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The cat (Felis catus) has been woven into human society for thousands of years. Cats have been alternately revered as gods (as in ancient Egyptian culture) and feared as witch's "familiars" or connections to the devil (as in Salem, Massachusetts during the witch trials). Today we see them for what they really are: responsive, intelligent animals who adapt to most living environments.

With greater than 50 million cats living in American households, it is no wonder that cats have now surpassed dogs as our favorite pets. Cats make wonderful companions because they are relatively easy to care for and offer a lifetime of enjoyment.

Along with the increased popularity of cats as pets comes the responsibility to properly care for them . . . the responsibility to make sure that they are fed properly and have appropriate shelter and adequate veterinary care. Cats may live fifteen or more years. They have various personalities. Some are solitary individuals while others are more gregarious. They are prone to certain health problems and require minimal but routine care.

Cats are carnivorous, which means that they have an absolute requirement for some animal-source ingredients, such as meat, poultry, or fish, in their diets. There is no such thing as a good vegetarian diet for a cat. Without animal-source ingredients in their diet they will become deficient in certain nutrients which can prove life-threatening.

When choosing a cat food, it is best to choose one that is appropriate for the life-stage of the cat. For example, kittens should receive kitten food and adult cats should receive adult cat food. Additionally, overweight cats can benefit from a reduced calorie diet, just like humans. It is important to choose a food labeled as "complete and nutritionally balanced" and that the claims be substantiated by actual feeding trials.

There are several types of cat food available (dry, semi-moist, and canned) and a cat owner should realize the advantages and disadvantages of each type through a discussion with a veterinarian. Fresh water should always be available. It is an old wives' tale that cats must have milk, and, in fact, milk may cause a cat to have diarrhea.

Every cat should be routinely evaluated by a veterinarian who is familiar with the species. The cat should be examined for any potential health problems. Cats are prone to many of the same problems that people are. Cancer, kidney disease, heart disease, and dental disease are not uncommon. The earlier a problem is identified and addressed, the more likely the cat will respond in a positive fashion. As cat owners, we must help maintain their good health. Many cats are amenable to routine brushing of their teeth with a cat toothpaste. Additionally, they should be examined for parasites known to infect cats. Most obvious to an owner would be ear mites or fleas, although several species of intestinal worms can infest cats and rob them of precious nutrients. It is important that these problems be treated, and there are very effective drugs available. Cats allowed to roam outdoors will obviously be more prone to these parasites, unless the parasites have become established in a household.

As a general rule it is advisable to have a cat neutered, also called spayed (for females) and castrated (for males). Not only does it aid in control of unwanted kittens, but it also greatly minimizes the risk of problems associated with the reproductive tract and behavioral problems associated with sexually intact animals.

Female cats, also called queens, generally reach sexual maturity between four and twelve months of age. An unspayed female may be capable of producing kittens for eight or more years. Male cats, also called toms, usually become fertile between six and eight months of age. They may remain so for fourteen or more years. Most veterinarians recommend that a cat be neutered at or after six months of age, although there are individual opinions on this issue, and interested cat owners should consult their veterinarians during one of their cat's initial visits for examination and vaccination.

There are several diseases for which cats should be vaccinated by a veterinarian. Feline rhinotracheitis, calici virus, and panleukopenia (distemper) are potentially life-threatening diseases to which a cat can become exposed. They are caused by viruses which can easily be transmitted from cat to cat. Some viruses can be carried on an owner's clothing after handling a sick cat. There are vaccines available for other diseases, such as rabies, which has become endemic in certain areas of the country. Therefore, it is important that even indoor cats be vaccinated for these diseases. Additionally, there are vaccines available for other viral diseases, feline leukemia and feline infectious peritonitis, which are seen more commonly in outdoor, stray cats, or in multi-cat households. (This does not, however, preclude indoor only cats from having these diseases.) There are no effective treatments for these diseases, and they should be prevented. It is important for cat owners to realize that there are numerous diseases, such as feline immuno-deficiency virus infection, to which a cat can become exposed for which there are no currently available vaccines or treatment.

Also important for cat owners to understand is that cats are very sensitive to certain medications and household products. Cats do not metabolize aspirin like people; it should only be used under the supervision of a veterinarian. Acetaminophen (as in Tylenol) will kill cats and its ingestion is considered an emergency. Additionally, products containing phenol, such as Lysol, should not be used around cats because of their unique way of metabolizing these products. Some cats may like the taste of antifreeze, which contains ethylene glycol, and, if ingested, will cause kidney failure if not treated immediately. It is best not to use any questionable products around a cat until you have checked with an authority. Also, cats will often eat plants, some of which can be toxic. It is better to offer them sprouted feed oats to nibble on when they get the urge to graze.

Cats are often attracted to string-like objects, will eat tinsel, needles and thread, rubber bands, and other similar materials. Some cats are attracted to electric cords. Therefore, it is important to keep these things out of the cat's environment or take measures to minimize their attraction to them. Routine cleaning of kitty litter promotes good sanitation behavior. Cat owners must also set limits for their cats. If they are not supposed to be in a particular room or sharpening their nails on a particular piece of furniture, this should be established from the moment the cat is adopted. It is much easier to prevent problems than to attempt to change established patterns of behavior.

Cats depend on their owners for the essentials of existence. Providing them with the proper care and treatment can mean a lifetime of companionship. Cats have much to give and ask for little in return.

Some other special care

1. Give your cat fresh water every day. You do not need to give your cat milk.
2. Feed your cat food that is made from beef, chicken, or fish.
3. Choose a cat food that is right for your cat's age and weight. For example, if you have a kitten be sure to buy kitten food.
4. Keep the litter box clean. Cats like it fresh!
5. Keep string-like objects like tinsel, needles, threads and rubber bands out of reach. These things could hurt your cat.
6. Take your cat to the vet (animal doctor) for vaccines so it will not get some deadly disease.

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