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Ask a Vet: Do Cats Qualify as Low Maintenance Pets?

Cats don't need regular walks like dogs do, but they are surely not "get 'em and forget 'em" pets.

Dr. Eric Barchas  |  Apr 5th 2016


When I was a child my family sometimes would go out of town for the weekend. We took our cats to our vacation spots, but the cats didn’t enjoy the car ride, and it took a few days for them to settle into the place. If we left town for a full week, they would join us. If it was just for a weekend, they would stay at home with a big bowl of food, several water bowls, and access to a clean litter box in the garage. Now that I have more experience with cats, I know that we were flirting with disaster — one of our cats was male (more on that in a moment).

The litter box, which was clean when we left, also would be clean on our arrival. The car in the garage, however, was a different story. There would be streaks of cat urine on the windshield.

We had a theory: The cats were mad at us for leaving them, so they punished us by jumping onto the roof of the car and popping squats over the windshield.

In veterinary school I learned that our theory was wrong. Cats don’t experience emotions such as anger (I was told) and they don’t have a drive for revenge. They are uncomplicated creatures who experience a lower level emotion: stress. The cats urinated on the windshield as a simple stress response.

Photo of Dr. Eric Barchas by Liz Acosta

Photo of Dr. Eric Barchas by Liz Acosta

My subsequent professional and life experiences, however, have changed my perspective. Cats are remarkably intelligent. They are not uncomplicated creatures, and an ever growing body of scientific evidence demonstrates that their emotional lives are rich and nuanced. Cats certainly experience anger, and I wouldn’t be surprised if their minds are sufficiently sophisticated to contemplate revenge. At this time in my life I’m inclined to believe my family’s original theory.

All this calls into question a widely held belief, or rather myth, that cats are low maintenance pets. I have known many people who opted to adopt a cat instead of a dog because they didn’t want to put in the work that a dog entails. Cats don’t need to be walked, after all.

But anyone who truly understands cats knows that they should not be treated as “get ’em and forget ’em” pets. Cats live complex lives, and they have phenomenally intricate social structures. Cats are survivors. They can get by without human interaction. But to truly thrive they need us and they need our love. Without enrichment, they get bored and act out. Worse still, cats who are starved of attention, love, and entertainment may suffer serious medical problems.

My family’s cats had a habit of urinating on our car when we went out of town. But when I look back on it, we were lucky that our male cat kept urinating at all.

angry-cat-teeth-shutterstock_15354943.jpg

A cat shows his teeth by Shutterstock

Cats suffer from a high rate of a very unfortunate condition called feline idiopathic cystitis or FIC. This condition also goes by the names of feline low urinary tract disease and feline urological syndrome. It is a condition that results in irritation of the bladder and the urethra.

The symptoms of FIC include painful urination, inappropriate urination (house- or perhaps in some instances car-soiling), and bloody urine. Under the best of circumstances it is quite miserable for the poor cat involved. For male cats, however, things can get even worse.

Let’s not mince words. Male cats are not well endowed creatures. They have small genitals, and that means that their urethras are narrow. A male cat who suffers from FIC may experience swelling and spasming of the urethra. A plug of mucus, a blood clot, or crystalline debris from the bladder can get stuck in the urethra of a male cat who suffers from FIC; subsequently the urethra becomes occluded and the cat becomes unable to urinate. The result is catastrophic.

Imagine the pain that such a cat suffers. His bladder fills to its most extreme possible level. After that, the situation becomes life threatening. When the bladder can hold no more urine, the kidneys have no place to send it. The system shuts down. Kidney failure and electrolyte imbalances result, and without rapid intervention, affected cats die.

The causes of FIC are unknown, but they almost certainly are multifactorial. Heredity appears to play a significant role. Urine chemistry plays a role, and diet affects urine chemistry. Therefore, diet probably is a factor in the condition (many experts believe that dry food is a special culprit).

Make no mistake: Well-tended cats who receive all of the love, enrichment, and attention in the world can suffer from FIC and urinary obstruction. But one factor that predisposes cats to the syndrome is not contentious at all: stress.

Over the years I have seen many cats who suffered urinary obstructions when their owners went out of town. Sometimes they are brought to my office by pet sitters. Others come in after their owners return and find them moribund. Worst are the ones who are found dead by their unfortunate owners when they get home.

I’m not saying that my family’s cats suffered from FIC that caused them to urinate on the car. They may have been acting out from the stress of our absence.

But if cats were truly low maintenance creatures, such concerns would not exist. Cats wouldn’t develop urinary problems in response to stressful life changes such as owner vacations, marriages, divorces, child births, or adoptions of new cats. Cats living in the same house wouldn’t fight with each other when their owners argue. They wouldn’t claw the furniture when their owners have difficult work projects that cause them to be preoccupied.

Cats are not simple creatures, and they are not low maintenance pets.