What to Know About Cats in the Tropics

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White and black cat entering a Thai spirit house in a tropcal garden.
Image: © David Astley

It’s common knowledge that cats can cope with tropical heat better than dogs, and for many pet owners in the tropics that can be a reason they might choose a cat for a pet over a dog. However, cats can still get heat stressed. Ensuring that your cat doesn’t get dehydrated is the main difference between looking after a cat in the tropics compared to a temperate climate.

Cats are well known for seeking the sun’s warmth and are often seen sunbathing on the ground for a good period. However, that doesn’t mean cats are immune to the tropical heat, as most veterinarians recommend that cats don’t stay out for more than 40 minutes in direct sunlight.

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Unlike most dogs, cats always act as cool as a cucumber. It can be hard to tell when a cat is suffering from dehydration, as they don’t give off as many obvious visual signs like dogs. That doesn’t mean there are no signs at all. You need to take a closer look to tell if your cat is overheating.

Pay attention to your cat’s daily physical activity. Despite their tendency to sleep a lot, cats can be just as active as dogs. You should be able tell right away if there’s something wrong with your cat if it’s not displaying its usual energy levels.

Pale grey cat looking out from under tropical shrubs in a garden.
Keeping cats cool in the tropics can be a challenge. Image: © David Astley

But that alone may not be enough of an indicator. Next, check your cat’s appetite levels.

If your cat is refusing food, then that’s usually a sign that there’s something wrong. Cats often reject food when they’re feeling queasy due to dehydration, and sometimes they’ll start vomiting out of nowhere.

Another symptom that you need to be on the lookout for is when cats start panting. For dogs, panting is normal since it usually means they’re either excited or keeping themselves cool. On the other hand, panting is not commonly seen in cats and often means that they’re dehydrated, in pain, or suffering from some sort of illness.

You can also tell if your cat is overheating by checking its gums. Healthy gums need to look pink and moist, indicating that your cat is well-hydrated. To determine whether your cat has healthy gums, gently press against the gums, and pull back. Pay close attention to what happens next.

Hands opening a cat's mouth to expose teeth and gums.
Checking your cat’s gums can help identify dehydration. Image: © RJ22

A small white patch should appear in the area you pressed. If it disappears immediately, then your cat is well-hydrated. But if it doesn’t and it takes a while for the pinkness of the gums to return, then your cat is suffering from dehydration.

Another way to tell is by checking the salivary strands. They should be thin when your cat is well-hydrated. What you don’t want to see are thick, sticky strands that have a rope-like appearance coming out of your cat’s mouth.

How to Prevent Dehydration in Cats

Water, and lots of it. In the tropics, cats should be drinking at least 60ml of water per kg of body weight per day. So that means a 4kg cat needs at least 240ml of water – about a quarter of a litre. Some of that they may get from wet food, but most needs to come from drinking water.

As such, making sure that your cats have easy access to drinking water every day will go a long way towards helping them stay well-hydrated. Many cats are particular about what they will drink from, and you may need to experiment with different bowls in different places around the house. Some are so fussy that they require bowls to have a specific size, shape, and depth to them before they will consider drinking from them.

Tabby cat drinking at an indoor water fountain.
A water fountain may encourage your cat to drink more. Image: © Vershinin89

Others prefer drinking running water, so you’ll need to consider getting a water fountain that’s easy to refill and maintain if your cat is not drinking enough from normal bowls. A cat drinking from a running tap may be an indicator that it doesn’t like drinking from a bowl.

One way that you may be able to entice your cat to drink more water is by adding some chicken broth or water from canned tuna to its drinking water. Look for cans of tuna where the fish is packed in spring water. Never use tuna that is packed in brine or oil.

Additionally, ensure that your cat’s bowls are clean, and the water is always fresh. Murky drinking water and day-old water will cause your cat to avoid their drinking bowl. Despite this, you may see some cats drinking from fishponds or puddles in the garden after a heavy storm. Whilst this may not seem clean, it doesn’t usually cause problems because cats have a sixth sense about what is safe to drink.

Tabby cat drinking water from a raised fishpond in a tropical garden.
Some cats prefer to drink from fishponds. Image: © kimsan0131

If you don’t think you cat is drinking enough water, you may want to incorporate more fluids into your cat’s diet. If your cat eats mainly dry food, try transitioning from dry food to wet food to allow for more moisture. However, not all cats will immediately warm up to a sudden change in their diet, so you’ll need to do this gradually.

For those whose cats love going outdoors, provide them with plenty of water in the shade. You can add some ice cubes to help keep the water’s temperature cool. If there are no shaded areas outside, then you’ll need to create one. Not only will this help keep the water cool, but it will also provide your cat shelter from the sun when it gets too hot.

Keeping Cats Cool in the Tropical Heat

Just like humans, cats can only tolerate the tropical heat for so long. And while giving cats easy access to water and shade is a good start, there are plenty of other things you can do to help keep them cool.

For many, keeping the air conditioning going for extended periods is not an option. Ceiling fans and wall fans can help, but not all cats like sitting under or in front of them.

Fat tabby cat lying in front of a fan.
Fans and cooling mats help combat the heat. Image: Oleg Senkov

Another option is a cooling mat. These mats usually contain either water or a coolant gel. Some work automatically, while others require refrigeration for a certain amount of time. I have a couple at home that my cats love using. You simply lay it out on the floor, and it starts to cool my pets down the moment they step on it.

However, the first cooling mats that I bought didn’t last long because they couldn’t withstand my cat’s claws. So make sure that you either trim your cat’s claws beforehand or get a cooling mat that’s durable enough to withstand your pet’s sharp claws.

Other products that work similarly to the mats are cooling vests, jackets, and collars. Some people swear by them, but it depends on whether your cats will accept those products. My cats aren’t keen on such items, as they’re formerly stray animals and find these products too restrictive for their liking.

Orange cat's head being brushed with a wire fur brush.
Brushing your cat can help keep it cool. Image: © Koltsov

Another thing to consider is giving your cat’s fur a trim now and then, especially for those with thick fur. Brushing your cat’s fur regularly also helps freshen them up and keep them cool, as it removes all the dead hair, plant matter, and other foreign objects that can get trapped within.

But never shave off your cat’s fur. Doing so will strip them of their primary protection against the sun’s rays and other elements. And it exposes them to various skin allergies and infections. That’s why hairless cats don’t do well in the tropics unless they are kept inside in air-conditioning.

I have heard of people using sunscreen on hairless cats to allow them to go outside, but you should never use sunscreen products meant for people. These products may contain ingredients that are toxic to animals. Instead, if you are the owner of a hairless cat, visit your local veterinarian and ask for a recommendation on what sunscreen to use for your cat.

Brown cat with wide open eyes being given a bath.
Not all cats enjoy taking a bath. Image: © Vladimir Gudvin

If your cat loves taking baths, then allowing it to enjoy a cool soak during the days of intense heat can help cool it down. However, most cats don’t like water, so don’t force it into a bath if it doesn’t want to. You’ll only end up stressing your cat rather than giving it a relaxing soak.

What I often do to make my cats feel cool is to use a damp, cool cloth and gently wipe it against their bodies, especially their ears and paws. Doing this helps cool them down, especially on days when concrete or tiled surfaces are hot due to the sun’s rays. To that end, laying out blankets or towels on hard surfaces is a good way to protect their paws, especially if they are outside often.

Lastly, never leave your cats, or any pets for that matter, inside your car. Doing so is the equivalent of trapping your cats inside a metal box where heat accumulates rapidly, even when you leave the windows ajar.

Combine that with the tropical sun at its peak during the hours between mid-morning and late afternoon, and you have an impending disaster on your hands. Worse, you can earn a fine and, in some countries, even get sent to jail for such negligence.

 

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