Feline Diseases

This presentation of diseases of cats is a simple overview and is nowhere near complete nor meant to be a substitute for personal contact with a veterinarian. If you have specific questions about your cat’s health, be sure to call your veterinarian right away.

A note regarding vaccines: Once an animal is affected by a disease, vaccines are essentially worthless. Vaccines need to be administered well in advance of an exposure to a specific disease. Time is required for the animal to mount an immune response to the vaccine so that if exposure to the real virus occurs, the animal’s immune defenses are primed and ready to destroy the invader. Think of vaccinations as you would insurance… your pet might never actually need them, but if it does, the vaccine needs to have been administered prior to exposure for their benefits to be achieved. Vaccines have prevented incalculable numbers of cases of disease in man and animals and are a true milestone in the evolution of human intelligence

RABIES: A fatal viral disease spread by the saliva of an infected warm blooded animal, rabies can be prevented in cats by the use of proper vaccines. However, once the rabies virus is present within the animal it spreads through the nerve tissue and eventually affects the brain in such a severe manner that the cat will become highly agitated and possibly aggressive. In other cases the cat will become very depressed and withdrawn. More common in feral or free roaming cats, Rabies exposure always presents a serious public health hazard. Even indoor cats have potential for contracting Rabies if there happens to be the opportunity for bats to get into the home. Bats, foxes, raccoons, coyotes and skunks rank high in the number of Rabies cases diagnosed in free roaming animals. Cats are natural hunters and will seek out small animals such as bats. Always contact your veterinarian and physician if you are bitten by any animal. And keeping you feline friend up to date on Rabies vaccine provides you with a safety buffer between your cat and potential outdoor carriers of Rabies virus.

FELINE DISTEMPER also called FELINE PANLEUKOPENIA: This viral infection is totally unrelated to Canine Distemper. In fact each disease has no true effect on the animal’s personality or temperament at all so the name “distemper” is rather misleading. This virus primarily affects young kittens but has been known to affect older cats as well. The disease lowers the animal’s immune defenses by severely depressing all white blood cell production. That is why the name Panleukopenia is more appropriate in that it means “all white blood cells are abnormally low in numbers”The disease makes cats pass bloody, liquid stool due to the severe hemorrhaging it produces along the small intestine. A high fever is present, the cat is depressed and will refuse any food or water. Vomiting and dehydration add to the cat’s distress and recovery, even with strong therapeutic measures, is rare.

RHINOTRACHEITIS: This widespread and common virus disease is very nasty in that if it doesn’t cause death of the cat it can create life-long problems with upper respiratory disorders. Coughing, sneezing, discharge from the nares, fever and poor appetite may plague the cat all its life. Chronic tearing and crusty eye discharge are common and create a rather pathetic look to any cat affected. Vaccines are quite effective in preventing this disease.

CALICIVIRUS: This is a rather highly contagious upper respiratory virus that creates long term. Moderate fever, poor appetite and ulceration of the tongue, mouth and lips can provoke weight loss and lethargy in a cat. Each cat seems to vary in the intensity of signs shown and degree of affliction. These affected cats can be carriers and will be a source of infection for other susceptible cats.

FELINE INFECTIOUS PERITONITIS (FIP): This viral infection that is invariably fatal once a cats starts to show signs of it, can take years to cause trouble. It is most common in young adult cats and is transmitted by other affected cats.

Two types of the disease are noted. One is called the DRY TYPE of infection where the cat displays a high fever and impairment of internal organs such as the kidneys, liver, lungs and intestines. These cats simply do not improve no matter what supportive measures are provided. Likewise the WET FORM of the disease creates a fluid discharge within the abdomen and occasionally in the chest that displays a golden, dense liquid with flakes of proteinaceous debris floating within the fluid. These cats loose weight rapidly, refuse to eat well and run a high fever. Vaccination can be protective but, again, must be administered before any exposure takes place. If an unknown carrier of the disease is vaccinated and develops the disease a year or so later, it seems common to either blame the vaccine or think the vaccine didn’t work. The vaccine needs to be given prior to any exposure.

FELINE LEUKEMIA VIRUS (FeLV): This virus, for which there is a very effective vaccine, is transmitted by cat-to-cat contact. It severely limits the cat’s immune systems ability to ward off all sorts of infections. Cats affected with FeLV may be carriers of the virus for long periods without displaying any ill effects. Occasionally, if stressed by surgery or being lost outside or injury, a cat that is harboring the virus… and seemed to be healthy… will develop clinical signs. Sick cats may have periods of time when they will seem healthy only to have relapses of illness. It is commonly fatal over a period of time.

FELINE IMMUNE DEFICIENCY VIRUS (FIV): This disease in cats is similar to the Human Immune Deficiency Virus (HIV) seen in humans. But the FIV virus is found only in felines. The evidence seems to indicate that this disease is spread mainly through the bite of an infected cat. Like FeLV this disease suppresses the immune system’s strength so affected cats are likely to develop all sorts of infections in the urinary tract, respiratory tract, intestine and kidneys.

No vaccine is available for this disease at this time.

CHLAMYDIA: This tiny organism (Not a virus) is highly contagious and creates inflammation of the eyes and nasal passages. Signs include sneezing, ocular discharge, nasal drainage, sneezing, tearing and salivation and coughing. It has the potential to be transmitted to humans, too. There are specific antibiotics that seem to work well against this disease.

RINGWORM: also called a DERMATOPHYTE INFECTION: Fungal infections of the skin of the cat are fairly common, especially in young cats and those with long hair. Most of the cases of ringworm (which is NOT a worm at all) is due to an organism called Microsporum canis (M canis). It can also cause cutaneous infection in other species including dogs and humans. Trichophyton mentagrophytes and Microsporum persicolor (acquired by contact with infected wild rodents) are the two other fungal species that commonly affect cats. Cats may become infected either by direct contact with an infected animal or by exposure to contaminated objects such as grooming tools, clippers or bedding. Fungal spores are hardy and can survive in the environment and cause infections for approximately two yearsSome cats have severe skin disease while other cats have only very minor lesions or no lesions at all and look completely normal. That means that there can be feline carriers of cutaneous fungal infections that can act as a source of infection for other cats. Typical skin lesions are discrete, roughly circular, non-itchy, areas of hair loss, particularly on the head, ears or extremities of the paws. The hairs surrounding affected areas often appear broken. The affected skin is usually scaly and may look inflamed. However, ringworm can look very similar to many other feline skin diseases, such a flea allergic dermatitis, symmetrical alopecia and feline acne. On occasion the claws can become infected. Topical and ingested medications can help eliminate cutaneous fungal infections but must be used long enough to totally eliminate all fungal organisms.

TOXOPLASMOSIS: This disease of cats and other mammals is caused by a parasitic protozoan, Toxoplasma gondii. Protozoa are single-celled organisms but are not in the same classification as bacteria. They are among the simplest creatures in the animal kingdom. Cats that hunt and consume raw meat will have the greatest chance for contracting Toxoplasmosis. Ingestion of tissue cysts in infected prey or in other raw meat is probably the most common route by which cats are exposed to ToxoplasmaAlthough infection with Toxoplasma is fairly common in cats, actual disease caused by the parasite is relatively rareCats are able to shed Toxoplasma in their feces for a few weeks after they are first infected with the parasite. And as in humans with the disease, cats rarely have symptoms when first infectedA cat can remain healthy appearing and yet have the organism within their bodies. There are no good tests available to determine if your cat is passing Toxoplasma in its feces.

Acutely infected cats might display lethargy, depression, poor appetite, lesions in the retinas of the eyes, weight loss and feverLiver and lung abnormalities may occurAny cat that displays a brain disorder such as incoordination, sensitivity to light, constricted pupils, circling, personality changes or other central nervous system abnormalities should be evaluated for Toxoplasmosis.

Immuno-compromised persons who are undergoing immunosuppressive therapy or those with an immunosuppressive disease such as AIDS should take special precautions against exposure to cat feces because of potential infection with Toxoplasma oocysts in the cat’s stool

Cats acquire Toxoplasma infection by eating any of the three infective stages of the parasite: cyst, oocyst, or tachyzoite. Following ingestion of the cysts in infected prey animals such as rodents or birds, the intra-intestinal infection cycle begins. This cycle occurs only in members of the cat family.

The organisms multiply in the wall of the small intestine and produce oocysts for two to three weeks. The oocysts are then excreted in large numbers during this time is the cat’s stoolWithin five days, if conditions are right, the shed oocysts can sporulate and become infectious for other animals and humans. Once sporulated, the oocysts are highly resistant to environmental conditions and can survive for many months.

Most healthy exposed cats shed oocysts during acute infection with Toxoplasma, but will not shed them after the acute infection is over. In a few cats that do re-excrete oocysts after another exposure to Toxoplasma, the number of oocysts shed is smaller and may even be insufficient to transmit the parasite effectively.

Congenital infection is much less common in cats than it is in humans and some farm animalsThe diagnosis of Toxoplasmosis is challenging and requires serial sample of blood to see if the animal is developing immune proteins, which implies that Toxoplasma organisms are stimulating the immune systemTreatment for Toxoplasmosis generally entails administration of an antibiotic, or even two antibiotics at the same time, and is generally effective in arresting the disease in cats.

At present there is no vaccine for Toxoplasmosis in cats. Because of the potential for human exposure to infective oocysts in an infected cat’s feces, special circumstance should be discussed with your physician if you are pregnant, immune compromised or are taking immunosuppressive medications such as anti-cancer medication or cortisone.

CAMPYLOBACTER: A bacteria, Campylobacter jejuni is most often associated loose, sometimes bloody stool in cats, dogs, guinea pigs and other domesticated species, as well as in humans. Many infected cats show no signs of illness even with the bacteria present in the intestinal tract. Most affected cats are less than 6 months of age.

Diarrhea (sometimes bloody) is the sign seen most often, but in most cases where Campylobacter are discovered there are other pathogenic organisms present as well.

The organism can survive in the environment for 3 days or moreInfection in humans is usually through the food chain; infection from cats is rare but it does happen. Any severe loose stool, especially with blood present, should be evaluated by a veterinarian.

INTESTINAL PARASITES: The most common are roundworms and tapeworms. Protozoal intestinal parasites can be a hazard as well, and Giardia commonly cause loose, gassy stool and abdominal cramping, especially in young kittens. Easily overlooked, Giardia infestations may need special stains in a professional veterinary laboratory for positive identification

Coccidia are tiny, single celled organisms common in stressed kittens or those with improper diets. Causing loose, tan stools, coccidia can easily be seen on routine fecal exams and treatment generally will clear these opportunist organisms within a few days. Repeat uprisings of the organisms sometimes occur so treatment may need to be done for two weeks.

TICKS: Ticks do attach to cats on occasion and are usually found along the ear tips and pinna marginsFor some reason ticks are much more common on dogs than on cats. Close inspection and manually picking the ticks off can be an effective method of elimination of ticks on cats. Never use on a cat a tick medication labeled for use on dogs. Cats can be highly reactive to certain insecticides and specific treatments need to be employed to eliminate severe tick infestations on a cat.

FLEAS: Fleas commonly inhabit the skin of cats and need to be eliminated both on the animal an in the environment for total elimination of these pests

SCABIES: Scabies mites and Demodex mites are very rare on cats but can occasionally occur.

CHEYLETIELLA: Cheyletiella are small skin parasites that create flaky, dandruff-like scales and cause quite a bit of irritation to the cat. This parasite often affects the owner, as well.

Cheyletiella can readily be eliminated by the use of an ant-flea shampoos specifically formulated for cats.

DIABETES: Cats do develop diabetes mellitus and can be a challenge to control with Insulin injections. Partly due to the feline’s small body size, regulation of blood glucose levels with tiny amounts of Insulin will require careful attention to the cat’s daily routine and unpredictable eating habits. The mechanism of action that creates a diabetic state in a cat can be slightly different from a dog’s. Current research is trying to unlock some of the unknowns surrounding this disorder in cats. For an article on diabetes, go here.

HEPATIC LIPIDOSIS: This dangerous and challenging disorder is a somewhat mysterious malady in which the liver becomes infiltrated with fat deposits. Crowding out the normal liver cells, fatty infiltrations cause the liver to swell and take on a dark yellow color. Hepatic Lipidosis is the most common form of liver disease in cats in North America. Cats that are obese appear to develop this disease most frequently. If an obese cat stops eating for any reason, (stressful environment, boarding, lost in the woods, viral infections) the metabolism of body fat for energy begins. For unknown reasons, this “fasting” can trigger the abnormal fatty infiltration in the liver and a downward spiral of loss of appetite-fatty infiltration of the liver progresses. As liver dysfunction proceeds, the cat becomes less and less energetic, develops a jaundiced (yellow) color to the skin and mucous membranes and the whites of the eyes become yellow. Almost all cats with Hepatic Lipidosis will eventually die of malnutrition because they steadfastly refuse to eat … and the key to recovery is to eat a high quality diet

Veterinary treatment is required to save these cats and a stomach tube often will be needed in order to force the intake of high quality, easily digestible food

HYPOTHYROIDISM: The lack of proper levels of thyroid hormone generally will lead to increased weight, lethargy, cold intolerance, poor hair coat and a cat with little enthusiasm for life.

A simple blood test can be useful in diagnosing Hypothyroidism. Treatment often transforms the cat’s physical appearance and energy levels to a much more normal state.

HYPERTHYROIDISM: Too much Thyroid Hormone triggers an assortment of physical and mental changes in the cat. Hyperthyroidism is most commonly seen in older cats and causes cardiac abnormalities, agitation, hyperactivity and marked weight loss. Any older cat with a rapid heart rate, weight loss accompanied by a good appetite, and slight hyperactivity should be checked for hyperthyroidism. Treatment can vary depending upon the actual cause but this disorder is generally well controlled once diagnosed.

CARDIOMYOPATHY: Heart disease, mostly relating to a dilation of the heart resulting in a weak, rapid pulse, is fairly common in catsAnother type of cardiomyopathy occurs when the heart walls becomes thickened and over-developed… this is called hypertrophic cardiomyopathyCardiac dysfunction is often a result of another problem, such as hyperthyroidism, that stresses the heartInfections can cause heart troubleAnd long term congenital defects of the heart can gradually weaken the heart as it attempts to compensate for the defect. Veterinary Specialists in Cardiology can perform many intricate tests to establish what type of heart disease is present and then make suggestions for appropriate treatment protocols. Newer medications can have a beneficial impact on heart function, depending upon how advanced the cardiomyopathy has become.

FELINE UROLOGICAL SYNDROME (FUS) sometimes called FELINE LOWER URINARY TRACT DISEASE (FLUTD): This complex problem has many variable factors that contribute to the formation of crystals in the urine. One of the most common signs in the cat with urinary tract trouble is urinating outside of the litterbox. It is as if the kitty thinks the litterbox is causing that painful sensation when it urinates. So if your cat seems to be urinating in the sink, behind the couch, on your bed or chair, be certain to have a urine sample checked and the cat examined for FUS. The microscopic crystals of Magnesium-ammonium-phosphate can bind together, often with the help of bacteria or bladder lining cells, and develop larger crystals and even bladder stones. If the larger crystals are of a certain size they can obstruct the urethra leading from the bladder to the urinary orifice. Male cats, with a narrow and longer urethra, will be much more prone to urinary tract blockage than female cats that have short, wide urethras. Once the urethra is blocked, an emergency situation arises that if nor corrected within 24 hours will have dramatic and even fatal consequences for the cat. When presented to a veterinarian these “plugged Tom cats” are is extreme discomfort and often need to be anesthetized in order to perform the proper measures to unplug them. In many cases, especially if the cat is not placed on a specific diet that greatly lessens the chances of crystal formation in the urine, these cats will have repeat episodes of urethral blockageIn some, a surgical procedure called Perineal Urethrostomy can have life saving benefits in the event of crystal formation. The surgery shortens and widens the urethra so that if crystals so occur, the urethra will be wide enough to pass these tiny concretions.

COLITIS and CONSTIPATION: For the cat that has either urinary tract irritation or obstruction… or the cat with colitis or constipation, the scenario is the same…


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