How to Care for a Cat

By: Dr. H. Ellen Whiteley
Learn how to choose the right cat for you, including choosing an adult cat versus a kitten and whether you should go to a shelter, breeder, or friend.

You may have heard that cats have nine lives. Well, maybe that's true, but one thing is for sure -- your cat can have a long and healthy life with the proper care. There are many things to consider when caring for a cat, and we'll cover them all in the following sections:

  • How to Choose a CatChoosing the right cat can be a big decision. Cat's can live up to 20 years, and a simple adoption can mean a big commitment. In this section, we will show you how to find the perfect cat. We will weigh the pros and cons of an adult cat versus a kitten. We will also examine where the best place is to find a new cat: a shelter, a friend, or a stray. We will also help match a cat to your lifestyle so you can have the cat that truly suits you.
  • Choosing an Indoor Cat vs. an Outdoor CatAnother huge decision to make when owning a cat is whether or not you will have an indoor cat or an outdoor cat. In this section, we will first explore whether or not cats need to go outside. Is there an advantage to letting your cat roam the neighborhood? Of course, there are many more dangers in the backyard that in your home. Also, if you do make the decision to let your cat outside, we will show you the safest way to introduce your cat to the great outdoors.
  • Cat-Feeding TipsFeeding your cat is obviously an important part of pet ownership. After all, it's one of the few duties that you will have to perform every day. Simply remembering to put some food in your cat's bowl is only the beginning. You must also decide what kind of food to feed your cat. We will also examine how to stop your cat from eating your houseplants, and whether or not you should give your cat "people food." Finally, we will also look at how much water to give your cat.
  • Store-Bought Cat Food vs. Homemade Cat FoodIn this section, we will compare the benefits of store-bought cat food and homemade cat food. Homemade cat food has the benefit of giving you the peace of mind that you know exactly what you are feeding your cat. However, in most cases you can probably trust the medically and scientifically designed formulas of the major cat-food manufacturers. We will review the various types of store-bought cat food such as kibble or "wet" cat food. We will examine the pros and cons of each type, and which will be best for your cat.
  • Cat-Grooming TipsCats are usually considered to be very clean animals, and, for the most part, this is true. However, this does not mean that cats do not need regular grooming. In this section, we will discuss the proper grooming of your cat. First, we will discuss the grooming benefits of a short-haired cat to a long-haired cat. Next, we will examine whether or not you should seek the help of a professional groomer. Finally, we will show you how to execute proper grooming at home, including how to prepare your cat and when you should stop.
  • Cat-Bathing TipsUsually cats do not have to be bathed. Aside from the occasional grooming, most cats are able to clean themselves. There are a few reasons why you would have to give your cat a bath. For instance, if your cat has fleas or gets sprayed with something unpleasant. In this section, we will show you the proper way to bathe your cat. We will show you all the steps from preparing all the equipment you'll need to drying and fluffing.
  • How to Cat-Proof Your HomeYour home can be a veritable obstacle course for you cat. While your cat may be able to live happily in your house for many years without encountering an accident, that doesn't mean there won't be danger lurking around every corner. In this section, we will show you all the potential hazards that disguise themselves as common household objects. We will also show you how you can make your house safe your cat and what to do if your cat eats something poisonous.
  • Cat ToysMost cat owners love to watch their cat play with the various toys they bought them. However, some of these toys can be dangerous for your cat. Yarn, for instance, a staple among cat toys for years, can actually cause very serious injuries. In this section, we will show you which cat toys are safe for your kitty and which could be harmful.
  • Veterinarian Visits and VaccinationsPerhaps the most important step you can take in caring for your cat is finding a reliable and competent physician. In this section, we will show a step-by-step process for finding a veterinarian that will be perfect for both your and your cat. We will let you know the various organizations to which you can turn for vet recommendations. We will also let you know what you should do before your first visit to the vet. Finally, we will examine feline vaccinations and whether they are a must for your cat.


How to Choose a Cat

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Kittens might be cute, but they require a lot of work. See more pictures of cats.

Before you actually get a cat, figure out what kind of cat you want: kitten or grown-up cat; longhair or shorthair; purebred or alley cat; male or female; tabby, patched, or solid-color.

If you've got your heart set on a particular size, age, sex, breed, or look of cat, do a little extra research before you set out to find one. You might be surprised to find that the look you doesn't fit well with your lifestyle. For example, if you like a quiet home, a Siamese may not be the cat for you: They're notorious "talkers." Likewise, a Persian is gorgeous to look at, but unless you're committed to do almost daily grooming (or to pay a professional to do it every week or so), a nice shorthair cat might be a better idea. Do you travel a lot? Then you need a more mature cat -- at least eight months old or more. Two cats are better still so they can keep each other company while you're away.


Cat or Kitten?

Everybody loves kittens. They're cute, funny, and cuddly -- there's no doubt about it. But don't make the mistake that they're "babies." By the time a kitten is ready to be away from his mother and live in your home, he can walk, run, jump, and climb like the feline equivalent of a ten-year-old child. What's more, if you get a kitten today, in just a few short months you'll have a full-grown cat -- a cat who will live an average of 12 to 15 years.

If you have the time, environment, and energy to raise a kitten, by all means do it -- it's a wonderful experience. Just remember that kittens are high-maintenance. They demand a lot of attention. They need routine veterinary care consisting of booster shots, worming, and spaying or neutering. Most all young kittens start off affectionate and passive, but they need some socialization and training to stay that way; and even still, you won't know what their adult personality will be like until they grow up.

Finally, very young children and very young kittens usually don't mix well. It's nice to think that a toddler and a ten-week-old kitten can "grow up together," but it really doesn't happen that way. In six months, that little ball of fur your child could carry around will have grown into ten-pounds-plus of adult cat, and your three-year-old will be...three and a half years old!

Finding the Right Cat

There's certainly no danger of a cat shortage in these United States -- there are plenty of cats to go around and then some. In most parts of the country, you could just open your front door at sunup, and a cat would probably walk in before you finished breakfast.

In fact, the number of cats around puts you in somewhat of a quandary. How do you choose the right one? Will it be healthy? What about hidden health or behavior problems? What happens to the cat if things don't work out in your home?

Getting a cat isn't like getting a lawn mower or a hair dryer; they don't come with guarantees. Each one is going to be different, which means unique joys and problems come with every cat. Still, sources for cats should help you make a decision. Although the source can't promise the cat will never get sick, they can take steps to give the cat the best possible chances of staying well. Good sources for finding the right cat for you include:

Friends and neighbors. The odds are somebody you know has a cat or kittens in need of a home. Many times, taking a cat from a neighbor or friend works out best for everyone, especially if it's a kitten from your neighbor's cat's litter or an allergic friend's family pet. Your personal relationship with this source usually means you'll get the straight story on this particular cat, too. A couple of warnings about getting your cat from a friend or neighbor, though: Don't expect the cat to have the extensive veterinary care that a cat from a shelter or breeder has, and be careful about mixing business and friendship.

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Taking a cat home from a shelter will not only get you a great companion, but you might also be saving a life.

Animal shelters. Millions of homeless cats end up being euthanized in animal shelters every year. Adopting from a shelter saves a life, makes room for another cat, and is an inexpensive way to obtain a pet with low-cost shots and neutering. Be prepared to go through applications and interviews, some of which might seem a little too personal and pushy. Don't take it personally -- they have good reasons for it. Also, be sure to check the facilities and the condition of the adoptable pets. Since the animals live in close company, illness, worms, and fleas can be a problem. Pet Finders ( maintains a database of cats available for adoption from local shelters.

Breeders. If you want a purebred cat, this is the way to go. Good breeders are extremely knowledgeable about cats in general and their breed in particular and are careful about who they sell their cats to. Beware of "bargain" purebreds and "basement breeders" (people who breed strictly for profit). A reputable breeder is interested in maintaining a high-quality animal, keeps careful records, and usually only produces one or two litters per breeding female per year. Ask for a breeder referral from national breed associations such as the Cat Fanciers' Association (

Stray cats. Sometimes you don't even have to worry about finding the right cat, the right cat finds you. Many folks swear that these are the best cats to have. There's no adoption interviews or fees when you take in a stray, and more than likely you're saving a life. On the other hand, you'll have to cover the cost of shots, worming, neutering, and the like. Many strays have other health problems that may not show up right away and can get expensive to treat. Sometimes local humane societies will help out with initial vet care, or an area animal hospital may offer reduced rates for treating a foundling cat, but don't count on it.

Another important decision you need to make when choosing a cat is whether or not you will have an indoor cat or an outdoor cat. Learn about the ramifications of each decision in the next section.


Choosing an Indoor Cat vs. an Outdoor Cat

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. There are many pros and cons to letting your cat explore the great outdoors.

Perhaps nothing is as pitiful as the wail of a cat who wants to be on the other side of a door. When it's the front door, many of us take that to mean that our cats won't be truly happy unless they go outdoors. But, then again, most cats make the same kind of racket when they want to come inside (or, for that matter, when they want to get through any door). Do cats really want to go outside? Do they need to? And even if the answer to both questions is "yes," is it really in their best interest?

Do Cats Need to Go Outside Like Dogs?


The main reason dogs are walked is elimination, followed closely by exercise. Only the smallest dogs can get enough running indoors. Dogs are pack hunters, which means they work cooperatively to run their quarry to exhaustion. That can take all day, which means dogs have a natural instinct to run...and run...and run. You need a lot of open space for that kind of work. Cats, on the other hand, are "ambush hunters." They rely on relatively short bursts of very fast running. A hallway of any decent length provides plenty of room for that. That combined with the instinct to bury wastes (which is why cats will use a litter box) adds up to no pressing reason to take a cat outdoors.

Is It Natural for a Cat to Go Outside

Of course, fresh air and sunshine are good for anyone -- human or cat. But is the outdoor life really more "natural" for your cat? Sure, his wild ancestors lived outdoors. But that was a few thousand years and several hundred generations ago. To top it all off, those ancestors lived in the arid regions of the Mideast -- a far cry from the climate and surroundings of the United States today. Once cats were domesticated, they stopped being completely "natural"; once they were uprooted from their original habitat, they had to do their best to adapt instincts honed over tens of thousands of years of living in Middle Eastern deserts to their new circumstances. Some of those circumstances -- the bitter cold of a Midwestern winter, dogs and wild animals that will turn them from hunter to hunted, and speeding cars and trucks, just to name a few -- they can never really adapt to.

The Not-So-Great Outdoors

What's waiting for your cat just outside your front door? Yes, there are trees and grass and all the sights, sounds, smells, and joys of nature -- good things for all of us to savor. But there are also vicious animals, cruel people, traffic, disease, and animal control officers (who may be within their legal right to grab and impound your cat, if he steps off your property). The only reliable way to keep your cat safe from all of these deadly hazards is to keep him indoors.

Truth be told, country cats aren't necessarily safer outdoors than city cats. Sure, there's a lot more chance of being hit by a car or mauled by a stray dog in the city. But out in the country, we've got some predators that run bigger, quicker, and savvier than a feral city dog. We've also got less light on the roads, making strays harder to see -- and easier to hit -- and usually more kinds of disease-bearing insects, such as ticks.

A whole host of serious and fatal feline diseases need contact with infected cats -- or areas where infected cats hang out a lot -- to spread. Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), which causes a breakdown in the cat's disease-fighting immune system, is mostly passed by bites from infected cats. And feline leukemia virus (FeLV) generally requires prolonged close contact with an infected cat, such as sharing litter boxes or food and water bowls, or mutual grooming. Time and again, the risks for disease are minor or negligible for indoor cats, significantly higher for outdoor or indoor/outdoor cats. Cat owners -- especially those with young children -- should be particularly aware that outdoor cats are more likely to pick up diseases and parasites that can affect humans, from minor annoyances like fleas to more serious illness like Lyme tick disease to extremely dangerous conditions like rabies.

Going Outside Safely

Just because it's safest for your cat to live indoors and not roam free doesn't mean he can never see the light of day except through the window. A leash and harness (not a collar) is a fairly safe way for both you and your cat to get some fresh air and sunshine. Walking on a leash is an acquired taste that some cats will never acquire, though. Regular experience from kittenhood helps, and some leash-trained cats will even request a walk. Of course, a cat on a leash is still at risk for picking up fleas -- and for encounters with unleashed cats and dogs in the neighborhood.

Building a cat run is actually not as hard as it sounds. Runs must be enclosed on all sides (including the top) and solidly anchored and constructed. Screens should be the heaviest grade of outdoor mesh, and walls should extend a few inches below the ground to prevent cats from digging their way out -- or other animals from digging their way in. If the run isn't built attached to your home with a pet door or other door leading indoors, be sure it includes some sort of heated, waterproof shelter for your cat to retreat to in case of inclement weather.

It's especially important for a run or other outdoor enclosure to have a roof. Cats are terrific climbers and leapers, and even an eight- to ten-foot wall may not hold them, especially if there are screens to hook onto. The roof and walls of the run provide another kind of security, too -- they keep other things out. Openings in the roof or walls let unfriendly or dangerous animals, people, and things into an area that your cat may not be able to escape.

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Safety is an issue with outdoor cats.

Free-roaming cats get into loud, late night spats with other cats, chew or dig up neighbors' plants, kill local birds (but also may help control the local rodent population), and bury their wastes in other people's gardens. While some folks -- and some cat owners -- see these as minor annoyances, many other folks see them as much more serious problems. If your cat gets into a fight, it may do more than wake the neighbors because of the yowling and screaming. The superficial scratches you may see on his face or back aren't so bad. But he may also have bite wounds that close up quickly, sealing in dirt and germs and creating a painful abscess several days later. Bites during fights also seem to be the main way to spread feline immunodeficiency virus. Unaltered cats that roam free also contribute to pet overpopulation, a problem that fills animal shelters to capacity and beyond, resulting in millions of dogs and cats being "put to sleep" every year.

Now that you've chosen the perfect cat for you, it's time to learn how to take care of it. We'll begin in the next section with tips for feeding your cat.


Cat-Feeding Tips

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Your cat needs proper nutrition just as much as you do.

"You are what you eat" is a solid piece of common sense that is just as true for your cat as it is for you. Feed your cat a quality diet, and you're more likely to have a healthy cat.

The pet food industry is big business -- and with good reason. There are well over 100 million dogs and cats living in American homes, plus who-knows-how-many more in shelters, catteries, and kennels across the country. To top it all off, you have thousands of people feeding strays. If you figure a single cat can go through some 90 pounds or more of cat food in a year, we're talking about hundreds of millions of dollars being spent annually, just to feed the kitty.


Just like human food, there are some tasty feline treats that are good for cats and some things that are basically junk food. An occasional snack of the not-so-healthy stuff shouldn't do any permanent harm but don't make it a regular part of your cat's diet.

Can Cats Be Vegeterians?

The wild ancestors of the modern house cat were hunters -- an instinct your cat still has. Whether Tabby is bringing you gifts of demised birds and mice or pouncing on a piece of lint, she's expressing a powerful natural drive to stalk and kill prey. If you doubt that your cat is a natural-born meat eater (and predator), just take a good look at her teeth the next time she yawns. Those fangs are not designed for eating alfalfa sprouts.

The fact is your cat is so much of a carnivore, she can't survive as a vegetarian. There are certain nutrients found only in animal proteins that your cat needs. One of these nutrients is an amino acid called taurine. Without taurine, cats can go blind and develop enlarged hearts, which will likely give out on them well before their time. And unlike dogs, cats require a dietary source of vitamin A and a fatty acid called arachidonic acid found only in animal tissue. That's why you should never feed dog food to your cat. Dog food just doesn't have enough of the right kinds of nutrients for cats. By the pound it may be cheaper to feed dog food to your cat, but it could cost your cat her health, her sight, or even her life.

Of course, that doesn't mean you should feed your cat raw meat or let her depend on hunting as her only source of food. It's been hundreds of years since cats lived in the wild, so their hunting skills are more than a little rusty. Plus, cats that hunt or eat raw or undercooked meat can pick up several kinds of diseases -- including some that might get passed on to you.

Please Eat the Daisies

If it's green and it grows from the ground, the odds are some cat will try to eat it. This vegetarian quirk in the carnivorous cat's personality is particularly worrisome if the plants in question are your prized houseplants -- or worse, if they're poisonous to your cat.

Many cat owners look at plant eating as a behavior problem -- and it is if the cat is eating plants you don't want her to. Some folks assume that a cat who eats plants isn't getting enough of the right kinds of food in her diet. They're right, too -- but only in the sense that what the cat needs more of in her diet is...plants.

The experts have a few ideas why cats eat plants. It could be to get some trace nutrients, to help with digestion, or as an emetic to help bring up swallowed hair and other nonfood items. Whatever the reason, eating vegetation is an instinctive behavior in cats; you can't stop it. So the best thing to do is point the behavior in a direction you can both live with.

Plant a "cat garden." You can find ready-made kits in pet shops and catalogs, but a more economical choice is to just do it yourself. If you're handy, you might build a fancy container out of wood or you can just use something on hand. Whatever you do, make sure you plant your cat garden in a container that doesn't tip or move easily. All you need is just a couple of inches of good potting soil and some seeds. Oat grass or catnip are good choices. You might want to keep the garden out of reach from your cats while your "crop" is coming up, but once the greens are a few inches tall, set it out and let Tabby munch at will.

Get your plants out of reach. Cats are incredibly good climbers and leapers, so putting your houseplants on stands or shelves probably won't help much. Mantels, windowsills, and the like are easy landing pads for feline acrobats. Hang plants from the ceiling, put them behind cat-proof barriers (on a sun porch closed off by glass doors, for example), or set them in locations that your cat absolutely can't jump, climb, or crawl to.

Shield your plants. If you can't get your plants out of kitty's reach, try forming a protective shield around your plants. Placing chicken wire, plant markers, or even mothballs in the soil around your plant may safeguard it from prying paws, but these barriers aren't so pretty to look at. Try adding some Spanish moss around the base of your plant to keep your cat away. Sometimes, spraying bitters on the leaves will discourage a cat from chewing. Other times, though, putting some bad-tasting substance on a plant does more harm to the plant than the cat's teeth.

Kitty Snacks and "People Food"

A well-fed cat doesn't need to snack between meals any more than you do. Too-frequent snacks will have the same effect on your cat that it can have on you: unhealthy weight gain and an imbalanced diet.

Of course, it's hard to resist the temptation to give your feline pal a treat now and then -- and it's perfectly all right to give in to that temptation, assuming there's a long enough stretch of time between now and then. How long of a time depends on your cat and the kinds of treats you give her. If your cat is still eating the recommended amount of a quality cat food every day and isn't overweight, then you're probably not giving her too many treats. If, on the other hand, your cat is chowing down on tasty but not-so-nutritious snacks and is either getting plumper or turning her nose up at dinner, it's time to change your strategy.

Store-bought cat treats tend not to be packed with good nutrition. Their main purpose is the same as human treats: to taste good -- real good -- and that's about it. "Gourmet" cat snacks usually have fewer artificial colors and fillers in them but still aren't meant to be fed as a regular part of Tabby's diet. The good thing about "gourmet" treats is the cost: They're usually so expensive that cat owners won't overfeed them to their cats!

A question vets hear all the time is, "Can I feed my cat people food?" There's very little that people eat that cats shouldn't (or won't), so that's not really so much of a problem. (Cat owners should be careful about feeding dairy products to their pets. Although cats love dairy products, many don't digest them well and may get sick.) The question once again is nutritional balance. Just like with home cooking, feeding your cat leftovers or using people food for snacks may not be providing her with the right nutrients in the right amounts.

Still, people food might provide some of the healthiest snacks for cats. If you give your cat some scrambled eggs or a couple of pieces of pasta, at least you know what's in it. And you might be surprised what your cat will eat. Cat owners report their pets begging for predictable tidbits such as fish and chicken as well as unexpected ones, including tomatoes and cantaloupe.

Water, Water Everywhere

Your cat needs about an ounce of water per pound of body weight every day. That doesn't sound like much, but it adds up: An average-size cat would need two quarts of water every week.

Of course, cats get water by drinking. But there's another important source of water for your cat: the food she eats. The more water there is in her food, the less she needs to drink. Canned cat food is more expensive because you're buying water along with the food (up to 75 percent of wet cat food is water) and paying a little more for the container. Dry cat food has much less water (perhaps 10 percent by weight), which means a cat whose diet consists of only dry food has to drink a lot more.

Dehydration (not enough water in the body) is a serious problem for any living creature, and cats are especially prone to it. A cat can go without food for days, losing up to 40 percent of her body weight, and still survive. But a loss of body water of only 10 to 15 percent can kill her. Other liquids -- like milk, if it doesn't make your cat sick -- are a good source of water, but nothing beats the real thing. Be sure your cat has plenty of clean, fresh water available at all times.

We will conclude our examination of cat food with a discussion of store-bought cat food vs. homemade cat foods in the next section.


Store-Bought Cat Food vs. Homemade Cat Food

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. At least 26 percents of an adult cat's diet should be protein.

The best thing about a home-cooked meal is you're the one who gets to decide what's in it. If you're a steak-and-potatoes type, then you'll broil up a nice lean Porterhouse and a batch of new reds. On the other hand, if you go for a green salad, you can pick your dinner fresh from the garden. Trying to cut down on cholesterol and salt? When you're the cook, you make the call.

Unless you are a nutritionist or dietitian, however, you should let the experts -- the major pet food manufacturers -- prepare the major portion of kitty's diet. Working out the right amounts and balance of foods is a difficult task. Most food can get lumped into one or more of three categories of nutrition: protein, fat, and carbohydrate. Different kinds of animals (including people) need different proportions of protein, fat, and carbohydrate in their diets. (That's another reason why dog food isn't good for cats -- dogs and cats need different percentages of fat and protein to stay healthy.) What's more, those needs change during an animal's life. A kitten has different nutritional needs than an adult cat, and they both have different needs than an old codger cat. Most pet food companies have special formulas for different levels of age and activity, and there's a whole line of prescription diets for cats with various health problems.


We've all seen a cat come running at the sound of a can opener -- there's no doubt that kitty loves getting canned food. But is canned food better for cats than dry food? Not necessarily. Each type of food has its advantages and disadvantages. The most important factor is whether the food meets your cat's nutritional needs. Of course, your budget and your cat's preference also play a role in which type of food you should choose. Store-bought cat food comes in three general forms:

  • Dry cat food is also called "kibble." It's just what it sounds like: crunchy nuggets or kernels of food. Dry pet food can be stored for a long time (in a rodent-proof bin, if you have problems with mice), has no smell, and packages can be kept at room temperature for weeks without spoiling.
  • Canned or "wet" cat food has a fairly long shelf life as long as it's unopened. Once you open the can, though, it doesn't hold up very well. Wet cat food usually has a pungent smell and tends to be a little bit messy to handle. If you feed your cat wet food, any uneaten food should be picked up and discarded after 15 to 20 minutes -- it's a breeding ground for bacteria that can make your cat sick. Unused portions of newly opened cans can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to a day or two.
  • Semimoist cat food also consists of individual nuggets but without the crunch of dry food. It's usually packaged in sealed canisters or individual meal-size foil pouches and is highly processed. Some semimoist cat foods are formed into interesting shapes or dyed different colors. Semimoist foods in resealable containers keep well at room temperature.

Each of these types of foods has its strong points and weak points. For instance, dry food is convenient, economical, and can be left out all day. On the other hand, the way some dry foods are formulated seems to encourage the formation of bladder stones. The rich aromas of canned food will tempt even the most finicky eater, but the crunchiness of dry food helps prevent dental plaque. Semimoist combines the convenience of dry food with the tastiness of canned food but may contain the most nonfood fillers and dyes.All brand-name cat food covers the basic nutritional needs of your average cat. But if you're worried about the overall quality of the boxes, bags, and cans of feline food in the pet supplies aisle of your local market, you might want to consider one of the premium-brand foods, usually found only in pet stores or through veterinarians. Feeding your cat store-bought food ensures that she is getting the nutrients she needs. At the same time, a home-cooked supplement to your cat's regular diet is okay if you make sure the foods you select are appropriate for cats. There's nothing wrong with getting the most out of a whole fryer by cooking up the gizzards for the cat, unless they become the major part of Tabby's diet. You see, organ meats (kidney, stomach, and even liver) are all right for your cat in moderation, but they've been linked to health problems if your cat eats too much of them. Likewise, every cat on the planet loves milk and cheese, but most cats have trouble digesting them well.In the next section, we will cover another very important aspect of cat ownership -- grooming.


Cat-Grooming Tips

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Long-haired cats have many more grooming complications than short-hairs.

Ever wonder why some cats always look sleek and beautiful and others look like...well, like something the cat dragged in? While it's true that some cats (like some people) are just born with "good hair," a lot of it has to do with grooming. Now, cats are fastidious critters. They tend to take care of themselves pretty well, always licking their fur to keep it clean and in its proper place. But any cat can go from Fluffy to Scruffy without a little help from her human pals.

Longhair vs. Shorthair Cats

The magnificent coat of a champion Persian is truly a work of art. But you'd better believe that it took hours of regular grooming to get it -- and keep it -- that way. It's common sense that the more hair there is to take care of, the more work that goes into it. The fluffier the cat's hair, the more likely it is to form mats, too. These thick tangles of hair can be painful and even tear a cat's skin if the mats get bad enough. Mats get embarrassing for a cat, too, since the only way to get rid of really bad ones is to shave them off. Nothing looks more uncomfortable than a cat who has been shaved.


It's not that shorthair cats don't need regular grooming or never get mats -- they do. It's just that their shorter, coarser outer coat requires lower maintenance than a long, silky coat. A shorthair cat who's diligent about her own grooming routine can do a lot to make up for an owner who's a little lazy with the brush and comb. But regular grooming is still a must for both longhair and shorthair cats.

Cats use their tongue and teeth for grooming. Every time Tabby goes into her contortionist bathing routine, she's swallowing hair. The more hair she has (and the more grooming she does), the more hair she swallows. Hair doesn't digest and can clump up in a cat's stomach and intestines to form hairballs. The least dangerous, but still rather unpleasant, side effect of hairballs is your cat coughing them up -- quite often at times or in places you'd much rather she didn't. On a more serious note, a lot of swallowed hair can actually block your cat's intestines, calling for an operation to save her life. The bottom line, as they say in the city, is to invest a few dollars in a brush and comb -- and use them.

Do I Need a Professional Groomer?

Because longhair cats need regular grooming (with daily grooming really being the best), you might want to consult your budget before answering this question. But even if you have the means to bring your longhair cat to a professional groomer weekly, you should still have grooming tools on hand at home -- and know how to use them. You never know when your cat might get into something that needs to be combed out right away or when she might need a touch-up between trips to the groomer.

The main advantages of a professional groomer are training, skill, and experience. A good groomer can get your cat's coat looking spiffy quickly and humanely, with a minimum amount of trauma. Really bad mats and tangles can be dealt with at home, but if you've never done that sort of thing before, you run the risk of injuring your cat -- an injury that will probably need veterinary attention. Such grooming problems are probably best left to the professionals, too.

Even folks who learn to wield a slicker brush and metal comb with a good amount of expertise will turn to a professional groomer from time to time. It could be for a bad mat or tangle, during a particularly heavy period of shedding, or just to get the full treatment so that Tabby looks her best.

Tools and Tips for At-Home Grooming

Every cat owner needs some grooming supplies. A metal comb is the most essential basic grooming tool. Sturdy stainless-steel combs with wide-set, round teeth are widely available and reasonably priced. A slicker brush has bristles that look like dozens of tiny bent nails. They resemble the rasps on a cat's tongue and serve the same purpose in grooming. Most cats enjoy the sensation of the slicker brush and the metal comb -- unless, of course, you hit a tangle or mat.

You may also want to invest in a flea comb, particularly if you let your cat outdoors, live in a year-round flea climate (like southern Florida or Louisiana), or have other pets who go outdoors. Flea combs look like metal combs but with very fine teeth set close together. Flea combs can be used for regular grooming, as a "touch-up" after the slicker brush or metal comb. Grooming mitts fit over your whole hand and let you work a larger surface while petting your cat.

Here are a few tips for home grooming:

Make it fun. Most cats love being stroked and enjoy the feeling of light grooming. It's good social behavior -- cats who get along well will blissfully groom each other for long periods of time. When it's time to do some grooming, approach your cat in a friendly way, and intersperse the grooming strokes with some regular petting.

Use restraint. It's okay to restrain your cat (gently!) as long as she doesn't start to panic, but be sure to restrain yourself, too. Don't try to force your cat to sit still or stay in an awkward or uncomfortable position for too long. And be careful not to get too exuberant in your grooming strokes. Think about how much you don't like having your hair pulled, then imagine what it's like to have hair getting pulled all over your body.

Know when to quit. You may not be able to groom your cat completely in one session. That's okay. If you get her back and tail, and then she starts to fight you, give up and try finishing in a day or two. It's better to have a half-dozen five-minute grooming sessions spread out over a week and a happy cat than one 25-minute battle and a cat who runs and hides at the sight of the brush.

Get professional help. If your cat has a bad mat or tangle -- or gets something nasty on her fur -- put a call in to your veterinarian or professional groomer. If your cat just doesn't seem to be cooperating with home grooming, schedule an appointment with a professional. While you're there, ask for some tips and a demonstration of basic techniques. Groomers are usually happy to do this for clients; there's nothing more annoying for a groomer than having to constantly shave out and untangle bad mats. The cat suffers, and the groomer is more likely to get bitten or scratched.

Grooming is only part of the story, however. In the next section, we will look at some tips for bathing your cat.


Cat-Bathing Tips

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. You should not have to bathe your cat often, but, when you do, it can be a challenge.

Except for removing a mat or performing a medical procedure, there is almost no other reason to shave a cat's hair. Cats are built to have a full coat of hair -- taking it away can throw off regulation of their body temperature and expose the usually protected skin underneath. Trimming a longhair cat's coat for appearances and to prevent tangles is fine, but it should be done by a professional groomer.

It's usually not necessary to bathe a cat, either, since they do so well keeping themselves clean. Sometimes, though, a bath is called for to treat or control fleas, to clean up an adventurous feline explorer, to treat a skin condition, or to remove a noxious or dangerous mess from your cat's fur. The squeamish, the inexperienced, and the uncertain should probably let a veterinarian or groomer take care of these mandatory baths. For those who want to try it at home, here are several bath basics.


Be prepared. Lay out your bathing supplies ahead of time. You'll need a good pet shampoo (get medicated shampoos for fleas or skin conditions from your vet, not over-the-counter); a large fluffy towel; a brush and comb; and either a handheld shower head or plastic tumbler for wetting and rinsing. It's a good idea to comb out your cat's hair before bathing, if possible, especially for longhairs. If you know how, now is the time to trim your cat's nails. (Note: You can protect your cat's eyes during a bath with a neutral ophthalmic ointment available from your veterinarian.)

Ready your bathing stations. Use a large sink with a dish sprayer attachment or the bathtub. Start the water before you put the cat in, and make sure it's not too hot or too cold. A comfortable temperature for your hands should work fine. You're going to get wet, splattered with suds, and possibly jumped on by an upset, sopping cat, so dress appropriately in clothes that can get soiled yet protect you from scratches.

Before you add the cat. Bathing a cat is often a two-person job -- one to restrain and one to bathe -- but you can do it yourself. Either way, practice restraint techniques on dry land before the bath. With one hand, grasp your cat firmly but gently at the base of the neck or on the scruff, pressing down slightly. See how well you can reach the various parts of your cat's body with the other hand. Figure out when and how you'll have to change grips during the bath. Get your bathing routine down step-by-step before the cat is in the tub or sink; otherwise, Tabby will be able to make a break for it in your moment of hesitation or confusion.

Start the suds. Wet down your cat, starting from the head and working your way to the tail. Apply the shampoo the same way, lather, and rinse thoroughly. (Read the label directions on medicated shampoos carefully. Some require 5 to 15 minutes before rinsing in order to be effective.) Thorough rinsing is important. Leftover soap residue can irritate your cat's skin or be swallowed when your cat licks her fur. Rinsing also gets rid of fleas and other parasites that are immobilized -- but not killed -- by the bath.

Drying a cat. Gently squeeze excess water out of your cat's fur, wrap her up in a large fluffy towel, and dry her off. If she'll stand for it, you can comb out any tangles right away; otherwise, wait until she's dried off and settled down. If you're lucky, your cat may tolerate the sound and feel of a blow dryer. Don't count on it, though -- many cats are terrified by them. This is not something to discover right after a bath. See how your cat reacts to the blow dryer on a non-bath day. If she's scared witless, stick with a towel. You might be able to gradually get her used to the sound and feel (especially if you begin regular baths in kittenhood) -- and then again, you might not!

A large part of keeping your cat healthy is removing potential dangers from your cat's environment. On the next page, we will show you how to cat-proof your home.


How to Cat-Proof Your Home

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Draperies are an open invitation for cats to play.

We all know to keep dangerous substances away from children, and it's important to remember that we should be even more careful with cats. We all know the old saying about what curiosity did to the cat. Because they are smaller, more mobile, and have more sensitive noses than children, cats are more likely to investigate, getting into things that can be dangerous. To prevent your cat's curiosity from becoming fatal, there are a few household dangers to look out for.

Drapery, blind, and electrical cords. To your cat's eye, the dangling end of a drapery or blind cord is an open invitation to play -- and possibly to disaster. Even just crawling between drapes or blinds and the window (an all-time favorite feline pastime) can land Tabby in a tangle. Cats who get caught in the loops of pull-cords panic. At the very least, the blinds or drapery rod will come down with a crash. At worst, a cat can strangle, do fatal internal damage, or actually get so worked up that his heart gives out. For maximum safety, tie or wrap all window cords well out of feline reach.


Electrical and telephone cords pose something of a tangling threat but more often are dangerous on account of chewing. It might be the taste or texture of the plastic coating, but for some reason, a lot of cats can't resist nibbling. There's not much direct danger in chewing phone cords (except when you try to make a call on a line that's been put out of commission by your cat) since there's very little current running through them.

Electrical cords are another story altogether, of course. Wherever possible, run the cords under rugs and carpets or behind furniture that sits flush to the floor and wall. If a cord has to be run where a cat can reach it, buy some inexpensive plastic conduit, which is available at most hardware and building supply stores. For a larger investment, you can get flat strips of heavy-duty vinyl that not only protect the electrical cords, but also keep the cords flush to the floor to prevent tripping.

Occasionally, a very determined cat will make his way through all the physical barriers. Treating the cords with a bad-tasting substance like bitter apple might do the trick. A little behavior modification, using positive reinforcement, will help, too.

Cleaning fluids, antifreeze, and other poisons. We don't just buy cleaners to get our house clean; we want it disinfected and smelling nice, too. Unfortunately, some of the very products we buy to sanitize and deodorize pet areas are outright dangerous for your cat.

Pine-based cleaners and those containing phenol (the most popular being Lysol disinfectant) are particularly toxic to cats and shouldn't be used on food bowls or in pet areas, sleeping quarters, or litter boxes. Of course, any cleaning compound can be poisonous if taken internally, so keep everything secured in a locking cabinet. (A simple spring latch won't keep a determinedly curious cat out.)

Ethylene glycol is the stuff that makes antifreeze work. It just so happens that it also smells and tastes very sweet. A significant number of cats and dogs -- and even small children -- suffer from ethylene glycol poisoning every winter. Because it's present in large amounts in almost every home and is often very fatal if swallowed, antifreeze and other products containing ethylene glycol should be considered dangerous and never left where pets or children can get to them.

Cats who go outdoors run the added risk of lapping up antifreeze spills and drips, an especially tempting thing for a thirsty cat to do since those puddles of tasty liquid don't freeze on cold days. You can protect your own cat (and other outdoor cats and strays) by immediately cleaning up and washing down any of your own spills or drips, or you can purchase one of the new nontoxic brands of antifreeze that contain propylene glycol rather than ethylene glycol. It's important to also keep in mind that once your cat leaves your property, there's no guarantee that everyone else in the area is going to be equally careful.

In general, anything that's toxic to you will be poisonous to your cat as well. The rule of thumb is: If you'd keep it out of reach of a child, keep it out of reach of your cat.

Poisonous plants. A cat chewing on your houseplants is more than an annoyance, it can be dangerous or even fatal to the cat.

Technically, any plant that makes your cat sick when eaten is a "poisonous" plant. (Nearly all cats will eat grass or plants to purge themselves, however, so vomiting alone may not be a reliable sign of poisoning.) Still, some plants have particularly serious effects. The list of potentially poisonous plants includes: apricot (pits), azalea, buttercup, caladium, calla lily, castorbean, cherry (twigs, leaves, bark, fruit, and stones), chrysanthemums, crocus, daffodil (bulbs), daphne (berries), holly, hydrangea, iris (leaves, roots, and fleshy parts), ivy, lily of the valley (leaves, flowers, roots), mistletoe (especially the berries), mushrooms, narcissus (bulbs), oak (acorns, young shoots, and leaves), oleander, peach (pits), philodendron, poison ivy, potatoes ("eyes" and sprouts from the eyes; the edible part of the potato is safe), privet, rhubarb (leaves), rosary pea (shiny red and black seeds), star of Bethlehem (bulb), string-of-pearls, sumac, and sweet pea (seeds and pods).

Dieffenbachia is a fairly common houseplant that also goes by the name of "dumb cane." The dumb cane is aptly named. Chewing dieffenbachia can actually paralyze your cat's mouth, making it impossible for him to eat and drink. The name "dumb cane" comes from the most noticeable effect of this paralysis on people: They can't talk.

Poinsettias (Christmas flowers) belong to the nightshade family -- flowers notorious in fact and literature for their deadly properties. A study a few years back seemed to show that poinsettias -- long believed to be dangerously toxic to cats and dogs -- don't make cats any sicker than many plants considered nonpoisonous. Still, it's always safest to keep cats away from any houseplant, just to be sure.

Windows, balconies, and screens. "High-rise syndrome" might sound like some sort of pop psychology explanation for violent crime, but it actually describes an epidemic that hits a number of cats every year, especially in warmer weather. "High-rise syndrome" is a collection of various injuries that are the result of a fall from a high window.

Amazingly, there are many stories of cats surviving falls from several flights up. But there are far more who fell and didn't make it. The saddest part of it is nearly all of those falls could have been prevented.

Every window that you plan to open needs to have a screen. And not just any screen. A cat-proof screen has to fit the window frame securely enough to stay firmly in place when confronted by ten or more pounds of cat. When ordering or replacing screens, use a heavy-duty grade of hardware cloth since ordinary screens can be easily torn by claws or teeth. Even a fall from a second- or third-story window can cause serious injury or death, so inspect all screens regularly, especially toward the end of winter in cold-weather areas of the country. Screens can warp, tear, or fatigue in the off-season.

Some city cat owners think letting Tabby out on the balcony of their apartment is a safe way to give him some fresh air and sunshine. Actually, a good number of "high-rise syndrome" cats were stalking moths, birds, or other irresistible things on an upper-floor balcony, when an ill-timed pounce or missed step sent them over the railing. Even a leash or tether on an open balcony doesn't ensure your cat's safety. A panicked cat dangling by his collar or harness can be strangled, seriously injured, or squirm loose and fall anyway.

Though you buy toys to amuse your cat, the wrong toy can be dangerous. In the next section, we will teach you what toys are safe for your cat.


Cat Toys

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Yarn can actually cause serious medical problems in your cat.

It's like something right out of a Norman Rockwell painting: a fuzzy little kitten tumbling around with a ball of yarn. Well, old Norman apparently never had to rush his cat to the vet for emergency surgery to get a couple of feet of that yarn unraveled from the poor cat's digestive tract. Yarn and string can turn even the most disinterested cats wide-eyed and playful but should never be left where cats or kittens can get at it on their own. Besides choking and intestinal blockage dangers, a cat who gets tangled up in string or yarn -- even during supervised play -- can panic and injure himself, possibly fatally. Take special care to keep sewing thread and dental floss out of feline reach; it's much finer and can become imbedded in the tissues of your cat's mouth, stomach, and intestines.

Cats will turn anything shiny, crinkly, or small enough to bat across the floor into a toy. Since Tabby doesn't have hands, he has to pick up these makeshift toys in his mouth, where they can be easily swallowed (or if not easily swallowed, can cause choking). At best, a foreign object in your cat's digestive system can trigger vomiting or diarrhea, but it can often be much worse. Keep things like paper clips, foil, and rubber bands safely tucked away.


Cellophane candy wrappers are particularly dangerous. Cats can't resist the crinkly texture, and the sugary residue makes them a cinch to get eaten. The wrappers can liquefy in your cat's stomach, coating the lining and blocking the uptake of nutrients from food.

What makes for a safe cat toy? Here's what to look for:

Something sturdy. If it can get tossed, thrown, gnawed, clawed, batted, kicked, licked, and repeatedly pounced on without coming apart, it's a good cat toy. Catnip-filled toys encourage play, but most cats like to eat catnip and will try to lick and chew their way to that scrumptious herbal filling. Catnip toys made from light fabric or felt will most likely be in shreds--and the shreds in your cat's tummy -- within a week. Ditto for plastic or vinyl toys that can be chewed up, cracked, or shattered.

No (re)movable parts. Catnip mice with yarn tails; crinkly cater- pillars with bug eyes; oversized plush "bumblebees" with glued-on felt features, and plastic mesh balls with tantalizing little bells inside are four of the more popular cat toys. But they share a common failing: small and potentially dangerous parts that come off. If you can pull or peel a part or decoration off a cat toy, the odds are your cat can, too. In fact, go ahead and try it with all your cat's toys -- it's better to have some catnip mice without tails than make a trip to the vet to get the tails out of your cat's stomach.

Something fun. A toy just isn't a toy if your cat won't play with it. Cat owners are often disappointed--and frequently annoyed -- to find that the $100 worth of custom cat toys they bring home get passed over for a piece of crumpled paper or a simple table tennis ball. Cats like games that involve what they do best: climbing, running, leaping, stalking, and pouncing. Pick toys that encourage those behaviors, and your cat is bound to use them. That's the allure of the table tennis ball -- it rolls and hops and skitters away when your cat pounces on it, encouraging batting and chasing. Cats see moving edges better than stationary objects, so toys that wiggle, bob, or weave fascinate them and trigger the stalking and hunting reflexes.

In our final section, we will cover perhaps the most important part of caring for you pet -- finding a good veterinarian. Finding a good vet for your cat is just as important as finding a good doctor for yourself.


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

 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.