Recently, a good Samaritan brought me a lone kitten that
she had found huddled near some garbage cans in a parking lot close by her
apartment complex. Scrawny
and frail, with both eyes crusted shut, this tiny kitten was in rough
shape. “I can’t keep
him”, she said, “but I couldn’t just let him sit out there by
Physical examination revealed a number of abnormalities.
A thick discharge from both eyes had hardened, pasting both eyes
shut. A similar discharge was oozing from both tiny nostrils.
Both ears were brimming with dark, crusty material.
Fleas could be seen scurrying through his dirty orange fur.
After a brief discussion, my client agreed to relinquish the kitten
to our hospital. As I work
for a large humane organization, I explained that I would do my best to
treat the multitude of ailments that afflicted this kitten, and if
successful, he would be offered for adoption through our Animal Placement
“Dandelion” by one of our technicians, we began formulating a
treatment plan for his various troubles.
Fleas, ear mites, and upper respiratory infections are but
a few of the common ailments that tend to afflict kittens. A basic
knowledge of the widespread kitten disorders and their symptoms, along
with prompt veterinary care, is essential to ensure a successful journey
Upper respiratory infections (URIs) are very common in
kittens. Usually caused by a
virus, they often result in sneezing, ocular discharge, nasal discharge,
drooling, congestion, fever, and poor appetite.
The most common culprit is the rhinotracheitis virus; it causes
profuse sneezing and a watery or mucoid nasal discharge. Calicivirus causes milder respiratory signs, however, it can
cause ulcers on the tongue and in the mouth, resulting in drooling and
poor appetite. Conjunctivitis
in both eyes often accompanies these symptoms.
Conjunctivitis can also be due to chlamydia, a common bacterial
pathogen isolated from cats with viral upper respiratory infections. Dr.
Anne Sinclair is the owner of Cat Sense Feline Hospital and Boarding,
Inc., a feline-exclusive veterinary hospital in Bel Air, Maryland.
“Many of the kittens I examine have symptoms of an upper
respiratory infection”, she says. “The worst cases tend to be in
kittens obtained from places where crowding is a problem, such as a pet
store or a shelter”. Treatment
of URIs requires supportive care in the form of oral antibiotics and
medicated eye ointments. After
moistening and removing the matted material, Dandelion was revealed to
have two bright blue (and very inflamed) eyes. We began oral antibiotics,
and applied oxytetracycline ointment to both eyes.
Luckily, most kittens recover from these respiratory infections.
Kittens who have a hard time defeating a respiratory infection, or
who get repeated bouts of these infections may have an underlying
infection with a virus that suppresses the immune system, such as the
Feline Leukemia Virus.
The Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) is a serious pathogen with
worldwide distribution. While
there is a strong, natural, age-related resistance to FeLV in adult cats,
kittens less than a year of age are at greater risk of infection.
The virus can be transmitted through close contact, such as mutual
grooming, sharing of food and water bowls, and litter pans.
It may also transmitted from the mother to kittens in utero.
The virus suppresses the immune system of cats, making them
susceptible to a variety of diseases, such as respiratory infections, skin
infections, urinary tract infections, and gastrointestinal disorders.
As there are no successful treatments for infection with this
virus, all kittens should be tested for FeLV as early as possible.
Fortunately, Dandelion’s test was negative.
Ear mites live on the surface of the skin, and are a common
problem in kittens. The mites
feed on debris in the ear canal. Ear
mites are responsible for 50 – 84% of all ear infections in cats.
Symptoms include scratching of the ears, head shaking, and a dark-brown,
crusty ear discharge. There
will often be some self-trauma around the ears and face, due to the
intense itching caused by the mites.
Many veterinary products, as well as over-the-counter products,
require frequent application in an often uncooperative pet, making the
process time consuming and labor intensive.
Injectable medications, such as ivermectin, and topical products,
such as selamectin, have made treatment of these pesky mites much easier
for the average cat owner.
Fleas have been a
nuisance to pets and pet owners for ages. Although traditionally
treated with sprays and powders, great strides have been made in the
last decade in the development of safe and highly effective methods of
flea control. Oral (e.g. lufenuron, nitenpyram) and topical ( e.g.
imidacloprid, fipronil, selamectin) preparations, usually administered
once a month, have revolutionized our ability to control fleas. Some of
these products, however, have age and/or weight restrictions, and must
be used with caution in kittens, especially those that are sick or
debilitated. Such was the case with Dandelion. We played it safe, and
simply removed all fleas from his hair coat by carefully and
meticulously combing them out with a flea comb. Fleas are also
suspected to be involved in the transmission of Mycoplasma haemofelis
(formerly known as Hemobartonella), a parasite that can infect
red blood cells and cause anemia. Cats less than 3 years of age are at
Despite the name,
ringworm is not a worm. It is a fungus that has an affinity for
the haircoat of cats, especially kittens. Symptoms include small
patches of hair loss, scaling, redness, and crusting anywhere on the
body, although there is an affinity for the head, especially the hair
around the eyes, ears, nose, and lips. Ringworm can be spread to other
cats, as well as to people. Treatment usually involves a combination of
oral antifungal medication as well as some form of topical therapy, such
as a shampoo and/or ointment. Thankfully, Dandelion had no evidence of
Intestinal parasites have been a
concern for veterinarians and pet owners for decades. Many kittens are infected with roundworms through nursing.
Most infections produce mild clinical symptoms, although heavily
parasitized pets may become quite ill.
The classic symptoms include an unthrifty, “potbellied”
appearance and diarrhea. Occasionally,
the kitten will vomit up a roundworm, allowing for a rather graphic
diagnosis. Hookworms are
common intestinal parasites of puppies; kittens are rarely affected.
Hookworms are blood-sucking parasites and can cause serious anemia
if not treated promptly. Coccidia are protozoan parasites that are rarely found in
adult cats, but are relatively common in kittens, especially those
obtained from unsanitary, multi-cat environments, i.e. poorly run
shelters, catteries, and pet-stores.
Diarrhea, flecked with bright red blood, in association with
straining and increased frequency of defecation are classic symptoms of
coccidiosis. Giardia is a protozoan parasite that occasionally
affects kittens, causing soft, light-colored, greasy stools. Severe infections can cause growth retardation as a result of
malabsorption of nutrients. Most
intestinal parasites are relatively easily diagnosed, and there are many
effective treatments for each of them.
A stool sample obtained the same day Dandelion was admitted to our
hospital was positive for roundworms, and he was dewormed soon afterward.
Of the many viral diseases of cats, feline infectious
peritonitis (FIP) is perhaps the most cruel, and maybe the most
misunderstood. The disease is
caused by a type of virus called a coronavirus, and many coronavirus
strains have been isolated from domestic cats.
Coronaviruses of low virulence that reproduce themselves only in
intestinal cells have been called feline enteric coronaviruses (FECV).
Feline enteric coronaviruses typically cause mild, self-limiting
diarrhea in kittens and young cats. Considerable
experimental evidence has shown that the intestinal coronaviruses
occasionally mutate into a more invasive strain of coronavirus.
This new invasive mutation is much more virulent, and can produce
the clinical disease syndrome known as FIP.
There are two major forms of FIP:
the “wet” form and the “dry” form.
The wet form is characterized by fluid accumulation in body
cavities, such as the chest (less common) and/or the abdomen (more
common). Fluid accumulating
in the chest can cause breathing difficulties.
Fluid accumulating in the abdomen can give a pot-bellied
appearance, similar to that seen in cats with a high burden of intestinal
worms. FIP also causes
lethargy, poor appetite, weight loss, and a fever that does not respond to
antibiotics. The disease can
be difficult to diagnose, especially the dry form.
There is still no blood test that can definitively diagnose
the disorder, despite claims made by numerous commercial laboratories.
Once diagnosed, there is no recourse for the patient.
There is no effective treatment for the disease, and the outcome is
invariably fatal. “I
examine and treat hundreds of cats and kittens a year”, says Dr.
Sinclair. “Thankfully, FIP
is a fairly uncommon disorder.” Fortunately, Dandelion had no symptoms
of this terrible disease.
Panleukopenia is a viral disease caused by a type of virus
called a parvovirus. These
viruses like to attack the bone marrow and the intestinal cells, causing
severe, often bloody diarrhea and a very low white blood cell count.
White blood cells are necessary to fight off infections, and cats
with low white blood cell counts from this virus are susceptible to
contracting other infectious disorders.
The disease is most common in young kittens, although adults are
occasionally infected. For
many kittens, the disease proves fatal. The virus is primarily spread through contact with
contaminated feces from infected cats, although objects such as food
bowls, litter boxes, and other contaminated surfaces can play a role in
transmission of the virus, as the virus can survive for prolonged periods
(months, and possibly years) in the environment. Fortunately, there is a
very effective vaccine against this disease.
Cats that recover from infection are believed to be immune for
life. Thankfully, Dandelion
had no evidence of infection with this dangerous virus.
Getting your cat past kittenhood can occasionally be quite
a challenge, as bacterial, viral, fungal, and parasitic diseases seem to
be lurking around every corner. An
awareness of the symptoms of common kittenhood diseases, followed by
prompt veterinary intervention, can maximize the chances of a kitten
making it to adulthood with all of its nine lives intact.
By the way, Dandelion never did make it to our Animal Placement
department. After recovering
from his upper respiratory infection, ear mites, roundworms, and fleas,
the technician who dubbed him Dandelion requested permission to adopt him.
Permission was granted, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Kittens are susceptible to a host of illnesses.
The following chart should help alert kitten owners as to possible
indications that something may be amiss in regard to their kitten’s
Symptoms Caused by Common Kittenhood Diseases:
rhinotracheitis virus, calicivirus, chlamydia
roundworms, hookworms, coccidia, Giardia,
roundworms, hookworms, FIP
hookworms, feline leukemia virus, Mycoplasma haemofelis (formerly
Anne Sinclair, DVM, President and CEO of Cat Sense Feline
Hospital and Boarding, Inc., recommends that kitten owners perform
their own regular, brief physical examination on their kitten,
looking for anything abnormal or unusual.
Dr. Sinclair’s signs of good health are listed below.
The Signs of Good Health:
coat should look sleek and glossy, and the skin should be free of
scratches, cuts, or fight wounds.
There should be no evidence of fleas, redness, or
eyes should be clear and bright, with no discharge.
If the “third eyelid” is showing, the kitten may be
ears should be clean and pink inside.
There should be no accumulation of wax or dark crusty
nose should feel damp, soft, and
“velvety” to the touch, and have no discharge or crusty
material on the surface.
teeth, and gums
gums should be pale pink, and the breath should have very little
smell. As the baby teeth get replaced by the permanent teeth, you
may occasionally see loose teeth when you examine a young cat’s
mouth. By six months,
all of the permanent teeth should be present.
and kittens keep the area under the tail very clean.
There should be no evidence of soreness or diarrhea.