By Dr. Marty Becker
We all want what’s best for our pets, don’t we? As a veteran veterinarian (more than three decades in practice), I’ve looked across the exam room table at enough pet owners to know that the overwhelming majority truly are trying their best. Even when they don’t take our recommendations — especially when they want to, but can’t usually because they can’t afford it.
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But what if I told you that I can set your cat on the road to getting healthy and staying healthy with just a few simple don’t-do-this tips? And what if I told you they were basically free?
5 Things to Stop Doing, Right Now
I have your attention now, right? So let’s take a look at my top five recommendations for things cat lovers should never, ever do.
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1. Let your cat roam freely.
Yes, I'm going to jump right in with the most controversial recommendation of them all. I know that in the United States, most feline behavior experts and veterinarians are strong advocates for keeping cats indoors. And I know, further, that a rather large proportion of cat lovers let their cats roam free. (Interesting fact: In the United Kingdom, it’s considered downright odd to keep cats from roaming, and some would go so far as to say it’s abusive.) And I know my advice may seem contradictory, considering that the only cats at our Almost Heaven Ranch are the barn cats. But as a veterinarian, I’ve seen enough cats hit by cars, attacked by dogs or coyotes, or poisoned — accidentally and intentionally — to know that when you let your cat roam, you’re likely shortening his life. The quality of an indoor cat’s life can be brought to parity with his free-roaming cohort by adding trees, toys and catios to his indoor space, or by allowing him into areas secured with cat fencing — while you keep an eye out for predators.
2. Punish or frighten your cat.
The fastest way I know to ruin a relationship with a cat is to hit him, scare him, yell at him or in any way push upon him a negative impression of you.
Simply put, punishment does not work to change his behavior, except in one specific way: It will leave him thinking that you’re a horrible creature he ought to avoid. That means if you want to enjoy having a cat in your life, the best way to shape his behavior is with treats and praise. Why is this a health tip? Because cats who are afraid are stressed, and stress has been linked to illness. Cats like calm, predictable environments with calm, predictable people who let them be cats. A relaxed, happy cat will be healthier, and that will make you happier.
3. Overfeed your cat.
If you think we veterinarians sound like broken records when we harp on the weight of the pets we see, well...we are. We’re trying to think of ways to get through to our clients about how they are making their pets’ lives miserable and shorter by lovingly giving them more food than they need. What else can we say or do to make you understand this? I’m pulling out my hair, and so are all of my colleagues. We’re seeing cats in constant misery from weight-related feline arthritis, or we’re being asked to euthanize cats with diabetes because the owners can’t cope with the care. Please don’t tell me that you’ve tried everything. Let us help find things you haven’t tried. But mostly, try saying no to your begging pet. Cats can’t open kibble bags or cans of food, and they can’t hop in the refrigerator and help themselves to leftovers. You have the power to make your cat healthy. Use it. Use it now.
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4. Use products made for dogs (or horses, or any other species, including people) on your cat.
Tylenol can kill your cat. So can aspirin. So can flea-control products labeled for dogs. In fact, cats are super sensitive to so many things we don’t give a moment’s thought to that I will go so far as to say you should use only products that are labeled for cats (and read the label carefully: That same product might not be OK for kittens). The ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center’s website has a comprehensive list of dangerous substances, as well as plants that can be harmful to your cats. And, of course, when in doubt, ask your veterinarian — she knows what's safe and what isn't for your feline.
5. Ignore your cat’s litterbox.
If you show me someone who claims to actually enjoy cleaning the litterbox, I’ll show you a liar. OK, maybe an exaggerator.
I know lots of people who don’t mind cleaning the litterbox, but I’ve yet to meet one who’d honestly prefer it over a free day at Disneyworld. So, no, nobody really enjoys this essential task, but it’s one you avoid at your peril — and your cat's. If you don’t keep the litterbox clean, you’re upping the chances that your cat won’t use it, for obvious reasons. More importantly, though, cleaning the litterbox daily means you know what your cat’s up to, what’s normal and what’s not. And because cats are so darn secretive with signs of illness or pain, cleaning the litterbox is one of the few ways to get the clues you need. So don’t ignore the box: Keeping the box clean can keep you in the loop with your cat’s health.
These five "don'ts" aren’t the only ones I can offer, but I think paying attention to them will go a long, long way to giving you the power to keep your cat as healthy as possible.
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I still recommend regular wellness checks to help you to catch the things that are percolating below the surface, but if you make a practice of avoiding things that risky for your cat, he will have fewer health problems and will just be happier. And so will you, which makes me happy too.