Discover why following some widely held beliefs can harm your pet
Whether you're a longtime cat lover or a new owner, what you think you know about these fascinating animals may be wrong. "You're bringing the wild inside with cats. That's why there's so much we haven't yet figured out," says Marty Becker, DVM, author of and veterinarian for . Here are eight of the most common misconceptions about cats and the truths behind them
While you may think your cat would love to get back to its hunter roots, it's risky to let your cat outside alone. Indoor cats live three-and-a-half times longer than outdoor cats, says Becker. "Outdoor cats are subject to infections, parasites and injuries from dogs, coyotes, large birds of prey, cars and other cats," says Roy Smith, DVM, a vet at in Round Rock, TX, and president-elect of the . "It's simply not safe for them to roam alone."
What you can do: Take your cat outside on a leash and harness—they can walk on a leash if you're patient and consistent. Or set up an outdoor screened enclosure or run, a safe space for pouncing on bugs and feeling grass on their toes.
Not exactly, though there is a phenomenon called "high-rise syndrome," which refers to cats that plummet from many stories up and survive. "During a fall, cats rotate their head to face the ground and spiral the rest of the body," says Dr. Becker. "They spread out like a flying squirrel and relax their muscles before landing so they distribute the impact over four points." But that may not occur if a cat doesn't have enough distance to right itself. The most dangerous falls are those from two to six stories in height. Tumbles from short distances, such as off a dresser, can also injure pets.
What you can do: Keep windows without screens closed. Test window screens to make sure your cat can't push through them, and forbid balcony access. Block spots in your home that aren't safe for your cat to climb on, such as a wobbly or narrow shelf. Also, use a breakaway collar, which pulls apart or slips off instead of staying intact and choking your pet if the collar catches on something during a fall.
Your cat may lap it up eagerly, but milk isn't a good idea for the majority of cats. "Most cats are lactose-intolerant," says Ilona Rodan, DVM, owner and medical director of the in Madison, WI. "They get diarrhea from milk, and they can also develop bladder stones if they get too much calcium."
What you can do: There's absolutely no nutritional reason to give cats cow's milk. And kittens in the wild don't drink milk after they're weaned (in fact, most cats become lactose-intolerant around 12 weeks of age). If you absolutely can't resist giving your cat a special treat, ask your vet if cat drinks such as CatSip or Whiskas Catmilk are OK for your pet.
While cats do purr when they're content, they also purr when they're nervous, injured, giving birth, nursing or trying to communicate. "It's a way of creating and conveying comfort for themselves and others," says Dr. Becker. We can't tell the difference between a happy purr and a stressed purr unless we know a situation is inherently nerve-racking, such as a vet visit.
What to do: Pick up your purring pets: They're comforting to touch and hold. If you suspect your cat purrs because he's anxious, ask your vet about , a synthetic version of the pheromones cats use to mark safe territory (that's why they rub against your legs!). Spritz it on yourself, in the car or in your cat's carrier.
You can still cuddle Fluffy if you're expecting or trying to conceive. But you may need to change your cat-care routine. Here's why: Toxoplasmosis, an illness cats get from eating infected rodents, birds or other animals, can harm a developing baby. Since sick, though symptomless, cats pass the parasite on in their feces, "there's a slight risk of contracting toxoplasmosis from cleaning the litter box," says Dr. Smith. Luckily, it's easy to minimize the threat.
What to do: Keep your cat indoors so he can't eat infected animals. If you're pregnant, put someone else on litter-box duty, or wear disposable gloves and wash your hands if you keep cleaning it. Most importantly, change the litter daily. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the parasite doesn't become infectious until 24 hours after it's shed in waste.
"In the last decade, we've learned about the best living environment for cats," says Dr. Rodan. "They need daily enrichment from mental and physical activity to stay healthy and happy."
What to do: Challenge your cat's mind by placing bird feeders outside of windows so he can watch unpredictable scenes unfold. Provide cat towers, perches or steady shelves for climbing. Set out scratching posts and different kinds of toys, and play with your cat every day. If you're able, consider getting two cats (preferably siblings, which increases their chances of bonding) so they'll have companionship. Another idea: Instead of setting out a food bowl, put out puzzle feeders, such as an empty paper-towel roll, so cats have to "hunt" for food like they would in the wild. You could also measure out and toss kibbles while you're at the computer or watching TV, or hide small stashes throughout the house.
Cats seem to know instinctively how to use the litter box. But that's not as far as cat training can go. "Cats are intelligent. People just go about teaching them the wrong way," says Dr. Rodan. "They don't respond to physical punishment or yelling. You have to reward the positive."
What to do: If your cat starts scratching the furniture, for example, redirect his attention to the cat post. Try putting some catnip on the post (though not all cats respond; an affinity for catnip is inherited), and then give a favorite treat. Or teach basic commands such as "sit" with clicker training: Use a device that makes clicking noises in time with your commands, and then reward with a much-loved treat after your cat does what you want. The clicker helps cats learn to associate something they like (a treat) with what you're asking them to do (sit). Keep training sessions to five minutes or less, and don't give up.
Unfortunately, cats visit the vet less frequently than dogs, which means many suffer from preventable conditions such as dental disease and parasites. Some vets suspect that lots of sick cats go untreated because their owners don't realize they're ailing. "Cats disguise illness and injury because they can't show they're vulnerable in nature or they become prey," says Dr. Becker. And some deadly illnesses, such as heart or kidney disease, have no visible symptoms. Those routine vet visits can save your cat's life.
What to do: Take young, healthy cats to the vet once a year; cats eight years old and up or those with chronic health issues need to go at least twice a year. All cats, even those who never leave the house, need parasite protection, since fleas, ticks and mosquitoes that transmit heartworm, which can be fatal, can get indoors and infect your pet.