Your Cat: The Owner's Manual

Hundreds of Secrets, Surprises, and Solutions for Raising a Happy, Healthy Cat


By Dr. Marty Becker

With Gina Spadafori

Foreword by Dr. Jane Brunt

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Dr. Marty Becker has become known as “America’s Veterinarian” because of his educational and entertaining shows and columns. For more than ten years, Dr. Becker has been the popular veterinary contributor to ABC-TV’s Good Morning America and is now a member of Core Team Oz on Dr. Mehmet Oz’s show.

Dr. Becker will help owners solve problems and enhance their bond with their cats through a tip-filled book on everything from finding the right cat to preventing health problems and bad behavior. He will start owners off on the right foot, whether they buy a kitten or adopt an older cat, showing them how to solve the most annoying behavior and cat-care problems–from scratching furniture to not using the litter-box. (Surprising fact: did you know that black cats shed more than light-colored cats?) And he advises owners how to make their own cat toys, and how to save money on medication, both traditional and alternative.


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Table of Contents

Copyright Page

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I'm going to start off with a confession: growing up, I never used to think that much about cats.

Before you put this book down and wonder why I'm writing about cats now, let me tell you two things: first, it has been decades since I felt that way; and second, you have to know that I grew up on a dairy farm.

The animals on our farm were all well-treated, they all had jobs (so did us farm kids), and they all worked as hard as we did to survive. And while we worked pretty closely with many of our animals, the cats were… well, independent contractors. They were barn cats, and they hung out because a farm is a good place to live if you like to eat rodents, which is what barn cats did—and still do, in many places. This relationship has endured for thousands of years, ever since people started farming. Our farming attracted vermin, and our vermin attracted cats.

As humans, we have domesticated many animals, but you can argue that the cat domesticated himself; hanging with us was a choice cats made, not the other way around. Even though they chose us, cats drew the line at how far domesticated they would be, which is why so many cats still live wild today. No other animal works both sides of the wild-tame line as well as a cat.

Growing up as a farm kid, I appreciated cats mostly for the job they did. But in the decades since I left farming and became a veterinarian, I learned to appreciate them as companions, and to love them as well. As a veterinarian, I became a strong advocate for cats, in terms of their health and their safety, and I have dedicated much of my time to making their lives better, so the people who love them can enjoy their companionship more.

I've written a lot about cats over the years, and shared many tips with my TV, radio, Internet, and print audiences. But with this book, I'm doing what I've wanted to do for years: put everything cat lovers need to know all in one place.

So what do you need to know? You'd think after so many thousands of years together, people would have cats all figured out by now: how to choose and feed one, how to train one, how to choose supplies, how to manage basic home care, how to recognize a veterinary emergency, and how to get a veterinarian's help. And, as is so important in these get-thrifty times, how to spend well and wisely.

Yeah, we ought to know all of that by now. Really, we should. But we don't.

I can tell you this from my side of the exam-room table as a practicing veterinarian: many cat lovers really don't know everything they need to about their cats, except for the one thing we all know—we love our cats, and our cats love us.

I've spent more than thirty years as a veterinarian, and half of that as an expert on Good Morning America and, more recently, on The Dr. Oz Show. All of this experience, and I still get many of the same questions I did my first day of the practice. I'm still answering those questions every day, not only from people who see me at the veterinary hospitals (yes, I still practice, because I love it), but also from people who recognize me in an airport (I travel about half my life) and even from friends and neighbors.

Part of the problem is that while cats haven't changed that much, our relationship with them has changed a great deal in a short amount of time. As I mentioned, I grew up on a dairy farm in Idaho, one of those storybook places where we had a little bit of everything growing and needing care. Even as a young boy, I was involved in caring for animals—and my dad meant it when he said to treat them right. One of my first farm jobs was collecting eggs from our chickens, and I figured out I could get all those hens out of the nest if I just walked into the coop and yelled, "Boo!" They'd run, and collecting those eggs would be easy, or so I thought… until my dad caught me at this and let me know what I was doing would not fly.

That was an early lesson. Next up: my youthful amazement at watching a veterinarian come out to our farm and bring back a cow from what seemed near death with a simple procedure. A miracle!

Is it any wonder I do what I do and love it? Animals, the people who love them, and the profession that cares for them both—these are the reasons I was put on this earth, I know.

But back to cats. While the cats of my youth were hardworking mousers, the cats most of us have today are "born retired." And many of them live completely indoors. While that's generally considered an advantage—indoor cats generally live longer than free-roaming cats—life indoors has challenges. Many cats are bored, and many cats are fat, and both of these situations can and often do lead to health problems.

What you need to help your cat is this manual.

Yes, I know a lot of people pride themselves on never reading the manual. But life is so complicated these days that if you don't read the manual you're missing out. With a new smartphone, you may be missing that tip that's going to save you lots of time. With a new cat, you may be missing out on a great way to spend that time you saved…

… with your cat.

You're going to have "America's Veterinarian" with you on every page, answering every question old and new with answers that have been practiced and researched with the best veterinarians in the world.

You and your cat are worth it, and I'm happy to help.

Dr. Marty Becker, "America's Veterinarian"



Everyone has a unique idea of the "perfect" cat, and how a cat lover arrives at that vision doesn't seem to have a lot to do with logic—it has to do with love. And that's fine, really. Aside from being careful about the few cats or kittens with truly severe health or behavior problems, you really can just follow your heart when it comes to choosing a feline companion.

This is just one area where cats have a definite advantage over dogs. Getting a dog is like walking through a minefield with so many dangerous missteps that you cannot see: breeds that are a horrid match for many lifestyles, some breeders (large puppy mills as well as smaller operations that are either careless or clueless) you must avoid for your own good and for the good of the dogs, and even the occasional rescue or shelter dog who just has too much baggage to handle. That's why, when I was writing Your Dog: The Owner's Manual, I devoted huge sections to helping you choose a dog, paying very careful attention to both the big picture (breed-related health and temperament problems, and bad breeders versus good ones) and the small picture (problems with an individual puppy or dog).

But with cats, I'm going to tell you: If you want a female adult cat with tuxedo markings… go for her! If you dream of a big, long-haired orange male tabby kitten, no problem!

With just a few cautions—yes, there are kitten mills just as there are puppy mills, but they're easily avoided—you really can have the cat of your dreams. Check the shelters! Check with rescue groups! Adopt two—contrary to popular belief, most cats are very social. They not only enjoy but also need company.

Blinded by love? It's pretty much okay. Love will get you a long way—even love at first sight. And I know all about that. After all, I've been married for more than three decades to a woman I adored from the day I met her. And she and I have both been known to take home pets on impulse, although that last part is pretty typical among us veterinarians. We tend to collect hard-luck cases. (My very funny friend, Dr. Tony Johnson, an emergency and critical care specialist at the Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine, has an entire family of pets all named for what they were suffering from when he met them in the ER. There's Arrow, the cat who'd been shot by one; and Crispy, the burn-victim cat; and I'm sure I don't have to explain about his dog, Tripod.)

That tugging of heartstrings is a fine impulse, and I want you to act on it, more than once, when it comes to cats (with marriages, stick to one, or at least one at a time). After you get your cat or kitten home, then the work (and the fun!) begins. And that's what this section is all about.

Now, let's get choosing.

Look at you: you need a cat. And, just as important, there's a cat out there who needs you. Preferably (or should that be purr-fur-ably?) two.

If the collar doesn't fit, you must admit: cats are not small dogs. They need and deserve to be treated like cats, both behaviorally and medically.

Chapter 1


Some people are born into cat-loving families, while others have cats thrust upon them through marriage to a cat lover, an inheritance from a family member, or sometimes a cat who just shows up at the door. And then there are those who independently make the decision to take up life with a cat. However you came to love cats, welcome. You are a member of an exceptional club. You are entering into a unique relationship that can be joyful, entertaining, sometimes frustrating, but in the end always rewarding. Life with a cat is special, if you know what to expect and how to play the feline rules. Dogs can bend to human will. Cats? They'll bend a little, but not much.

Cats are surrounded by myths and misconceptions. It's no wonder that they are often misunderstood. I want to help you separate fact from fiction when it comes to this interesting and intriguing animal.

Remember: cats are not small dogs.

When you are reading about different cat breeds or reading the personality descriptions of cats at a shelter, you may come across some that are described as "doglike." It's true that some cats, like dogs, will follow you around, play fetch, or go for walks on leash. But that is where the resemblance ends. Cats differ from dogs in many ways.

First of all, their nutritional needs are different. Cats are what biologists call "obligate carnivores," which means they must have meat in their diet to survive. Lots of meat. While dogs can exist on a diet that contains large amounts of grain, cats need meat protein to be at the top of their game. Meat contains a nutrient called taurine that is essential for heart and eye health and normal cell, muscle, and skeletal function. Cats can't synthesize taurine on their own, so they must get it from their diet. Cats also have other nutritional requirements that vary from those of dogs, such as the type of vitamin A they can use. That's why you should never feed your cat the same food you give your dog. Cats don't need carbs; when they go on a diet, it is high protein like the Atkins diet, which is often referred to as the Catkins diet.

A cat's physiology is different, too. Cats metabolize drugs differently than dogs or people. It's very dangerous to give a cat the same drug you or I or the small dog next door might take, even if it's for the same type of problem. Take pain, for instance. I've seen clients kill their cats by going to the medicine chest and giving their cats aspirin or Tylenol (acetaminophen). The same holds true for parasite treatments. Never apply a flea or tick treatment or a shampoo made for dogs to your cat. Always call your veterinarian first and ask if a particular medication is safe for your cat and at what dose.

Another difference between dogs and cats is the way cats express pain. Well, it's not really different. It's almost nonexistent. It's much easier to notice pain in a dog because we tend to interact with dogs directly. We take them on walks and we see whether they're limping, for instance, or moving more slowly. Or see them hesitate to jump up on the couch or the bed, or climb into the car or up the stairs. With cats, it's much more difficult to see the changes in mobility that signal injury or arthritis. Unless you happen to see your cat while he's doing his business in the litter box, you might not notice that he's having more difficulty squatting or no longer does that Rockettes-high kick to cover his scat. You also might not notice that he doesn't jump to the top of the bookcase or cat tree anymore, and you might like it that he no longer jumps on the kitchen counter. Notice that he hasn't been able to groom himself very well lately? Perhaps all you notice is that he's been sleeping more lately, and hey, that's what cats do, isn't it?

Because cats are both predator and prey, they make a point of hiding any kind of weakness. They know instinctively that displaying pain puts them at risk from other predators, so they do their best to mask it. There's a big neon sign in the wild that flashes "Sick Is Supper!" so cats have evolved to keep pain hidden. That stoicism works to their disadvantage when it comes to veterinary care. The signs that a cat is in pain are so subtle that most people miss them, unless they are keen observers of their cats.

I know this is only the first chapter of the book, but the following mantra is so important it deserves to be stressed: Cats can't take care of themselves, and they need to see a veterinarian regularly. It's a mystery to me why people are so much less likely to provide veterinary care for their cats than their dogs. Cats are the most popular pets in America, yet veterinarians are seeing a decline in veterinary visits for cats. That's a shame, because cats need and deserve great veterinary care to ensure that they live long, happy, healthy lives. They might be intelligent and independent creatures, but they can't doctor themselves—at least not yet. Providing your cat with regular veterinary care is a good investment, and it's one of the responsibilities you owe your cat when you bring him into your life. Cats have been called the "pet of convenience" for how easy it is to care for them, but they shouldn't be considered self-supporting, because they do rely on us for adequate food, water, shelter, preventive care, and treatments for accidents and illnesses. There are literally millions of cats living in homes suffering needlessly from arthritis, asthma, urinary problems, dental disease, metabolic conditions, parasites—I could go on and on—just because their owners didn't know what to look for or to take them to the veterinarian (who does know what to look for) for regular examinations, preventive health care, and treatment.


If you've never had a cat, you may have some misconceptions about the feline species. Here are eight myths you may have heard about cats, along with the real scoop on what they're like.

1. Cats Are Standoffish

One of the most common beliefs about cats is that they are independent and aloof, preferring their own company to that of people. Nothing could be further from the truth. It's true that cats in general are less "needy" than dogs, but most cats love spending time with their people, whether they're playing with toys or just sitting in a lap motor-purring. Know that being a lap cat is genetically influenced. Feline behaviorists used to think you could turn any cat into a lap cat, but it's not so. When cat lovers understand that sitting within eighteen inches is being friendly enough for some cats, they'll feel better about not having a full-on lap cat and accept their pets as they are.

2. Cats Are Not Affectionate and Don't Need Attention

This is another common misconception about cats. Cats are great companions for people who are away from home during the day, and it's true that cats are more able than dogs to stay on their own if you must be away overnight, but don't assume that they can get by with little or no attention. On the whole, they like it better when you're around. It's not unusual for cats to follow their people around like little shadows and to hop into a lap just as soon as one is available. Cats can even develop separation anxiety if they are left alone too frequently or for long periods. But don't expect all cats to enjoy prolonged stroking and petting—sometimes it overstimulates them. Massaging often works better than endlessly stroking the fur.

3. Cats Require Access to the Outdoors to Be Happy

Cats love the outdoors, no doubt about it, but it's full of dangers for them: speeding cars, marauding dogs, crazy cat attacks, parasites, and poisons set out for pests, to name just a few. But with the right environmental enrichment and regular playtime and exercise, indoor cats can live happily and never miss the great outdoors.

4. Cats Can't Get Along with Dogs

We tend to think of them as dire enemies or cartoon warriors, but more often than not, cats and dogs can be fast friends. It's not unusual to see them curled up together for a nap, grooming one another, or playing a game of tag. Foster interspecies friendships by introducing cats and dogs at an early age, while they are still open to new experiences. Even older cats and dogs can become best buds, though, with proper introductions. Don't just throw them together like you would two stepchildren from polar opposite parts of the world. That can be stressful and dangerous for all involved. Planning and patience win the day.

If you have a dog and are planning to add a cat to your household, start by confining the cat to a small area such as a guest bath or bedroom. He'll feel safe there, but he will still be able to hear and smell your dog. Spend lots of time with him in his safe room so he doesn't feel isolated.

In a couple of days, your cat will be feeling more comfortable in his new home, and you can schedule a first meeting with the dog. Put the dog on leash and open the door to the cat's room. Put the dog in a sit-stay or down-stay position, and don't let him lunge at the cat. Let the cat decide whether or how closely to approach the dog. Don't feed them that day before this exercise and give tasty treats to both animals for good behavior.

For the next couple of weeks, keep the dog on leash when the cat is present, and make sure the cat always has an escape route if he doesn't want to be near the dog. Increase the amount of time they spend together, and keep giving plenty of rewards and praise for behaving nicely toward each other. When they're calm around each other, you can take off the leash and let them begin what may well become a lifelong friendship.

5. Cats Can't Be Trained

Surprise! With the right motivation, which for most felines means rewards for correct behavior, cats are highly trainable. You can teach a cat just about anything you want to teach him, as long as it doesn't require opposable thumbs or barking for a treat. The benefit of training is that it is an interspecies communication system. Once you learn how to train your cat, there's almost no behavior problem you can't overcome.

6. Cats Spread Toxoplasmosis and Women Who Are Pregnant Should Get Rid of Their Cats to Protect the Fetus

Not true at all! Do you think that female veterinarians and veterinary technicians stop working with cats during the nine months of their pregnancy? No way. In fact, they have no higher levels of exposure to toxoplasma than the general population. With certain easy precautions, the risk of infection to the developing fetus is virtually nil.

There's more on this in Chapter 9, but the important takeaway is this: no matter what well-meaning relatives and friends (and even some doctors) tell you, you don't have to get rid of your cat when you're expecting.

Have someone else clean the litter box, and if that's not possible, wear gloves when you do so. Cook meat well, and wash your hands thoroughly after handling meat. The risk of getting toxoplasmosis from gardening is much greater, and you should always wash vegetables well, and wear gloves when gardening. These precautions will minimize risk, and your cat can stay to help raise your child. (Pets are good for children, you know.)

7. Cats Will Harm Babies by Sucking Their Breath or Lying on Them and Smothering Them

If you didn't follow the advice for dumping your cat during pregnancy, chances are someone will insist you need to do so when you have an infant in the house. This mistaken fairy tale of killer cats probably began because cats enjoyed curling up near babies and sharing their warm, soft bedding. When the babies died from other causes, the cats got the blame for the death. The truth is that women, babies, and cats have lived together safely for thousands of years. Of course, you should always supervise your baby and cat when they are together, and it's best that they don't share a bassinet, but you don't have to worry that your cat has it in for your baby.

8. Cats Eat Grass and Other Plants Because They're Sick

Nope, they're just connoisseurs of the green stuff. Cats love the taste and texture of grass, young shoots sprinkled with dew or rainwater. Grass also provides roughage that helps to work food through the system, so eating grass needn't be discouraged. In fact, if you have an indoor cat, you should plant grass for him or her.


Having a cat is like bringing a bit of wild nature right into your home. The little lion who lounges on your sofa is not really so far removed from his big cousin, the king of beasts. When you watch your house cat stalk a grasshopper and then see a lion on television stalking a zebra, the similarity is unmistakable.

No matter what their size, cats are lethally armed warriors cloaked in elegant camouflage. Their loosely connected spines allow them to coil up in a ball, then spring up or out, landing softly and silently. Their retractable claws whip out like switchblades when they're needed and stay sheathed when they're not. Large, close-set eyes, natural night vision, and a broad head and short jaw allow them to spot prey and deliver a perfectly placed killing bite. Cats are adapted to every environment, from forests and plains, to mountains and jungles, to deserts and snowy steppes.

I'm not trying to scare you, far from it. I want to open your eyes to the wonder that is the cat. When you live with one of these miniature predators, you have a front-row seat to nature at work, right there from your sofa. If you can accept that a cat will always carry a little bit of the wild inside him, a little bit of an unpredictable nature, you will come to appreciate him all the more.

Kitten or cat? Male or female? One cat, two,… or more? There are pros and cons both to starting young and to adopting an adult, and advantages as well to starting two cats at once.

Chapter 2


You want a cat. You're ready for a cat. You know what it takes to keep a cat, and to keep a cat happy. You look at those "pet of the week" pictures and think, "I ought to run to the shelter now!" Or you look at and scan the ads like it's a dating site. This one? Nah, too much fur. This one? Hmmm, "no kids." That one? Sweet face, but what about the calico one here? Click. Click. Click.

Choice, choices, choices. They're endless and you can make a lot of good ones. But you can't know what will work for you, your family, and your lifestyle until you narrow the choices.

Now, as a veterinarian, I've treated all kinds of cats. Males, females, docile to downright ornery, kittens to feline AARP members, long-haired to no-haired (either hairless breeds like the Sphynx or ones suffering from medical conditions). While there have been a few individual cats I could have lived without knowing—and like every veterinarian, I have the scars to prove it—I can't say there's any type of cat I don't love.

But I do see a lot of mismatches, and I feel just awful when a relationship's not working out. Many times problems can be fixed, or at least managed with some—and sometimes a lot—of effort. Life is full of compromises, true, but if you start out with some commonsense foundations when you're looking for a cat, you'll have a better chance of making that perfect match.


On Sale
May 1, 2012
Page Count
320 pages

Dr. Marty Becker

About the Author

Dr. Marty Becker, “America’s Veterinarian” has been the popular contributor to ABC-TV’s Good Morning America for 10 years,and is the resident veterinarian on The Dr. Oz Show. He writes a Universal Uclick Syndicated column with Gina Spadafori, Pet Connection; is a contributor to Parade Magazine, and was voted “companion animal Veterinarian of the year.” He is also co-author of the fastest-selling pet book in history, Chicken Soup for the Pet Lover’s Soul. Dr. Becker still enjoys his work as a practicing veterinarian, at the North Idaho Animal Hospital.

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