Common Kitty Health Problems

Keep your feline in fine form by knowing how to recognize the most common health problems cats are susceptible to, and what to do about them.


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Most cats are basically healthy creatures. But almost every one will experience some kind of health problem, big or small, in its lifetime. The good news is that you can prevent some of these illnesses from occurring, and minimize the harm that other maladies cause.

On these pages you'll find a brief rundown of some common cat health problems, with advice on what to do if they affect your pet.

Allergies

If your cat has an allergy, you can't cure it, but you can give her some relief by identifying the cause and eliminating it from your pet's environment. There are four main types of pet allergies:

1. Contact allergy: The animal's skin is irritated by something that touches it, such as a wool blanket or a flea collar.

  • Symptoms: Itching, hair loss, thickened or discolored skin, possible odor.
  • What to do: Identify the cause by removing different materials that touch the irritated area, one by one, and noticing whether the symptoms clear up. Keep the offending material away from your pet's skin in the future.

2. Food allergy: The cat develops an allergy to something in its food, often an animal protein.

  • Symptoms: Digestive disorders, itching, or respiratory problems.
  • What to do: Consult your vet. He or she may put your pet on a special hypoallergenic diet, or a series of such diets, until you find one that doesn't cause an allergic reaction. While each diet is being tested, make sure your cat eats only those foods included in the prescribed diet -- no treats or table leftovers.

3. Inhalant allergy: The animal is allergic to substances in the air, whether from outdoors (such as pollen) or indoors (such as dust, mold, and mildew).

  • Symptoms: Severe itching, possible hair loss from scratching.
  • What to do: If your cat is allowed outdoors and is sensitive to pollen, keep it indoors during hay-fever season. If your cat is irritated by indoor allergens, running an air purifier may ease symptoms. This may also help cut down on the outdoor allergens that enter through window screens and get tracked in on clothing and shoes.

4. Flea allergy: The cat is allergic to proteins in the saliva of fleas, which come into contact with the cat's skin when these tiny insects bite.

  • Symptoms: Severe itching.
  • What to do: Get rid of the fleas (see page 3.)

Arthritis

Just as in humans with arthritis, your cat's joints can become inflamed, causing pain and swelling.

  • Symptoms: Avoidance of jumping or other behavior that strains the joints; dislike of being touched, or nipping when touched; possible depression, irritability, or changes in eating habits. The affected area(s) may feel hot to your touch.
  • What to do: Consult your vet, who can determine whether your cat has arthritis and recommend treatment. He or she may prescribe anti-inflammatory medications or recommend alternative therapies, such as acupuncture, massage therapy, or herbal supplements. (Note: Never offer your cat medicines or supplements designed for humans; these can be very dangerous to animals.) In some cases, surgery may be appropriate. You can also adapt your arthritic pet's environment to its changing needs. For example, you might elevate the cat's food and water bowls to a height where your pet can eat and drink without bending; provide cushions or padded surfaces for your cat to sleep on; and switch to a litter box with low sides that make it easy for the animal to climb in and out.

Fleas

These tiny pests take up residence in an animal's fur and are extremely difficult to evict.

  • Symptoms: Itching -- which may be shared by other family members, animal and human, if the fleas migrate to furnishings throughout the home.
  • What to do: Eliminate the fleas from your pet and its environment as much as possible. Ask your vet to recommend or prescribe effective treatments and repellents that are safe for your cat; the wrong type or strength can be irritating at best and fatal at worst. Frequent baths may play a key role in the anti-flea program.

FUS (Feline Urological Syndrome)

This diagnosis refers to any one of several disorders that affect the urinary tract. Some of these disorders are potentially life-threatening.

  • Symptoms: Difficulty urinating, or urinating only in small amounts; urinating outside the litter box, possibly in the sink or bathtub; appearance of blood in urine.
  • What to do: Consult your vet immediately. Because these disorders can quickly become dangerous, they must be treated promptly. Your cat may be suffering from an infection, from cystitis (inflammation of the bladder), or from a urinary blockage. Urinary blockage occurs when crystallized minerals irritate the cat's bladder and urinary tract and clog the urinary tract, preventing the outward flow of urine. This inability to urinate can quickly lead to uremia, the buildup of poisonous wastes in the bloodstream, which in turn can rapidly lead to coma and death. The best way to deal with FUS is to prevent it. Ample fresh water, a well-balanced diet, a clean litter box, and adequate exercise all can go a long way toward heading off FUS. Your vet can recommend cat foods that will help by supplying the right nutrients in appropriate amounts.

Worms

There are two broad categories of worms that cause concern among cat owners. Your cat might be fortunate enough never to be bothered by either, but forewarned is forearmed.

Heartworm

This is a mosquito-borne disease in which worms infest the animal's heart and nearby blood vessels, often with fatal results.

  • Symptoms: Sometimes coughing, rapid breathing, vomiting, or weight loss, but this disease is difficult to detect and diagnose.
  • What to do: There are no approved drugs for treating heartworm in cats, and other treatments may not be successful. The best course is to prevent your cat from catching heartworm. If this disease is a problem in your area, your vet can prescribe preventive medication for you to give your cat once a month.

Intestinal Parasites

Worms and other forms of intestinal parasites can infect your cat's stomach and intestinal tract. Most often these worms are transmitted via contact with other animals' feces.

  • Symptoms: Sometimes appetite changes, coughing, diarrhea, or weight loss, but otherwise healthy animals may not show any symptoms. Some parasites, such as tapeworms, may be visible in the cat's feces.
  • What to do: Take your cat for regular veterinary checkups. Your vet can detect and identify parasites by analyzing a fecal sample from your pet. Fecal-sample checks are generally done several times in a cat's first year and annually thereafter. If the fecal sample reveals parasites, the vet will prescribe the appropriate medication to safely rid your cat of whichever type is present. To prevent parasites from infecting your pet, keep the cat away from places where other animals have left feces.

Infectious Diseases

Calicivirus, herpesvirus, FIV (Feline Immunodeficiency Virus), FIP (Feline Infectious Peritonitis), FeLV (Feline Leukemia Virus), and Feline Panleukopenia are serious viral infections particular to cats. Fortunately, some of these illnesses can be prevented with vaccines.

Vaccinating Your Cat

Calicivirus and Herpesvirus

These viral infections of the upper respiratory system can lead to serious complications if not treated. Extremely contagious, they easily spread from one cat to another and are thought to cause 80 to 90 percent of infectious feline upper respiratory tract disease.

  • Symptoms: Sneezing, runny eyes and nose, fever.
  • What to do: If your cat shows symptoms of calicivirus or herpesvirus, seek veterinary care promptly. Most cases can be treated successfully, though kittens are at greater risk for severe cases. Once infected, many cats carry the virus for life and can infect other cats. That's all the more reason to prevent this disease by getting your cat vaccinated, and keeping it away from unvaccinated cats.

FIV (Feline Immunodeficiency Virus)

This virus suppresses the immune system, allowing normal bacteria to cause severe infections.

  • Symptoms: No early symptoms. Like its human counterpart, HIV, FIV can lie dormant for years before surfacing to cause serious health problems.
  • What to do: There is currently no cure for FIV, and no vaccine to prevent it. Kittens and cats can be tested for the virus at any age. The best way to protect your pet is to keep it indoors, and have all cats tested before they join the household, even for a visit.

FeLV (Feline Leukemia Virus)

Similar to FIV, this virus also suppresses the immune system, paving the way for infections and cancers. (Contrary to its name, FeLV is not itself a form of cancer.)

  • Symptoms: No early symptoms, as with FIV.
  • What to do: FeLV can't be cured, but it can be prevented with a vaccine. Immunization is especially important for pets who are allowed outside or who live in multi-cat homes.

Feline Panleukopenia

This virus causes severe gastroenteritis (inflammation of the digestive tract). Panleukopenia is highly contagious and can be deadly if not treated promptly.

  • Symptoms: Severe listlessness, loss of appetite. Possible diarrhea, vomiting, and fever.
  • What to do: Get your cat vaccinated; the panleukopenia vaccine is highly effective and has greatly reduced the incidence of this disease. If an unvaccinated cat -- especially a kitten -- shows any symptoms of panleukopenia, seek veterinary care immediately.

Uncommon But Serious

The following problems are uncommon in most cats, but are among the diseases for which vaccinations are available.

Rabies

This viral disease is a serious threat to outdoor animals or those that come in contact with other outdoor animals. It is also a threat to humans, which is why vaccinating against it is so important.

Rabies is most often transmitted via a bite from an infected animal, or the virus can enter through broken skin. No animal treatment is available; animals who contract rabies die within a few days of developing symptoms.

Most common symptom: an unexplained change in the animal's behavior; a wild animal may be unafraid of humans, while a pet may turn aggressive.

Ringworm

A skin disease caused by a fungus, the spores that cause this disease can live in upholstery or carpeting for years and infect new animals long after a prior case was treated.

  • Symptoms can mimic other skin conditions. Kittens are more likely than adult cats to be seriously infected.
  • What to do: Vaccinate animals from a shelter or who live in a multi-cat household where other animals have been confirmed to have this disease. The vaccine does not completely protect against the disease, but can help hasten recovery and minimize risk.

Chlamydiosis

This bacterial infection is transmitted from contact with an infected cat.

  • Symptoms: The most common sign is conjunctivitis, an inflammation of the eyelid lining. Sneezing and nasal discharge are also possible. Young kittens are most severely affected.
  • What to do: If you have more than one cat, and one becomes infected with chlamydiosis, the rest of your cats should be vaccinated. Also vaccinate your cats if any of them have a history of respiratory tract disease.

Giardiasis

This parasitic infection has been linked with gastrointestinal-tract disease. It can be contracted via direct or indirect exposure to an infected animal (indirect exposure could include drinking contaminated water or sharing a litter box). An outdoor cat who catches and eats prey is also at increased risk.

  • Symptoms: Diarrhea.
  • What to do: If you have a multi-cat household or an outdoor cat, vaccinate.
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