How to not kill your cats: a quick guide for first-time cat owners


Adam Cecil

Adam Cecil

Former Staff Writer

Adam Cecil is a former staff writer for Policygenius, a digital insurance brokerage trying to make sense of insurance for consumers. He is a podcast producer, writer, and video maker based in Brooklyn, NY.

Published April 17, 2017|9 min read

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Don’t believe the old saying about cats having nine lives. Unless your cat is Garfield, they only have one life, and it can be surprisingly fragile. Cats, like all mammals and some cars, are fur-covered sacks of organs, full of moving parts that can break down at any moment. As a cat owner, it is your responsibility to make sure those parts keep moving as long as possible.

I talked to Dr. Stephanie Liff, Medical Director at Pure Paws Veterinary Care of Hell’s Kitchen and human expert on cats, to get an idea of some of the most common ways people ruin their cats’ lives.

First, some obvious, basic cat stuff

This is stuff I thought we all knew, but I guess not.

1. Feed cats cat food.

This seems obvious, but apparently some people don’t do this? Feeding cats commercially available food specifically engineered for cats is absolutely necessary, according to Dr. Liff, because of their species-specific dietary requirements. There’s no specific brand that every cat should eat – every cat is different, and you may need to change up their diet if you encounter medical issues like allergies or dental illness down the line. Either dry food or wet food is fine, though personally I prefer to feed my cats wet food because it more closely mimics their natural diet.

2. Set up a litter box that you clean regularly.

Cats like to poop in a box that smells like their own poop mixed with sand, which, luckily, is exactly what a litter box is. Cats tend to be territorial about their poop and sand, so if you have more than one cat, it’s commonly recommended that you get one litter box for each cat (plus an extra one). On the other hand, one of my friends did this and now her entire basement smells like a very poopy beach.

You should be cleaning out the litter boxes at least once per day. Take this time to casually glance at your cat’s poop, ensuring that everything looks normal.

If you hate the idea of having a small box of poop sand in your house, you can try to toilet train your cats, but Dr. Liff warns that "you’ll lose the ability to look at their poop and urine for signs of illness", which is especially important because…

3. Cats like to hide illness.

So take them to the vet every year, even if nothing seems wrong with them. For a better idea of what an annual vet visit looks like, read this.

3 common and preventable cat diseases

Similar to the way many human beings die from the same causes because of systematic issues with their environment and diets, many cats suffer from the same illnesses, too. Dr. Liff laid out the three most common (and preventable) cat diseases that she treats.

1. Allergies

While we often hear about people who are allergic to cats, we don’t really think about a cat having allergies. Turns out, cats and humans can be allergic to a lot of the same things: pollen, cleaning products, and mornings.

If your cat is allergic to an airborne substance, you’ll probably hear some coughs and sneezes. Food allergies, on the other hand, could show up in a few different ways. Since it’s a digestive allergy, you’re likely to see some vomit on your floor or pillow and diarrhea in their poop sand, but you may also see your cat scratching their ears constantly and getting ear infections.

Dr. Liff told me that often, cat owners will only really notice the ear scratching when they bring their cat in for an annual exam. Most humans don’t directly connect ear scratches with food allergies (because why would you) so it can be hard to diagnose at home if you’re uninformed.

Luckily, allergies are relatively easy to diagnose, treat, and manage with the help of a vet. In the case of food allergies, your vet can help you set up an elimination diet to pinpoint exactly what your cat is allergic to. Other types of allergies can be treated by frequently cleaning your home and bathing your cat to remove environmental allergens.

2. Urinary issues

Fun fact about male cats: they have narrow urethras that make them more likely to experience urinary tract issues in their lifetimes. Break this fact out at parties—it will make people like you.

Once a cat reaches a few years of age, be on the lookout for common signs of urinary issues:

  • Inability to urinate

  • Bloody urine

  • Peeing outside the litter box

  • Frequent visits to the litter box

  • Frequent licking of the urinary opening

  • Increased water consumption

Dr. Liff says that urinary issues aren’t really preventable but are manageable – you may not be able to stop your cat from having urinary issues, but you can be quick to diagnose and work with your vet to come up with a treatment plan.

3. Dental health

As many as 85% of cats three years of age or older have some sort of dental disease. My veterinarian told me that I have to brush my cats’ teeth every day, but Dr. Liff is more realistic: "Not every cat will let you brush their teeth." For cats who are uncomfortable with toothbrushes, there are alternative products available to help prevent tooth decay. Water and food additives can provide some plaque protection, and specially-formulated treats can help remove tartar. There are also some commercially available cat foods designed to help treat and prevent dental disease.

Because dental disease is one of the most common illnesses in cats, it’s something you’ll want to keep track of. If you notice any redness on your cat’s gums or around the base of their tooth, book an appointment with your vet as soon as possible.

Accidents and infighting

Cats are stupid little animals that do stupid things that can end up causing serious physical harm or death. Of course, they’re also at risk from their owners, who also do stupid things that only exacerbate how stupid their cats are, so I guess it’s a draw.

1. High-rise syndrome

The most common accident that Dr. Liff sees is something called "high-rise syndrome." High-rise syndrome is basically the phenomena of cats falling from high places, often an open window in an apartment complex. "These cats aren’t suicidal," Dr. Liff told me, "they just like to chase things."

Luckily, high-rise syndrome is super easy to prevent if you follow these three easy steps:

  • Don’t leave a window open if there’s no screen on it. Even windows with screens aren’t foolproof, because screens can pop out.

  • Don’t let your cat out onto your fire escape.

  • Have a terrace? Lovely. Don’t let your cat out onto it.

Following these three easy steps will help prevent your cat from suffering broken ribs, jaws, and limbs, or a punctured lung, or, in extreme cases, death. High-rise syndrome: stop your cat from being an idiot by not being an idiot yourself.

2. Car accidents

For cats that are allowed to go outside, car accidents are another common way to get injured and/or die. The easiest way to prevent this is to prevent your cat from hanging out near roadways. If you allow your cat to go outside, fence them in to a particular area of your yard. There are many products that can you get to either augment an existing fence or create a cat-specific enclosure.

If you’d rather let your cat roam the neighborhood, know that there’s not a lot you can do to prevent injuries from vehicles or other neighborhood cats. You’ll just have to hope that your cat is smart enough to not run out in front of vehicles.

3. Inter-cat aggression

Another fun fact for you: Donald Trump has two cats in the White House, named Jared and Steve, who hate each other and cannot be in the same room at the same time. (I can’t wait for this reference to be outdated in less than a week.)

Inter-cat aggression is most common when you’re introducing a new cat into a home that already has an established cat. While many cats play somewhat aggressively with each other, you know you have a problem on your hands when your cats end up with serious scratches or bites. You may also note more covert aggression, such as one cat barring another from using the litter box or going near food and water, or the leaving of passive-aggressive notes around the house.

If you already have two cats with a peaceful relationship, you may be shocked to one day notice that their relationship has turned sour. Often, this is the sign of a medical problem – bring both cats into the vet to get them checked out.

You should bring your cats to the vet anytime there is aggression that is causing physical injury or preventing your cat from accessing resources. Your vet can help you come up with a behavior modification plan. If you already have one cat and want to get another, your vet can help you introduce the new cat to your old cat.

Toxins: plants, medication, and more

Cats like to chew on things that they shouldn’t really chew. My cats, for example, love to chew on packing tape. While this is a common way for toxins and other foreign bodies to enter your cat’s body, your cat can also ingest toxins from licking their own fur or paws. Basically, this one’s on you: you have to prevent your cat from getting near any of these toxins because honestly, they just can’t help themselves.

1. Plants

Cats love to chew on plants – hence, the point of cat grass. But there are a ton of houseplants and fruit and vegetables that are toxic to cats. Some common toxic plants include:

  • Lillies

  • Tulip bulbs

  • Rhododendrons

  • Marijuana

  • Amaryllis

It’s usually not enough to just ensure that the plants are away from your cat’s reach – pollen from toxic plants can get on your cat’s fur, which they will lick and then ingest.

Plus, cats can be poisoned by human-friendly foods like grapes, onions, and garlic. Generally, don’t feed your cat anything unless you Google "food name poisonous to cat?" first.

2. Human medication

If you see your cat limping, do not give them Tylenol. If you drop medication on the floor, pick it up immediately, or pick up your cat and lock them in a closet somewhere while you clean up. If you have a medicine cabinet, make sure it is not accessible to your cats. Do not leave pill bottles around with the caps off.

3. String

Cats love playing with string. They also love ingesting string-like household items, like hair ties. Dr. Liff frequently sees cats who have ingested hair ties and need to have them surgically removed, which isn’t fun for the cat and ruins the hair tie. Keep hair ties and string away from your cats, unless they are playing with a cat toy under your supervision.

Cats can live a long time if you don’t kill them

Cats can live anywhere between 10 and 20 years in captivity – if you don’t kill them by opening the wrong window or feeding them dog food first. But if you follow the advice on this list and take your cat(s) to a vet every twelve months, they should live to a ripe old cat age, enjoying retirement by sitting in a rocking chair and espousing racist worldviews just like grandma.