Cat health

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.

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?

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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How early is too early to desex kittens?

In the past, vets have recommended that kittens wait until six months of age before being desexed.

Over the last 20 years however, animal shelters in Australia and the world have been desexing of kittens aged two to three months and when they weigh over 1.1 kg. 

There are several reasons for this change.

Avoiding early pregnancy

Cats can come into season as young as three to four months.
Burmese and Siamese are examples of purebred cats which may do this.   

Accidental pregnancy in young cats may lead to the need for a caesarian which is  risky for the cat and quite expensive.

Early age desexing in males also ensures spraying behavior does not occur.

Newer safer anaesthetics

Vets now have access to new safe new anaesthetics that have been developed over the last 20 years and experience has shown that desexing young cats is quick and easy and they recover very well.

Changing veterinary practice

Some vets outside of the animal shelter world may still be recommending six months of age for desexing, however the statistics from shelters show that early age desexing is the way of the future.

More vets are making earlier desexing available.

Breeders

Breeders have been early age desexing for up to 15 years and have found it to be safe. The suggested minimum weight by breeders is the same as shelters, that is 1.1 kg.

Breeders have also found that kittens recover quickly if internal sutures are used as they are more convenient for breeders than external sutures. However, both are acceptable.

Sending kittens to new homes already desexed prevents accidental litters.

It also prevents unregistered breeders producing kittens for the pet market. Unregistered breeders often lack the knowledge or ethics to make sure breeding is done with the goal of producing healthy, genetically sound kittens.  

If you would like to find out more, check out the RSPC’s 2021 report on pre-pubertal desexing

Four tips for a happy indoor cat

With more local governments imposing strict cat curfews and owners valuing the health and safety benefits of keeping cats indoors,  just how do you keep those contained kitties stimulated and happy?

1. Sensory buzz

Dust a large paper bag with catnip to create a mini paper paradise.  No catnip?  You will likely have basil, thyme, dill and cinnamon in your pantry which many cats love too.

2. Put them on a toy diet

Cats get bored too and even a favourite toy can become ho-hum if it’s always around.  Try putting that special toy away for a few days and notice the renewed interest when it emerges again.  In the meantime, a small bell rolled into a couple of old socks may make a happy substitute.

3. Food fun

Turn eating into an adventure. Cats love to explore a cardboard feeding ball filled with tasty treats.  An old cardboard egg container will make a ready-made puzzle for a curious cat.  You can create a scavenger hunt by placing strong-smelling treats in hard-to-get-to spots around the house.  Just don’t forget where you put them!

4. Sleeping high

Create new places for your cat to snooze.  Find safe and unused spots on shelves or high furniture and add some old toweling, jumpers or bedding to form a cosy, enclosed platform.

Our thanks to the folk at SafeCat where we picked up these hacks where they have many more ideas for keeping indoor kitties stimulated and happy.

The ‘wet’ brings a threat for northern cats

Keep cats dry in the ‘Wet’

The water and muddy conditions during the Northern Australian ‘wet’ brings an increased threat of a dangerous disease for cats.

Melioidosis (pronounced mel-ee-oi-doh-sis) is caused by bacteria that live in the soil and ground water. Cats are infected through cuts or scratches or by breathing in contaminated water droplets.

It can cause symptoms in like fever, loss of appetite or swollen lymph nodes. Sometimes infected animals will show few symptoms at all before becoming fatally ill.

Melioidosis is difficult to treat, requiring careful diagnosis and long course of antibiotics. It is often fatal.

Humans, livestock and other domestic animals in tropical regions commonly catch Melioidosis, too.

What can you do to protect your cat?

Fortunately, Melioidosis is rare in healthy cats.

Prevention is the best strategy:

  • Provide your cat with a place to live and sleep that is dry and away from soil.
  • Provide an ample supply of clean drinking water, water that is approved for human consumption.
  • Keep cats away from faeces and dead animals in the environment.
  • Keep cats in or close to home. Cats that live in a domestic environment are less likely to become infected than cats that roam widely.

As well as protecting your cat, take care to protect yourself. Melioidosis infects people too so protect your feet and hands when working in wet or muddy conditions. Take care when handling sick or deceased cats. Experts recommend commercial cremation where that is available.

As with other conditions, watch out for any changes in your cat’s habits or behaviour and, if you are concerned, contact your vet.


If you want to find out more, check out

Overview of Melioidosis  Jodie Low Choy, BVSc, BVMS, IVAS Cert, Menzies School of Health Research; University Avenue Veterinary Hospital, Northern Territory, Australia