Cats are mysterious creatures -- it's part of their appeal. "I feel like there's always going to be something you don't know about your cat," says John Fulton, host of the hit show Must Love Cats on Animal Planet. "They're a mystery. It's a pretty cool thing."
Cats try their best to keep you in the dark, but our need-to-know guide should help you understand your feline friend a little better, from searching for signs of illness to ensuring that your kitten is getting enough exercise.
Here, a few basic facts about your pet.
1. Cats get heartworms and fleas, too
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Monthly flea and heartworm medicine is standard for dogs -- most owners purchase in bulk and never miss a month. But Dr. Derrick Nelson at Town and Country Veterinary Clinic in River Oaks says cats need the treatments as well, and cat owners often don't know it. "Lots of people think that their cats are indoors so they won't get heartworms, but they still do," Nelson says.
Dr. Steve Hotchkiss, veterinarian and owner of Hulen Hills Animal Hospital and Metro West Emergency Veterinary Center, both in Fort Worth, agreed. "One mosquito can kill a cat," he said. "They are not treatable in cats, but they are preventable." The same goes for fleas. "Especially if there's another cat or dog in the house that goes outside a lot," Nelson said. "I see fleas on cats all the time." Nelson said any vet's office will sell flea and heartworm medicine for cats. Fulton, on a break from filming around the world for the new season of Must Love Cats, stressed the importance of grooming, adding that even though cats are self-groomers, the occasional trip to a groomer is beneficial.
2. Cats cannot be vegetarians
Vegetarian cat owners beware: Your cat cannot share your diet. "I see vegetarians bring their cats in and say, 'I want my cat to be a vegetarian and healthy like me,'" Hotchkiss said. "It's not an option." Cats are "obligatory carnivores" -- they need meat to survive. "If you try to make your cat a vegetarian, it will die," he said.
3. Cats hide their illnesses
Domesticated cats make a choice every day to be domestic, Hotchkiss said. While most domestic dogs would not likely survive long in the wild, cats can fend for themselves -- they are choosing to live with you in your house, eat the food you offer and sleep in your bed.
"A cat is its own person," says Joe Edwards, founder of the Fort Worth Feline Fanciers. "They don't need people at all."
It's because of this survivor nature that cats tend to hide their symptoms when sick. "If you show your illness, you become prey," Hotchkiss said of cats' survivor mentality. "The predators go after the weak, sick ones." Because of this, it's important to know your cat's routine and be on the lookout for changes. If your cat usually switches its perch often throughout the day and suddenly becomes sedentary, it's time to seek a vet's attention.
And if you do notice a cat showing signs of an illness, it's definitely worth a trip to the vet. "If someone calls me and says, 'I think my cat is a little bit sick,' that probably means it's a lot bit sick."
4. Whiskers are sensory organs
While cats' whiskers are often compared to a mustache or the hair on humans' heads, they have a much greater purpose and are much more sensitive. They are sensory organs that cats use to navigate in a number of situations. Hotchkiss said that cats use their whiskers to gauge whether they can fit through small crevices, as well as to navigate in the night. They feel the edges of surfaces with them.
5. You should monitor your cat's food intake and exercise
House cats often sleep 16 hours a day, so monitoring their habits might seem silly, but it is very important. Hotchkiss said cats are creatures of routine and need to eat every day -- skipping meals for a few days can be life-threatening. "People will come in and say, 'I don't think my cat has eaten in three or four days,' and I tell them that they're two days late," he said. "It can be that they have a common cold and can't smell their food, but it can turn into life-threatening liver problems," Hotchkiss said.
Monitoring food is also especially important for indoor cats, which tend to spend more time on the couch than they do moving, which commonly leads to obesity. "People think that it's cruel to restrict their cats' diets, but what's cruel is letting them get obese and develop diabetes," he said.
Fulton agreed, stressing the importance of regular exercise or playtime for indoor cats. "Stimulation is huge," he said. "My cat enjoys toys, lasers, you name it." He recommended clearing paths or shelf space that will allow your cat to safely climb. "They really do like high spaces," he said. Nelson said that allowing your cat access to a window is also mentally simulating. "It's good for a cat's mental health to be able to see outside and watch the action," he said.
6. Regular collars can be dangerous
While cats often don't wear collars, they should, and picking the right one can be crucial. Charlotte Calli, manager of Pet-O-Rama in Keller, says cat owners often pick a small puppy collar, one that clasps or snaps. Because cats are curious and adventuresome, a locked-on collar can be dangerous. "They can get hung up on a fence or tree," Calli said. Breakaway collars, which can be purchased at pet-supply store, will release if caught on something, preventing serious injury to climbing cats.
And if you think your cat doesn't need a collar or microchip, think again. "Cats are adventuresome and they roam," Calli said. "A lot of cat owners have difficulty finding their lost cats because of a lack of information to return them home." A microchip or a collar with the owner's name and phone number can save a lot of heartbreak.
7. Cats should never breathe with their mouths open for long
While dogs can pant for hours, it is extremely abnormal in cats and is usually a sign that something is seriously wrong. Hotchkiss said a cat may breath with it's mouth open for 10 minutes or so -- anything longer needs to be flagged. "Dogs pant, cats don't," he said. While abnormal mouth gaping can point to myriad things, from something stuck in the teeth to breathing or heart issues, it is definitely a sign that the cat needs medical attention. "It's a sign of respiratory distress," Hotchkiss said.