FELINE HUSBANDRY IN THE 21ST CENTURY: AN INTERVIEW WITH NIELS C. PEDERSEN

What originally inspired you to author your book, Feline Husbandry: Diseases and Management in the Multiple Cat Environment?

I needed to take a sabbatical leave and decided to stay at Davis and write two books.  I was going through a serious bout of depression, due both to my Scandinavian background and complete over-work and mental exhaustion.  I started the book Feline Infectious Diseases first, and used that as a springboard to the husbandry text.  I set a goal of writing just a few pages a day, and as you all know, if you even write one page a day, you will end up with a book in a year.

The topic of feline husbandry had always fascinated me and there was an obvious and immediate need to get something out to the public and profession.  I had a great deal of experience with breeding cats for research and had many contacts with catteries through my early experience with SOCK and the battle against feline leukemia virus infection.  In addition, I have a knack for feline medicine in general and feline infectious diseases in particular, and a lot of this knowledge was based on studying naturally occurring outbreaks of infectious diseases. Unfortunately, young cats coming from multi-cat environments were disproportionately involved in many of these outbreaks.  I was also intrigued by the fact that many healthy cats harbored the same pathogens that caused disease in others. The Feline Husbandry text is based on the recognition, which was emphasized strongly in Feline Infectious Diseases, that disease was determined by factors that did not involve just the infectious agent, but the host and environment as well.

Only 3800 copies of Feline Husbandry were published, and it is now a collector's item.  Are you surprised at its lasting popularity, and that after two decades it remains the definitive publication on feline husbandry?

Yes and no.  Yes, because I felt that both the infectious disease and husbandry books were very well written.  My mental state during the period they were written was not the best and I can honestly say that I hardly remember writing them.  However, when they were written, I was impressed with how well they captured the subjects.  In this regard, my experience was like that of a lot of people who have written things that far exceed anyone's expectations, including their own.  It is sort of an out of body experience where you are being guided by something deep within yourself.  No, I did not think that the Feline Husbandry book would be a "classic" and sell on eBay for hundreds of dollars.  However, in retrospect I can understand why it may be viewed as a classic.  Like many classic works, it was the first significant attempt to encapsulate in words something that should have been written much earlier.  Like other classics, the advice given in the book is basic and timeless.  Although nothing is definitive, there is not a lot more that can be added to the subject than what was presented in this work.

Why did you decide not to update and republish Feline Husbandry?

Interestingly, I approached the last publisher of the book about a second edition.  They were not interested, because the projected sales were two small and the price would be too low. Modern veterinary textbook publishers want books that sell for well over $100, that will be purchased by a majority of veterinarians and veterinary students, and that will be rewritten every three to five years so that everyone will have to "upgrade."  Fortunately, they did turn over full rights to the book, which allowed me to copy it in a crude manner and place it on our website so that others could have access to the information. 
I did round up a group of people to contribute chapters and gave them a deadline to write their chapters.  I told them that I would not bug them and that if chapters did not come within a year, I would not push any further. Most chapters were not written and I decided that I was only entitled to one "classic" in my lifetime and would spend the rest of my career doing research into feline infectious diseases and writing review chapters now and then.  I just published a review of all of the FIP literature from 1963 to early 2009 in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery.  It has been extremely well received.

Since the publication of Feline Husbandry, there have been a number of developments and discoveries that affect feline health and care.  What do you feel are the most significant?


I think that many breeders are doing a much better job of husbandry and our knowledge of diseases of cats is light years ahead of what it was even a decade ago. There is also a steady stream of new cat breeds "built" from the same physical traits that have defined the myriad of dog breeds. However, I am admittedly not comfortable with the process of re-molding one of God's greatest creations into whatever form catches someone's fancy.  Unfortunately, the process of breed creation and refinement also requires significant inbreeding, which has resulted in a progression of new genetic diseases.
The most significant development of the last several years has been the sequencing of the feline genome and the application of that knowledge to breed improvement and cat health.  I think that the situation of polycystic kidney disease in Persian and related breeds is a great example of how modern genetics can be used to solve a serious disease problem in cats.  It is also a great example of what can happen when breeders and researchers work together.

In general, what do you consider the most important husbandry practices that every breeder should make a priority?


This is easy to answer.  Too many cats in too little space; space that is not designed for proper husbandry; too little thought in the selection of breeders and matings, and therefore the breeding of too many kittens.  There is also a tendency to keep too many cats under three years of age.  Healthy young cats can harbor a great number of different potential pathogens and often take two or three years to build up resistance.  People new to pure breeding should learn from the older and most successful breeders.  The most successful breeders, in regards to both health and show, keep only a handful of cats, breed their cats for a longer period of time, provide housing that is conducive to proper husbandry, and breed very selectively so that the kittens that they do produce are of maximum quality, health, and therefore value.

As a result of research into viral immunity, vaccination protocols have changed for cats.  What are your recommendations for catteries?  For example, should breeding cats be vaccinated more frequently, given the hormonal stresses on whole animals as well as their exposure to kittens with developing immune systems?  And are there greater risks in catteries when modified live vaccines are used, in terms of vaccines "breaking" and causing infection?

I have stopped trying to make blanket recommendations regarding vaccines, other than those which are of core value.  Killed vaccines work very well in some situations, and modified live in other situations. This is why breeders have so many different opinions on the subject.  Panleukopenia virus vaccine is definitely the most important of all cat vaccines, because if given as recommended, it will virtually eliminate the virus.  Herpes and calicivirus vaccines will definitely decrease the severity of the primary disease signs, but will not greatly alter the subsequent carrier states that exist for these agents and any chronic disease forms related to this chronic carrier state.  
As you know, I have no faith in the feline infectious peritonitis vaccine.  I am also not that certain about the cost/risk/benefits of feline chlamydophila vaccines.  I think that modern FeLV vaccines are good, but that they should be used for cats that are at risk for the infection.  Cattery cats are not at risk for the disease as long as breeders do the normal things necessary to keep FeLV out of their catteries.  FIV vaccines are not important for cattery cats and cats kept indoors, but may provide a small degree of protection to cats that are allowed outdoors.  I am also not certain why veterinarians strongly recommend rabies vaccines in states and some counties within states where it is not required by law and especially for indoor cats in those areas.  Cats do get rabies, but cat-to-human transmission is extremely uncommon.  This is not true for dog rabies, and that is why all dogs in the US are required to be vaccinated on a routine basis. 
I also have no patience for veterinarians who insist on vaccinating every cat, every year, with every available vaccine.  If cats are vaccinated properly as kittens, and boosted a year later, they only need vaccination every three years for the rest of their lives. There is even good evidence that immunity in cats that are properly immunized in early life have lifetime protection. 

Since cats are not normally social or family group or colony animals, what are the diseases and problems you see from grouping them together in catteries that are not observed otherwise?  That is, what are the negatives that arise from having a normally solitary animal live in groups?

This is a good question.  Cats are not like dogs, which have evolved as pack animals.  This is why it is easier to raise healthy dogs in kennels and why dogs do not stress each other out so much when forced to live together.  Cats are also different in the way that they manifest stress.  Cats do not manifest stress outwardly even though they respond to stress with great outpourings of adrenal hormones.  This is why cats do not develop near the clinical signs of exogenous steroid administration as dogs - they have evolved to mask immediate signs of stress. 
Cats manifest stress in two basic ways: 1) basic behavioral problems and 2) increased disease severity to common infectious agents that are often asymptomatic or mild in non-stressed cats.  The stressful effects of overcrowding on behavior and disease are not limited just to large multi-cat households, but to large multi-cat environments.  Just go to the park in Athens, Greece or to the Coliseum at Rome and you can see the effects of having too many feral cats in too small of an area.  Upper respiratory infections are the greatest indicators of stress in a cat population.

The quantity and variety of commercially produced foods available for cats today is overwhelming for cat fanciers and breeders.  Dry foods come in a variety of formulas, and seem to be trending towards increasing the amount of protein in the food.  There are kitten formulas, indoor cat formulas, senior cat formulas, and other special needs formulas to choose from.  Canned food varieties are also plentiful, and many breeders are now feeding raw meat to cats.  Do you have any recommendations for breeders on how to make informed selections on foods for the best health of their cats?

I believe that the best dried foods are better for cats than the best wet foods. Wet foods differ mainly in their water content, and dried foods provide cats with important chewing exercise for their gums and teeth.  This exercise can help lessen oral disease.  I have seen many disasters from fad diets and have even made my own disaster from feeding a whole rabbit diet.  I have seen problems with fad diets at both extremes - all meat and all vegetables. 
Therefore, I tend to leave proper feline nutrition to the reputable pet food companies.  They literally spend millions of dollars on research each year trying to improve the health and palatability of their foods. There have been problems with commercial diets in the past, but each of these problems has been eventually recognized and corrected.  Commercial cat foods made by reputable front-line companies have never been better and they will only continue to improve.

Above and beyond the nutrition provided through food, are there any supplements that should be given to pregnant queens to ensure that their kittens have all the necessary building blocks for strong growth and immunity?

All good commercial diets must meet all of the nutrient needs for pregnancy, lactation, and early growth.  That is another reason why I tend to recommend good brands of commercial food over experimental home made diets. 

The Koret Shelter Medicine Program at U. C. Davis was founded in 2000 and the Koret name given to it in 2005.  Though designed to assist with shelter management, much of what the program focuses on relates to other multiple cat environments such as catteries.  What are the most important areas of their research that can affect the management of catteries?

The U.C. Davis shelter medicine program is the greatest new venture in our school over the last decade (in my opinion).  Like the Feline Husbandry text book, it has become the "paradigm" for this field of study.  For the first time, we are now treating disease in shelters from the standpoint of "herd" or "population" health, rather than individual animal medicine.  The emphasis is on prevention rather than treatment of behavioral and infectious disease problems in shelter environments.  All of the basic concepts now being applied to shelter health were outlined in the Feline Husbandry text.

Additional information about the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at U. C. Davis is found at their website: www.sheltermedicine.com.


This article was originally published in the United Burmese Cat Fanciers newsletter in May 2009.  My heartfelt gratitude to Dr. Pedersen for this interview, and for all he does to research and promote feline health.

Nancy L. Reeves
Burma Pearl Cattery
Editor, UBCF Newsletter
SOCK FIP Volunteer