If you have a cat, you already know that a cat isn't a dog that doesn't have to be walked. If you're about to bring a cat into your family, you need to understand that basic fact. The common wisdom is that dogs are friendlier than cats; cats are more aloof -- but that's only true to a point.
In recent years, scientists who have done DNA studies have offered a better way to understand cats. Unlike other domesticated animals, cats domesticated themselves, and, in a way, trained humans. Cats decided to live close to humans because doing so benefited the cats themselves.
Studies show that cats have lived with humans for about 12,000 years, since people first settled down and started farming. When they started storing grain, mice arrived and started eating the grain. Wily cats figured out that the mice settlements where people stored grain were easy hunting, so they started hanging around. Cats did what they needed to do to get the people to let them stay, but they maintained their independence. Over time, cats allowed humans to get a bit closer to them [source: Brown].
Today, about a third of American households have cats. In most of those homes, the cats are still more interested in pleasing themselves than in pleasing their human families. A dog may do anything it can to make you happy, but kitty will teach you to make kitty happy.
Keep reading to learn more about how to please your cat and keep it healthy.
A new cat should be introduced carefully into the household. Those first few days and weeks can make all the difference in how the cat relates to the family in the long run.
Have your cat's basic supplies -- litter box, food, dishes, scratching post, bed -- ready before the cat arrives. Whether you're bringing home a kitten or an older cat, make sure she doesn't get frightened and disappear. Close windows and cut access to spaces where a cat might hide. Try keeping Kitty confined with a litter box in a small space like a bathroom. Take the cat carrier into the bathroom, close the bathroom door, set the carrier near the litter box, open the carrier gently and let kitty venture out. Once Kitty has settled down and feels safe in the bathroom, open the door and let her venture out. Keep the doors to most other rooms closed at first. Let Kitty explore the house gradually.
Have a veterinarian check out your new arrival before bringing it home. If you already have a cat, you may need to leave the new kitty in her bathroom safe house for several days. The resident cat(s) will start to meet the newbie by sniffing under the door. As long as you don't let an active kitten annoy an adult cat too much, the adult will probably accept the kitten eventually.
If you have a dog, keep it on a leash until the dog and your kitty are used to each other. Don't let it chase or bark at her.
Everyone in the family should know that Kitty must be handled gently. Cats are sensitive. You don't want to encourage rough play with a kitten because the kitten may grow up nipping and scratching to protect herself. Cats like gentle stroking, but they will decide when they've had enough. They may prefer just to sit near -- or on -- you.
Young children shouldn't be left alone with Kitty. Children should never play roughly with the cat or pull Kitty's tail. And don't let Kitty wrestle with your fingers -- that encourages her predatory instincts and teaches her to bite hands.
There's a right way to pick up a cat: Put one hand under her chest, holding her front legs with your fingers, and support her hindquarters with the other hand. A mama cat may pick up her kittens by the scruff of the neck, but people shouldn't. When you do play with her, handle her gently -- and often. That will make it easier when you need to groom her later.
You can't really train a cat in the way you train a dog, but you can discourage behavior that you don't like. If Kitty is doing something bad, say "No!" sternly. A loud clap of the hands may help. You can also drop a heavy book on the floor, then take kitty to her scratching post. Never, ever hit a cat.
Some people don't like cats. A cat may be drawn to such a person because it senses the negative energy and wants to make it go away. Instead of retreating, your kitty may jump up into the lap of someone who isn't fond of cats and knead with her paws.
Other people have a physical allergy to cats, which is more difficult to deal with. Before adding a cat to your household, try to make sure no one in the family has a cat allergy. Let everyone spend some time visiting a home with a cat. If a family member has allergies that might be cat-related, it's good to have a medical test to find out.
Cats can spread a parasite called toxoplasma through their litter box. Everyone should wear gloves when changing the litter box and wash hands well afterward. Infection from this parasite -- known as toxoplasmosis -- can cause birth defects in humans, so keep any and all pregnant women off litter-box duty [source: CDC].
Cat scratch disease can result if a cat infected with the bartonella bacteria bites or scratches you or gets saliva on you. It's rarely serious, but the person may have a swollen lymph gland, fatigue, headache and maybe even a fever. Stave this off by keeping Kitty healthy and handling Kitty gently so she doesn't bite and scratch. Everyone, especially children, should wash hands well after handling Kitty [source: PubMedHealth].
Read on to know how to keep Kitty from getting sick.
Whatever its age, your cat will need regular attention from a veterinarian. Everyone in the family should realize that cats need medical care throughout their lives. All cats should be vaccinated against rabies and a host of feline diseases -- even if they will be staying inside. After all, Kitty might get out, or people might bring viruses in on their clothes or shoes. Even if your cat seems healthy, she should have a routine exam at least once a year.
Clean the litter box well to help fight internal parasites. Remove litter regularly, and wash the box with soap and water once a week. Wash Kitty's bed in hot soapy water and vacuum carpets to help fight fleas. Ask your vet to recommend flea remedies.
Unless you have a purebred cat that you intend to breed, you should have your cat spayed or neutered. Spaying prevents pregnancy and usually makes a female cat more relaxed and affectionate with her people, while neutering helps curtail a tomcat's desire to roam. It's best to neuter a male cat when he is between six and 10 months. If you wait too long, he may have developed that annoying habit of spraying things in the house with urine to claim them as his own.
Make sure Kitty gets a well-balanced diet suitable to her age. There are cat foods for kittens, for senior cats and for indoor cats. Consult your vet.
Dry cat food may seem the easiest solution because it helps keep Kitty's teeth and gums healthy -- but it's not good to feed Kitty only dry food. Dry cat food is high in carbohydrates, and has been linked to urinary problems, excess weight and diabetes. Be careful: Cats may become finicky and refuse anything else.
Kitties can get addicted to tuna, too. Too much tuna or other fish can cause a Vitamin E deficiency.
Giving Kitty table scraps might encourage finicky eating resulting in her refusing to eat cat food. Cat treats are fine in moderation. Milk gives some cats diarrhea, and they don't really need it. Many cats love a little cheese or yogurt.
Here are some things everyone in the family should know about feeding Kitty:
- Have a regular, quiet place to feed her.
- Keep fresh water near her dish.
- Feed Kitty around the same times every day.
- Have a special dish and place for each cat in your home.
- Call Kitty by name when feeding.
- If she needs special pampering, feed baby food meats such as turkey.
- If you need to change Kitty's diet, do so gradually. Start by feeding more of the old food and less of the new, until you're feeding just the new food.
Keep reading to learn how to tell if Kitty isn't well.
Try as we might to feed Kitty right and take her to the vet regularly, sometimes things go wrong. When you see Kitty every day, it might be hard to notice a difference. Everybody in the home should be aware of symptoms of possible problems.
Sometimes, people think Kitty is being bad, when really Kitty is feeling poorly.
Here are some signs of possible illness:
- Noticeable weight loss
- Not using the litter box
- Diarrhea that lasts more than a day
- Constipation that lasts more than a day
- Not wanting to be touched
- Swellings or lumps
- Refusal to eat for several days
- Dragging rear on the floor or ground
- Scratching at ears; dark brown deposits in ears
- Persistent vomiting
If Kitty shows symptoms, get her to the vet.
Once your kitty gets used to your home, she needs plenty of room to roam and places to play. Since cats were never really domesticated, their instincts are those of the hunter. Their play is practice hunting. Cats like to explore, and they might sample something they find around the house.
Have everyone in the household be alert for things that might be harmful if Kitty samples them.
Here are some possible dangers:
- Rat and mouse poison. These poisons can harm Kitty if she nibbles them directly, or if she catches a mouse that just dined on poison. Use traps instead.
- Pesticides. If you must spray for bugs, direct the spray carefully and avoid areas where Kitty eats or sleeps.
- Antifreeze. Keep antifreeze containers sealed. Clean up any spills thoroughly because the sweet taste attracts dogs and cats.
- Plants. Many common house and garden plants are poisonous for cats. Among them are all types of lilies, philodendron, azalea, amaryllis, oleander, rhododendron and holly. A cat may not be tempted outdoors, but a bored indoor feline may try a nibble.
- Everyday household items. Fertilizer, cleaning products, human medications and even mothballs can be dangerous to your cat.
It's not just what Kitty eats that can hurt her. Read on for more precautions.
Because their jungle instincts are still strong, cats feel safe hiding in small places and perching in high places where they can watch what's going on below. They are curious about new openings and opportunities.
Many cats will take up residence in an open suitcase, on top of the clean clothes you're packing. Some cats love stalking into and playing inside open paper bags. Watching Kitty play can be hilarious. But everyone in the family should be aware that Kitty's curiosity could lead her to explore dangerous spaces.
Here are some dangers to keep in mind:
- Open toilet lids. Kittens, especially, have fallen into toilets and drowned. Kitty might be poisoned by water with harsh cleansers in it.
- Closets, drawers and attics. If Kitty goes missing, check to make sure she isn't been trapped in her latest hiding place. Be especially careful before leaving home.
- Plastic bags. A paper bag may be a good plaything, but a plastic bag can smother your kitty.
- Clothes dryer. More than one cat has napped in an open dryer, only to find herself suddenly tossing about with wet clothes. Check before you turn the dryer on.
- Sewing basket. Kitty might think the sewing basket is a lovely bed, but those needles, pins and scissors might hurt her.
What does the well-equipped cat home have? Read on to find out.
A cat can survive with a few basic necessities: A litter box, food and water dishes, a comb for grooming, a cat carrier and a collar with an ID tag are all a kitty really needs. But Kitty will be happier with extras that meet his instinctual predatory needs. And if Kitty is happier, everybody in the house will be happier.
- Bed. If you don't provide a special basket or bed, your kitty will choose her own. Her favorite place may move -- from your bed, to the chair where you planned to sit, to your basket of clean laundry.
- Scratching post. Kitty scratches to stretch, to clear dead scales from his claws, and to mark his territory. Give Kitty a scratcher that's sturdy and tall.
- Kitty furniture. In nature, cats lounge watchfully in high places. You can make Kitty happy by buying cat furniture with resting places at various levels. Or improvise with shelves, or an old bookcase with a few cat-sized holes cut in the sides. Add a board from shelf to shelf for a catwalk. Cats also like vantage points in front of windows.
- Toys. Kitty may love toys from the store, but you can make your own. Make it safe so Kitty can't tear it up or swallow it. Try a ping-pong ball, empty thread spool, empty toilet paper or paper towel tube, or balled-up wax paper or foil.
Keep reading for one really essential tip.
Kitty's a predator. She isn't really that domesticated -- she just condescends to live with people because Kitty finds people useful.
Those instincts and characteristics that make cats so different from dogs also get cats into all sorts of poses and adventures. Playful kittens have all sorts of antics. Older cats may be less active, but their curiosity can get them into lots of amusing situations. And Kitty's haughty self-assurance, her certainty that she is the queen of the household, can provide telling poses.
Make sure everybody in the family keeps a camera handy, even if it’s just a cell phone version, to capture Kitty’s special moments. Videos are good, too. Share your kitty’s adventures or moments of supreme leisure on Facebook, YouTube and cat-friendly sites like I Can Has Cheezburger? and Cute Overload. You’ll find you have a lot in common with other families with cats. Enjoy!
HowStuffWorks looks at a new report from the American Association of Feline Practitioners about how to feed your cat for optimal health.
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- Brown, David. "Why Do Cats Hang Around Us? (Hint: They Can't Open Cans)." The Washington Post, June 29, 2007. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/06/28/AR2007062802343.html (Aug. 15, 2011)
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