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Common Pests

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Give your cat an MOT
By Carina Norris

Don't leave your cat's health to your vet - there's a lot that we cat owners can do to keep our pets healthy. Here are some simple checks and procedures to incorporate into your routine:

Handling

If your cat has a laid-back attitude to being handled, it will be easier to groom him, clean his teeth, clip his nails, give him any necessary medication - in fact, all of the procedures in this article! It will also make visits to the vet, whether for check-ups and vaccinations or for medical treatment, less traumatic for all concerned.

Kittens that are 'socialised' with humans early on generally grow up to be confident and friendly around humans. As the socialisation needs to begin when the kitten is only around eight weeks old, this is generally the responsibility of the owner of the kitten's mother, so check when you buy a kitten that he has been handled gently and regularly. When you get your kitten home, you should continue to stroke and handle him, to ensure that he grows up into a gentle, well-mannered cat.

Grooming

Although cats are meticulous about keeping themselves clean, they benefit from a little human help.

Get your cat used to grooming from an early age - you should both enjoy it - by brushing him with a soft cat brush. During grooming, you should also check your cat's coat for fleas, as well as any sore, bald or scaly patches, wounds, lumps or bumps that might need veterinary attention.

Use a specially designed cat brush and/or comb, and remove dead hair from it frequently.

It is particularly important to groom longhaired cats, as without this help they will develop knots and matts - particularly at the 'armpits' and 'leg-pits' and around their chins. These can tug on the skin as the cat moves, and are very painful. If matts become too large, they need to be removed under general anaesthetic, by a vet.

Grooming is particularly important when cats are moulting, because, if they are not removed, dead hairs will be swallowed when the cat licks himself, and swallowed hairs can lead to hairballs in the digestive system.

Flea treatment

There is now a bewildering variety of flea treatments available, and you should treat your cat as a preventative measure - before he starts scratching. You can choose from sprays, collars and powders to spot-on treatments (where a drop is put on the cat's coat at a place where he cannot lick) and a liquid (called Program) which is put into the cat's food which stops the fleas' breeding cycle in its tracks. Program is also available as an injection from the vet, which provides six months' protection from fleas.

Flea spraying a cat is best carried out as a two-person task - one to hold the cat still, and the other to spray - make sure you don't miss any bits! The hissing sound of aerosol sprays frightens many cats, so if your cat doesn't like them, try a pump spray (available from the PetPlanet shop) or one of the other methods.

The most effective treatments are only available from veterinary surgeries and it is best to ask your vet for advice when choosing. Dosage for many treatments is calculated by weight. Some treatments cannot be used on tiny kittens, so check before using.

Remember that only a small proportion of a flea's life is spent actually on the cat, so you will also need to treat your carpets, upholstery and your cat's bedding with a special 'household' flea treatment, to kill any lurking flea eggs, larvae or pupae. Never use household treatments on the cat.

Worms

All cats should be wormed, especially those which catch birds and small mammals, as they can easily pick up these parasites in their prey.

Tapeworms and roundworms are the internal parasites most likely to bother cats, and can be simply prevented and cured by the many cat worming treatments on the market. These are available as tablets, pastes and powders which are mixed in the food and, like many flea treatments, the dosage depends on the cat's weight.

Ask your vet to recommend a wormer and advise you on the dosage and frequency.

Weighing

Weigh your cat every two or three weeks - not only is this useful if you need to calculate a dosage of medication that depends on weight, you can also check whether your pet is gaining or losing weight, both of which could indicate that a trip to the vet is in order. Underweight cats may be ill, and overweight cats need to be placed on a diet. Do not be tempted to devise a slimming diet for your cat - this must be left to the experts - ask your vet for advice.

Tiny kittens can be weighed on kitchen scales, padded with a flannel so that the kitten is comfortable and does not slip.

To weigh an adult cat, weigh yourself first on bathroom scales, then pick up the cat and weigh both of you together - the cat's weight is the difference between the two weights.

Feel your cat around his ribcage - if the ribs can be felt easily he is probably too thin; if you can't feel them at all he is probably overweight. Ideally, you should just be able to feed the ribs.

Claw clipping

Like human fingernails, cats' claws grow constantly and - if they are not worn down by walking on hard surfaces or using a scratching post, they may become overgrown - because of this, indoor cats' claws are more likely to grow too long than those of cats that roam outside.

Many cats never need their claws clipped, but if yours does, it is possible to do this at home.

Never use human nail scissors or clippers, as these can crush the claw painfully - use special dcat claw clippers. If the cat will not sit still, wrap him in an old towel with only his head and the paw you are working on protruding, to stop him from struggling.

If your cat has particularly hairy feet, first you will have to find the claws! Then, press the paw pad gently, and the cat's claws will unsheathe. Clip off the sharp tip of the nail, being very careful not to nick the 'quick', the vein that runs down the vein, as this will bleed alarmingly. This hurts, the nail could also become infected.

If your cat wriggles and struggles and you are afraid of hurting him, your vet or a veterinary nurse can clip his claws for him.

Remember that cats have four 'finger' claws on their front paws and a 'thumb' slightly further up each front leg. There are only four claws on each hind leg.

Paw checking

Even if your cat's claws do not need clipping, you should still check his paws every few days, especially if he goes outdoors. Look for any sore places, cuts, scratches, or any small stones or thorns in or between the pads.

Teeth cleaning

Dental disease is a serious problem in cats, and most cats of four or five years old already have some problems with their teeth and/or gums.

Sadly, cleaning a cat's teeth is far from easy! Cats hate having anything forcibly put in their mouths, and will fight violently.

Your best chance of success is to train the cat from kittenhood to accept the toothbrush - you can buy toothbrushes specially designed for cats. Don't be too concerned about cleaning the teeth at first, the idea is to get the kitten happy with the idea.

If your cat simply won't allow you to clean his teeth, your vet will probably recommend that his teeth are scaled and polished at the veterinary surgery every few years. This is obviously less desirable than keeping the teeth clean yourself, as the cat has to have a general anaesthetic for the procedure.

Never use human toothpaste for your pet - buy one specially for cats. Cats cannot spit toothpaste out, and the foaming agents in human toothpastes can be toxic to them.

Eyes and ears

Take a look at your cats eyes and ears when grooming, and give them a thorough home examination every week.

Are the eyes clear, and not watery? Are the ears clean, and free from wax? Does the cat shake his head or scratch his ears?

You can wipe away wax from your cat's ear using a cotton wool pad or specially formulated wipes, but never be tempted to poke anything into your cat's ears. Only clean the parts of the ear that you can see.

Check for loss of appetite

If your cat stops eating or drinking, or becomes hungrier or thirstier than usual, this could be a sign of illness, so consult your vet.

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