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Keep Your Kitten Healthy  

Symptom Solver – A Short Reference Guide
to a Kitten’s Symptoms



by Arnold Plotnick MS, DVM, ACVIM, ABVP

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 herself”. 

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 service.  Named “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 through kitten-hood.

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 higher risk.  

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 ringworm infection.

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 health.

Symptoms Caused by Common Kittenhood Diseases:

Symptom                                           Possible Cause
Sneezing                           rhinotracheitisvirus, calicivirus
Conjunctivitis rhinotracheitis virus, calicivirus, chlamydia
Scratching fleas, ringworm
Head shaking  ear mites
Diarrhea roundworms, hookworms, coccidia, Giardia, Panleukopenia virus
Bloated abdomen roundworms, hookworms, FIP
Pale gums (anemia) hookworms, feline leukemia virus, Mycoplasma haemofelis (formerly called Hemobartonella)

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:

Skin and coat
The 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   hairloss.

Both eyes should be clear and bright, with no discharge.  If the “third eyelid” is showing, the kitten may be sick.

The ears should be clean and pink inside.  There should be no accumulation of wax or dark crusty material.

The nose should feel damp, soft, and “velvety” to the touch, and have no discharge or crusty material on the surface.

Mouth, teeth, and gums  
The 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.

Rear end  
Cats and kittens keep the area under the tail very clean.  There should be no evidence of soreness or diarrhea.

Updated 2/9/06