Cats are significantly less likely than dogs to receive routine wellness care—annual exams, vaccines, parasite control, and recommended testing—and indoor-only cats seem to get some of these services less likely than their outdoor counterparts. While indoor cats are certainly at less risk of some conditions and/or injuries than outdoor cats, it is no less important to make sure that wellness is a priority.
Annual physical examinations with a veterinarian are recommended for all dogs and cats, and yet cats are only about a quarter to a third as likely as dogs to be current on an annual exam. While this is a complex phenomenon, the perception is likely that cats, and indoor cats in particular, are relatively healthy and take care of themselves.
However, subtle changes in a cat’s physical exam over time may be the earliest indication of disease, so regular examinations are important. Weight changes, deterioration of coat quality, decreased mobility, gingivitis, or lymph node enlargement may not be things that cat owners notice over time, but that a veterinarian is likely to detect. Cats may show no outward symptoms of disease, but may still have some of these physical changes.
Regular exams with a veterinarian are also great times to discuss changes in a cat’s behavior, the shifting nutritional needs of aging cats, and any changes in the household (e.g., a new baby) that might impact a cat and its interaction with its surroundings.
According to a report by the American Association of Feline Practitioners, indoor-only cats should receive regular vaccines, albeit not as many as their outdoor counterparts. The AAFP, which has had experts compile data on vaccines in cats, recommends all cats receive regular vaccines against rabies, especially since this is a fatal disease that can be transmitted from animals to humans.
Additionally, the AAFP recommends that all cats be vaccinated against three diseases that are often combined into one vaccine (such as an “RCP” vaccine): feline herpesvirus, calicivirus, and panleukopenia. While indoor-only cats are at a relatively low risk of exposure to these diseases, there has been found to be enough risk to warrant vaccination. Some of these conditions are contagious enough that a cat owner can act as a fomite, bringing disease into the household from the outside.
Other vaccines, such as the feline leukemia vaccine, are generally not recommended for indoor cats due to a significantly low chance of exposure. The AAFP’s report does determine that some cats may be considered to be exempt from vaccines based on their overall health status.
Internal and external parasite control is also important for the health of indoor cats. For example, fleas can affect indoor cats, especially if there are other animals in the house that do spend time outside. Additionally, heartworm disease is spread by mosquito bites, and mosquitoes can easily find their way inside the house. One study found that almost 25 percent of cats that test positive for heartworm disease are exclusively indoors. As a result, it is recommended that indoor (and outdoor) cats be administered a monthly flea and heartworm preventative medication.
Wellness testing (blood, urine, and fecal testing) is also recommended for indoor cats just as for those who stay outside; after all, many diseases develop irrespective of the cat’s environment. Regular wellness panels can help detect disease early, allowing for prompt treatment or management. The AAFP has developed recommended guidelines for wellness testing based on a cat’s age.
It is important that wellness care for indoor cats not be ignored. Following these and other recommendations can help support a long and healthy life for cats. While it may be stressful for cats to visit a veterinary hospital for routine services, the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term stresses. In fact, veterinarians can provide tips for decreasing the stress that cats experience at the veterinary hospital, thus removing another obstacle to providing appropriate care.
— Keith Rode is a veterinarian at Woodland Veterinary Hospital and a graduate of UC Davis. For more information, call 530-666-2461.