogs and cats.
Owners can also help their cats reframe the experience of going to the vet.
“Cats are really good at training us, but we can train them as well,” said Bell. “And so it’s not a bad idea to get them used to being in the carrier, whether it actually leads to them going somewhere or not.”
Bell recommended placing food in a carrier at mealtimes, taking cats for walks, stroller rides or short drives in their carriers and rewarding them when the trip is done. Cat owners do not need to make it a constant of their schedule, but Bell recommended starting the routine a good idea a week or two in advance of an appointment.
“With very small incremental changes over time, you can train them to understand that it’s not that big of a problem,” he said.
Day to day, owners can evaluate their cats’ health by watching their appetite.
“Sometimes the best way to determine whether there’s anything going on is just whether they have a good appetite or not,” Bell noted, since a disinterest in food for two or more meals can signal a problem.
Setting up a once- or twice-daily feeding schedule provides a good window of observation.
Overall, Bell urged cat owners to take a “proactive” approach to their pet’s health, since “any attention you give your cat is good for their health, good for our health.”