Preventive Healthcare Guidelines for Cats

By Krista Williams, BSc, DVM, CCRP; Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

The old adage, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” can be directly applied to feline health care. Avoiding an illness is always better than treating it, and when it cannot be avoided, intervention is always more effective if started sooner rather than later. Since cats age faster than humans, an annual veterinary exam with diagnostic testing is equivalent to a human visiting a doctor every four to five years. The rapid aging process of cats makes preventive health care even more important.

What are preventive healthcare guidelines?

To standardize veterinary care for cats, AAHA (American Animal Hospital Association) and the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) gathered medical information from various specialty groups, some of which include the American Heartworm Society, American Association of Feline Practitioners, and Companion Animal Parasite Council, and devised the “Feline Preventive Healthcare Guidelines” (FPHG).

What are the FPHG recommendations and why are they important?

Below is an overview of some recommendations included in the FPHG and how they relate to you and your cat:

History. A discussion of your cat’s home life will give your veterinarian an overall idea of her health status. Changes in your cat’s demeanor may occur so gradually that you are not aware of them until you are asked specific questions. Does your cat have a good appetite and regular bowel movements? Does she strain to urinate? Does she limp? Is she slow to rise when lying down? Does she ever seem short of breath, cough, or sneeze? Is she itchy? Does she drink a lot? Your answers will be recorded at each visit so your veterinarian can identify changes that are otherwise difficult to notice on a day-to-day basis.

"Even healthy cats should be examined by a veterinarian at least once per year, preferably twice a year."

Examinations. Even healthy cats should be examined by a veterinarian at least once per year, preferably twice a year. If your cat is older or has a pre-existing health problem, more frequent visits may be necessary. Physical exams can detect enlarged lymph nodes, skin tumors, heart murmurs or skipped heartbeats, or abdominal tumors. They will identify enlarged or shrunken kidneys, liver, or spleen that may indicate systemic disease. A look at the eyes can determine your cat’s visual capacity. An orthopedic evaluation can identify if she is arthritic and in need of pain medication. A dermatologic evaluation of her skin and coat will determine the need for flea and tick control or diagnose skin infections (bacterial, fungal, or parasitic). Hair loss may indicate systemic disease or hormonal imbalances.

Testing. Even though heartworm infection is less common in cats than it is in dogs, cats suffer serious effects from heartworms and should be tested, especially in warmer climates. Intestinal parasites can affect both cats and humans, so a stool sample should be analyzed at least once (preferably twice) a year. To detect organ malfunctions in the early stages, blood tests (complete blood count, chemistry panel, and thyroid screen) and urinalysis should be performed annually. If problems are diagnosed, more frequent testing may be necessary. Cats should also be screened for FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus) and feline leukemia virus at least once in their life (or more if they have a high exposure risk).

"...oral health impacts a cat’s general health; cats with clean mouths live longer."

Dental Care. It is a well-known fact that oral health impacts a cat’s general health; cats with clean mouths live longer. The bacteria involved in periodontal disease do not just stay in the mouth. These organisms invade the bloodstream and travel to major organs like the kidneys, liver, and heart where they cause significant health issues. Cats may need their teeth cleaned every one to two years, although this frequency can vary depending on a number of factors, including preventive care and routine maintenance at home. Dental radiographs (X-rays) will help determine the severity of oral disease. Regular dental assessments and treatments will keep your cat’s oral health in top condition.

Parasite Prevention. Cats should be given medication to prevent heartworms, intestinal parasites, fleas, and ticks. Your veterinarian can provide these medications and a parasite prevention protocol can be tailored to your cat based on factors such as her health status, access to the outdoors, and risks associated with where you live.

Immunizations. Vaccines are divided into two groups: core vaccines and non-core (optional) vaccines. All cats considered stable and healthy to vaccinate should be immunized against rabies, feline panleukopenia virus, feline herpesvirus 1, and calicivirus (usually in a combined FVRCP vaccination). Cats at risk of exposure should also be vaccinated for feline leukemia virus. See the “Vaccines for Cats” handout for more detailed information.

Weight Maintenance. Research has shown that leaner cats live longer and have fewer health problems. Your veterinarian will assign a body condition score to your cat and give you dietary and exercise recommendations to help your cat achieve or maintain a healthy body condition score. See the “Obesity in Cats” handout to learn more about the importance of a healthy body condition score and how you can prevent obesity in your cat.

"Research has shown that leaner cats live longer and have fewer health problems."

Spaying/Neutering. Spaying or neutering can have numerous health and behavioral benefits. These procedures help to prevent infections and some types of cancer. Your veterinarian will discuss these benefits and the timing of the surgery for your cat. In the meantime, see the handouts “Spaying in Cats” and “Neutering in Cats” to learn more about these procedures and how they can affect your cat.

Diagnosing feline illnesses. Cats have innate survival instincts that give them the ability to hide pain and illness well (so as not to seem vulnerable to predators). Since a veterinarian cannot simply ask your cat how she is feeling or see what is going on inside her body, thorough physical examinations disease screening using tests such as blood work and urinalysis can help your veterinarian determine if your cat is at risk for developing a condition that can still be prevented, or if a condition is already there, diagnose and treat it early.

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