Mews & Views

Mews & Views -- A blog for cat lovers everywhere with a focus on the low-income pet cats of northern and central New Mexico.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Peace On Earth Good Will To Cats

Although we traded in our shelter on a pro-active cat spay/neuter program several years ago, our Foundation is still listed on a lot of web sites as a cat rescue. Calls and e-mails continue to reach us asking us if we have room for more cats. This year – as in the past – these calls and e-mails seemed to spike around holidays – in particular the Christmas holidays.

To someone who loves her cats as much as I do, I find it particularly depressing to think that many cat caregivers actively spend their holidays trying to relinquish their cats – too often after they’ve passed the age of “adoptability”. “What are they thinking of?” I wonder. “Didn’t they realize that a pet relationship – like a human relationship – has to be for “better or worse?" At least with human relationships, the consequence of separating is manageable. Life goes on. But, what’s a 10-year old cat going to do when you decided she no longer fits your life plan? The hard truth is the cat will probably be killed.

Oftentimes the people will start out their request with a disclaimer. They really hadn’t adopted the cat – but rescued her – five to ten years earlier. If it hadn’t been for them, the cat would have died.

They saved her life. But now she no longer amuses them or has a chronic illness or behavioral issue – or they have a dog or another cat (that they did adopt) – that doesn’t get along with her. And so on. I find these calls juxtaposed with the meaning of Christmas “Peace on Earth” downright depressing.

Perhaps that is why this recent e-mail below seemed so special. It’s the flip side of those distressing phone calls and e-mails – depicting the warmth and love so many people – in fact the majority -- have for their cats – whether they “rescued” or “adopted” them:

“My Boyfriend and I live together and there had been some cats that lived at a house where he worked. The cats were getting too expensive so they were looking to get rid of them and my boyfriend fell in love with this very friendly one. So we brought him home and he adjusted well to inside life, he was very friendly and would cuddle with us at night.

Then we had to travel a little bit (by car) and didn't know anyone we trusted enough to take care of him so we brought him along. He did not like the car but we didn't keep him in the cat carrier and after a while he would settle down and just sleep with me.

We took him to 2 different houses on our trip. The first one had a dog but the cat never saw the dog and just stayed in the room we were staying. The second house has three adult male neutered cats. We let him meet a couple of the cats and he got slightly aggressive but he didn't go out of his way to be aggressive.

Anyway, now that we have him home he is not the same. He won't come when we call, he isn't very affectionate. I thought maybe it was because he missed going outside so I bought a harness and lead and took him outside yesterday. He enjoyed being outside but he was scared by any noise. He just isn't the same anymore. If I pick him up and lay him on me he will stay. He purrs when I pet him, but he used to come up to us all the time and want attention. Now he just sleeps all day and doesn't want anything to do with us unless we have food or we make him lay on us. I'm afraid that we made him an inside cat way too quickly. Is there anything you would suggest that we do?”

Frankly I was very taken by the genuine love the couple have for their new-found friend – taking him with them on their trips – getting him a leash and harness so he could still safely enjoy the outdoors – concern that he no longer seeks attention.

Although I’m not a cat behaviorist, I’ve taken in a lot of cats and the pattern they described is one we often observed. Relinquished adult pet cats start off extremely needy – when you first give them a home they follow you around like a little puppy dog craving your time and attention. Then, once they realize you’re not going to leave them and that they have a permanent home, they go back to being cats. Doing what a cat does best – sleeping. Sure they still enjoy your attention and will purr when you offer it, but cease to be as demanding of your time. They know you’re there, you love them and give them nice sleep spots and plenty of food– all they want to do is enjoy the moment and take frequent cat naps to dream about how happy and secure you’ve made them.

All you have to do is be there for them -- they'll purr and cuddle when you seek their attention -- but will fall into a daily routine. That's what makes cats so easy to care for. And that's why your long-term commitment is so important. All they want is a bowl of food, a nice bed and someone -- you -- to love for the rest of their life. Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Cats 0ver 4 months old are much less likely to contract Felv Virus.

“Do you know of any shelters or sanctuaries that would take a kitten who has feline leukemia? She’s been living in my bathroom for the last two weeks after being put out of his regular home by my neighbors. I’ve been keeping her in my bathroom because I have other cats. Do you have any suggestions to help me?”

The most important thing to remember about a cat or kitten that tests positive for Felv is to make absolutely certain the test was accurate before taking action.

It used to be that feline leukemia (Felv) positive cats were routinely euthanized to prevent the spread of the disease to other cats. Over the years, as we’ve learned more about the disease and its rate of contagion, the policy has changed considerably. Today, although testing positive often results in euthanasia at animal control based shelters – it’s more because it’s a litmus test of adoptability than it is warranted by the disease. If you search the internet for information on Felv you’ll find a mishmash of conflicting data. Fortunately in 2008, the American Association of Feline Practitioners issued updated guidelines on Felv that provide a little assistance in determining what to do if you have a Felv+ cat. As good as their guidelines are, it’s important to disclose their research was funded by Idexx – the company that manufactures the common snap tests used by veterinarians to detect Felv. Here are some of the key points from their study:

1. What is Felv?

Felv is a retrovirus . During its early stages a cat is likely to not exhibit any symptoms. After weeks or months or years the cat may start having recurrent intermittent illness. Signs can include loss of appetite, weight loss, poor coat, enlarged lymph nodes, fever, pale or inflamed gums, URI, skin or bladder infections, and persistent diarrhea.

2. How common is Felv?

In the overall cat population (living indoors or outdoors) less than 2% of healthy cats have Felv. This rate is down considerably from what it was 20 years ago – possibly due to the availability of vaccines or possibly because of better record-keeping and testing established once the disease was identified.

3. Who is most at risk for Felv?

Kittens under 4 months of age are in the highest risk group. The most common transmission is from infected moms to their kittens and as cats develop more effective immune systems their resistance to the Felv virus increases. One study cited in the AAFP 2008 report injected the virus into a group of newborn kittens (less than 2 months of age) and virtually all of them developed a progressive Felv infection. In another group of kittens over 4 months old, only 15% contracted the disease once they were infected with it. This does not mean that cats over 4 months of age can’t contract Felv, it simply means that they are much more likely to shed the virus if they do come in contact with it. The virus is highly fragile and lives only a short time outside the body of an infected cat.

Vaccinating kittens under 4 months of age for Felv is recommended because they are at a much higher-risk of contracting the virus than older cats are.

4. Who does AAFP recommend be tested for Felv?

a. Pet cats or kittens before they are first brought into a home. It’s important to determine if the cat is positive to prevent inadvertent transmission to other resident cats or – even if the cat will live alone to prepare a treatment plan if the cat is positive.

b. Cats that will have ongoing exposure to untested or Felv+ cats. It’s recommended that to minimize their potential to contract Felv that they be vaccinated annually – and, before the first vaccination they should be tested to confirm they are Felv-negative.

c. Cats that have recently been bitten by a cat that is (or could be) viral positive or cats

d. Cats that have become ill even if they have previously tested negative on a Felv test.

5. Should outdoor only cats (aka feral cats) be tested for Felv?

Althought the AAFP broadly recommends testing all cats, they exclude feral cats from their recommendation. The prevalence of infection is similar to outdoor pet cats so feral cats do not present an increased threat to pets given outdoor access. They do recommend neutering outdoor cats because this greatly reduces the two common modes of transmissions: queen to kittens and bite wounds caused by fighting among intact males.

6. How is Felv diagnosed?

The Idexx “Snap Test” is typically done at a veterinary clinic when a client brings a new pet cat in for their first examination. The same test is often performed by rescues and animal shelters when they intake a new cat for adoption.

If the test is negative, the cat is generally considered free of the Felv virus. But, if the cat’s last potential exposure to Felv was less than 28 days earlier, to be absolutely certain the cat is negative, another Snap Test is recommended after a 28-day incubation period is done – a time when the cat cannot come in contact with untested or Felv-positive cats. This protects against infections that were too immature during the first test to be detected. It will not protect against the potential that cat has the virus but is in a dormant state – which is also not detected by the Snap Test – and is why an ill cat that tested negative needs to be retested. So although a negative result is good, it’s not foolproof.

The real drama begins when the initial vet clinic or shelter test shows a positive result. Does this mean that the cat is infected with the Felv virus? Maybe, but since the impact on a cat is so major –if the cat is visibly healthy – the first positive test should be viewed with caution.

When a positive test result happens, Idexx Laboratories advises veterinarians to immediately retest the cat using an IFA test. If that is positive, then consider the cat infected and begin an appropriate management plan for the cat.

But, if the IFA test is negative, the results are inconclusive. The infection is either in an early stage or the original Snap (ELISA) test was incorrect. To determine which, Idexx recommends waiting 28 days and then re-administering both the Snap and the IFA test. If the second group of tests are both positive, you can assume the cat is Felv positive. And, if both tests are negative then you can assume the cat does not have the virus. But what do you do if you have a negative on one test and a positive on the other even after retesting a second time? According to Idexx, if the Snap test is the positive test you should manage the cat as if the virus is present but retest the cat every 6 months using both of their tests. If, on the other hand, the IFA test is positive but the Snap test is negative, then one of the results is wrong and both tests should be repeated.

Very early in our spay/neuter programs, we routinely tested for Felv . We found the incidence in our program was very low – as is confirmed by the 2008 AAFP report. And, we determined that the money spent on viral testing could better be applied to increasing the number of cats we fixed – to stem the most common means of transmission – mothers to kittens or fighting intact male cats.

Felv testing opens a Pandora ’s Box. Testing is far from perfect. Although you’re reasonably safe in assuming a negative result is negative both AAFP and Idexx recommend testing again 28 days after the cat is removed from an uncontrolled environment to confirm the virus wasn’t incubating. And they also recommend testing again if the cat later becomes ill. It’s even more a nightmare when you get a positive result and then have to go through a series of retesting to confirm the positive test was in fact real.

That being said, testing a new cat you’re bringing into your home to live with existing pet cats is a reasonable assurance that you are not inadvertently exposing them to Felv. Just remember that if you get a positive test result, it’s only an indicator the virus may be present but isn’t in itself a reason to not adopt a cat – or to euthanize one. Felv positive cats can live meaningful lives up to the point they become ill – weeks, months or years later -- with a disease causing untreatable pain with no expectation of recovery.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Yes Virginia, Cats Can (And Do) Live Outdoors Year Round

Early in the fall – as the days get shorter and the nights get colder – we start getting phone calls from people who want us to take the outdoor cat(s) they’ve been feeding over the spring and summer. Yes, they enjoy having the cats outdoors – watching them play and come over for the food they give them – but now they’re worried they won’t survive the cold. When my patience is at its shortest, I’m tempted to ask if they’re also concerned about the chipmunks, squirrels, raccoons and rabbits that live in their yard too. Many of these other animals are smaller and more fragile than cats and so I’ve never understood this double standard. Cats can’t survive the winter but the aforementioned critters can do just fine? Even history tells us that cats are survivors and adapt to all sorts of outdoor climates. Their first stop in America was New England – notorious for its frigid winters -- when they came over on the Mayflower with the Pilgrims. And, only since the 1950’s have cats lived indoors as house cats.

Then I catch myself realizing that the community is understandably concerned – as they’re blasted with annual PSAs put out by old guard humane societies and animal shelters – many of which live in denial that half the cat population is still outdoor-only -- yard cats, barn cats and alley cats. These PSA’s alert people their cats will freeze to death if they stay outdoors in winter. This is another cat maxim that contains some truth – but only as it relates to the pampered indoor house cat. Yes, if you stick your indoor-only cats outdoors in January they’ll get very cold – and, if they get wet and can’t dry off – they may get hypothermia and die. Why? Because their indoor-only life style prevents them from growing winter coats. But, for cats that call the great outdoors their year-round home – winter temperatures are no more a problem for them than they are for any other form of wildlife. As the days grow shorter—the outdoor cats grow thicker coats. This added layer of dense fur close to their skin insulates them from the cold. And -- since most cats live outdoors in groups of two or more – they can snuggle together on cold nights to share body warmth.

The only distinct difference between the survival abilities of an outdoor-only cat and other wildlife is that cats are not natural house builders. Yet in many cases the reason people find cats living in their yard is that they unwittingly are providing outdoor cats with houses – in the form of open garage doors, covered porches, barns, undersides of decks or mobile homes, sheds and the like. The places cats choose for home are typically ones with both a pre-existing dry shelter and a ready food source – cat food put out by compassionate caregivers and/or a natural supply of rodents such as field or dumpster mice.

So if you have cats in your yard and you want them to stay – give them access to dry shelter and a regular daily meal or two – served at the same time and place with you staying nearby while the cats eat. This will help the cats habituate to you so you can enjoy them more, and will help you identify all the cats living on your land – so you can spay or neuter them to limit their numbers. Or, if you don’t want cats in your yard – don’t give them access to dry shelter – close your garage door, block off the underside of your deck, etc. and don’t feed them. They’ll soon get the message you don’t want them there and will move on to greener pastures. For more information on caring for naturally-occurring outdoor cats, read our handbook on Feral Cat Care.