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The case for the quantified cat

Cats aren’t great at communicating.


AJ Dellinger


When my cat was diagnosed with chronic kidney failure, I spent nearly as much time thinking back as I did thinking forward.

Her future would consist of nightly fights with a prodding needle to inject her with the water and nutrients needed to help her kidneys function as the slowly stopped filtering waste on their own. The vet said by the time they caught it, her kidneys had already lost about 75 percent of their function.

That seems so far gone. I wanted to know what caused it and if it could have been prevented because I genuinely wanted to know, but selfishly because I wanted to be cleared of responsibility; if the vet said, “No, there was nothing you could have done,” then at least I wouldn’t have failed my cat.

As it turns out, I did fail her.

She gave hints and outright indicators that her body was quitting on her, I just didn’t know to look for them. She didn’t exhibit signs of being in pain, but had been drinking more and more water in an attempt to supplement her failing kidneys. I was completely ignorant that her behavior meant anything other than she was just thirsty.

Steve Dale, a board member of the Winn Feline Foundation and certified animal behavior consultant (CABC), told me, “We have a nation of cats that are probably dehydrated.”

“If you ask veterinarians, they report seeing a lot of cats that are well cared for, that have water bowls all over the house, that are a bit dehydrated.”

Pura, a smart water fountain that positions itself somewhere between high-tech pet product and potential life saver, is aiming to solve this problem.

The luxury model cat fountain currently searching for $100,000 in funding on IndieGoGo offers insight into a cat’s drinking habits that owners otherwise wouldn’t have. A proximity-sensitive tag that sits on the cat’s collar activates the water fountain, releasing a cascade of water when the pet gets near. Their drinking habits are tracked and pushed to the owner’s phone to provide ongoing insight into the cat’s water intake.

That information could prove to be vital in the life of your cat, as drinking behavior can be indicative of all sorts of health complications. Knowing when the changes occur—and more importantly, that they occurred at all—means you can take action.

“I think it’s a brilliant idea,” Dale said. “If it’s accurate, it’s a great tool.”

Dale discussed some of the many reasons why many cats may be dehydrated despite having water available to them: shared dishes, warm or stale water, territorial issues, and boredom were among the primary possibilities.

When it comes to addressing those multitudes of issues that may prevent a cat from absorbing the proper amount of H2O, Pura checks just about every box on the list.

The ID tag makes it easy to identify which cat is drinking, the filtering system and location monitor makes sure the water is fresh, and the motion of the water is enticing and entertaining. It’s not an ultimate solution, as there’s no way to keep cats from getting protective over water as a resource in multi-cat homes, but it’s a marked improvement over other options.

And then, of course, there’s the cat-itude variable. Because they have no concept of human currency and don’t actually care how much you spend on something, they very well could turn up their nose and whiskers at Pura, which is set to retail for just short of $200.

A 2010 study found the presence of a water fountain essentially negligible when it comes to increasing water intake in cats. Of the 13 cats that partook in the experiment, 12 remained essentially the same in their behavior while one experienced “excessive barbering, vomiting, and refusal to drink water offered from the fountain,” which probably wasn’t a fun time for anyone, especially the poor cat.

None of that information should be taken for gospel; there are tons of unknowns about our feline companions. Cat’s aren’t “dumb,” but we’re pretty dumb about cats.  

That’s primarily because they’re next to impossible to study. While studies regularly offer revelations about the minds and behaviors of dogs and other more cooperative domesticated animals, figuring out cats is a much trickier proposition. That’s one big reason pet owners might want to quantify their cats with the use of smart gadgets like Pura.

In the mean time, an easy way to affect the amount of fluid your feline friend consumes may be a change diet by replacing the standard scoop of dry food with an offering of wet food.

A study conducted in 2011 found that increasing the moisture in a cat’s food led to a considerable change in the animal’s water intake when compared to the standard dry kibble.

“Does being a dry food only diet mean your cat will necessarily be dehydrated? No, it doesn’t,” Dale said. “Does it mean you may be needing to pay more careful attention to how much your cat drinks? Yes.”

Pura makes monitoring a more feasible task, but as Dale points out, “moist food inherently has more water in it, so right there the cat is getting more water. That’s advantageous.”

When I worked at a pet food retailer in a previous life, selling people on wet food was an uphill climb. It’s not as convenient as tossing a cup of kibble in a dish in the morning while wet food requires slightly more preparation.

The canned stuff also has a texture that is unappealing to people, a factor that shouldn’t matter but ultimately does.

When we personify pets, which we often do, we can forget about their animal tendencies. It’s the same thing that leads to people feeding dogs table scraps with no real regard for how different a dog’s digestive system is from ours.

Neither food nor Pura will ensure your cat lives longer. Neither will guarantee your cat avoids becoming one of the nearly half of the feline population that suffers from urinary system problems or, like mine, the one in five that fall victim to kidney failure.

There is no surefire way to prevent these problems, but they are a surefire way to improve the quality of life of your pet—no matter how long that may be.

“If that individual cat is getting more water… it is a medical benefit,” Dale said. In the case of Pura in particular, its most valuable service may be in the metrics rather than the water itself.

“Any time you see a change in behavior in your cat, dog, ferret, parrot, doesn’t matter—there’s probably a reason for it. That’s when I say go to the veterinarian. If the cat is drinking more or drinking less, that’s a sign that it could be a medical problem,” Dale explained. “Going to the veterinarian sooner rather than later can save a cat’s life.”

There’s another factor that can makes things like Pura and wet food a prohibitive purchase: money. These products have higher price tags than their alternatives, but it’s well worth the investment.

This a creature that is likely going to spend the next decade and more with you, burrowing into your clothes, cuddling at your feet, and periodically destroying your furniture either because you upset them or because they just felt like it.

Know the potential costs for food, care, upkeep, and veterinary visits going into your decision to open your home to a new member. Budget accordingly. Then you can give your fuzzy friend the quality of life he or she deserves.

Screengrab via noacare/YouTube

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The Daily Dot