Doctor's Blog & In the Know Articles

Your cat's need to knead

Bekka Brown
October 9,2015

You’re reading a newspaper when suddenly your cat jumps onto your lap, forcing her way between you and the current events. She’s purring and begins to knead your lap, circling around and finding a perfect position to curl into. She is completely oblivious to your desires as she focuses on the push and pull of her front paws. She’s your cat, and she has a need to knead.

Why cats knead

The kneading behavior begins early in life, while kittens are nursing. As kittens knead their mother’s mammary glands, oxytocin is released, causing milk to flow. Animalexperts believe other reasons cats knead might include:

  • To show affection
  • To mark territory: Cats have scent glands between their toes on their front paws
  • Separated from mother too early
  • Normal behavior of a female cat going into heat

    While controlled research on this topic is lacking, veterinary behaviorist Sharon Crowell-Davis, DVM, PhD, DACVB believes all of the above reasons are likely involved in a cat’s need to knead.

    Crowell-Davis believes that because kneading represents a period of comfort and safety for kittens as they snuggle up with their mothers and siblings during nursing, cats continue this behavior to display affection toward others later in life. It also serves as a self-comforting behavior, bringing a feeling of contentment for adult cats. Similar to a child who sucks his thumb long after his mother has stopped nursing, a cat’s kneading helps him to feel comfortable and bonded to you. It’s his way of relaxing with you.

    “It’s probable that [cats] leave scent from special inter digital scent glands when they knead,” says Crowell-Davis. No study has been conducted to verify the function of that scent marking, however.Crowell-Davis suggests that kneading helps to mark an area as safe. Cats have high-level olfactory senses, and like a feline aromatherapy, the cat is working to make your lap smell familiar and relaxing.

    Crowell-Davis agrees that kittens who are weaned from their mothers too early (prior to 10 weeks of age) are more likely to display kneading behavior as adults.

    It has been documented that female cats knead when they are going into heat. However, Crowell-Davis believes there is a difference between comfort kneading and the kneading performed while seeking a mate. Morein-depth studies of paw movement are necessary to prove this hypothesis.

    How to change your cat’s kneading behavior

    Not a fan of your cat’s kneading on your lap? Experts agree that you should not punish your cat if he kneads. If the kneading bothers you, try to redirect your cat to a soft surface nearby. When he begins to knead on your lap, gently move him to a soft blanket or pillow, pet him, and give him treats so he is encouraged to knead that particular soft surface.

    While more research could clarify this topic for cat lovers and veterinary professionals, it’s important to remember that, just like you have certain comforting behaviors, kneading is a normal, comforting behavior for many cats. So sit back, relax, and let your kitty make a comfy spot in that lap of yours.

    - Bekka Burton is a freelance writer and English language teacher who lives with a diva in the form of a tortoiseshell cat. - Pets Matter - AAHA Blog, ©iStock/SilviaJansen

    Standout dog

    by Jen Reeder
    AAHA Pets Matter Blog
    October 8, 2015

    Nearly 4 million dogs enter shelters in the United States each year. Though there can be a misconception that something is “wrong” with them, many of these dogs wind up in shelters through no fault of their own, such as an owner moving. When given the chance, many shelter dogs become wonderful pets or even service dogs. In honor of October’s Adopt a Shelter Dog Month, here are three dogs who started out homeless and became inspiring service dogs.

    KIRA: Labrador/pit bull mix rescued by Shelter to Soldier

    Kira, a Labrador/pit bull mix, was rescued and trained by California-based Shelter to Soldier, a nonprofit that rescues dogs from local shelters and trains them to be psychiatric service dogs for post-9/11 combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and/or traumatic brain injuries(TBI).

    “Our core mission is saving lives two at a time,” says Graham Bloem,founder, president, and head trainer of Shelter to Soldier. “And we’re actually saving families in many cases.”

    That’s certainly what happened when Kira went to work for Vic Martin, a Navy veteran who sustained a brain injury while deployed overseas in the Persian Gulf. He was medically retired on June 27, 2013, and back home with his wife, son, and two daughters, Martin found his brain injury caused speech issues, such as stuttering, as well as depression and severe anxiety disorder.

    “I couldn’t function. I started to realize more and more that I was afraid to leave the house. My fears increased so badly that I couldn’t answer the phone, I couldn’t answer the door, I couldn’t check the mail, all because I had this fear that something horrible was about to happen,” Martin says. “I was living in a prison that was my own body, my own brain.”

    Martin contemplated suicide before his wife discovered Shelter to Soldier. The day Martin went to meet Bloem about Kira was the first time in three months he had left the house. Since the rescued dog joined the family in November 2014, she has helped Martin feel secure enough to shower alone in the house. She calms him during stressful situations,such as when a helicopter flies over the house. She learned to recognize when he is having night terrors—“like nightmares but in 3D and surround sound”—and climbs onto the bed and lays on his chest to lick his faceuntil he comes to, and alerts his wife to the situation.

    Thanks to the comfort and security Kira brings, Martin is able to leave the house to go camping, run errands, and drive his daughters to and from school every day. He even attends their school performances and open houses.

    “I hate to think about what would have happened if I didn’t haveKira,” Martin says. “Dogs are medicine if they’re given the opportunity to be medicine.”

    HOUSTON: Black Labrador retriever rescued by Service Dogs, Inc.

    Houston, a black Lab, was rescued and trained by Texas-based nonprofit Service Dogs, Inc., which rescues dogs and trains them to serve for people with mobility or hearing challenges.

    “Our mission is to rescue unwanted dogs abandoned to animal shelters and transform them into lifelines for people living with disabilities,”says Sheri Soltes, founder and president of Service Dogs, Inc., adding,“We adopt a lot of black dogs because, statistically, black dogs and black cats are adopted the least.”

    When Laura Halvorson, who uses a wheelchair, met Houston in November2013, it was “love at first wag.” Since then, he’s opened doors for her“both figuratively and literally,” she says.

    “When I am alone my cell phone is like a lifeline for me but I dropit often. Due to my muscular dystrophy, if I drop something on theground it is almost impossible to retrieve it. Having Houston help with retrieving tasks has helped tremendously,” Halvorson says. “Houston helps me pick up objects that I've dropped, sometimes objects as small as a credit card or quarter. He also tugs open my refrigerator and grabs bottled water out for me as well as tugs doors open and closed for me,tugs off socks and blankets, and pushes drawers and the dishwasher closed for me. Recently he's also been taught to paw my foot plates down in my wheelchair when I transfer back into my wheelchair.”

    When Halvorson was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Texas 2014, an advocacy honor, Houston was by her side, and they’ve traveled together across Texas to a variety of advocacy events.

    “Houston is definitely proof that there are terrific dogs in shelters waiting to be adopted,” she says. “Just looking into Houston’s eyes,you can tell he’s incredibly sweet. He’s very attentive and loves tohelp.”

    LOLA: Border terrier mix rescued by Dogs for the Deaf

    Lola, a border terrier mix, was rescued and trained by Oregon-based nonprofit Dogs for the Deaf, which trains rescued dogs to be hearing dogs as well asautism-assistance dogs and program-assistance dogs for teachers,counselors, and physicians.

    “Sometimes they’re just ragamuffins [when rescued],” says Kelly Gonzales, development director of Dogs for the Deaf. “Then, all of a sudden, they have a purpose in life…They want to work, and they want tohave a purpose. To watch them transform is pretty phenomenal.”

    Public protocols for service dogs

    When you see a service dog wearing a vest, the No. 1 rule is: Never pet a service dog.

    “If you want to talk to or pet the service dog, ask the handler first. Remember, the dog is working—distractions can cause a problem,”advises Charlene MacKenzie, whose service dog Lola came to her from Dogs for the Deaf. “Service dogs are not pets, and that should be clearly understood.”

    When Dogs for the Deaf found Lola, she was a “straggly, unkempt,malnourished puppy with body sores and a too-tight collar,” according to Charlene MacKenzie, who was paired with Lola in 2007 after her first hearing dog, Haley Angel, died of cancer. But Lola blossomed into a smart, energetic, and good-natured dog, who was named the 2013 Hearing Dog of the Year by the American Humane Association.

    “As with Haley and now with Lola, my independence and self-confidence have vastly improved. While my disability is invisible, her vest alerts others to my hearing loss,” MacKenzie says. “I recognize in myself what I understand is the tendency for people with hearing loss—to withdraw socially because of our limited speech comprehension, which makes it so difficult to participate. Lola has counteracted my withdrawal by attracting the interest and attention of others who have surprised me by being so willing to accommodate my hearing needs.”

    At home, little Lola alerts MacKenzie to sounds from the smoke alarm, telephone, front and back door knocks, oven timer, and alarm clock by jumping on her and then leading her to the source of the sounds.

    “Lola means everything to me! She is my constant companion,supporter, helper, playmate, canoe partner, soul mate. Her very presence provides a sense of security—reliance I can trust. Otherwise I'd be exhausted; hyper-vigilance in place of hearing takes so much energy,”MacKenzie says. “Lola is a living testimonial that there are wonderful dogs waiting to be adopted from animal shelters. She is a rescued abandoned dog who has rescued me. We both have benefitted beyond imagination.”

    The tricky part is many cats are extremely particular about their drinking habits. If you don’t pay attention to what your cat is trying to tell you about his water dish, he may just stop drinking much at all in protest. Not good. Your job is to experiment a bit with water bowl types and sources to see what floats your cat’s proverbial boat.

    Let’s start with the basics: CATS LIKE FRESH, CLEAN WATER DAILY. (Sorry about the all caps, my cat Irma just sat on the keyboard). Putting a bowl of water by their food dish and refilling only when it’s empty isn’t going to cut it for most cats. Have you ever taken a closer look at that bowl after a couple days? You’ll not only spot stray whiskers and fur floating along the top, but a quite disgusting layer of slime forms fairly quickly. It may be partially your cat’s own fault as her mouth harbors a lot of bacteria, but it’s no wonder kitty turns up her nose.

    If you’re only going to do one thing (besides feed, pet and love your cat), you absolutely must provide fresh water in a clean bowl every day. Simply wash her bowl daily with soapy water, thoroughly rinse and refill. It’s likely your cat will start to enjoy the pattern and come running so she can enjoy a cool, refreshing drink, courtesy of you. And remember, bacteria multiply quickly in warm water, so you’ll need to rinse that bowl more often during hot weather. Wondering how quickly? In lukewarm water, it’s estimated that one measly colony of bacteria* can grow to approximately 38,000 in under 48 hours. And that’s from bacteria deposited after only taking one sip of water, not repeated trips to the bowl. * Per mL

    Tip: Trouble remembering to clean that water dish? Make it part of your daily routine by putting the previous day’s dish straight into the dishwasher. If you’re going to wash dishes by hand, however, be sure to wash your cat’s dish separately from your people dishes as your sink does not have the same sterilizing effect as your dishwasher. It may mean keeping a couple extra bowls on hand, but your cat will definitely appreciate it and you will too when pressed for time.

    For homes blessed with more than one cat or both cats and dogs, the next most important thing in your cat’s mind is that he gets his own water dish. Cats not only prefer not to share bowls; they sometimes don’t even like to drink in the same room with each other. For instance, my older cat Yuyu has always been a fan of drinking her water in the bathroom. So for her, we keep a small ceramic bowl by the tub. There’s also a dish in the kitchen, but in three years, I’ve only seen her use it once.

    And as soon as she did, our other cat Irma ran right over and pushed her head away. Lesson learned…they don’t share.

    Tip: A bowl for each. Like people, cats don’t all enjoy drinking out of the same cup. Always provide a separate water bowl for every pet in your household. If you have a home with two or more levels, consider putting a bowl on each so your cats remember to drink more often.

    Another thing to keep in mind is your cat (or cats) size and age. Full-grown cats and large breeds such as Maine Coons are obviously going to need larger, taller bowls than a kitten will. And older cats may prefer a lifted bowl so they don’t have to lean down so far to drink. However, there’s no need to get a giant container, as you’ll be refilling it daily anyway. Simply choose a size that holds a bit more than a day’s worth of water for each cat. This has the added benefit of allowing you to keep an eye on how much water your cat is drinking. If you start to notice he’s drinking significantly more or less, it may be a sign of health problem that needs to be checked out by your veterinarian immediately.

    Tip: What goes in must come out. To help monitor how much water your cat is drinking, keep an eye on the litter box as well. A sudden increase in the amount or frequency of your cat’s urination could indicate a potential problem.

    You may think once you’ve picked the right size bowl, cleaned it daily and decided where to place it, your job is done. Not so fast! Cat life lesson #43 is that they can have strong preferences as to what their bowls are made of. Some cats will only drink out of ceramic, some gravitate toward glass and some sip solely from stainless steel. Years ago, I lived with a wise old cat named Murph who loved pawing at the water in his shiny steel bowl. As it rippled and sparkled, he’d gleefully lap it up, looking quite pleased with himself. Today, my two cats won’t drink out of anything but ceramic. Clearly, to each their own.

    Of course, there are always cats for whom a plain ol’ dish, no matter what the material, just isn’t going to do. These are the cats who stalk that dripping faucet, are mesmerized by the bubbling fish tank or attempt to drink from the toilet (ugh!) whenever the opportunity arises. If this sounds like your cat, consider a pet water fountain. By continuously aerating water with healthful oxygen, a fountain can be extremely appealing. Many also contain charcoal filters to remove bad tastes and odors. Designed not only for fussy cats, fountains are excellent for encouraging pets with health issues to drink more often. Luckily for cats who happen to be both particular about material AND require a fountain, you’ll find options in stainless steel, ceramic and plastic. If you do opt for plastic, check that it’s BPA and BPS free and commit to cleaning it frequently as it can harbor more bacteria once the plastic gets scratched. Choose wisely and your cat will thank you with a well-hydrated purr!

    If you’re wondering if your cat gets enough water through diet alone, the short answer Providing fresh drinking water is always a must. However, what your cat eats can make a big difference in how much liquid they’ll drink during the day. If your cat dines solely on canned food, he’ll get a lot of hydration in each bite, as up to 80 percent of canned food is water. Kibble only contains about 10 percent water so your cat will need to lap up a lot more from outside sources. This is especially important to keep in mind if you’re trying to monitor how much water your cat is consuming and are judging simply from the water dish levels alone.

    Tip: Dinner and drinks. Cats who only eat canned food get about 2/3 of their daily water requirements simply through food, but still need continuous access to fresh water.

    Clearly there is more to keeping your cat hydrated than simply offering a sip of water here or there throughout the day. However, if you’re attune to what your cat is trying to tell you, and are willing to test out different bowl sizes, types and locations, chances are, you both will settle on a few hydration methods that keeps your cat happy and healthy. As we all know…a happy cat equals a happy household, so have fun discovering what works best in yours!

    Let's Talk About Peeing Cats

    Doctors Blog
    by Dr. Heather Trout
    March 9, 2015

    Let’s talk about peeing cats. This is a topic we vets think about a lot. Urinating outside the litter box is the number one reason cats are shunned from households to live outside, sent to a shelter or even put down. Let’s face it, there are few things stinkier and more pervasive than cat pee. I’ve actually seen marriages threatened because one spouse just can’t tolerate coming home to a urine-soaked home and they just don’t know what to do.

    First some questions: Is the cat peeing on vertical surfaces? If so, that is probably territorial insecurity--this cat needs space that includes sleeping boxes, high “perching” space, litter pan water and food sources that he can easily call his own and defend from other pets in the home.

    Is the cat peeing on horizontal surfaces AND defecating outside the box? If so, the cat has decided to boycott the litter pan. He “can’t work in these conditions!” Trying cleaning more often. Use uncovered large pans with unscented clumping litter if possible. Cats tend to dislike pelleted litter and they HATE citrus smells and loud noises. Put litter pans in private places that are not near loud machines and avoid scented cleaning agents.

    If the cat is peeing on horizontal surfaces, but is still using the litter pan for defecation, your cat probably has FLUTD (feline lower urinary tract disorder, also known as feline idiopathic cystitis or feline urologic syndrome). This is by far the most common problem.

    Cats are funny creatures. They internalize stress differently than most species. The lining of their bladder and urethra tends to become inflamed when they are stressed. Certain ingredient profiles in food can make this worse or better. Dietary factors plus stress equals painful inflamed bladders often with micro-crystals and sludge in the urine formed by inflammatory cells and mineral precipitates. The painful bladder spasms, the urethra spasms, the poor cat starts to associate the litter box with pain and often seeks something soft to urinate on instead like fluffy bathroom rugs or something cool and smooth like your shower stall.

    Did you know that cat’s penises point backwards? Some male cats with urinary pain become especially picky about where they will urinate because of this.

    A minority of these FLUTD cats develop secondary problems like bacterial infections or bladder stones. Unfortunately, for many years, vets just treated these cats for urinary infections and missed the real problems: dietary imbalances and stress.

    Since the advent of prescription urinary support foods like Hill’s C/D or Royal Canin SO, thousands of cats’ lives have been saved.

    When I get a patient who has painful, even bloody urinations, I check for infection and treat that if necessary. I treat the pet with anti-inflammatory and pain medicine and provide some SQ fluids, prescribe a urinary support food and then I sit and have a long chat with the family. What is stressing this cat? How can we fix that underlying problem? Here are some mysteries solved over the years.

    One cat was stressed by a neighborhood stray who would sit and threaten her through a sliding glass window. To us, it just looks like two cats sitting 10-20 feet apart flicking the tips of their tails on the ground and looking at each other. To the cats, it feels like a gangster with a Glock glaring at them through the window with murder in their eyes.

    Another cat was stressed by a new kitten in the house. The owners kept forcing the cat to spend time with the kitten and encouraged the kitten to share (invade!) the cat’s space instead of making sure the older cat had a good refuge and a high perch.

    A couple years ago, a client who was a serious video-gamer came to see me with a cat who had episodes of inappropriate urination. Turns out, it always happened about a week after serious gaming parties at his house when his home was invaded by loud young men and nonstop explosions and gunfire coming from the television.

    If your cat starts to have urinary problems, think back over the past few weeks. Were there new people/animals in the house? Construction projects? Carpet cleaners? Loud parties? Furniture rearrangements? These are very common things that tip FLUTD cats over the edge into a flare up.

    FLUTD is a chronic disease, but it’s something we can manage. Dietary management and stress reduction are key but some cats need additional help--even prozac!

    If your family is having problems with a cat peeing in the house, please come see us! We may be able to help. If you ever see a cat unsuccessfully and painfully trying to pass urine, get him to a vet right away. Total urinary blockages are life threatening emergencies.

    Palliative (Hospice) Care for Pets

    My feathers get a bit ruffled when I hear stories of loving families who have been made to feel guilty or somehow inadequate because they would not or could not pursue advanced medical procedures for their pets. In fact, few things bother me more than the thought that some vets make people feel this way and I’m so very proud to work at a practice where we work with families to come up with treatment plans that make sense for their needs and goals.

    I’m often presented with patients who have serious problems and, whether I’m talking to Bill Gates or someone barely scraping by, my duty as a veterinarian is to do the best job I can to help the pet AND the person by providing sensible options.

    Money aside, extensive, invasive procedures are not right for every pet’s situation. Just because we COULD do something, doesn’t necessarily mean we SHOULD. I need to know what the family’s goals are. Which ultimately is the most important; to extend length of life or to maximize the quality of life? For the individual pet in front of me, what does quality of life mean? Is it being able to run and swim? Or is it simply being able to walk? Would a treatment requiring months of total cage restriction be tolerable? Would a particular cat be overly stressed by trips to a vet’s office twice a week for therapy? Is that even feasible for the family? There is so much more to practicing medicine than knowing dosages and surgical techniques. Good medicine has to start with good open conversations free of guilt and fear.

    We can greatly reduce problems associated with aging and severe disease. We have appetite stimulants, nausea medications, pain medications, supportive therapy such as medical grade laser therapy, easy-to-manage feeding tubes and more. Most of these are extremely affordable. Additionally, we can help advise families to make minor modifications to their homes and vehicles to help pets with traction support and mobility. Simple slings made from beach towels can sometimes add many months or years of good time to an old dog’s life. Astroturf or outdoor carpeting stapled to deck steps can prevent catastrophic falls. A dose of injectable valium kept at home can provide some peace of mind for families with epileptic pets. “Halo” headsets can be fashioned to help blind pets find their way around. Inexpensive subcutaneous fluids administered at home can help old pets with diabetes or kidney problems stay hydrated and feeling good.

    Sadly, we often don’t get a chance to have these conversations because many people are afraid to take their aging, ill or painful pets to the vet. They don’t want to be guilt-tripped into pursuing testing or therapies they can’t afford and they love their pet so much that coming face to face with financial limitations is incredibly painful and stressful. When I was young, my family could not afford much veterinary care and I remember the fear and shame that went along with our rare trips to seek care for our pets. It doesn’t need to be that way. Veterinary care, like any service, does cost money to provide, but together we can usually make a big difference for animals without breaking the bank. Come see us! Let’s talk!