Indoor Cats Need Vet Care Too!

cat near the window

Do you have a cat at home that hasn’t been to the vet since it was spayed or neutered? Let’s face it, indoor cats get the short end of the stick when it comes to healthcare.

I understand the difficulty in taking anyone to the doctor, let alone an animal that doesn’t want to go. This past month, my four cats were all due for annual wellness exams, vaccines, and bloodwork. I do bloodwork on all my animals every year to make sure they’re healthy inside and out. I live approximately 20 minutes from my clinic, and my options are to take all four in a huge, heavy kennel or take them separately. The kennel gets it done in one day, and I only have to listen to them “sing” for a single commute. But getting four cats into one carrier is a bit like playing whack-a-mole, and I can’t lift the carrier once they’re inside. I opted for one cat in a small carrier, taking them one by one.

My cats don’t like traveling in a carrier and car any more than your cats. Two settle down after a few minutes and then hide in my office the rest of the day. The other two yowl the entire trip. Since they get stressed, I do the Fear Free thing and give them an antianxiety medication an hour or so prior to leaving. It takes the edge off, and they’re calmer for the trip, exam, and ride back home.

Why do indoor cats need to go to the vet if they aren’t sick? Because indoor cats are not enclosed in a bubble—they can be exposed to viruses and parasites and aren’t immune to obesity, behavioral problems, and dental or other diseases.

A lot of people think indoor cats don’t need vaccinations, but while they aren’t at risk for feline leukemia or FIV, which is spread through cat bites or saliva, they can be exposed to viruses that cause upper respiratory diseases and rabies. If you saw a sick, stray kitten on the street, would you pick it up and take it home to nurse it or transport it to the shelter? When you come in contact with a stray cat, you can bring those viruses home and infect your cat. One client’s child took horseback riding lessons where there were barn cats. Out of the blue, the older indoor-only cat developed an upper respiratory infection. I’m sure it was from a virus brought home on shoes, clothes, or hands.

Indoor cats also get outside accidentally. My cats go out on the deck when I let my dog outside, and many cats spend time on screened-in porches. Stray cats can come up to the screens and hiss or sneeze, passing viruses through the screen.

Rabies vaccinations are required by law, but that isn’t the only reason your cat should receive them. Although not terribly common, bats can get into your house. They’re able to locate very small openings in homes and buildings. Rabid skunks, raccoons, or foxes will not act normally and frequently can be seen during the day. Theoretically, they could dash into your house. Rabies is almost 100 percent fatal. Finally, if your cat bites someone and isn’t up to date on the rabies vaccine, the cat will be required to have a 10-day rabies observation period.

Roundworm eggs can be found in potting soil. My cats like to dig then clean the dirt out of their paws. Incidentally, aluminum foil over the dirt can prevent cats from digging. Roaches, along with earthworms, birds, and rodents, are paratenic hosts for roundworms. In these animals, the roundworm eggs don’t mature into adults, but the eggs can infect cats, dogs, and humans. Most kittens are born with roundworms, so if you brought a kitten home that wasn’t checked for parasites or adequately dewormed, the roundworms could be spread through a shared litter box. It’s important to have your indoor cat’s poop checked yearly.

Heartworms can infect indoor cats, and are spread by mosquitoes. The risk is lower for indoor cats, but it’s still plausible. We don’t have a lot of heartworm infections in Wisconsin, but the numbers are increasing. They’re a big problem in the southern states, which is where the majority of rescue dogs come from. Because of a four- to six-month incubation period, dogs that tested negative when rescued could still be infected and show a positive later. Mosquitoes biting infected dogs can easily spread the disease to other dogs and cats in the area. Did you know mosquitoes can fly up to two miles? Fleas and ticks can also infest indoor-only cats. They hitchhike on your socks or clothes or jump off a dog that is taking a flea and tick preventative, and the inside environment is perfect for them. Using a flea, tick, and heartworm preventative is important, even for indoor cats.

Regular wellness exams are an opportunity to talk about new or different cat behaviors. While being indoor only is safer overall, many cats develop behavior problems due to boredom, lack of activity, and easy food access. They need more environmental enrichment than cats that go outside. Not having activities to occupy the brain leads to stress, and stress can lead to inappropriate scratching, not using the litter box, and becoming aggressive with other family members.

Obesity is also a problem for indoor cats, as they generally get less exercise and don’t have to hunt for food. Many cat foods contain far too many calories, and having food always available or regularly dumped into a bowl doesn’t require any work on the cat’s part. An annual exam should include a body condition scoring (BCS) assessment and diet discussion. If the vet sees your cat annually, they can also monitor for sudden changes in weight. I examined a cat that was overweight for five years. This year, the cat was down three pounds. The owners hadn’t noticed the weight loss—the cat was diabetic. If I hadn’t seen the cat regularly, it may have become ill and not easily treated before the owners noticed.

Dental disease affects indoor cats as frequently as outdoor cats. Resorptive lesions (sort of like cavities that eventually reach the root canal) are very painful and often affect a cat’s overall behavior before it’s appetite. The slowing down that many people attribute to age is often due to chronic disease. Gum disease and inflammation can also affect the kidneys, liver, and heart. Most owners don’t look at their cat’s teeth and gums very often, if ever, so it’s important that your veterinarian does. There are many other diseases that affect cats: hyperthyroidism, inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis, lymphoma, kidney disease, and heart disease. Cats are great at hiding pain.

An annual wellness exam also allows your vet to get to know your cat, which allows them to pick up on subtle changes when they occur. There’s nothing more sad or frustrating than seeing a cat whose disease is so advanced that it can’t be helped. All cats deserve to receive good medical care.

Photograph by Brenda Eckhardt

Lori Scarlett, DVM, is the owner and veterinarian at Four Lakes Veterinary Clinic. For more information, visit .