As cat people we often hear weird and wonderful old wives’ tales about things related to cats. Here are ten myths that are dispelled:
Myth 1: Dry food causes kidney problems
“Contrary to popular belief, dry foods do not play a role in causing kidney disease.”
This is a common example of a tale that is false, but based upon some misplaced facts.
Dry cat foods do not, and never have, played a part in causing kidney problems. It is now recognised that they may have contributed towards causing Feline Urological Syndrome (FUS), an inflammation of the lower urinary tract that causes signs such as straining to urinate, and sometimes even urinary obstruction.
The role of diet in causing this troublesome problem was not fully appreciated, and some of the early dry cat food products were excessively high in the minerals that encouraged crystalline deposits to form in the urine, and so spark off the problem. The acidity of the urine that the cat produces as a result of eating the food can also influence the formation of urinary crystals, and modern dry cat foods are now specifically formulated to minimise the problem. However, if a cat is known to be prone to FUS, maximising water intake is an important part of preventing recurrence, and dry foods should only be feed on veterinary advice.
Myth 2: Fleas are only a summer problem
“Artificial warmth, such as central heating, can often create a surge in flea cases.”
A false premise based upon a grain of truth. The adult flea lives on the coat of the cat and feeds by sucking his blood. But the eggs drop off and develop into tiny maggot-like larvae that feed on the ground, and then into a cocoon or pupa, which can lay dormant for many months until the conditions are right for a young flea to break out and seek its unsuspecting meal.
The life cycle if completed more quickly when the weather is warm, and will cease completely in cold weather. If our cats lived outdoors all the time, this would indeed mean that fleas were solely a summer problems, but since almost all cats live in a snug, artificially heated and insulated environment, fleas are pretty common all year round.
In fact, we often see a resurgence of them in a home where the central heating is first switched on in the winter.
Myth 3: Cats don’t feel pain
“It can be hard to tell whether a cat is feeling pain.”
This ‘old wives’ tale has come about because cats often seem to react very stoically to severe injury, and this is interpreted as not feeling pain. It is primarily because cats simply react differently, tending to hide away quietly and withdraw from social contact, sometimes becoming more aggressive when handled. This is very different to a dog, which will usually whimper or yelp, and demand attention from its owner. Pain is a very personal experience so it is always difficult to be categorical about what an animal is feeling.
Nowadays, vets are much more aware of the issue than they used to be and give painkillers whenever there is a suspicion that the patient is in pain. The beneficial response that they often show to such treatment reinforces the case that cats are, in fact, very sensitive to pain. And don’t let any old wife tell you to give a cat an aspirin or a paracetamol, or pretty much any other human painkiller as they can be very toxic to cats.
Myth 4: Cats need milk
“The older cat cannot digest sugars found in milk.”
Actually, this is one old wives’ tale that does seem to be on the way out. Although the archetypal cat is supposed to love drinking milk and/or cream, they lose the ability to digest milk sugars as they mature, and so undigested milk residues will tend to ferment within the bowel and cause diarrhoea. There is no sound nutritional reason for cats to drink milk, providing they are otherwise receiving a well-balanced diet.
Myth 5: Female cats should be allowed to have at least one litter
“Neutering is often a safer option and keeps the feline population under control.”
While most old wives’ tales are relatively harmless, this one has unfortunately led to many unwanted litters of kittens over the years. There is no long-term benefit to a cat from having a litter. The neutering operation is simpler and carries less surgical risk if it is carried out before a female cat has her first season. If left unneutered, a cat will continue to call frantically during the mating season, only ceasing when she has been mated or the season passes.
If allowed to mate freely, she will quickly become a kitten-factory, which is bad for feline population control and bad for her own health status.
Myth 6: Cats don’t need to have annual vaccine boosters as they get older
“Giving your cat an annual ‘vaccine review’ assesses the overall health of your cat.”
Once again, this is based upon some partly factual information. As a cat gets older, he does tend to become more resistant to viral infections, particularly if he is out and about and boosting his immunity by being exposed to small doses of infection. Feline leukaemia virus in particular, is very unlikely to infect an older cat, and those that are infected have usually been carrying it for a long time.
However, cat flu is both common and readily able to infect a susceptible animal of any age, and an elderly cat is likely to be far more badly affected than a younger and more robust one. The annual health check that is associated with the vaccination booster also becomes of increasing importance as a cat ages. Most vets now recommend an annual ‘vaccine review’ to assess the overall health and lifestyle of the cat, and then recommend whichever vaccine is most suitable.
Myth 7: Fresh food is best
“Cats love fish but cat food provides a more balanced diet.”
This is one old wives’ tale which is instinctive; ‘fresh must be best’. After all, cats don’t eat their food out of tins in the wild. Well, in the wild, cats will eat about a dozen mice a day, and while it is true that a complete mouse carcass, including bones, internal organs and bowel contents, adds up to a pretty ideal nutritional package for a young and healthy cat, not many owners wish to feed rodent à la carte to their beloved moggy.
Fresh meat is a different matter altogether, being much higher in protein, lower in fibre and fundamentally deficient in certain key vitamins and minerals. Producing a fresh diet that is perfectly balanced in all the nutrients that a cat needs at its specific life stage is possible, but far from straightforward.
It is probable that the widespread use of high quality complete cat foods, designed to an individual cat’s particular style of life, has done more than any other single measure to improve the length and quality of our cats’ lives.
Myth 8: Herbal remedies are safer than conventional ones
“It is very dangerous to make the assumption that herbal remedies are safe to use in cats.”
This is a very common misconception. Homoeopathic remedies cannot be criticised as being unsafe by those of us that have no faith in their action, as scientifically the remedies are so dilute that no active ingredient can be detected within them. Although homoeopathic remedies often have similar names to herbs, herbal remedies are fundamentally different in that they do contain active ingredients that just happen to be derived from plants rather than chemically. They have been used in human and veterinary medicine for thousands of years and the efficacy of at least some of them is beyond doubt. But it is very dangerous to assume that a herbal treatment is safe to use in cats, just because it is natural. This is particularly true of products that are known to be safe in humans, or other species of animal, as the cat is notorious for reacting unpredictable ways to many drugs.
Myth 9: Insurance is only for the well off
“Insurance can help avoid heavy vet bills.”
Actually, this is not so much an old wives’ tale as more of a common fallacy. A lot of people do say ‘I cannot afford pet insurance.’ This is somewhat ironic, as it is precisely the person on a low income that needs pet insurance the most, particularly if they are not receiving benefits that may entitle them to subsidised treatment at the PDSA.
The individual who has money to spare in the bank is going to be perfectly able to cope with any sudden unexpected veterinary fees, and yet they are the people that most commonly tend to be insured. It is certainly worth seeking out the best value when money is tight, and one of the single year, no frills policies may be significantly cheaper than one that offers cover for life and a lot of additional extras.
Myth 10: Cats can see in the dark
“A cat’s pupil can open wide enough to catch any glimmer of light, which makes their night vision better than ours.”
It is certainly true that cats’ eyes are far better at seeing the low light levels than humans, and indeed many other animal species, but they still need light to see. The light sensitive retina at the back of the eye is packed with black and white sensors called ‘rods’, rather than cones, which detect colour, but are much less effective in low light levels (which is why we see things in black and white at night, when our own rods come into their own).
Other feline adaptation to low light levels include a light-reflecting layer at the back of the eye (which gives the glowing ‘cat’s eye’ effect at night), and a relatively large eyeball with a pupil that can open very wide to capture the maximum amount of light. Strictly speaking, cats are not nocturnal animals, which are active in the depth of the night, but are crepuscular, which means that they are designed to do most of their hunting at dusk and dawn.