Masters of Disguise
Cats are among the world’s top predators. Part of their success at hunting lies in their ability to stay hidden – camouflaged and out of site of their prey. They are secretive by nature and are truly masters of disguise. But while cats may be talented at keeping themselves hidden, they are also excellent at hiding signs of illness. This quality has evolved over millennia to prevent potential predators from detecting weakness or vulnerability. A cat that advertises the fact that he is sick or injured may end up as a tasty little snack himself!
This natural tendency of cats to hide their symptoms is one of the greatest challenges facing veterinarians and cat owners alike. It is why cats are taken to the veterinarian only half as frequently as dogs; it is why cats are often in a more advanced stage of disease when they do get there; and it is why many cats never get taken to the vet at all. Sad news indeed for all of us with a special fondness for felines.
The Benefit of an Annual Veterinary Exam
Cats can seem self-sufficient and they certainly have a reputation for being independent or even aloof. In truth, our pet cats are highly dependent on us for everything: nutritious food, water, a safe and stimulating environment, play and social interactions, exercise, and health care. The annual exam is the perfect opportunity to evaluate all of these factors that contribute to your cat’s health and well-being. What an excellent way to spend 20 minutes of your time!
History in the Making
Your cat’s annual health exam includes a detailed history-taking. This involves your veterinarian (or veterinary technician) gathering data about your cat’s day-to-day routine, diet, environment, behaviour, and signs of illness. An accurate medical history is a vital part of the veterinary visit. Consider making a list of any particular concerns or questions you may have and bringing it with you. Your vet will appreciate your efficiency and it will help ensure you get the most out of your appointment.
It’s Not Just About the ‘Shots’
Historically, veterinary exams were centered around annual vaccinations. While this is no longer the main focus of the annual visit, vaccinations remain an essential and effective means for preventing infectious diseases, some of which are life threatening to cats (feline panleukopenia, or ‘distemper’ virus) or people (rabies virus). The vaccines recommended for your cat will depend upon many factors, including where in the world you live, your cat’s age, health status, previous vaccinations, life-style (indoors only vs indoors/outdoors), and environment (one vs multicat household; visits to a boarding kennel). The frequency of vaccination will depend upon the vaccine duration of immunity, your cat’s risk of contracting the disease, and the zoonotic potential of the disease (i.e., whether or not it poses a risk to humans).
While it may take only a few minutes, your veterinarian obtains a staggering amount of information about your cat’s health during the physical exam. Most veterinarians follow a strict routine while examining their patients – in this way they don’t overlook any part of their patient.
Here is the sort of information your veterinarian will obtain during a nose-to-tail examination of your cat:
- Weight and body condition score are noted and compared to previous records to check for weight gain or loss.
- Eyes, ears, nose are examined closely for discharge, irritation, infection, or injury.
- The cat’s oral cavity is checked for abnormal odour, ulcers or growths, broken or painful teeth, the presence of periodontal disease, and the colour and health of the gums.
- Superficial lymph nodes are palpated for size, shape, and pain. Abnormalities may be due to inflammation in the area of the body that these nodes drain, tumours, or infectious diseases.
- In mature and senior cats the throat area is checked for an enlarged thyroid gland and blood pressure may be measured.
- The chest is examined using a stethoscope to detect abnormal heart sounds (murmur, irregular heart beat) and lung sounds. The stethoscope can also be used to listen to the abdomen and throat areas.
- Abdominal palpation can often detect abnormalities of the liver, kidneys, intestines, pancreas, and bladder. Pain, abnormal size, and abnormal position of abdominal organs may indicate disease. Some abdominal tumours can be detected by abdominal palpation.
- The skin, hair coat, and claws often reflects a cat’s overall health. The skin is examined for lumps, scabs, wounds, abscesses, and hair loss. Skin parasites are common and include fleas, ticks, lice, and mites.
- The cat’s musculoskeletal system is checked for weakness and muscle wasting, joint pain, lameness, and stiffness.
- A neurological exam can detect weakness in one or more limbs, unequal pupil size, difficulty swallowing, and abnormal behaviour.
- Pain in any location can be detected by light palpation over the cat’s entire body surface.
Based on the results of your cat’s history and physical exam, diagnostic testing- such as blood and urine tests – may be recommended. Consider these to be an extension of the physical exam, giving the veterinarian more detailed information on the health of your cat’s organ systems.
Prevention is the Best Medicine
Your cat’s annual exam is designed to help prevent disease and detect illness at its earliest stage before it becomes more difficult (and costly) to treat. Appropriate vaccinations, parasite control, good nutrition, behaviour counselling, and knowing how to provide a healthy environment for your cat all go a long way to ensuring your cat lives a long, healthy, and happy life. Your veterinarian will be happy to discuss all of these issues with you during your cat’s annual visit.
Take Your Cat to the Vet Day (August 22) is all about raising awareness of the need for regular health care for this naturally secretive animal. When was last the time you took your cat to the vet?
[Dr. Glenys Hughes]
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