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Cat 101: The basics of living with and caring for cats

Cats are wonderful companions and they can bring many years of fun, joy and unconditional love to your home. But before you bring home a cat, there are some things you need to consider.

First, are you ready for a cat? Do you live in a place where cats are allowed? Can you afford the veterinary care your cat needs in order to stay healthy? Will your other animals and human housemates be able to tolerate a new cat? Are you willing to commit to a relationship that can last well over 10 years?

Second, what kind of cat do you want? Would you like to rescue a cat from a local animal shelter, or do you want a purebreed? Do you want a kitten or an adult cat? A male or a female?

If you adopt a kitten, make sure he or she is at least 8 weeks old. Kittens are not fully weaned until they are 8 weeks old. A kitten younger than that will need a lot of extra help to grow healthy and strong.

Before you bring your cat home, make sure you have all the basics. You will need a litter box, cat litter, cat food and dishes for food and water. Avoid plastic dishes; they tend to get scratches that trap food particles and odors. Stainless steel or ceramic dishes are best.

You will need a cat carrier to bring the cat home and for safe travel to vet appointments. Make sure you have a variety of toys for your cat to play with. You can buy a cat bed, too, but your cat will be quite content with a cardboard box lined with a pillow and a nice, soft fleece blanket.

Find a veterinarian before you bring your cat home. Ask cat-owning friends or co-workers who their vet is and what they like about him or her. Visit the vet clinic yourself to check out the environment. If you call ahead, you may be able to talk to the veterinarian for a few minutes.

Once you bring your cat home, make an appointment with your vet for a checkup. If you adopt your pet from a shelter, you may get a voucher for a free “well cat” exam from an area veterinarian. This is a good chance for you to get to know the vet and for your vet to get to know your cat.

Your vet is the second most important person in your cat’s life, so it’s very important that you feel good about your veterinarian and how he or she treats your cat. It’s also important that you feel you can ask questions and get answers, and that your vet treats you well, too.

When it comes to veterinary treatment, there are two things you must do: Get your cat vaccinated and have your cat spayed or neutered.

Maine law requires that all cats be vaccinated against rabies. Veterinarians also recommend that cats be immunized against feline leukemia and distemper. If your cat is going to be indoor-only, your vet may tell you that the leukemia vaccination is optional. Your vet may recommend other vaccinations, but rabies, distemper and leukemia are the “big three.”

Have your cat spayed or neutered. This simple procedure will help you avoid unpleasant problems like urine spraying, fighting, roaming, yowling and calling of female cats in heat, and unwanted kittens. Unspayed female cats have an increased risk of cancer of the uterus and mammary glands. Many people don’t have their cats spayed because they can’t afford the surgery, but financial assistance is available (see sidebar).

Please don’t have your cat declawed. Declawing is more than just “clipping the toenails.” The whole first joint of each toe is amputated. It’s like having the tips of all your fingers cut off. The recovery from the surgery is long and painful. Train your cat to use a scratching post and learn how to trim your cat’s claws, and you will be able to avoid scratching-related problems.

Give your cat the highest quality food you can afford. Good nutrition is the key to good health. Cats generally prefer a mix of dry food and canned food. Make sure you feed your cat the amount recommended on the label. If you feed your cat too much, it will become obese and can suffer from health problems like diabetes. Feeding your cat too little will result in health problems of other kinds.

Spend time with your cats. Cats are not the solitary creatures they were once thought to be. In order to be happy and healthy, they need companionship and love. Play with your cat a couple of times a day using a “thing on a string” toy. Move it around as if it’s a mouse or an insect, and watch your Mighty Hunter massacre it again and again. Cuddle with your kitty and learn where he or she likes to be petted. There’s nothing as heart-warming as the sound of a contented cat’s purr.

Learn about cat care by reading books by cat experts or consulting cat-related Web sites. Think Like a Cat: How to Raise a Well-Adjusted Cat, Not a Sour Puss by Pam Johnson-Bennett has lots of information on feeding, training and taking care of your cat.

CatSmart: The Ultimate Guide to Understanding, Caring for, and Living with Your Cat by Myrna Milani, D.V.M., is a great book to help you figure out whether a cat is for you and what kind of cat might best suit your lifestyle. There are sections at the end of each chapter for potential owners to think about important questions regarding veterinary issues, personality issues, and much more.

Adopting a cat is a long-term commitment. The average lifespan of a well cared-for cat is 12 to 16 years. Once you adopt your cat friend, be prepared to consider your cat in everything you do. You will have to live in animal-friendly housing, be prepared to pay for unexpected medical costs, arrange for animal care if you go away on trips, and so on. But the rewards are well worth the effort.

SIDEBAR: Financial assistance for spaying and neutering

HELP! FIX ME is Maine’s low-cost spay/neuter program. If you receive or are eligible for one of the programs below, you can have your cat fixed for $10 and your dog fixed for $20:

  • Food stamps
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
  • Social Security Disability (SSD)
  • MaineCare (Medicaid)

To apply for HELP! FIX ME, call toll-free, 1-800-367-1317.

HELP! FIX ME is funded through voluntary contributions from Maine state income taxes. To contribute, select the Companion Animal Sterilization Fund check-off on your Maine state tax return. You can also make a donation, payable to Treasurer, State of Maine and designate it for HELP! FIX ME. Mail it to Animal Welfare Program, 28 State House Station, Augusta, ME 04333.

(This article originally appeared in the October 12, 2006, Your Pet supplement, published by Courier Publications and inserted in six newspapers distributed throughout coastal Maine.)