Preventive Health Care Guidelines for Cats

By Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

Remember the old adage, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”? Those words directly relate to the health care of our cats. Avoiding illness is always better than treating it, so let’s explore ways to prevent diseases rather than cure them.

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Since cats age at a faster rate than humans do, they should see their doctor more often than we see ours. Cats mature very quickly during the first two years of life, so it is generally thought a 2 year old cat equals about 25 human years. After that, one feline year is about 4 human years which means that a 4 year old cat is about 33 years old and a 10 year old cat is about 57 years old.

"The bottom line is this:
cats age faster than we do."

The bottom line is this: cats age faster than we do. If we get a physical exam and blood tests annually, that is like our cats taking the same preventive health measures every 4-5 years if only visiting the veterinarian once a year. The rapid aging process of cats makes preventive health care even more important.

"A preventive health care plan revolves around regularly scheduled exams to maintain optimum health."

A preventive health care plan revolves around regularly scheduled exams of an apparently healthy cat in order to maintain her optimum health. To standardize wellness plans, the AAHA (American Animal Hospital Association) and the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) gathered medical information from various specialty groups (American Heartworm Society, American Association of Feline Practitioners, Companion Animal Parasite Council, to name a few) and devised guidelines focused on preventive health care for cats.

What are these recommendations and why are they important?

An overview of some of the AAHA/AVMA recommendations for preventive care and why they are important to your cat is provided below:

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 guide the veterinarian along a diagnostic path that will end with your cat feeling better.

Examinations. Even healthy cats should be examined by a veterinarian at least once a year, preferably twice a year. If your cat is older or has medical problems, more frequent visits may be necessary. Physical exams can detect enlarged lymph nodes, skin tumors, heart murmurs or skipped heart beats, or abdominal tumors. They will identify enlarged or shrunken kidneys, liver, or spleen that may mean systemic disease. A look at the eyes can determine a cat’s visual capacity. An orthopedic evaluation can tell if a cat is arthritic and in need of medication to relieve pain. A dermatologic evaluation of the hair 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 the incidence of feline heartworms is less than canine infection, 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 high exposure risk).

Dental Care. It is a well-known fact that oral health impacts a cat’s general health. Simply put, cats with clean mouths live longer. The bacteria involved in periodontal disease do not just stay in the mouth. These organisms invade the blood stream and travel to major organs like the kidneys, liver, and heart where they cause significant health issues.  Cats may need their teeth cleaned every 1-2 years, but this frequency can vary more or less depending on a number of factors including preventive care. Dental radiographs (X-rays) will help determine the status of oral disease. Regular dental cleanings will keep your cat’s pearly whites in top condition.

Parasite Prevention. Cats should be given medication to prevent heartworms and intestinal parasites all year long in warmer climates or those living outdoors. Many of these medications also prevent fleas and ticks. A parasite prevention protocol can be tailored to a cat’s specific needs within their personal environment.

Immunizations. Vaccines are divided into two groups: core vaccines and non-core (optional vaccines). All cats (without medical problems that prevent vaccination) 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.

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 maintain a healthy body mass index.

Spaying or Neutering. Spaying or neutering can have numerous health or behavior benefits. Having the surgery done can prevent infections and some types of cancer. Your veterinarian will discuss these benefits and the timing of the surgery for your cat.


Diagnosing feline illnesses

Since cats cannot talk, veterinarians cannot ask how they are feeling or what is bothering them. Plus, innate survival instincts make cats hide their illnesses so they do not appear weak and vulnerable to predators. That means thorough physical exams are crucial. In addition, since your veterinarian cannot see what is going on inside a cat’s body, blood and urine tests are needed to complete the health picture. These preventive medicine steps will diagnose problems in the early stages when treatment is more successful, less costly and, more importantly, will help your cat live a longer, healthier life.

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