Malcolm Downes

Grief in cats

Do cats feel human-like emotions? Can they grieve?

Recently scientists have begun to recognise that cats lead rich emotional lives and can show emotional responses such as grief. Changes in their environment like losing an owner or a companion cat or other animal, moving house, surrender to a shelter or change of owner can all cause grief-like behaviour.

The research suggests that the level of distress is dependent on the degree and length of the bond with the lost loved one.

Grief may take up to six months to resolve.

How can I tell if my cat is grieving?

Watch for changes in their patterns of social behaviour, eating, sleeping and interaction with surroundings. How is this behaviour different to the pattern before the loss? Being familiar with your cat’s daily routine and behaviour helps. Focusing on the outward expressions of grief compared to their normal behaviour helps prevent you projecting your own emotions or expectations on to your cat.

Eight signs that your cat may be grieving

  1. loss of appetite
  2. changes in energy level – becoming very lethargic or extremely hyperactive
  3. changes to normal sleeping pattern
  4. searching or sitting where the lost one used to sleep
  5. excessive howling or unusual silence
  6. wanting to be alone or staring out of the window for prolonged periods
  7. neediness – following you and seeking attention more than normal
  8. health issues such as the emergence of latent cat flu or gastrointestinal upsets.

How can I help?

In most cases, passing time and a supportive owner allows healing to occur. Steps you can take to assist this process include:

  1. responding appropriately – for example, if the cat is howling don’t scold, just reassure gently and calmly
  2. providing extra love and attention (if your cat enjoys this) or respect their need for privacy
  3. keeping to routines such as daily feeding times, types of food offered and the position of litter trays
  4. encouraging appetite – try warming food or offering favourite foods
  5. offering an object from the lost loved one so your cat can access their scent
  6. allowing the grief process to take its course and not rushing into another pet immediately.

Finally…

If your cat is losing weight, or exhibiting any other signs of illness, see your vet. They can rule out other causes of changed behaviour and there are support treatments and medications available to assist.

Heartworm in cats

Dog owners are rightly concerned about heartworm infections. Heartworm is common throughout Australia and especially in hot and humid areas. Infection can cause serious illness and death in dogs.

But what about cats?

The same worm (Dirofilaria immitis) that infects dogs can also be transmitted to cats and other animals including foxes and ferrets. Transmission is by mosquito bite so your cat does not need to come into direct contact with an infected animal to catch it.

Fortunately, heartworm infection is much less serious in cats.

Cats’ immune systems seem to be better adapted to defeating heartworm. In most cases the infection will disappear without the cat showing symptoms.

In the rare occurrence that an infection takes hold, the symptoms can include vomiting of blood or food, diarrhoea, coughing and breathing difficulties. It is easy to confuse these symptoms with other serious conditions such as asthma so trip to the vet is called for if they appear.

Unlike dogs, there is no widely accepted treatment for heartworm in infected cats.

So what should you do?

Studies have shown that heartworm In cats is most common in areas that have high rates of infection in dogs. Also global warming is leading to the appearance of increasing numbers of mosquitoes that were previously uncommon in southern states. If you live in such an area it may be worth seeking out a preventative that includes heartworm protection along with that for fleas and intestinal worms.

You can read Feline Heartworm in Clinical Settings in a High Canine Prevalence Area .

A number of veterinary practices can also be found via your search engine that will provide facts and advice – and you can always raise the issue with your own vet on your next visit.

Feline health grants for 2022

The August 2022 round of Feline Health Research Fund Grant applications is now closed.

There was a record number of applications including studies of toxoplasmosis, kidney disease and cat behaviour from a variety of Australian Universities.

‘It is pleasing to see such a lot of quality feline health research being undertaken in Australia,’ said Fund Secretary Helen Radoslovich.

‘Of course it means lots of extra work for the Fund’s Trustees and our evaluators but it is work we are happy to undertake.

‘A final decision will take several months but we anticipate being able to advise applicants of the outcome by early 2023.

‘Grants are made possible by donations from cat lovers across Australia. If you are able to support us, even in a small way, please visit our donations page’, she said.

The Fund supports relevant research from scientists, veterinarians and post-graduate students from Australian universities and research institutes.

Here is a list of a list of previously funded projects but applicants were asked to consider research projects relating to improved or preventative health care for cats such as:

arthritis
asthma
behavioural problems
breast cancer
diabetes
eye problems
feline infectious peritonitis
fertility

HCM
hyperthyroidism
immunisation protocols.
kidney, heart and liver failure
lymphosarcoma
pyometra
tooth and gum disease
skin conditions

Cross-species genome research

Recent advances in genome science has demonstrated significant genetic similarity between species. Funds may be allocated to researchers who are engaged in investigating diseases of humans or other animal species that are relevant to cats.

An end to cat allergies?

If you are one of the one in seven who suffer sneezing, itchy eyes and other symptoms from even the slightest contact with cats, take heart!  Recent genetic research promises a way to block the genes that cause one of the major cat allergens.

The allergic responses are caused by a protein that cats secrete through their salivary and skin glands. When they clean themselves, the allergen is spread over their fur. It can become airborne when their coat dries and be around in the cat’s dander, or dried skin flakes. This explains why sensitive people can get symptoms just by being in the same room.

CRISPR is a gene-editing technology that enables scientists to add or remove bits of an organism’s DNA. It’s been at the forefront of developments that have revolutionised agriculture and human medicine.

Researchers in a US company are working towards using CRISPR to remove the bits of the DNA that give rise to the allergy-causing protein. This will pave the way to breed cats that produce little or none of the offending protein. Hypo-allergenic cats!

A lot of testing is still needed to be sure that removing the ability to produce this protein doesn’t deprive the cat of the ability to produce something that is important to its health. By comparing a range of domestic and wild cat breeds it was found that the amount of the protein in each cat varied very widely so this protein doesn’t seem essential for cat health.

The scientists involved are careful in saying that there is still some distance to go before the modified DNA is introduced into a live breeding program.

In the meantime, there is the prospect of relief from a different approach. One company is developing a vaccine to train a cat’s immune system to reduce the levels of the protein and another has a line of allergen-reducing cat food.

These are good news and might provide some releif in the short-term.  Hypo-allegenic cats may be some years away yet.

If you would like to read more, check out this article in Gizmodo.

Is your cat tracking you?

Your cat can use your voice to mentally map where you are.

Do you ever get the feeling that your cat has a GPS tracking your location?  Research from Japan has found that your cat can mentally map your location by the sound of your voice.

Previously, research showed that cats do understand that an object still exists even if they can’t see it.  We didn’t know, though, how cats might use their other senses to track objects or people. 

So researchers from Kyoto University decided to test how cats used their sense of hearing.

To do this they ran an experiment to find out how cats responded when they heard recordings of their owner’s voice and a stranger’s voices in expected and unexpected places. 

The research found that cats weren’t surprised when their owner’s voice was played twice from the same place.  They also weren’t surprised when a stranger’s voice was played twice from the same place or once from two different places.

However, when the owner’s voice was played from first one place and then from a different place a few seconds later, the cats were surprised.

The researchers suggest that the cats mentally track their owner’s location using the owner’s voice and were surprised when the owner seemed to have moved from one place to another place.

So …  your cat’s mind is more complex than you thought. 

And they probably are tracking you!

You can read more about this fascinating research in the paper Socio-spatial cognition in cats: Mentally mapping owner’s location from voice

 

Can my cat make me sick?

We love our cats! Around 4.9 million domestic cats share their lives with Australian families at last count. They are affectionate, entertaining and curious. Research has shown conclusively that their presence in our lives makes us happier and more emotionally healthy.
Unfortunately cats can carry germs that can affect humans, especially the pregnant, the very young and those with chronic disease. Thankfully, the illnesses are relatively minor and the risk of catching them from your cat can can be minimised with a few simple precautions.
Toxmoplasma gondi is a parasite that lives in the gut of cats and can be transmitted to other warm-blooded creatures, including people. The eggs are present in the poo from cats, in litter trays and in gardens where cats do their business. Symptoms can be like a mild flu but pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems are at much greater risk and should take extra precautions. Recent studies are now suggesting the possiblity of a link with the development of schizophrenia-like symptoms and suicide later in life.
Bartonella henselae (commonly known as cat-scratch disease) lives in the blood cells of cats. If you are bitten or scratched the bacteria can get into your system and cause flu-like symptoms. Cat scratch disease typically subsides without any treatment, usually within 2 to 4 months and the symptoms can be treated with common fever reducing drugs and pain killers. More severe reactions may cause swelling in the lymph nodes and may require antibiotics and draining of the lymph nodes by a doctor.
Ringworm is a fungal infection that is transmitted by direct contact between pets and people via fungal spores on the cat’s fur.  Treatment is by a topical wash, ointment, tablets, or a combination of all three. It is highly contagious and precautions include vacuuming up loose fur and treating the cat’s bedding.  It is easily treated in people by applying an ointment avaialble from your pharmacy.
 

The good news is…

Protecting yourself and your family from these and other cat-borne infections is relatively straightforward and quite familiar to us in these Covid times.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water or hand-sanitiser after handling cats food and water dishes, litterboxes, toys or cat saliva before you eat or drink.
  • Wear gloves or wash your hands after working in gardens that cats use.
  • Keep cats away from food preparation areas.
  • If you are bitten or scratched by a cat, no matter how minor the wound, wash it with warm soapy water immediately. If the wound is serious, if it becomes red or swollen or if it is more than five years since your last tetanus shot, seek medical attention.

These are three of the most common diseases that our cat friends can share with us but, with the precautions above, the chance of infection from any of these is very low.

If you would like to find out more, check out Toxoplasmosis on the Australian Government Department of Health website, Cat-scratch disease on the SA Health website and the Cat Protection Society of NSW Ringworm Factsheet.

Why do cats purr?

The purring of cats is something we find very appealing.

They are able to vibrate their vocal chords as they breathe in and out to produce that rhythmic vibration we call a purr, in a similar way to human speech.

Research suggests a cat can purr in different ways and for various reasons.

Kittens are born blind and deaf and they begin purring after just a few days to attract their mother’s attention at feeding time. Cat owners are often treated to a coercive display of purring around dinner time.

Cats can manipulate their purr.  Researchers found that, when purring to solicit food, there is a concealed cry within their purr similar to the cries of a human baby. This triggers a nurturing response in their human owners.

Cats often purr when people stroke them so we associate purring and the cat’s pleasure. They may also be trying to encourage further interaction as if to say ‘please continue to stroke me’. But the benefit is not all one way. The purring of a cat has a calming effect on people and cat owners, for example, have a 40% lower risk of having a heart attack.

We usually associate purring with contentment  However, even though it takes energy, many cats purr when they get hurt or are in pain. So what makes the effort worth it? The purr generates strong frequencies between 25 and 150 Hz. Various researchers have shown that sound frequencies in this range are optimal for pain relief and can improve bone density and promote healing of bones and muscles.

In general, the easiest way tell why your cat is purring is to check their body language and the context. If the purring is first thing in the morning maybe they’re simply asking to be fed. If you just returned from a day at work they may be saying hello.

And if they are sitting on your lap purring contentedly? Hey, don’t overthink it, just relax and enjoy the moment.

For more reading, try this New Scientist article Why do cats purr?

Birthing my cat and after

In ‘Is my cat pregnant?  What can I do? we looked at how to work out if your cat is pregnant and how to prepare. In this part we look at the birth and after-care.

What to expect during birth

Mostly cats do this well by themselves. Leave her alone, limit spectators and make regular checks, especially for first-time mums. Let her pick her preferred place, even if it’s not the place you prepared.

Once birthing starts it can take anything from a couple of hours to a day. Kittens normally come every 30 to 45 minutes.

Kittens can emerge tail-first, generally without problems.

When labour starts, she might yowl in pain and you can usually see or feel contractions by watching or by gently placing your hand on her belly.

Warning signs during labour

Experienced breeders may deal with some of these problems themselves but for the rest of us it is a phone call or an urgent visit to the vet if you notice that:

  • there are no kittens 3-4 hours after her labour starts
  • there are an hour of contractions without producing a new kitten
  • there is a kitten at her vulva but not coming out despite her straining
  • the number of placentas are less then the number of kittens
  • all of the kittens are not delivered within 24 hours
  • mum appears exhausted or appears to give up

Experienced breeders may also assist if the mum is not cleaning off the birth membranes and cutting the umbilical cord.

In the case of serious problems your vet can perform a cesarean. If you decide that you are not going to breed from her, he can remove her reproductive organs during the same operation.

What to do afterwards

Mum will normally chew through the umbilical cord, clean up the kittens and start to feed them by herself.

If one of the kittens is lethargic, not feeding or appears distressed, wrap it up warmly and get it to a vet quickly.

Handling the kittens gently is OK. It starts getting them used to people. You may help a hungry kitten find its way to a vacant nipple if needed.

In the first day or so after birth, watch out for a bad smelling discharge from the mum’s vulva, or fever, depression and neglect of her kittens. This could indicate an infection of her uterus. The most common infections are metritis and pyometra, both of which can be treated by your vet.

Watch her nipples for mastitis. This can appear as small cool blockages or inflammation and abscesses. This is treatable by your vet.

Try to keep mum and the kittens away from other cats for 2-3 weeks after birth to minimise the risk of infection.

Desexing

Some breeds of kitten can come into season as young as three to four months of age. Mum can come into season in about 8 weeks after birth, usually when kittens are weaned. Desexing of kittens can occur as early as two to three months provided they are over 1.1kg.

Not sure if your cat is pregnant?  Read our post Is my cat pregnant?  What should I doAlso you might want to check out our post How early is too early to desex kittens?

Cat Health Grants are now available

If you are looking for a partner to fund your research into cat health, we may be what you need.

The Feline Health Research Fund makes grants of up to $10,000 from it’s pool of  donations from cat lovers, professionals and the industry to fund quality Australian research into issues affecting the health, wellbeing and longevity of domestic cats.

We are encouraging applications from a range of disciplines into a wide range of health issues for domestic cats.

For more information please go to the Applying for a Grant page on our website.  There you can download the Small Grants Application Form, read the Grant FAQs and check out details of previously funded projects.

The window for this grant round opens on the 1st of August and closes at 5pm on the 31st of August, 2022.

If you have questions after reading the website information, please email the Secretary, Feline Health Research Fund.

The second part of our cat pregnancy series, on cat birthing and aftercare, will be published next week.

Please feel free to forward this email to associates and colleagues with an interest in feline health research.

Is my cat pregnant? What do I do?

Before you start contemplating what to do, the first big question is… 

Is she actually pregnant?

Watch for changes in her behaviour. Many females’ behaviour changes obviously over her heat cycle, usually about three weeks long. If that behaviour pattern suddenly changes, it could mean she is pregnant.

Check her nipples. They will become swollen and prominent at around three weeks into pregnancy and remain that way. A reliable early sign.

Watch her eating and weight. Pregnant cats start eating more.  They will be eating 25-50% more by the end of the pregnancy. She will gain weight, at the rate of about 10% per week of pregnancy. This should be obvious by about week five. The extra weight will be carried low in her tummy, unlike the general plumpness of an obese cat.

Watch how much she sleeps. She will be sleeping more than usual if she is pregnant.

You can tell by touch, if you know what you are doing. Experienced breeders and vets can often tell by gently feeling her tummy after the first few weeks.

Have an ultrasound. As early as a few weeks into the pregnancy, signs will be come visible in a scan. Done later in the pregnancy it can often predict the number of kittens and if they are likely to be born alive.

By blood test. A vet can perform a blood test three to four weeks after mating to confirm signs you have already noticed.

Millions of unwanted kittens worldwide become feral or have to be destroyed. If a litter cannot be cared for or found a responsible home, it is not too late for a termination and desexing, even fairly late in pregnancy. 

Once you have decided to go ahead with the pregnancy, there are a few things you’ll need to know.

How can I prepare?

The good news is that cats are mostly pretty good at managing their pregnancy and birth – but there are some things you can do to help.

Know the timeline. Cat pregnancies last about nine weeks. Almost all kittens are delivered between 61 and 72 days after conception.

Be disease-free. Pregnant cats and newborn kittens are especially prone to common feline infections. Diseases are spread by close contact so cats are best housed in groups of three or four where infection can be controlled. Any new additions to the group should be quarantined for two to three weeks to avoid introducing diseases. Keep up regular health treatments but check because some vaccinations are not suitable during pregnancy.

Feed her well with good quality nutritious food.

Watch out for signs of obesity. If she is becoming fat all over, rather than just in her belly it is likely to be obesity. Obesity in pregnant cats is a serous health concern.

Worm her. Do it about a week before birth to avoid infecting kittens with roundworm.

Watch out for signs of nesting behaviour. If she starts seeking out secluded and comfortable spaces this can show that the birth may be coming soon.

Prepare a warm, secure, private space where she can be discretely observed by you. Make it cosy but with sufficient room to have access to her if you need to intervene. If she does not choose to use the space you’ve prepared, best to respect her choice.

Have a scan. Not strictly necessary but it can predict problems and will tell you how many kittens to expect come the day of birth.

Know emergency vet numbers and locations. In the unlikely event that something does go wrong it will save time to have the number of your regular vet and a 24hr vet close at hand.

Watch for her pre-labour fast. Cats will often stop eating about 24 hours before going into labour, a good warning prepare yourself.


This article is for general information only. If you have any doubts or difficulties, your vet is your best source of information and support for your cat during her pregnancy.


NEXT WEEK, in part two, The birth and after care.

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