Q: Do you recommend that cat owners should allow their female cats to have one litter before having them spayed?

A: No, definitely not. I advise all cat owners to have their cats spayed at 6 months of age. This is that age when they have reached sexual maturity but they will not reach physical maturity for several more months. If not spayed prior to their first heat they will inevitably become pregnant when they are only half grown themselves. They will have to try to nourish their own growing bodies plus a womb full of developing kittens. Their pelvises may not be sufficiently wide to allow for normal birth leading to caesareans or even death. And the feeding of several kittens drains the young mother’s resources to such an extent that it may stunt her own growth. We have all seen undersized, weakly feral cats who have had one or two litters while still under one year old themselves. Some owners argue that they want their cat to keep one of its own kittens as a companion, but I have seen many cases of severe rivalry between a mother and her kitten. In one case recently the daughter actually drove her mother out of the house and she had to find a home with a caring neighbour! It would be preferable in these cases to adopt a homeless neutered male as a suitable companion for a spayed female.

Then, of course, there is a litter of kittens to be homed – no easy task when up to 8,000 unwanted cats and kittens are destroyed every year in the Dogs’ and Cats’ Home alone. Many litters are brought to Cats’ Aid every year by despairing owners who have been ‘let down’ by the people who promised they would offer a home to one of their kittens. Within six short months these kittens will be producing litters themselves – so if there is any delay in finding homes the problem soon gets out of control.

So, if you have a female kitten (or indeed a male) make a provisional appointment for neutering with your vet at the time of the last vaccination booster at 3 – 4 months and spare your cat, yourself and the unfortunate kittens any unnecessary hardship.

Q: Since I have been in Cats Aid, I have been astonished and dismayed at the number of people who contact us in distress after losing a much loved cat who was left in someone else’s care while the owners were on holiday. I feel cats get lonely and upset when their owners are away and are therefore more vulnerable. Unless the cats are to be cared for by somebody who is well known to the cats and who is willing to spend some time with them, surely it is better to consider boarding them. I know a lot of people think that this is cruel, but from the reaction of my own cats I know that this is not so. In general, how do you feel cats take to a spell of boarding? Do they get upset of do they adapt quite well?

A: I agree that a lot of people are incredibly lax about making proper arrangements for their pet cats when they are going on holidays. Two recent examples spring to mind.

Twice over the last few weeks a cat was brought to my surgery having been picked up by two separate individuals who found him wandering around the roads crying plaintively. As it happened, I recognised him immediately on both occasions due to his unusual markings. On both occasions it took us some days to contact the owners as they were away and he was left in the care of neighbours. The second time he came in I was shocked by his condition. He was so thin and weak from lack of food that he actually wobbled as he walked. He attacked the food produced by his finder and then had violent diarrhoea because his stomach could not cope with such rich food after a prolonged fast. As it was during the very hot weather he was also slightly dehydrated – he was wandering the streets in search of food and water.

Another much loved ginger cat was left “in the care of neighbours” and was well fed twice a day, but their caring stopped at that. He wandered the district during the day obviously searching for his owners or someone to pet him and talk to him. He was unfortunately attacked by magpies and suffered a nasty wound over the middle of his spine, just beyond the reach of his tongue. As so often happens in the hot summer months, flies laid eggs in the wound and a week or so later he was presented to me by another neighbour who just happened to notice it – with a deep wound alive with fly larvae.

In both of these cases the cats were saved by the fortuitous interventions of caring strangers who brought them to my surgery for attention. I kept both cats until the owners returned and I am quite sure that both of them will be put into boarding kennels next time the owners go away.

Many more cats are less lucky. They wander off, confused and distressed by the total absence of the people who normally feed and care for them. They have no way of knowing that their absence is a temporary situation. The bond between cat and owner is very strong. The cat sees you as its mother providing sustenance and petting in place of its original mother. It feels totally helpless when you suddenly disappear and its whole routine goes haywire. Even if a neighbour pops in to give food and drinks, your cat will not settle – (s)he must also be given time, talking to, petting, play etc. Otherwise (s)he will become stressed and tend to wander further from home than usual, or even leave forever, feeling that there is nothing left to hold him/her there. Obviously (s)he will then be in danger from crossing busy roads, being chased and attacked by other cats and by dogs, being picked up and manhandled by children, or even being taken into another home where the presence of caring people will temp him/her to stay.

I find that cats adapt very well to a spell in a boarding cattery. There is a routine there which they seem to like. They get to know exactly when meals, are due, when the kennels will be cleaned out and they get their run around. Once they have their individual kennel space they seem to feel very secure in it.

It is important that the people working in the cattery love cats and understand them. Cats need plenty of talking to and should be called by their own names and petted a lot. Cats who seem very stressed on arrival have usually settled in well within 24 – 48 hours. It has been my experience that what upsets them is more the sight of other cats than the strange environment or people. It is therefore important that kennel gates be recessed and that the kennels are facing a wall or window rather than another row of kennels. In this way, the cat feels at home in its own kennel and does not have to worry about establishing a ‘pecking order’ with the other boarders. Also, at exercise time, they soon learn that when it is their turn to have the run of the room or the exercise area they will not have to come face to face with another cat and fight their comer. Owners are often amazed at how slow their cats are to come out of their cosy kennel and say hello on their return. They are comfortable, well fed and secure. It has been an enjoyable holiday and change of scenery for the cats as much as for the owners.

Q:Earmites seem to be present in almost all cats. How serious a problem are they and how can the mites be dealt with?

A: Otodectes Cynotis and Notoedris Cati are two mites which can occur in the ears of cats – Otodectes being the most common. They are just visible to the naked eye, appearing as tiny white moving specks among the wax and debris of the affected ear. The Otodectes mites spend all their time in the ears of their host, whereas Notoedris can affect the skin of the ear flaps and head and sometimes, in very severe cases in young cats, can spread all over the body causing Notoedric mange.

The mites feed on epidermal debris – bits of dead skin shed into the ear canal. Unlike in dogs which show signs of severe irritation early on following infection, cats are often at an advanced stage before clinical signs are evident. The mites lay single eggs which develop into adults in just three weeks. The clinical signs include shaking of the head, scratching at the head and neck, and on examination the ears are found to contain a dry, waxy brown debris in which the mites are living and feeding. It is a very commonplace infection and is very easily spread by contact between mother and kittens and between adults sharing the same household.

Whereas many cats tolerate the presence of the mites up to an advanced stage of infection, they will eventually succumb to the fairly serious outcome of chronic aural irritation. Constant shaking of the head can lead to aural haematomas – bleeding from a blood vessel into the ear flap which requires surgical correction. Secondary bacterial infections may develop leading to an inflammation of the ear with the presence of pus which may in turn lead to the rupture of the tympanic membrane or ear drum which can lead to a much more serious middle or inner ear infection with possible loss of balance and deafness.

It is therefore important to treat all ear mite infestations as early and as thoroughly as possible. It is essential that your vet cleans out all the wax and debris from the affected ear to allow the medication access to the whole ear canal. An insectidal liquid is then instilled into both ear canals on a daily basis. It is most important that treatment includes all animals in the household and that it is continued for three to four weeks as eggs present in the ear will not be killed by the drops. If these eggs hatch out after treatment has stopped, the infestation will start all over again.

Q: Kidney problems seem to be very common in older cats. I feel that such cats are often taken to a vet for euthanasia far too soon. At what stage in this illness would you feel that it is advisable to euthanase the cat?

A: The most common condition affecting the kidney in older cats is chronic nephritis – or chronic renal failure. The disease process is progressive and irreversible and involves gradual destruction of the functional units of the kidneys – the nephrons. Fortunately, the kidneys have a large reserve capacity and over 70% of functional nephrons have to fail before renal failure becomes evident. Cats can survive for several years before this insidious disease progresses to a state where there is so little functional kidney tissue left that the cat goes into total kidney failure and cannot live.

The clinical signs of this disease are: weight loss; polydipsia/polyuria (excess thirst and drinking of water and excess passage of urine); reduced appetite with possible vomiting in the later stages; anaemia; reduced kidney size; uraemia (increased levels of urea in bloodstream and its excretion through the mucous membranes of the mouth, stomach and gut which can result in mouth ulceration, nausea and diarrhoea);dehydration due to loss of control of fluid balance in the body. These symptoms will be mild at first but will get progressively worse as the condition progresses.

They can be controlled to some extent through controlling the diet, increasing water intake and supplying vitamins. Low protein diets using protein of high biological value (chicken, white fish, egg, milk, cheese etc.) which lead to less urea production and increased consumption of water to compensate for fluid losses help to keep many of the clinical symptoms at bay for quite a long time. However, a stage will inevitably be reached when the cat’s own fluid balance mechanisms will fail and he/she will become dehydrated.

Loss of appetite is also a big problem and the cat’s own body tissues will be broken down to supply the calories the cat needs to function. This leads to severe weight loss. At this stage, a few days on a drip with B vitamin injections daily can pull the cat back from the brink and allow him/her to continue for several more months. There are also steroid injections which can help the cat preserve his/her body weight so long as he/she is still eating a reasonable amount of food.

Deciding if and when to euthanise such a cat can be quite a difficult decision to make. It must be made by the owner in consultation with the cat’s vet. Diagnosis of chronic renal failure should not necessitate any sense of urgency, though it is a progressive disease with very poor long term prognosis. Until the later stages when total kidney failure occurs, the cat can live a normal life and suffer very little if any discomfort. In the later stages, blood urea tests are a good indicator of the degree of kidney function. The cat will need hospitalisation for a couple of days every few months towards the end to restore his/her fluid balance. Or it may be arranged to take him/her in each morning and home each evening.

A stage will finally be reached when the cat will lose all interest in food and drink and become dehydrated and severely depressed. If he/she fails to respond to a drip and becomes progressively more depressed, nauseous and dehydrated; it will become evident to both owner and vet that the stage has been reached where the quality and dignity of life is at an end and euthanasia may be the only alternative. I must add that the level of care and interest of the owner is a vital factor in prolonging such a cat’s life. The owner must also co-operate with veterinary advice regarding diet, fluids etc. and must be able to monitor changes in the cat’s demeanour, appetite etc. that may warrant further veterinary intervention.

It can be very rewarding for a caring owner to help extend the life of a much loved cat by quite a considerable time, and it certainly eases the sense of loss and sadness when the end inevitably comes if one has nursed an animal along and given it the best possible chance to live on in comfort after the diagnosis of a terminal illness.

Q: People moving to accommodation where cats are not allowed are sometimes persuaded to get older cats put down rather than find new homes for them. Do older cats settle in satisfactorily?

A: This is something we come across frequently in Cats Aid, but in my experience old cats will adapt very quickly to a new routine once some thought and care are put into the situation. The cat may pine for a few days and fail to socialise with its new owner, hiding away behind furniture etc. It may not eat or drink for a few days. But if the new owner is patient and understanding and does not try to overwhelm the cat with attempts at petting and feeding before the cat is ready for it, there will be a gradual adjustment which will inevitably lead to the cat’s adapting successfully to its new environment. Some people think that it is “kinder” to put such cats down, but I do not agree. A short spell of adjustment to a new home, with all its attendant stresses, must surely be preferable to the cat’s losing out on several years of quality life. We must remember that all animals’ strongest of instincts are to survive – to hold on to the precious life that they have. Cats are very good at adapting to changing circumstances and should be given the chance to do so.

Cats’ Aid has rehomed several such cases over the last couple of years and no rehoming has been unsuccessful – in fact, quite the opposite.