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Cat health: Environmental enrichment

Posted on: July 6th, 2011 by

A cat with pet insurance sits on a ledge.

By: Dr. Jane Matheys
Associate Veterinarian
The Cat Doctor Veterinary Hospital
For Pets Best Insurance

We all want the very best for our cats, and that is why many of us choose to keep our cats indoors. This ensures their safety by reducing the chance for pet health problems like injuries and disease, but it also produces some potential health risks of its own.

Cats in the wild are very active day to day, and are mentally stimulated on a continual basis by their surroundings. This is very different from how the typical indoor cat lives. Lack of exercise and minimal mental stimulation can cause physical and emotional stress. Science has found a connection between chronic stress and disease in humans as well as in pets. Chronic stress is thought to play a role in some of the common inflammatory diseases of cats such as interstitial cystitis (sterile inflammation of the bladder) and inflammatory bowel disease (chronic vomiting or diarrhea). Your pampered, well-loved indoor cat certainly may not seem to be under stress, but his or her health could be telling you otherwise. Because these conditions are often seen in indoor cats, it’s still important to consider cat insurance for your indoor pet.

Environmental enrichment is a way of making your home more like the great outdoors for your cat. There are 5 basic categories of life needs that all cats have: territory, food/water, sleeping area, entertainment/exercise, and litter box.

Meeting theses needs for your indoor cat in the most natural way possible to help reduce stress by replacing the stimulation and activity that he would enjoy as an outdoor cat. The goal is to look at how cats act in the wild, and try to simulate that in the home environment. Let’s take a brief look at how this applies to each life needs category.

Territory is of utmost importance to most cats, especially if they share the house with other pets. Even though some cats are very social, they are independent by nature and need a space of their own where they feel safe. Competition among cats in the same house is one of the most common causes for behavioral problems such as urine spraying, defecating or urinating outside the litter box, and destructive scratching. Each cat should have his or her own space, complete with a separate litter box, separate feeding station, and a separate space to spend time or sleep. Even though some cats may be OK with sharing space, you still need to provide this option.

Cats in the wild hunt for their food and may eat up to 20 small meals a day. This is where they get most of their exercise as well as water requirements. By keeping cats indoors, we have created a situation where they must only walk into the next room to eat. They no longer have to work for their food and are much more sedentary than their outside counterparts. They tend to consume too many calories for their activity level which can easily lead to weight gain and obesity with a greater risk of developing diabetes. Although many pet insurance companies cover diabetes, it’s important to monitor your pet’s health through food as well. I currently recommend a diet of mostly canned food to help ensure they get enough moisture and protein. Having fresh water available at all times is still critical, and many cats prefer moving water. This can be offered in the form of a fountain or fish tank bubbler placed in a bowl.

In addition to the proper food, cats need a sleeping place that is quiet and safe. Many cats like to be alone when they sleep, either curled up in or under something or often high up where they are safe and can watch their surroundings. Providing a choice of sleeping areas is ideal. If your cat chooses somewhere to sleep, there is probably a reason. Try to be accommodating if possible. Cats have a sleep and wake cycle that constantly fluctuates. In the wild, cats hunt multiple times a day, so they must nap often to maintain that activity level. It is ideal to provide a number of suitable and attractive napping spots to help keep them happy.

Many indoor cats are lacking in exercise and entertainment. This is easy to encourage, and the sky’s the limit in thinking of inexpensive, creative ways to get your cat moving in both body and mind. Many cat insurance companies, like Pets Best Insurance, provide cat health and exercise tips on their websites. Scratching posts or climbing areas are desirable for helping to remove old nail and to provide for full body stretches, muscle flexing, and physical as well as scent marking.

Offer your cat a variety of scratching options including horizontal and vertical scratching toys as well as different substrates such as sisal rope, carpet, cardboard and wood. The scratching post should be placed in a busy part of the house so the cat is more likely to use it, and placing one near their favorite sleeping spot may increase compliance, as cats like to scratch and stretch as soon as they wake up.

Multiple perches near windows will encourage more jumping and movement during the day. Provide access to shelving or bookcases if possible. Cats have a natural tendency to want to watch their surroundings while feeling safe and hidden at the same time. Plant some flowers that attract bees and butterflies outside windows or install a planter box. Consider a bird feeder, birdbath or squirrel feeder also.

You can feed your cat up off the ground to encourage jumping to get to the meal. Make sure cats with arthritis can still comfortably reach the bowl. Changing the location of the food dish on a regular basis will help keep them active and forces them to “hunt.” Try to hide small portions of your cat’s food around the home on a daily basis. A play-n-treat feeding ball is a fun toy that cats must chase and knock about in order for kibble to be released. It can increase your cat’s activity and stimulate the mind.

There are videos you can play during the day designed just for cats. Play some soothing music while you are away. Cats get bored with toys easily, so rotate the toys every 1-2 weeks. Don’t offer the whole collection at once. Some easy and cost-effective toys to add to the rotation would be: paper grocery bags to play in, large cardboard boxes filled with crumpled paper to hide in, rolled up paper or tinfoil or tape, plastic milk rings, paper Q-tips, catnip stuffed socks. Interactive things that involve both play and exercise include dragging a shoelace on the floor, laser light pointers (never point at eyes), hang a toy from a doorknob, throw dry kibble across the floor as a treat, toss a ball across a hard floor surface, treat balls, playing hide-n-seek with your cat, a ping pong ball in the bathtub, or non-toxic cat bubbles.

Many cats like to chew on grass or houseplants. Offering a source of greens to chew on can help with this natural desire and is safe. Catnip, catmint or wheat grass can all be purchased or grown indoors. I recommend organic to reduce exposure to pesticides. Remember that greens are not a nutritional requirement and may make some cats vomit. There are also some plants that can make cats sick if ingested, so be sure to research which are safe to have in your home.

Some people introduce their cats to a harness, which allows them to be outdoors in the fresh air but under supervision and safe. Screened porches or patios, outdoor enclosures and special fencings are other options available. Remember to consider flea control during summer months if needed. Some pet insurance companies will even help cover a portion of these costs.

You may want to consider adopting a companion cat if you only have one. This can help provide company and a playmate. Slow introduction is important to make the new addition work.

In the wild, cats void in a new, clean spot every time. The litter boxes we provide are not at all like what they would choose outdoors in their natural environment. The goal is to make sure the cat box is the most attractive place so they will not be tempted to go somewhere else in the house. Attractiveness to a cat includes cleanliness, safety, and convenience. There are some basic rules to follow to help keep your cat happy. Following these will help prevent behavioral issues such as urine marking or defecating outside the box.

-Have a minimum of one box per cat and at least one box per level of house.

-Place the boxes in separate locations around the house to provide options.

-Use unscented, scoopable litter, preferably low dust.

-Don’t place the box near noisy appliances or air ducts.

-Scoop the box at least 1x daily and clean the entire box monthly with unscented soap and water, not disinfectants or cleaning products.

-Litter box covers trap odors inside and may make your cat feel trapped so remove them.

-Offer the largest boxes possible. I prefer plastic storage containers to actual cat boxes.

Remember to think like a cat! Consider how a cat behaves naturally in the wild and then try to enrich the home environment to provide similar opportunities for mental and physical stimulation. Your cat will be happier and healthier for it!

A prevalent cat ailment is on the rise

Posted on: July 5th, 2011 by

A cat with cat insurance recovers in a bed.

By: Dr. Kerry Fost
Managing DVM
The Cat Doctor Veterinary Hospital
For Pets Best Insurance

Feline hyperthyroidism is the most common endocrine disease affecting pets health in middle aged and older cats. It is a multisystemic disorder characterized by the overproduction of thyroid hormone.

The thyroid gland is located in the neck region and has an important role in regulating the body’s metabolic rate. With hyperthyroidism the gland becomes enlarged producing too much hormone and subsequently increases cats’ metabolic rate. The thyroid size increases most often due to a benign tumor. Less than 2% of cases involve a malignant tumor.

The prevalence of feline hyperthyroidism is increasing. In 1979 there was 1 reported case. From 1980 to 1990, 1 cat in 3,000 was found to have the disease. From the year 2000 on, it may be more common than 1 cat in 300. This increase is not thought to be just because of the increasing number of older cats. A specific cause has not been identified. The current theory is some type of environmental agent stimulates mutation of the regulatory proteins in the gland. Some of the environmental agents being looked at include, iodine in cat food, preservatives, pesticides, flame retardants in fabrics, heavy metals and plasticizers in non- stick can linings.

The most consistent finding with this disorder is weight loss, often with a good to ravenous appetite. With an increased metabolism the cat can’t eat enough to keep from losing weight. They also often have increased thirst and urination. Soft stool and vomiting may increase as well. Some cats have behavior changes with restlessness or changes in sleeping pattern. Hyperthyroid cats often have elevated heart rates and increased blood pressure. They may pant because they feel hot.

The diagnosis of feline hyperthyroidism is usually straightforward. It is made on the basis of typical clinical signs, the presence of palpable thyroid enlargement, and a high total thyroxin (T4) level in the blood. However, in some cats with mild hyperthyroidism, the diagnosis may be more difficult and require additional testing. Cat insurance can help to make this more afforable.

Treatment of the disease is usually successful. There are three choices for treatment; and any one of these could be the best choice in certain situations. Many factors must be considered when choosing the best therapy for an individual cat. These options include:

1) Oral or transdermal medication, usually methimazole, which ties up the excess thyroid hormone. This medication will have to be continued for the life of the cat.

2) Radioactive iodine treatment. This is a permanent cure but requires the patient to be hospitalized for several days at veterinary radiation treatment center. Not every state has a treatment facility available. And because this treatment can be expensive, it’s wise to research pet insurance so you’re prepared.

3) Surgical removal of the thyroid tumor. Surgery is less common than it once was due to potential complications.

Because this is a disease of older cats other concurrent diseases can complicate the prognosis. Most cats do well with treatment and the outcome is usually positive for both the owner and the cat. At present there are no known preventive measures, which why it’s a good reason to invest in pet insurance.

Chewing Golf Balls, Vaccine Frequency

Posted on: July 5th, 2011 by

Hi, I’m Dr. Fiona Caldwell and today I am answering some questions on Pets Best Facebook page. This one is from Candy. “Is it okay to let dogs chew on golf balls? My Scottie scars the outside covering and I’m afraid she’s eating some of it, or at least ingesting some chemical. She has food allergies and is on the Z/D Kibble, which keeps her ears infection-free.”

It probably isn’t a good idea. A Scottie is a little dog so the chances of her swallowing the whole thing are pretty unlikely, but if she’s still chewing parts of the plastic off and ingesting it, it’s probably not going to be good for her. Try something like a Nylabone or a Kong, or something that’s made for dogs, to be a little bit safer.

The next one comes from Barbara. “Is it still necessary to do yearly vaccinations or is it being looked into to not have them done quite so frequently?”

This is a great question, and the answer is it depends. Some veterinarians will use vaccinations from a manufacturer that will only guarantee them for one year and that’s where the year deadline comes up. There are manufacturers that will guarantee their vaccines will work for three years. Contact your veterinarian and see if a three-year set of vaccines instead of one-year would be available for you to get.

Insuring your pet in California

Posted on: July 5th, 2011 by

A family with California pet insurance play at the beach.

Your pet is a beloved member of your family. As a pet parent, you want to keep your companion healthy and happy. Good veterinary care is a critical component of being a responsible pet parent. As a pet owner in California, you want to do what’s right for your furry friend but also keep costs down. California pet insurance allows you to do both. But it’s important that you understand the coverage parameters of any pet health plan you are considering.

Quality, comprehensive, affordable pet insurance coverage should also take care of your companion throughout California as well as in other states, not just in your city or town. Be sure your plan offers coverage for your pet when you travel, even outside of the U.S. It’s important to check to see that any licensed veterinarian (generalist, specialist or emergency-care) can treat your pet within California, in other states and countries. This is especially crucial if you often are traveling with your pet.

Costs of Veterinary Care Rising
Having a good pet insurance plan is now more of a necessity than ever. Fees for veterinary services are steadily increasing, often as much as doubling every 13 years! Our pets are also living longer and we want to give them a good quality of life. As pets age, they often need more extensive vet care. Unfortunately, our incomes may not keep up with the rising vet costs and our pets’ needs. Pet parents all over California can gain more peace of mind with a pet health plan.

Indemnity Pet Insurance
Pet insurance plans are called “indemnity plans,” which means that you pay for your vet’s covered services to your pet upfront. You then submit claims to your pet insurer to get reimbursement after you have met any deductibles and paid your co-payments. States usually have different regulations regarding insurance and pet insurance companies insuring your pet in California must comply by the state Department of Insurance guidelines.

Check on the website of any pet insurance plan you are considering. Often the underwriters for a pet insurance policy will have information listed there, or you’ll be directed to a link with helpful guidelines. Find out if there are any particular aspects of the pet insurance plan that may affect your pet that are specific to California’s insurance regulations.

So make a good choice in your California pet insurance plan and travel with your pet buddy, enjoying freedom from worry if he should need vet care while on the road with you.

The Fourth of July can be stressful for pets

Posted on: July 1st, 2011 by

A dog with pet health insurance holds an American flag in his teeth.

By: Dr. Fiona Caldwell
For Pets Best Insurance

The Fourth of July is always a much anticipated time of year for celebrating. Time with families, friends and fireworks brings happiness to many, but what about our pets? The sounds and sights of pyrotechnics are exciting to us, but they can also affect pet health and be very distressing for pets that have anxiety. There are some things you can do to help make this holiday fun for everyone.

Did you know that many pets go missing on July 4th? Animal control officers and shelters often see an increase in lost animals during this time. Extreme anxiety from firework noise can trigger an intense need to ‘escape.’ Pets can occasionally harm themselves and certainly can be destructive to your property during episodes of fear. Frightened pets have been reported to jump through windows, scale fences, tear though kennels, or chew their skin during fearful times. Because pets can harm themselves if they become scared, it’s a good idea to have pet health insurance for your pet. Pet insurance can often help diminish vet bills for unexpected illnesses and accidents.

If you have pets, even if they aren’t currently afraid of fireworks, there are some things you should do to keep them safe. Leaving a pet alone outside while you go off to see the fireworks display is likely a bad idea, especially if they are anxious. The noise will be louder outside, and escape will be easier. Always have identification on your pet. Microchipping is a good idea, as well as having a secure collar with your name and phone number on it.

Give your pet a calm, dark, and safe environment during the scariest times. If your pet is already comfortable in a crate, this can be a very helpful tool. Do not attempt to introduce crating to a pet that is anxious and has never been confined. This should be done much before the scary event. Turn on ambient noise, such as radios or the television to create background noise in order to drown out firework booms.

While your presence may be soothing and comforting to your pet, excessive coddling and attention may positively reinforce their negative behavior. In other words, excessive attention you lavish on your pet during scary times may have the opposite effect of encouraging the exact behavior you are wishing to avoid. Never punish your dog for being fearful, this will only make the situation worse.

The most anxious dogs may benefit from veterinary prescribed anti-anxiety medication. Medication that aims to reduce anxiety is typically more helpful than true sedatives, which sedate, but don’t relieve anxiety. While there are some over-the-counter remedies, such as Rescue Remedy, a prescription medication will likely be more appropriate for the most fearful animals. Some pet insurance companies even offer limited coverage for behavioral issues and medications.

An “Anxiety Wrap” or “Thunder Jacket” is a product you can purchase to help with noise phobias. It works by applying pressure on the dog’s body to divert attention away from the scary stimulus. It is a similar technique to that used to calm autistic children.

After the Fourth of July is over, or before it comes around, your fearful pet might benefit from desensitization and behavioral modification. For example, you might play a recording of firework noise, very softly at first, while giving a treat, or doing some other activity the dog likes. Slowly over many sessions increase the volume of the noise. It is important not to go too fast; try to end on a ‘good note’ before starting the next session. If you move too quickly and the dog becomes fearful, you’ll have to start over.

As always, in extreme cases, consulting with your veterinarian or a behaviorist is a good idea. If everybody feels safe, then you are more likely to be able to enjoy the festivities and take part in celebrating one of the best summer holidays!