Myth #1: Cats Are Low-Maintenance Pets
While cats do not need to be taken for daily walks as a dog does, they are by no means low maintenance—either in the amount of interaction they require or in the financial responsibility they represent. Adopting a pet of any kind is a large commitment in terms of both time and money. Cats are social animals who want and need interaction with their guardians. Feeding, grooming and litter box cleaning are daily activities.
As with many animals, cats cannot communicate verbally with their guardians, so it is the human's responsibility to be constantly watchful of the cat's behavior and alert to any abnormalities. A guardian who believes the cat can "take care of itself" will be unaware of subtle behavior changes that can be signs of the onset of serious illness or injury.
In terms of financial commitment, guardians should plan to spend between $800 and $1,000 per year, per cat, on the basics—food, litter and regular vet care, with additional funds budgeted for petsitting (as needed) and medical emergencies—potential guardians should be aware that costs can and will increase dramatically should an illness or injury occur that would require additional vet care and/or hospitalization. Myth #2: Cats Can Be Left Alone for a Few Days at a Time and Will Take Care of Themselves
Not true at all. This is a natural follow-up to the point above. If a guardian is going to be gone for more than 12 to 14 hours, someone else should be assigned, or hired, to look in on or take care of the cat. Cats who are left alone for long periods of time can get into all sorts of trouble, become depressed and even get sick. For example, a cat who develops a urinary tract infection can become critically ill in less than 24 hours.
Therefore, if you are even planning just a short weekend getaway, a petsitter or friend should be looking in on your cat. This person should plan to stay for a minimum of one hour so as to be able to observe the cat and make note of any behavioral abnormalities (ideally, it should be someone who knows the cat fairly well, the better to notice if something seems "different"). Of course, the petsitter should be provided with contact information for the guardian, as well as the phone number of the nearest emergency veterinary clinic and copies of all pertinent medical records. Myth #3: Cats Need to Go Outdoors and Hunt in Order to Be Happy—This is Natural for Them
In today's world, letting your cat outdoors for any reason or any length of time is akin to playing Russian roulette. One of these times, its chances will be all used up. Outdoor cats are at risk for injury or death as a result of disease, other animals, poison, sadistic people, animal "bunchers" who collect strays and outdoor pets to sell to laboratories, cars, foul weather and a host of other dangers.
Reputable authorities speculate that outdoor cats have an average lifespan of two to three years, versus their indoor counterparts, who frequently live to be 15 or older. We have domesticated our pets, and as such have a responsibility to take care of them and look out for their well-being. Your cat may look longingly out the window as through he wants to go out, but the bottom line is that this is not safe. Creating a stimulating environment for him inside your home with trees, or toys and giving him lots of attention and exercise will ensure he has a full and enriching life, while remaining safely indoors. Myth #4: Pregnant Women Cannot Live Safely with a Cat
Many OB-GYNs mistakenly inform their patients that they must get rid of their cat or cats in order to ensure the safety of their unborn child. This is not at all true. This misconception is based on fear of a parasitic disease called toxoplasmosis, which can be transmitted from a variety of sources to a pregnant woman and can be dangerous to her fetus. Cats are exposed to this parasite through the ingestion of live prey (e.g., mice), and it can then be passed on by the cats to humans through handling the cats' feces, which most commonly occurs during litter box cleaning.
However, assuming cats are indoor animals (i.e., not catching live prey), there is no danger that a pregnant woman or her unborn baby will contract the parasite from the cat. In fact, pregnant women run more risk of exposing their baby to toxoplasmosis by handling raw or undercooked meat in their kitchen than by handling their indoor cat.
That said, as a precaution, it is best for another family member to be responsible for litter box cleaning during the pregnancy (and good practice, since after the baby is born, Mom is certain to have her hands full and this task may need to be permanently reassigned) or, alternatively, for the mother-to-be to wear gloves and wash her hands thoroughly after cleaning the box if she must do it herself. Pregnant women should also use caution when gardening in outdoor areas that may have been used by strays as an open-air litter box. Myth #5: What I Feed My Cat Isn't Important—Food Is Food, What's the Difference?
Nothing could be further than the truth. Diet is one of the few factors that influence the overall health of our animal companions over which we have total control. Cats who are fed a healthy, wholesome, species-appropriate diet have a better chance of living a longer life, with better overall health, than those who are fed a poor-quality diet.
Cats are obligate carnivores. This means they are intended to have their nutritional needs met by the consumption of other animals. There is very little nutritional value for cats in plant-based food sources; in fact, physiologically, it is hard for their systems to effectively break down and utilize the nutrients in plant-based ingredients. As such, in a perfect world, they should have no grains at all in their food.
This means canned food is vastly preferable to dry kibble—kibble is convenient, but it is also, by its very nature, a far less nutritionally complete package. When it comes to canned food, guardians must always remember to carefully read food labels. A quality animal-based (meat) protein source should be the first ingredient listed on the food label, indicating it is that product's primary ingredient. Avoid foods that list as their first ingredient anything referred to as a "byproduct," or worse, grains like wheat, corn or rice.
Lisa Ward is a regular contributor to Angel Tales, the magazine of PAWS Chicago, and a PAWS volunteer. This article was originally published in the Spring/Summer 2007 issue of Angel Tales.