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Cats and Kittens

Looking after your cat

The kitten is here!

You have just adopted a kitten, and are looking forward to many years of shared tenderness, providing it with everything it needs. Perhaps you are already well aware, or perhaps you only somehow feel, that this little ball of fluff is replete with mystery - and you are quite right. Most of all, a cat is not a little dog! Our two most familiar pets may have the fact of being carnivorous in common, but their behaviours are very different from one another´s. And if you want to make a cat happy, you need to respect its peculiarities.

A well-deserved reputation!

Rightly felt to be less demanding than dogs as far as training is concerned, cats enjoy the reputation of being clean and independent at the time of adoption. They seem to be the perfect pet: little bother, entirely able to cope with the many times when they have to stay alone, and giving love and affection while respecting the independence of their masters. But all that should not prevent the owners from getting involved in their new friend´s up-bringing.

One of the first things to check is how far your kitten has got in terms of its socialisation. A very simple and useful test here is to (gently) take the kitten by the scruff of its neck and lift it up. A properly socialised kitten will respond to this kind of handling by curling up with its tail raised under its belly and a glassy look in its eyes. This is what is known as a ´positive carrying reflex´, and such a reaction indicates that the kitten has stayed long enough in contact with its mother to be able to be properly socialised.

If, on the contrary, the kitten begins to howl when you lift it up in this way, with its claws out and the whole body arched in hyper-extension, then its level of socialisation is very low and it is going to be difficult to make a pleasant family pet of your kitten. If, after checking this reflex out several times, you still decide to keep the kitten, do not hesitate to speak about it with your Vet, who will be able to advise you as to how to increase your new friend´s contact tolerance.

Attachment, socialisation, familiarisation

A cat´s entire capacity for socialisation depends upon the quality of the attachment it has formed with its mother, and on the degree of socialisation of the mother herself. A cat develops much faster than a dog: where a dog takes about six months to become autonomous, the key period for a kitten to grow up into a well-balanced cat lies in the sixth week of life.

Of course, all is not lost, and it is still possible to enhance socialisation at the usual age of adoption: i.e., around two months. But it needs to be borne in mind that cats are not always necessarily social creatures, and that certain cats which have gone back to their wild state are capable of spending their whole life without any social interaction at all outside of mating seasons.

In the life of a cat, the first period of attachment is primordial, and this capacity for attachment, which is a juvenile characteristic, needs to be preserved. If this first attachment is of a quality such as to allow your cat to feel confident with all the humans and often the other species of animal (such as dogs) which it may encounter, then it will be relaxed and glad to be with you. Otherwise, it will become familiar with just one or with just a few persons, and hide away whenever a stranger appears; it will always be chary of the unknown, although your presence can reassure it. This is the distinction between a social and a merely familiar cat. If such a lack of socialisation is making your cat aggressive, do not hesitate to consult your Vet.

It is possible to detect disturbances in the process of detachment by means of the carrying reflex referred to above. One also often finds cats which go on trying to breast-feed, using pieces of cloth or, more commonly, their owner for this. From time to time, the animal forcibly seeks contact, settling on or against its master and taking a finger or some hair in its mouth to suck on for a fairly long time. In itself, this behaviour has nothing necessarily pathological about it, but you should talk to your Vet about it if it is associated with other signs (such as fearfulness, growling or spitting on contact, or on the other hand too quiet a cat... ).

Territory Organization

While cats may not always be social animals, they most certainly are always territorial. For your cat to be emotionally well-balanced, harmonious territorial structure is essential, and the feline approach to organisation is most particular and a far cry from human or even dogs´ ideas on the subject. Cats divide their territory up into a certain number of areas, each with its own specific function.

The isolation field is an area which the cat does not wish to share, unless it be with extremely familiar individuals, and then only when it so chooses. It is often a raised position, where the cat can feel perfectly safe. Activity fields may, on the other hand, be shared and are devoted to some particular occupation (bird-watching, hunting, playing or feeding, etc.).

These various fields are all inter-linked by pathways which are always the same, and which the cat traces with pheromonal markers whenever it takes them. When you see a cat rubbing up against a piece of furniture, it is placing its familiarity markers there which will act as reassuring landmarks for it afterwards. This very strict and most particular organisation is necessary if a cat is to be emotionally well-balanced.

There are practical repercussions to this for you when you adopt a kitten. Right from the very first day, you should give it its isolation field: a place where no-one will come and disturb it when it is asleep.

The children and the dog of the household will quite naturally want to make contact with the new-comer; but, if your kitten is to develop peacefully, it has to have its own private place- which it may later on decide to change. You should not systematically remove all the marks made by the cat rubbing itself against things in its new home. It is very important for it to be able to find its pheromones if it is not to develop an anxiety state.

Uncleanliness and marking

Cats are toilet-trained from very early on, and one is often struck by the sight of a little kitten three weeks’ old struggling to get up into its cat-litter to relieve itself there. This reputation is a well-founded one, and so it is only all the more disappointing for a cat-owner to find that his or her cat is not clean. To avoid this, there are a few precautions to take. The elimination field should have certain features, and, however self-evident some of these may be, in practice experience shows that they are not always fully respected. The cat-box with the litter in it needs to be constantly accessible, including at night. Remember that cats were originally nocturnal animals. By dint of living with humans, they may focus on daytime activity, but they still may well keep certain times during the night for specific occupations. The place you choose has to enable your cat to relieve itself without any problems.

If children are playing in the same room, or the dog is liable to come over and sniff the cat on its litter, then the conditions are not the best possible and accidents may ensue. The litter should be changed frequently.

Finally, do not confuse uncleanliness and marking.

Some cats use urinary marking, and the sequence here is highly characteristic. The cat stands up straight on its legs, rather than crouching down as it does to relieve itself, and sends shots of urine on to vertical supports. This is highly typical of a cat whose territory has been disrupted and who is failing to find its familiarity landmarks.

As between uncleanliness, elimination and marking, the easiest and most effective thing to do is to talk with your Vet about it right away. He or she will be able to distinguish between the different hypotheses and to suggest a solution to you. One way or the other, do not delay. The earlier the diagnosis, the better the result. And if any of this does happen to you, do not get depressed about it: despite their reputation for cleanliness, a survey has shown that 30% of cats fail to be clean at one time or another in their lives.

Feeding

Food plays a vital role in our health and in that of our pets. Each element in the feed has its own role to play. Excess and deficiency are equally harmful for a cat´s health, so you should get informed as to the qualitative and the quantitative needs of your little cat, which are quite different from a dog´s.

Certain sometimes unintended mistakes in making up home-made rations can have serious pathological repercussions. A cat´s needs, moreover, depend on its physiological status (care, growth, lactation, or gestation) and sexual status (sterilised or not). Ready-made food nowadays meets this charge-book´s specifications, whether it be tins or biscuits. Of course, differences exist with respect to the quality of the ingredients: "premium" or "super-premium" are terms used when top-quality raw material goes into the making of cat-food.

Cats need some 50 nutriments in order to live. Lack or deficiency in any one of these will lead to chain reactions and pathological disturbance.

  • With regard to proteins, which constitute the framework of body tissues and are made up of chains of molecules known as amino acids, certain essential amino acids which cats are unable to synthesise themselves are to be distinguished: e.g., arginine and taurine. Taurine deficiency can cause blindness and heart problems. It is a substance only to be found in proteins of animal origin, which means that cats, unlike dogs, are strictly carnivorous.
  • Lipids or fats are composed of fatty acids. They provide the organism with energy and contribute to cell membrane structure. Once again, there are for cats certain so-called essential fatty acids which are only to be found in meat and fish.
  • Carbohydrates or sugars for their part also supply energy. They are contained in vegetables. They also contribute to good intestinal transit when they come in the form of fibre.
  • Lastly, minerals, vitamins and oligo-elements need to be present in sufficient amounts but not in excess. With respect to home-made food, be especially careful not to give too much liver, which is rich in vitamin A and in the long run leads to knitting of the vertebrae.

Quantitative requirements

Most cat-food manufacturers nowadays respect scientifically determined standards as far as the nutritional composition of rations is concerned. Kittens need rather more protein than do adult cats (30% as compared to between 10% and 20%). They also have high energy requirements. For this reason, kittens need a high fat input in their food. Special Kitten foods meet these specifications.

On the other hand, in adult cats too much fat leads to obesity: 10% would seem to be a reasonable level. Gestating cats also require more energetic food, which is furthermore to be stepped up by 10% per week from the beginning to the end of gestation.

Adult cats do well on "maintenance" rations, although sedentary or sterilised cats may tend to become obese. This is why specific "light" or "castrated cat" foods have been developed: these come in wet or dry (biscuit) forms. Thus, each stage of life has, ideally, its own specific food. Your Vet can help you find your way through this maze.

Cats´ feeding behaviour

Cats, unlike greedy dogs, are "nibblers". They prefer to have several meals a day. If food is simply made available, they will take some 10 to 16 meals a day. Various studies have produced a classification of cats´ preferences (although there are wide individual differences): in descending order, cats most happily eat fish (and tuna in particular), then beef, horse-meat, pork, chicken or offal, with a preference for red offal (liver and kidneys).

With respect to texture, preferences lie at the two extremes: they will go just as well for a very dry as for a very wet ration. As far as wet rations are concerned, chunky recipes are preferred to pastes. In fact, a cat´s preferences would appear to be strongly influenced by early experience: kittens, by imitation, eat the same as their mothers and in most cases will keep a life-long preference for the food they ate when very young.

Cats are fine connoisseurs when it comes to feeding, and are very sensitive to the tableware. Rather than stainless steel or plastic, glass, china or porcelain dishes are to be preferred. The dish should not be too deep: dog-tins are not suitable. To really make your cat happy, finally, try heating its food briefly in your micro-wave oven.

Home-cooking

If you get the urge to cook for your cat, whereas shop foods are in fact perfectly balanced and more practical, at least do it properly so as to avoid harmful mistakes in feeding. The following recipe, while still imperfect, is the best adapted to cats´ needs. Rations should be rich in animal products and enriched in vitamins and minerals.

According to Wolter (Dietetichat, published by De Vecchi), a typical balanced ration would be as follows:

  • 50% lean meat, or fish offal
  • 20% (dry weight) puffed rice or cereal flakes
  • 20% cooked greens or carrots
  • 10% additive containing dry yeast, salad oil, mineral and vitamin additive (i.e., one tsp of each per adult cat per day)

General Well-being

Well-fed, properly wormed, regularly treated against parasites and fully vaccinated, your kitten is developing harmoniously. You love it and want it to keep happy and healthy. Then read the following pieces of advice.

Purring with pleasure

Would you like to hear a very pleasing little piece of music, a purr? Speak softly to your cat as you stroke it. If its mother had been stroked when it was in her womb and if it was itself stroked by the time it was seven weeks old, then it will be delighted. Otherwise, you will need to be patient.

From the very first weeks, use a brush with soft metal bristles and a rubber base, or else a silk brush. Groom your kitten every day if it is long-haired, and two or three times a week otherwise. It will love it, and feel much better for it!

Having a very good sleep

A good lie-in in the morning prepares the way for a whole afternoon´s siesta. The cat-basket, raised up on a chair or other piece of furniture, out of the way of the agitation of the household, is a cosy shelter and personal territory. Let sleeping kittens lie. Like all members of the cat family, your kitten is most alert and active at dawn, and at sunset explore its territory, has a bite to eat, and plays.

Keeping naturally clean

Give your cat a box with 5 to 7 cm of dust-free cat-litter in it, at least 1 metre away from its eating place. It will go there of its own accord. Change the litter regularly: cats are very sensitive to that.

Scratching for pleasure

As a member of the cat family, your kitten needs to scratch as a way of staking out its territory with marks which are at once visible and smellable thanks to the pheromones secreted by glands between the claws. Equally, when it rubs itself up against you, it is marking you, by means of its facial glands, with the calm familiarity of its pheromones. Do not interfere.

Being well brought-up

To prepare the way for the future, from the very start get you kitten used to receiving a few bits of basic care:

  • a compress soaked in special eye cleanser, and a cotton bud for the ears if they have black wax in them (otherwise, leave them alone)
  • a little toothbrush or a finger-stool to reduce scaling on the teeth
  • there are special nail-cutters for claws which get too long- your Vet will be able to let you know just how far to go
  • for your own peace and quiet, and for your kitten´s figure, do not let it climb up on to the table during mealtimes and never feed it from your own plate

Eating cat-mint

Even with modern industrial cat-food, perfectly suited to its nutritional requirements, your cat needs to have a pot of cat-mint, which you can buy (for very little) in the market or from a florist´s, unless you grow it yourself.

Playing at hunting

A kitten playing is a sight for sore eyes. Virtually anything will meet the bill: a ball of paper, a marble, a cork or a ping-pong ball. Watch: it is playing at hunting a mouse, or then a bird, or pretending to catch a fish ... Indefatigably.

Health Issues

Always bear in mind that, like a big cat, your little kitten will keep any ailment well hidden, until it gets just too serious. So do not hesitate to consult at the slightest change in behaviour or habits.

Soft stools?

  • Stop its usual balanced diet. Leave only tap-water or rice water, even if it does not usually drink.
  • Above all, absolutely no milk! (And, in point of fact, has it perhaps drunk some?)
  • When you do let it have a bit of tinned pâté, do not serve it straight from the fridge - warm it up in the micro-wave oven or in a saucepan, or leave it to reach room temperature.

Vomiting

  • Grass which it has just eaten? Perfectly normal.
  • A bit of bile at day-break? - No problem.
  • The meal it has just taken? - It may eat it up again straight away. Utterly disgusting, but that´s how it is!
  • Prostrate, lifeless and with diarrhoea? Take an appointment with the Vet as soon as possible.

Not eating

  • Remove the biscuits, or throw out the tinned food you gave it.
  • If it goes on playing, it should build up an appetite in a few hours ...
  • Had it had some new, more tasty food and is embarking on a trial of strength to get you to give it some more?
  • If the anorexia lasts longer than 24 hours, consult your Vet.

Drinking a lot

Of course it always has fresh water available in a spotlessly clean bowl (not a plastic one, because of the smell!). It drinks very little: its ancestors used to live in the desert.

Remember: "When a cat takes to drink, there´s something wrong." Your Vet will be able to discover the reason - perhaps a perfectly straightforward one, or sometimes more complicated and serious - and advise you as to diet and possible treatment.

Scratching

Has it been treated properly against parasites? A flea or two, which you may not be able to see, could be the reason.

There are many others. Each has its own treatment.

Emergencies - Know what to do

Kittens are curious, playful and fearless: your new companion is going to make you have to deal with emergencies where it is going to be primordial to quickly see what to do and what decision to take. Here are some pieces of advice to help you cope with the commonest emergencies.

Dangers at home

Your home is a haven of peace for your kitten, but it can hide many a danger all the same. Ovens, washing machine drums or spin dryers are amusing hiding places- as long as no-one closes the door ... Sewing threads are toys which remind a kitten of snakes- but, instead of a forked tongue, they have needles at the end: Ouch! Climbing on to shelves and bookcases is good sport; but making sure that no vases or books- or kittens!- fall off is a whole different ballgame. Playing at free-fall from the balcony can, depending which floor you live on, end in a crash-landing of greater or lesser severity. Certain beautiful indoor plants are most tempting, just waiting to be nibbled at: poinsettias, azaleas, diffenbachias, for example- but they can cause serious poisoning.

Outdoor life

Your kitten does not necessarily have to go out to run many risks. Who will cry at home if it gets lost and does not come back? You never know who it´s going to meet: an alley-cat who brooks no strangers on its patch, a dog on the prowl - charming, but deadly ...

Is your kitten aware of the fact that wasps sting, especially when a paw comes down fast as lightning to pin them to the ground? Cars and motorbikes are, sad to say, only too real as dangers.

In the garden, the pesticides, weed-killer and rat poisons smell bad and, in theory, your kitten should keep away from them; but, on the other hand, poisoned grains for slugs and snails can interest it. Be careful.

In the garage, antifreeze, apparently, has a pleasant taste. Beware: poison!

Poisoning

Never leave any kind of poison within reach, such as slug-poison or rodent bait, which are a real treat for your kitten. If it does swallow any, do not wait for the first symptoms to set in; take it straight to the Vet´s, who will get it to vomit by administering the appropriate treatment. Don´t forget to take along the package with the composition of the product marked on it: this will help the Vet determine treatment. Giving it milk to drink is of no use. If you store liquids such as lubricant or fuel oil, keep the barrels covered so that your kitten cannot fall in. If such a thing does happen, wash it with large amounts of water to get as much as possible out of the fur, then take it to the Vet´s. In case of convulsions, it is of no use to talk to your cat and stroke it: any such stimuli can only help prolong the attack. Watch over it to make sure it does not get hurt, and try to keep it away from noise and light. There is no point in trying to get hold of its tongue: there is no danger of it swallowing it, and it might just unintentionally bite you.

Heat-stroke

Do not leave your kitten in the car, especially in summer, as the inside temperature in the sun can reach 70C, causing acute dehydration and possibly fatal heat-stroke. And remember: the sun "goes round" and a car in the shade may be in the sun a few hours later. Just leaving the windows ajar is not usually enough to keep the temperature cool, and the kitten might put its head through and get hung.

When a kitten does get heat-stroke, it suddenly takes on a strange attitude, miaowing, losing balance and breathing fast. You should give it a shower with plenty of cold water then take it to the Vet´s.

Insect bites and other venoms

Your kitten may get an insect bite, from a wasp or a hornet, by carelessness or by playing risky games! The stung zone is swollen and painful; there may be respiratory problems, or even allergic shock.

Pull the sting out, if you can see it, and take the kitten to the Vet´s, who will alleviate the pain with a fast-acting anti-inflammatory treatment and treat any possible infection. Likewise, in case of snake-bite, there is no point in trying to get the wound to bleed by pressing on it or by using a tourniquet: the right thing to do is to take it for treatment as quickly as possible.

Electrocution

Never let your little cat play with electric wires: it could get electrocuted by biting them. This would cause burns on its muzzle, shock, respiratory difficulty or even death. Take it as quickly as possible to the Vet´s, even if it seems to be unaffected at first.

Trauma

Your little pet may suffer trauma: be bitten by a dog, hit by a car, or fall out of a window. You should handle it with care, trying to keep it horizontal: it may have sustained spinal injury, and you must avoid aggravating this by undue manipulation.

Ensure that its mouth is not obstructed by blood or saliva clots or by foreign bodies such as sand or earth, and that it can breathe freely. If it is bleeding profusely, press on the wound with a finger or a cloth, in order to aid coagulation. If a leg is broken, try to bandage it so that it does not swing loose. If any bone is apparent, do not touch it but cover it with clean cloth so as to limit contamination by germs.

Finally, if your kitten appears unharmed after trauma, consult your Vet all the same, as serious internal lesions are still a possibility.

Infection

Your kitten may also suffer from gastro-enteritis due to a virus, parasite or bacteria: diarrhoea, vomiting, refusal to eat. This is a serious illness which can cause rapid dehydration. Simple administration of water via a syringe does not always prove sufficient, and nor does fasting. Suitable medical treatment is most often called for, including perhaps a few days in hospital.

Prevention is a matter of vaccination, worming and adapted feeding.

Feline Leukaemia Virus (FeLV)

We know that you care for your cat and want to ensure that he remains happy and healthy throughout his life and will do all that you can to achieve this. One easy way in which you can help your cat is to ensure that he is protected from feline leukaemia virus, by vaccinating him as a kitten and annually throughout his adult life.

Why FeLV vaccination is important?

FeLV is the number one killer virus in the UK. Any cat that comes into contact with other cats is at risk. One in three cats that catch the virus will go on to develop this fatal disease. FeLV only infects cats and poses no risk to other pets or humans.

Why you need to vaccinate your cat regularly?

Primary Vaccination

For the first few weeks of life, kittens are usually protected against disease from the immunity they receive in their mother´s milk. However, this maternal immunity may also neutralise any vaccine given at this time. Gradually this protection decreases, and the maternal immunity acquired at birth declines to a sufficiently low level for the animal to no longer be protected. This also allows the animal to respond to vaccination and so at this stage it is possible to start the vaccination programme. Your veterinary surgeon will suggest a programme of vaccinations to fit in with your pet´s particular needs and the local disease pattern.

Annual Vaccination

Many people believe that if they have their pet vaccinated when it is a kitten the immunity it receives will protect it for the rest of its life. Unfortunately this is not the case. After the last injection, the immune level reaches a peak and then begins to decline. After a year, the level of protection offered to your pet may no longer be sufficient.

Revaccination stimulates the immune response so that protection is maintained for another year. Without these yearly vaccinations, your pet´s immune system may not be able to protect it from this serious disease.

How vaccines work?

Vaccines work by training the white blood cells in your cat´s body to recognise and attack the viruses or bacteria contained in the vaccine. This should prevent infection with that particular organism if your cat is in contact with it again.

Feline Leukaemia Virus

Feline Leukaemia Virus (FeLV) is second only to car accidents as the main cause of premature death in cats in the UK. Infected animals may not show any signs for months or even years, so many more cats may become infected before the warning signs are seen. The virus is easily spread in saliva and blood, so cats are infected when grooming each other, sharing food bowls and litter trays and when fighting. Animals are usually infected in the first months of life, but any age of animal including adults and unborn kittens may become infected.

FeLV attacks the white blood cells and bone marrow. This weakens the immune system and makes the cat vulnerable to secondary infections. It also causes anaemia and cancer of the blood, intestines and other parts of the body. One in three cats that catch the virus will develop the disease. Only early vaccination and regular boosters can protect your cat from the virus. There is no cure for FeLV.

Blood testing for FeLV

The virus may take a long time to show signs of disease. Therefore occasionally a cat may already be infected with the virus when it comes to the vet for its first vaccination. Although the vaccine will not do any harm in a cat that is already infected, it will not protect it either, and may lead to a false sense of security.

Your vet can provide a quick and easy blood test that will give a result in just a few minutes. Please discuss with your vet whether this test is of benefit to your cat. High risk animals include stray cats, and kittens from rescue shelters that may not have already been tested or vaccinated.

Booster vaccinations

After your pet has been vaccinated, it will need regular booster vaccinations to ensure it remains protected. Please discuss with your vet all aspects of vaccination of your kitten and cat throughout its life, the other important infectious diseases of cats, and how you can ensure your cat remains healthy and happy.

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