Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How to Care for a Cat

Veterinarian Visits and Vaccinations
©2006 Publications International, Ltd. You need to find a vet that makes both you and your cat comfortable.

Choosing a veterinarian for your cat is a lot like choosing a doctor for yourself. You want someone with a good bedside manner and someone you like and trust. If you have special needs, you also want a doctor who understands and keeps those needs in mind.

Finding a Vet

If you're a first-time cat owner, have recently moved to a new area, or need to find a new veterinarian, you can just try opening the Yellow Pages to "Animal Hospitals." All veterinarians go to school as many years as medical doctors and have to meet strict standards for licensing, so you're bound to find a competent and professional vet that way. But the relationship among you, your pet, and your vet is going to last for many years, and if you took the time to find just the right cat, it makes sense to find the right vet. This might be the one area where city folk have it over country folk. A small town may just have one vet, while a big city has dozens within several miles.

Besides the Yellow Pages, here are some other sources for finding a good veterinarian:

Contact professional organizations. The American Veterinary Medical Association ( can refer you to affiliated veterinarians in your area, and the American Animal Hospital Association ( can direct you to clinics that meet its standards. The AVMA can also help you find feline specialists, behavior experts, veterinary eye doctors, and other professionals. Like any specialist, though, expect to pay heftier fees.

Get recommendations from other "cat people." Friends, family, and neighbors who have cats usually also have veterinarians. Take advantage of their experience, and get recommendations from them.

Look Before You Leap

Once you get a referral for a veterinarian, call up, introduce yourself, and find out when you can drop by to see the facilities and meet the doctors. Make your visit brief but thorough. Be discriminating, but don't be put off if the vet and the clinic staff can't spend a long time with you -- they do have a hospital to run and patients to take care of. If you have a lot of questions and need the vet's undivided attention, the most polite thing to do is make an appointment -- and offer to pay for it.

If you are going to drop by the facility and meet with the vet, here are some items to consider:

  • Before you meet with the vet, determine what your needs and wants are in a vet and a veterinary hospital. Whether those needs and wants are affordable prices, the latest medical techniques and equipment, or the vet's "table-side" manner, determining your priorities ahead of time will help build a better client- veterinarian relationship.
  • Ask about the practice's hours, the availability of after-hour services, and whether 24-hour-a-day emergency care is provided.
  • Ask about the type of services offered, from routine physical exams to surgeries to boarding capabilities, and check the hospital's fees for each service.
  • Make sure you feel comfortable with the support staff as well. A friendly, attentive staff reassures you that your pet will get the best care possible.

Feline VaccinationsWhat exactly are vaccinations, and how do they help keep cats healthy? Here's how most vaccines work. Researchers find the germ causing the disease--for example, the virus that causes feline distemper. Next they produce a harmless, noncontagious version of the virus. This form of the virus is used to vaccinate healthy cats. The vaccine triggers the cat's disease-fighting immune system, which attacks and destroys the virus. This exposure "primes" the immune system so that if the same virus shows up again -- even the dangerous, contagious version -- it will be destroyed before it can cause illness.Vaccines protect your cat from common diseases, mostly caused by viruses. When a virus invades an animal's body, no medicine can kill it. You can give a cat with a virus things like antibiotics from now until doomsday, and it won't cure the disease (although the antibiotics will help treat or control infections that might start as a result of the cat's being sick with the virus). Viral diseases just have to run their course, after which the victim is often immune for life. Vaccines (usually with regular booster shots) provide your cat with the benefits of being immune without actually having to suffer through the disease.

Vaccines can't cure diseases caused by viruses. Going back to feline distemper for a moment, if a cat has already contracted this disease, the vaccine won't stop it. Vaccines also can't prevent every viral disease every time. No vaccine is 100 percent effective, so every once in awhile a cat who has all his shots will still get sick with something he's supposed to be protected against. Some diseases, like FIV, are caused by viruses that shut down the immune system when they first enter the cat's body. In those cases, the vaccine can't do its job because its tools (the disease-fighting system of the cat's body) have been taken away.

Get your cat's shots from a veterinarian or animal hospital. At the bare minimum, cats should be up-to-date on their rabies shot and distemper-combination vaccine. The combination shot usually carries protection against feline distemper (panleukopenia) and common upper respiratory diseases that cause cold- or flu-like symptoms in your cat (feline viral rhinotracheitis, calicivirus, and chlamydia). Vaccines may be given as an injection under the skin or in the muscle or as an aerosol administered directly into the cat's nostrils.

Any cat being vaccinated for the first time usually needs a series of shots, spaced several weeks apart. For kittens, these shots start at seven or eight weeks of age and continue until they are four months old. Rabies vaccines are given as one shot administered initially to a kitten over three months of age and to adults of any age. The American Association of Feline Practitioners recommends that subsequent boosters for many diseases (depending on the type of vaccine used) be given a year from the initial series and then every three years thereafter. Check with your veterinarian for vaccine scheduling recommendations for your cat.

Vaccines for other cat diseases have been around since the mid-1980s, particularly the one for feline leukemia virus (FeLV). FeLV (or FeLeuk, as it's sometimes known) attacks a cat's white blood cells and can produce a kind of cancer. Research shows that most cats exposed to FeLV don't get sick, but even infected cats who appear healthy can still pass the virus on to other cats. Once a cat does get sick from FeLV, though, the odds of recovery are poor.

The FeLV is a funny creature -- it doesn't last long outside of a cat's body, unless it stays a little moist. So the most common way FeLV gets passed is prolonged close contact between a healthy cat and infected cat -- things like mutual grooming, or sharing food, water, or litter boxes. This also means that the FeLV vaccine may not be necessary for a cat that is never exposed to FeLV-infected cats. A simple blood test can determine if your cat (or any new cat you're thinking of taking into your home) is infected. If not, keeping your FeLV-free cats indoors and away from FeLV-infected cats is probably all the protection they need (outdoor or indoor/outdoor cats are a different story). If your cat tests positive for FeLV, the vaccine won't help, either; vaccines don't kill the virus, they only protect uninfected cats from getting it.

Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) are also fatal cat diseases caused by viruses. There are laboratory tests for their detection, but the test used currently for FIP can give inconclusive results. Vaccines exist for FIV and FIP, but the jury is still out on their effectiveness in preventing disease transmission. Your veterinarian can help you figure out if your cat is at risk for these diseases and if the potential benefits of each vaccine outweigh the risks.

While you will face many challenges as a pet owner, you now know the basic care tips that every cat needs to be happy and healthy.

©Publications International, Ltd.