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Cat Care and Feeding -- The Easy Way

By Gary Michael Smith

Just like a human loved one, your feline family member may occasionally require your own form of in-house hospice care as a result of injury or illness. This situation can be traumatic not only to your buddy but also stressful to you, the caregiver. But it doesn't have to be either.

After years of co-habitating with cats of various sizes, shapes, breeds, and ages, I've had to attend to everything from wound care to subcutaneous rehydration, from force-feeding to liquid and pill dispensing.

This article provides suggestions on how to perform such tasks as administering medication in pill and liquid form, force-feeding, bathing, transporting, and grooming quickly, easily, and with the least amount of stress to you and your animal.

Administering Medication

Occasionally, you may find it necessary to give your cat medication-either periodically or on a continual basis. Although they dislike having something forced down their throat probably as much as anyone, it need not take an Act of Congress to accomplish. As with bathing, expeditious administration is key. With practice, you'll find you won't even have to actually restrain your pet with any force.

Be sure you understand the details regarding the medication to include frequency and dosages. For instance, if you are giving an anti-nausea medication your veterinarian may prescribe that it be given a certain length of time prior to feeding to prevent the pet from throwing up both the food and the medication. With antibiotics, you may be directed to administer within a certain time after feeding since some medication may nauseate your pet if given on an empty stomach.

Always ask your vet for specific instructions with regard to giving medicines, and be sure you thoroughly comprehend what is told to you. Complete understanding is paramount to the health of your pet.

Pills

Giving pills may seem a Mission Impossible, or at the very least a mission difficult. Actually, with a consistent procedure and a little practice you'll become an expert.

Pill applicators are available, but I find it easier to use my finger. If you choose this method just be careful if your fingernails are long and/or jagged and be sure that you remove your finger at the proper time. If you have long nails on all fingers you may just want to use the pill applicator; fingernails can cause more damage and trauma if you are not careful.

Once you have the pill(s) in hand, approach your pet calmly. After a while they'll be on to you as you walk toward them at a certain time of the day, looking directly at them, with one hand clenched. They know what's coming and may bolt beneath the sofa or anywhere that is handy and out of your reach. My cats have not only figured out what I'm about to do but also know that it'll be over in a couple seconds so they no longer try to escape the inevitable.

When you have your pet by your side, tilt their head back and gently pry their mouth open. I've found the best method is to use a thumb and middle finger at the joint of their jaw, slowly working the mouth open. If you find the mouth locked like a steel trap, use the index finger of your other hand to pry their mouth open from the front. After the mouth is open a bit, it's easy to slowly and gently pull down on the lower jaw. Be careful not to put undue stress on their front teeth, however.

With fingers wedged between the right and left sides of the jaw, either drop the pill as centered as possible toward the back of the throat, or insert the applicator in the mouth, aiming at the back of the throat.

If using your finger, quickly but gently push the pill far enough back-maybe a half-inch or so-to prevent them from pushing it back up with their tongue. If using an applicator, position it far enough back so when the pill is released it drops deep into their mouth.

Remove your finger or the applicator quickly and gently close your pet's mouth, ensuring their tongue is not in the way. Massage their neck to stimulate swallowing.

Liquid

When giving liquid medication, you'll probably be using a measured dropper or even a syringe. Whatever you use you can pretty well rest assured your feline will not like it, as with anything else that's not food-related. Because of this, you'll want it in their mouth for as little time as necessary to give the medication.

Once you've filled the applicator with as much medicine as prescribed, tilt their head back and gently pry open their mouth. Again, if this doesn't work because of their resistance, use the index finger of your other hand to open the front of their mouth. Once it is open a bit, slowly and gently pull down on the lower jaw.

With fingers wedged between the right and left sides of the jaw, insert the applicator in the mouth aiming directly to the back of their throat. Without delay, squirt the medication quickly, but not so quickly that you cause your cat to choke.

Remove the applicator quickly, and gently close their upper and lower palates with your hand, being careful that their tongue is not in the way. Closing their mouth will prevent them from flinging the liquid out with their tongue and also prevents the medicine from flowing freely out of their mouth.

Massage the outside of their neck a little with your hand to stimulate swallowing. If your cat is like mine, this is a welcomed caress.

Force Feeding

A number of illnesses require that an animal be force-fed to maintain nutrition. This often is the last step prior to having to feed intravenously so be sure you do it correctly to prevent the latter, more invasive procedure.

Perhaps the most important aspects of force-feeding include:

  • Comfortable temperature of the food
  • Proper amount of food at each feeding
  • Proper amount of food in each mouthful

I find the easiest tool to use when feeding soft food is a large syringe. I use a 60cc plastic syringe with a large needle attachment tip or hub. Naturally, you won't be using a needle but the larger the hub the more food you'll be able to draw up into the syringe. Also, you may find it easier to regulate how much food you squirt into your pet's mouth with a larger hub. The whole process may go quicker than if you use a smaller syringe or one with a smaller hub.

If you are using a high-fat soft food such as a pâté from a can, spoon out only as much as you think your pet will eat. Originally, I tried to give my adult cat up to 60ccs of his pâté/water mixture, but as he aged, he was only able to eat between 20 to 30ccs at a sitting. Get advice from your veterinarian as to how much food you should attempt to give at each feeding as well as how many feedings your pet should get.

The container will have more food in it than you'll give at a feeding so you'll probably want to store what's left in the refrigerator in an airtight container. This will require that you warm it up a bit before feeding.

For 20 to 30ccs of food, a teaspoonful usually will be enough for a feeding. Spoon the food into a container such as a cup or small bowl and mix with a little fresh water. If the food has been chilled, warm the food/water mixture in the microwave for a few seconds. After warmed, stir until it is the consistency of pudding. Test the temperature with your finger to ensure it is not hot to the touch; if it is, let it cool at room temperature for a minute or so.

Once the food is at a safe temperature, draw it up into the syringe. (You'll probably need to turn the syringe upside down occasionally and shake, then push the plunger up slowly to expel excess air before drawing up more food.) When you have the desired amount of food in the syringe, expel the excess air and rinse off the end of the hub. You don't want food smeared everywhere on your cat's face.

Once you have the food-filled syringe in hand, approach your pet calmly. Your pet may run for the hills if he or she doesn't want the food and/or sees the syringe. On the other hand, your cat may even welcome it if they are hungry. If administered properly your pet may not care one way or the other about the feeding, knowing that it'll be over soon enough.

All you'll need for the feeding is:

  • The food-filled syringe
  • A damp paper towel to wipe your pet's mouth, neck, feet, and anywhere else food has dropped
  • A dry paper towel to dry the areas where you have wiped with the damp towel
  • Some newspaper to catch what falls on the floor

When you have your pet by your side, tilt their head back and gently pry open their mouth. Use a thumb and middle finger at the joint of their jaw, slowly working the mouth open. If their mouth is clamped shut, use the index finger of your other hand to work it open. Once it is open a bit, slowly and gently pull down on the lower jaw.

With fingers wedged between the right and left sides of the jaw, insert the syringe toward the center of the tongue and quickly but gently push the syringe plunger to squirt out less than a mouthful-more like a "tongueful"-of food. Remove the syringe and allow your cat to lick and swallow the food at their own pace. Caress their head or scratch under their neck-whatever they like.

After your cat has stopped licking and swallowing somewhat, tilt back their head, pry open their mouth again, and squirt in a little more food. Remove the syringe and rub their head or neck. Repeat this process until either the syringe is empty or they begin to fight the process. You can either wipe their mouth with a damp towel after each syringe squirt or wait until the feeding is over. Don't forget to dry them with the dry paper towel as well.

If your vet has prescribed a certain amount of food, the process may become difficult if your cat begins fighting you. If you can, only give small doses of food periodically throughout the day; you'll find your pet more willing to eat when given a small amount at each feeding.

Unlike when giving medication, you don't want to close their mouth after squirting in the food. They need to be able to chew and swallow naturally, and you don't want to risk having them choke on the food.

If your pet regurgitates the food soon after the feeding, it could be an indication that either you fed them too much or there is another problem, such as nausea. Be sure to tell your veterinarian that your cat is not holding the food down so you or your vet can take the proper action.

Lickless Bathing

Comedian Steve Martin once said he bathes his cat occasionally -- the cat seems to like it, and Steve doesn't mind it too much. The biggest problem is all the hair that gets on his tongue. Fastidious as they are, cats still can benefit from a good soap and warm water cleansing-especially if they are allowed outside or are geriatric and have problems with mobility from arthritis or incontinence.

Although the thought of cats and water may conjure images of a mixture as compatible as oil and water, if performed with forethought and deftness, the process can be painless for both you and your furry friend.

First and foremost, you should plan the activity. You never want to leave your pet in water any longer than absolutely necessary. And the best way to accomplish this is to get everything you need for the bath ready and within arms reach. For instance, if you bathe your cat in a bathtub, have the following handy:

  • Shampoo
  • Comb, if you like to comb the soap through your pet's fur
  • Dip, if you use this to control fleas
  • Rinse cup or reachable shower-type spray nozzle
  • Dry towels

The Process

Fill the bathtub with several inches of warm water. There's no need for any more than this, and the deeper the water the less likely your cat is going to appreciate the bath. Also, the deeper the water, the greater the potential for injury to geriatric cats or those with balance problems.

After filling the tub appropriately, search for your pet since he or she probably is hiding after hearing the water running if you've bathed them before. It doesn't take them much time to associate running water, and you not being naked, with it being their turn in the tub. If possible, have them in the bathroom with you or in an area where they can't escape and where it's easy to pick them up.

You may also want to plan for a little incontinence. With my cats, I have a "special towel" that I put under their rears because getting bathed always scares the pee out of them -- literally.

Once above the bathtub, quickly but gently lower your cat into the water. Using the cup or a spray nozzle, thoroughly wet your pet, working the water into the fur. Some breeds have seemingly water-resistant hair, so be sure to wet them to the skin.

Once wet, apply a small amount of the soap -- preferably liquid -- from a squirt bottle. Lather well, again working into the fur all the way to the skin. Start from the neck and move down to prevent fleas from retreating to the eyes and mouth where they normally get their liquid sustenance. Be careful when lathering nearthe face, though; once you get soap in their eyes, it's pretty much over. They're also not crazy about water in the ears, which they'll just shake out all over you anyway. I don't apply any soap to the face, preferring to rub only water there.

As soon as the lathering is complete, comb through the fur if you prefer. I only comb if there is a flea problem since, although it lengthens the bathing process, it does help to remove the fleas. Rinse off with the water in the tub using the cup or sprayer. The water will be soapy and maybe even dirty, but that doesn't matter at this point. It's less traumatic this way than having the faucet noisily running.

After rinsing, you may want to lather again, especially if you're using a flea shampoo, to ensure thorough coverage. Rinse again with the bath water and cup or sprayer, but this time open the drain so the water drains during this final rinse.

By the time you are finished rinsing your cat, the tub may be empty or nearly so, which may provide some indication to your pet that the torture session is nearly over. At this time, ensure that your pet is away from the faucet while you mix hot and cold water together until you get a pleasing, tepid temperature. (Skip this if you use a sprayer since you won't need to put standing water in the tub.)

You don't need to fill the tub again; just use the cup to capture water from the faucet and gently douse your pet-again from head or neck to tail. Be sure to gently splash or spray water underneath your cat to remove soap from their tummy and the inside of their legs. Rinse their chest thoroughly and any areas that may be thick with fur.

Once rinsed, gently pour your preprepared flea dip from head to tail if you use such a product. Be sure the water you used to prepare the dip is warm like the bath water. If the water is too cold, you'll soon know it by your pet's response.

After you're finished pouring on the dip, gently rub your hands over your pet's body to softly squeegee off excess water. Then, use a towel to slowly massage your pet's fur to remove as much water as possible. If two towels are needed, then use them. I've never been able to get a blow dryer near any of my pets, so if your pets are the same way it's important to remove as much moisture as possible with towels.

Another trick to ensure that the animal dries thoroughly is to provide a towel or blanket for them to lie on. I use an electric blanket purchased just for them. If you use one be absolutely sure that it is in good shape with no tears or wearing. Although you can wash most electric blankets, never dry them thoroughly in a dryer but remove them while still damp and let air dry. This will help prevent the plastic coating on the wiring from cracking. Naturally, follow any cleaning and safety instructions that come with electric blankets.

I've used the procedure above for years, and often my cats don't even have time to whine or howl before the whole process is over. Again, the emphasis is on being organized, having everything within reach, and performing the task as quickly, yet safely, as possible.

Transporting

If you're like me you pretty much have to trick your cat into getting into the carrier. It doesn't take them long to associate the carrier with a sometimes nauseating car ride (if they suffer from motion sickness) followed by poking, prodding, rectal inserting, and needle injecting-all by a stranger wearing a white coat.

One of the time-tested and easiest tricks to getting your cat into a carrier is to leave it out. If left in an area they frequent, they eventually become familiar with it and it becomes less of an intimidating dungeon. If the carrier is located within easy access, they may even claim this real estate as their own little condo -- especially if you keep a clean towel in it for warmth and comfort.

One of my cats loves to eat, and after finishing his food will often push one of his more passive brothers out of the way to help him eat his portion. Consequently, he has to be put under house arrest in his cat apartment for the feeding. But this isn't a problem; I simply put his food bowl in the carrier to begin with and he immediately runs inside, eats, and relaxes until the others are finished eating and I release him.

By being behind bars during feeding he has associated the cage with food, and when hungry will actually go into the box as a subtle hint. Moreover, he will occasionally run into the carrier when I start filling his bowl. When I direct him to the cage, he never knows if he's going to eat or go visit the doctor, but he always enters rationalizing that it's worth the risk.

When I transport a cat, I'll usually position the carrier inside the car a) with the door facing me and b) close enough so I can periodically reach back and stick my fingers through the bars to scratch under a neck or behind an ear without even taking my eyes off the road. Just being able to see me while I'm driving provides them so much comfort that even the ones who detest riding in a car hardly object for extended rides, unless of course they have to go to the bathroom, are hungry, or need to stretch their legs.

Caressing and Grooming with a Purpose

We love our pets-there's no question. And they love us and love to be touched and caressed just as we do. It is during such physical contact that presents the best opportunity to examine them for any anomalies with hair and skin.

Feel for lumps or rashes while petting them and notice if any areas are tender to the touch. Note the texture of their hair as well. Is it silky smooth or coarse and brittle? Does it come out in clumps when combed indicating possible lack of nutrition? Bad smells may also indicate sores, wounds, or abscesses.

Brushing

Once it is evident that the hair and skin are in normal condition, brush your cat with a pet brush to remove excess hair. Be sure to brush in the direction of the hair growth and clean the brush frequently. You don't need to use too much press; just brush gently and slowly.

Trimming Nails

Even if you have a scratching post for your cat, it's usually a good idea to monitor the growth of their nails. Snip the tips off every couple of weeks or so to prevent them for hurting themselves or damaging objects in your home. Just be sure you only use pet nail trimmers. These are specially designed to help ensure you don't clip the nails too short. Also, while clipping the nails this is a good chance to examine them for signs of ingrowth (common among older cats) and overly brittleness, which could indicate nutritional problems.

In any event, give your small family members the same attention you'd give yourself or a human loved one and you could find your felines living a long and healthy life in safety and comfort.

Gary Michael Smith is a writer, editor, publisher, and cat lover in New Orleans. He can be reached at www.ChatgrisPress, a URL that translates into Cajun French as "gray cat."