Feline Fact and Fiction
Are cats capable of mating with bunnies? Is it true that neutering a Siamese cat will uncross his eyes? For the record, the answers are no and no. Still, veterinarians like Dr. Bernadine Cruz of Laguna Woods, California, have learned to expect strange but sincere questions like these from owners who are as curious as, well, their cats.
In the fascinating world of felines, fiction can sometimes blur fact. Gospel truths are anything but, and so-called impossibilities can be 100% certainties. We surveyed some of the country’s top veterinarians and animal behavior consultants to set the record straight on six of the most common cat myths.
1. CATS CAN'T SWIM AND HATE GETTING WET
Perhaps you have not met a Bengal or Turkish Van—two breeds that are eager to join their owners in showers or bathtubs. “All five of my Bengals would love to join me in the shower if I let them. They love to play in water,” says Marilyn Krieger, a cat behavior consultant in Redwood City, California, and coordinator of the California Bengal Rescue organization. As for Turkish Vans, they sport the nickname “swimming cats.” According to Joan Miller, an all-breed judge and officer of the Cat Fanciers’ Association, this smart, athletic breed loves to fetch, swim, jump, and even perform dog-like tricks. But, she warns, keep bathroom doors shut and toilet lids down. Turkish Vans tend to like to flush the toilet and drop objects into the toilet bowl.
2. POINTSETTIAS ARE DEADLY FOR CATS
“The dangers of poinsettias have been greatly exaggerated,” says Dr. Jill Richardson, a New Jersey veterinarian with expertise in toxicology. “The truth is that poinsettias are not dangerous plants for cats. The leaves do contain a thick white sap, and if the plant is chewed by your cat, you may see mild signs of stomach upset, but the plant is not lethal.”
The more startling truth: Lilies rank as the most lethal plants for cats—and not just the Easter lily variety, but also the tiger lily, Japanese show lily, and some species of day lily, reports Dr. Richardson. “Ingesting a small amount of the plant can cause severe poisoning in a cat,” she warns. “Unless you take your cat to a veterinarian for treatment right away, the cat can develop kidney failure in a day or two and die.”
If you love plants in your home, select cat-friendly varieties like catnip, orchids, and garden marigolds. Not sure what’s safe or dangerous? The ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center posts lists of toxic and nontoxic plants on its website (www.aspca.org).
3. MILK IS GOOD FOR CATS.
Generally speaking, cats should not drink milk. Most cats are lactose intolerant, so drinking milk can cause gastrointestinal disturbances, such as diarrhea and vomiting, warns Dr. Arnold Plotnick, who operates Manhattan Cat Specialists in New York City. Generally, it is best to avoid giving your cat any people food.
4. CATS ONLY PURR WHEN CONTENT.
There is something almost magical and beckoning about a cat purring on one’s lap. But cats purr for reasons beyond contentment.
Newborn kittens are born blind, so a mother cat will purr to orient her kittens toward her at feeding time. Cats also purr when they are sick or even in the process of dying as a self-calming technique, explains Dr. Plotnick.
5. CATS CAN'T GET HEARTWORMS.
This long-standing misconception fooled even some veterinarians—until a major educational campaign was launched earlier this year by the American Heartworm Society (AHS) and the American Association of Feline Practitioners.
“I didn’t believe heartworm disease occurred in cats, but I very quickly found out that I was wrong,” notes Dr. Tom Nelson, past president of AHS. “Each year, cats die needlessly from complications related to this very preventable disease. Now, I’m one of the biggest supporters of heartworm prevention in cats.”
Heartworm affects cats differently than dogs; as a result, some heartworm-positive cats may be misdiagnosed as having asthma or allergic bronchitis. Cats kept indoors are not safe from heartworms either. A recent study conducted at North Carolina State University revealed that 28% of cats diagnosed with heartworms never ventured outdoors.
6. CATS CAN BE TREATED LIKE SMALL DOGS.
In many ways, this myth certainly is not true, but owners need to be especially cautious when it comes to medication. Products such as flea and tick preventives and pain medications are specific to dogs and cats—and for good reason. Dr. Plotnick explains that although dogs easily tolerate insecticide that is found in some topical parasite products, “certain products are labeled for use in dogs only because they may cause health problems if applied to cats.” If both dogs and cats share your home, read and re-read the product labels each month to make sure you give cat-only parasite products to your feline friend.
Another group of drugs that is particularly dangerous to cats is over-the-counter pain relievers containing acetaminophen (such as Tylenol), aspirin, and ibuprofen. None of these drugs should be given to cats under any circumstances, and, in fact, these drugs may also harm dogs. Only medications prescribed by a veterinarian should be given to cats—or dogs.
Myth: Cat hair causes allergies. Fact: Sneezing and reddened eyes are due to allergic reactions to a protein that is found mostly in a cat’s skin and saliva—not hair.
- Myth: Calico cats are always female. Fact: One in 3,000 calicos is male.