'Do Cats Always Land on Their Feet?'

In two new books, "Why Do Dogs Drink Out of the Toilet" and "Do Cats Always Land on Their Feet?" veterinarian Marty Becker answers some of the most embarrassing questions he's been asked about pets.

October is National Pet Wellness Month. If you want more information about caring for your pet, visit www.petconnection.com.

"Good Morning America" also featured two animals up for adoption -- Toby, a terrier, and Morrissey, a 7-week-old orange tabby cat. Both are available for adoption through the Humane Society of New York.

Read an excerpt from "Do Cats Always Land on Their Feet?" by Marty Becker and Gina Spadafori, below:

Q. What is it about the way cats walk that always makes them look so elegant and smooth?

A. If you've ever carefully watched dogs walk, you may have noticed that they alternate sides when they step. In other words, the front right paw steps forward at the same time the rear left paw does. Then the front left and rear right paws step out. Speed this up and it's known as a trot.

Cats move differently. They step with both left paws, then both right paws. Their natural gait, in other words, is what's known as a pace. (Only camels and giraffes have the same natural gait, although some horses are trained to race using the pace.)

One thing cats and dogs do have in common: They walk on their fingers and toes.

Most cats have five toes on their front paws, but only four of them hit the ground. The fifth toe is called a dewclaw, and is found on the inside of the front paw. The dewclaw is the feline equivalent of our thumb, and it's used for grasping prey and climbing trees. A normal feline back paw, by the way, has four toes that are all called into service when walking.

Q. What exactly is a hairball?

A. Cats spend 30 percent of their waking hours grooming themselves -- which seems like a lot, until you consider that they spend 70 percent of their day sleeping. Still, they are very fastidious animals. Their tool of choice is that raspy tongue, which can pull free lots of hair, especially if the cat is longhaired or has a lot of undercoat (the soft, downy hairs that lie close to the skin).

Swallowed hair is indigestible, even for cats, so when it's in a cat's stomach, it has two ways to go: down and out or up and out. When it comes up-to the accompaniment of that middle-of-the-night "ack! ack!" serenade every cat lover knows so well -- it's a hairball.

If you want to impress your friends, the scientific name for that gummy mass you step in on your way to the bathroom at 2 a.m. is trichobezoar. It is made up of the excess hair your cat swallowed, held together with a sticky mucous . . . but you knew that from cleaning it off your bare feet, didn't you?

Hacking up a hairball every now and then is normal and usually doesn't cause problems, but if you see anything else in the mix, take the cat and the hairball (the former in a carrier, the latter in a plastic bag or container) to your veterinarian. Likewise, if your cat is hacking without producing a hairball, the vet is waiting to see you. Chronic coughing can be a symptom of many health problems, from heartworms to heart disease to asthma. Occasionally, hairballs can cause an obstruction that will require veterinary attention.

The easiest and best way to prevent hairballs is to brush your cat frequently. The more dead hair you pull out on your brush, the less she will have to swallow when she grooms. Regular brushing is good for your cat and good for your furniture and rugs.

For cats who seem to have a chronic problem with hairballs, additional fiber in the diet may help. Special hairball-busting diets can be recommended your veterinarian; milder cases may be resolved by adding a little canned pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling mix) to a cat's wet food.

One caution: While over-the-counter hairball remedies are available, don't let your cat become so dependent on them that you're always giving her hairball remedy. And definitely work with your veterinarian while using them. Overuse of hairball remedies can inhibit your cat's ability to absorb some essential vitamins. That's why it's also a good idea not to give them to your cat just before or after she eats.

The enduring feline mystery we can't help you with: Why do cats always hurl hairballs either on the most expensive fabric or the most well-traveled hallways? The best we can say: If your tummy hurt, wouldn't you want sympathy from a loved one? It also makes for great drama. So go brush your drama queen.

Q. How many bones does a cat have?

A. It depends on the cat. Or, more precisely, on her tail and feet.

A long-tailed Siamese will have more vertebrae than a Manx with no tail, or a Japanese Bobtail with just part of a tail. And a cat with extra toes -- they're called polydactyl -- have extra bones too.

The range is usually between 230 and 250, with the average cat counting about 244 bones -- if cats could or cared to count.

Any way you count it, the average cat has about 30 more bones than we do -- and think about how much bigger we are than cats. No wonder they can lick behind their shoulders and sleep in a perfect circle!

Counting toes in Key West

Any number of toes over the norm (usually an extra one or two, but occasionally as many as three or four) makes a cat polydactyl, which means "many fingers." These cats are also sometimes known as Hemingway cats.

That's because the famous writer Ernest Hemingway became a fan of these cats after being given a six-toed cat by a ship's captain. Legend has it that sailors once valued polydactyl cats for their extraordinary climbing and hunting abilities, and they became common on sailing ships.

Polydactylism is a dominant genetic trait, which means just one polydactyl parent is enough to make a litter of polydactyl kittens.

Descendants of Hemingway's cats remain popular tourist attractions at the author's former residence (now a museum or, dare we say, cat house) in Key West, Florida. About 60 cats share the grounds, and about half are polydactyl.

Q. Why do cats' eyes shine at night?

A. Cats' eyes are more sensitive to light than ours are, which means they can see a lot better in low light than we can -- which is what you'd expect from a nocturnal animal. Even cats can't see in total darkness, but they can get pretty close. And one of the most visible (pardon the pun) ways they've adapted to low-light conditions is revealed in those glow-in-the-dark eyes.

The glow is actually light reflected back from a layer of special cells behind the retina, called the tapetum lucidum, which is Latin for "luminescent tapestry." (We love showing off our Latin, even if we had to look it up first!) The retina is the light-sensitive tissue lining the back of the eye. Its job is to convert light into electrical impulses that are sent to the brain. The job of the tapetum lucidum is to catch all the light that didn't enter the retina directly and reflect it back in, so every tiny bit of light can be processed.

Add in the fact that a cat's pupils can dilate to three times the size of ours and they also have a larger cornea (the eye's outermost lens), and you can see why a cat has no need for night-vision goggles. The bottom line: A cat can see in conditions that are more than five times less bright than what we require.

Perhaps this ability to hunt by night has contributed to the alley cat claiming the award for one of the most successful predators in the animal kingdom.

Long before a cat ever was caught in the headlights, the ancient Egyptians had another theory for why the cat's eyes glow at night: They believed the eyes of a cat reflected the sun, even at night when it was hidden from humans.

Q. Why do cats' eyes contract to a vertical slit?

A. If cats wore sunglasses or didn't evolve into creatures who have the nighttime munchies, they probably would have round pupils like ours.

But they're nocturnal hunters and see well in very dim light. Just as we adjust our headlights from normal headlights to brights, a cat's eyes adjust to different lighting conditions. In the daytime, cats have precise control over the amount of light reaching their eyes. This enables them to gaze out the window and zero in on that errant squirrel in the tree or big bird on the feeder.

Having eyes that reduce the pupils to slits rather than tiny circles gives the cat greater and more accurate control in different types of lighting; this ability is particularly important in bright sunlight.

Vertical slits also have another advantage over horizontal slits. Because the cat's eyelids close at right angles to the vertical pupil, a cat can reduce the amount of light even further by bringing her eyelids closer and closer together. Similar to the shutter on a camera, this combination of the vertical slits of the pupils and the horizontal slits of the eyelids enables the cat to make the most delicate adjustments to accommodate different lighting. And these actions, in combination, protect the eyes better than sunglasses.

It's a perfect set-up for a nighttime hunter who loves to bask in the daytime sun.

This adaptation sets the domestic cat apart from her majestic relative, the lion. Because the lion hunts by day, her pupils do not have the same sensitivity to light as the domestic cat. The lion's eyes contract -- like ours do -- to tiny circles, not vertical slits.

Q. Do cats dream?

A. Cats definitely remember things -- in fact, they have great memories -- so it makes sense to believe they have the ability to dream, just as people do. After all, dreaming is a normal part of organizing and re-organizing memories. Kind of a subconscious filing system, you could say.

Like humans, cats have two kinds of sleep. The deeper kind is characterized by rapid eye movements, so it's known as REM sleep. We know humans dream during REM sleep. We also know that when cats twitch their limbs and even their whiskers while they're asleep, they are in feline REM sleep. So it's not a far fetch to believe cats are dreaming, too.

What are they dreaming about? We'll never know. But we suspect the mice are fat and on crutches, birds can't fly, nasty neighborhood kids are nowhere to be seen, dogs disappear on command, invading cats from other territories scat with a mere glance, the pantry is full, and they've got opposable thumbs and a new can opener.

Q. What percentage of a cat's day is spent, well, catnapping?

A. Predators always sleep more than animals who have to spend their days finding vegetation to munch. The extra nap time is one of the perks of being higher up on the food chain. If you're a lion, you can sleep most of your life away, and as long as someone gets up now and then to bring down a hoofed animal, all is well.

Domestic cats spend about 70 percent of their lives asleep. As you've probably guessed, most of those hours are spent in short snatches of sleep -- catnaps, of course.

Q. My husband is allergic to our cat. What should I do?

A. Divorce him. Or have an indoor cat and an outdoor husband.

Not really. In fact, these sorts of conflicts come up all the time and they are never, ever easy to resolve. Even more difficult than having a mate who's allergic to cats is having a child who has developed such allergies. (Although studies now show exposure to pets in childhood may prevent allergies later in life.) A mate can choose to live with mild to moderate allergies, after all, but what parent would choose suffering for their child?

More people are more allergic to cats than to dogs, and cat allergies are often more severe, as well. For people with asthma, a severe reaction to a cat can be more than annoying -- it can be life-threatening.

Nobody's really sure why cats are such an allergy trigger, but one thing any allergist will tell you: The increase in the popularity of cats and the trend toward keeping them inside has meant more sneezing, wheezing, and red eyes among cat lovers. It's estimated that 6 to 10 million Americans are allergic to cats, and a lot of them would rather cope than give up their pets.

Cat fur isn't what causes allergies, so finding a cat with little or no fur won't help much. A substance called Fel D1, found in cat saliva and urine and deposited on skin and fur when a cat grooms, is the source of the problem. This allergen becomes part of what's commonly called dander -- flakes of skin, secretions, and saliva that a cat spreads wherever he wanders and that become airborne as he's petted, jumps, or shakes. You don't have to live with a cat to be exposed to dander: Studies have found the stuff everywhere, even in a doctor's waiting room.

While every family will have to come to the decision that's right for their specific circumstances, there are a few tricks that might make living with a cat and allergies more comfortable for all but the most severe allergy sufferers.

First, find an allergist who will work with the allergy sufferer and accept that finding a new home for the cat is the last alternative, not the first one. After all, people who are allergic to trees or grass can't rid their environment of these things; there are ways to work around them. Working with an allergist can help get all a person's allergies under control and may leave a little "breathing room" for keeping a cat.

Second, compromise. Establishing the bedroom as a cat-free zone (some of you may prefer a husband free zone) will let an allergy sufferer sleep in peace. While sleeping with a cat on the bed is one of many pleasure of living with a cat, keeping puss on the other side of the bedroom door may enable you to keep both your cat and your mate.

Third, keep the house clean. Choose smooth, easy-to-clean surfaces in your home -- tile or hardwood rather than carpet -- and give the person with allergies a break from vacuuming and dusting. Use a vacuum with a filter and damp cleaning cloths to keep dander from going airborne. HEPA air filters for rooms and for the central heat and air conditioning system may also help.

Fourth, keep your pet clean. Studies show that rinsing your cat weekly in clear water can reduce dander levels. Obviously, this task should also go to the non-allergic members of the family, as should cleaning the litter box.

The long-term view offers a couple of promising solutions, one of which is, admittedly, controversial. The most promising is the possibility of a vaccine that will prevent cat allergies. News of such a product erupted in the late 1990s, and has given hope to the many people who are, shall we say, itching for just such a drug. The vaccine doesn't exist yet, but it's probably just a matter of time before some company comes up with it.

Now the controversial idea: The prospect of a cat who is genetically engineered to be truly hypo-allergenic has been in the news. But given that the price tag is expected to be in the thousands of dollars -- not to mention the hue and cry from people who don't think pets should be genetically modified -- it's a bit of an iffy prospect how big a splash such cats will make.

The amount of allergen any cat produces varies from animal to animal, although studies suggest that black cats and unneutered males cause more problems for allergy sufferers.

Q. Why do cats insist that bed time is play time?

A. Because a cat is a creature of the night . . . or at least, the twilight. Cats sleep all day -- and most of the night -- just so they can be at their liveliest when the sun is setting. The early bird may get the worm, but it's the late-night kitty who scores the mouse.

While many cats eventually figure out that we're not much fun after dark, some never do stop pestering their owners to play. Especially young cats, who just don't understand why you're so willing to cash in your chips when the night is still young. Cats are pre-programmed to hunt when the sun goes down. And since hunting and play are the same thing to them, their little brains are thinking, "party, party, PARTY!"

Want to sleep? Try playing with your cat an hour or so before bedtime to take the edge off the kitty crazies. (Not only before bedtime, though, or your cat will be bouncing off the walls just as you're trying to sleep. Cats need two or three play sessions a day.)

You can also feed your cat his biggest meal of wet food immediately before your bedtime, to give you a head start and to take advantage of the natural tendency of cats (and people) to feel a little sleepy after a meal.

Q. Do all cats groom themselves or are some cats slobs?

A. Cats like to keep their coat in good shape. In fact, when a cat starts losing interest in grooming, it can be a sign there's something wrong with her, physically. In particular, fat cats have a propensity to become slovenly or they're so huge, like a fur-covered balloon of sorts, they simply can't reach around the curve of their ample bodies to groom.

If your cat looks tired and tattered, take her to the vet.

One of the more interesting things about cats is that most will groom themselves in a particular order. Grooming starts when a cat licks her lips and then wets the side of her paw. She will then run the damp paw over the side of her face and behind her ear (like a washcloth), and then repeat the same sequence on the opposite side.

Next, she'll lick her front legs, shoulders, and flanks. Then it's one leg up and then the other, to get to all those personal spots. The whole thing wraps up with a trip down to the end of the tail.

Kittens get a free ride on grooming until they're about six weeks of age; their moms do all the hard work for them. In fact, for the first few days she even licks their anus. (That should be enough to get her on the TV show Dirty Jobs.) Her job is about more than motherly love and good housekeeping: When kittens are newborns, their mom's tongue is what stimulates them to eliminate.

While all cats try to keep up their appearance, good grooming can be more difficult for older cats, obese cats, and cats with long, silky coats. These cats need help from their owners to maintain that just-licked look. The good news is that grooming your cat can be a pleasurable bonding experience for you both.

Cats lick themselves clean right after dinner because instinct has taught them the sooner they remove food odors, the less likely that predators will get a whiff of McCat.

null
Join the Discussion
You are using an outdated version of Internet Explorer. Please click here to upgrade your browser in order to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus
 
You Might Also Like...