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Top Ten Kitten Health Concerns

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by Arnold Plotnick MS, DVM, ACVIM, ABVP

Kittens are a joy to behold. They’re fun to raise, entertaining to watch, and best of all, they grow up to be cats!  In the words of da Vinci: “Even the smallest feline is a masterpiece”. To maximize the chances that your little masterpiece arrives at adulthood without a hitch, there are several health issues that must be addressed.  Here are, in my opinion, the ten most important concerns regarding your kitten’s health and well-being.

Feline leukemia (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV)

The feline leukemia virus is perhaps the most feared, and most frustrating, virus of cats.  Transmitted horizontally (from cat to cat) and vertically (from mother to offspring), this virus is essentially a death sentence for kittens that contract it.  The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP), in conjunction with the Academy of Feline Medicine (AFM), recommends testing all kittens for this virus.  A positive test should be repeated and confirmed.  While adult cats who contract the disease may live several months (or even years), with good supportive care, kittens with the disease rarely live a few weeks after the diagnosis is made.  The absolute first thing you should do when acquiring a new kitten is to have it tested for feline leukemia.  Testing should be done before introducing the new kitten to your home, as the disease is highly contagious from cat to cat. The feline immunodeficiency virus is the feline equivalent of HIV in humans.  While not as deadly as the leukemia virus, FIV is of great concern in that cats who test positive for this virus eventually become susceptible to a wide variety of infectious diseases as the virus slowly ravages the immune system. The AAFP/AFM advises that testing kittens less than 6 months of age for FIV may yield unreliable results. A positive test result in a kitten less than 6 months of age should be viewed cautiously, and should be repeated after the kitten has reached six months of age.    The feline leukemia test, on the other hand, is valid at any age, and kittens should be tested for the leukemia virus as soon as possible, preferably by 8 weeks of age.

Vaccinations

Once you’ve confirmed that your kitten is negative for feline leukemia, the best way to insure that it remains healthy is to begin the kitten vaccination series.  All kittens should be vaccinated against feline viral rhinotracheitis and calici virus, the two primary viruses responsible for upper respiratory infections in cats.  Kittens should also be vaccinated against panleukopenia, a viral disease that causes severe and often fatal diarrhea.  At 12 weeks of age, your kitten should be vaccinated against rabies.  Several other vaccines are available for cats, however, vaccination should not be considered to be a benign procedure, and you should consult with your veterinarian as to which other vaccines may be necessary for your individual cat based on its lifestyle.

Worms

Intestinal parasites are a common occurrence in kittens.  Roundworms, hookworms, and coccidia are perhaps the most frequent offenders.  Intestinal worms can accumulate in the digestive tract and rob the kitten of valuable nutrients at this vulnerable stage in its life.  Coccidia are protozoan parasites that can cause diarrhea in kittens.  The small size of kittens can make them susceptible to life-threatening dehydration.  Fortunately, most intestinal parasites are easily treated.  On your first visit to the veterinarian, kitten owners should bring a fecal sample for analysis.

Diet

Kittens grow like little weeds, and they require a high quality kitten food to insure proper development. Kittenhood lasts a full year, and kittens should be fed kitten food for the first twelve months of its life.  Avoid generic or unknown brands of food, and stick with the tried and true commercial brands or premium brands.  If there is a dog or two in your household menagerie, it is imperative that your kitten not consume any significant amount of dog food.  Cats have a unique requirement for taurine, an amino acid found in insufficient quantity in dog food.  Taurine deficiency can lead to blindness and severe heart disease.

Ear Mites

Ear mites are pesky, microscopic bugs that can live in your kitten’s ears, causing itching and relentless discomfort.  Severe infestations can cause rupture of the eardrum and inflammation of the middle ear, resulting in balance and coordination problems. Often manifesting as an accumulation of dry, brown, crusty material in the ear canals, ear mites can cause kittens to scratch their ears so vigorously as to cause bleeding.  Fortunately, they are easily diagnosed by your veterinarian, and have become easier to treat due to the recent development of new topical (on the skin) and otic (in the ear) medications.  

Spaying and Neutering

Kittens are wonderful, however, there is no need to bring any more of them into this already overpopulated world.  The shelters and humane organizations are brimming with unwanted kittens, many of which end up being euthanized for lack of sufficient homes.  For this reason alone, all kittens should be neutered (if male) or spayed (if female) as soon as practical.  Neutering and spaying also has positive behavioral benefits.  Urine spraying (a way to mark their territory) is unlikely to develop as a behavioral problem if cats are spayed or neutered before they reach sexual maturity.  Neutering also reduces cat-to-cat aggression, reducing the occurrence of cat-bite abscesses and the transmission of viruses such as the feline leukemia virus and the feline immunodeficiency virus.

Fleas

Fleas are, and will always be, a nuisance to pet owners.  Fortunately, there have been major breakthroughs in flea control for small animals.  There are several once-a-month oral and topical products on the market that control fleas. Several of these products control other external and internal parasites as well.  Revolution is a topical product that can be used in kittens that weigh at least 5 lbs. and are at least 6 weeks old. Advantage is recommended for kittens that are at least 7 weeks old. Program and Frontline recommend the kitten be at least 10 weeks old.  The once-a-month products are cost prohibitive for some pet owners. Fortunately, there are always flea sprays and powders. These are not as efficacious as the newfangled products; however, they still work. Make sure that the product label says “safe for puppies and kittens.” Always be very careful when treating kittens under six weeks of age.  If in doubt about the best way to treat flea ridden kittens, ask your veterinarian.

Ringworm

Dermatophytosis (more commonly called ringworm) is the most common infectious skin disease of cats.  It is a zoonotic disease, meaning it can be spread to humans, and cat owners are often afflicted along with their pets during an outbreak.

The source of a ringworm infection in an individual cat isn’t always obvious.  Usually a kitten picks up its ringworm infection from another cat in the same cattery, breeding colony, shelter, or pet store.

The classical appearance of feline ringworm is one or more areas of partial, patchy hair loss accompanied by some scaling and crusting, primarily on the head, face, and front legs.  In most cases, cats infected with ringworm are only mildly itchy.  Many factors predispose a cat to infection, including youth, presence of debilitating disease, concurrent therapy with drugs that suppress the immune system, poor nutrition, and stress.  Long-haired cats such as Persians and Himalayans are more commonly affected. 

Despite its name, ringworm is not caused by a worm.  It is a skin fungus, and treatment involves the use of oral anti-fungal medications, shampoos and/or topical ointments. Most kittens respond very well to treatment.   

Litter box

While litter box concerns may not fall under the realm of “health” concerns, per se, the good relationship that we try to foster with our kitten may be jeopardized if good litter box habits aren’t established early.  Often, a kitten will already be litter box savvy when you first bring it into your home.  If not, kittens should be introduced to their litter box by six weeks of age.  Because cats are instinctively fastidious about where they eliminate, housebreaking is usually an effortless task.  However, cats and kittens can, and sometimes do, deviate from their good litter box habits. Most cats that relieve themselves in places other than their litter box do so for a reason, and the sooner the cause is realized, the greater the chances of successfully retraining the cat.  There are many ways to make the litter box more appealing, and the area the cat has chosen to soil less appealing.  Consult your veterinarian initially, as a urinary tract infection may be the inciting cause of the inappropriate elimination behavior.  If a physical examination and urinalysis prove negative, your veterinarian may be able to advise you as to how to get your cat back on track, or may refer you to a behaviorist for those particularly difficult cases. 

Scratching Post

Scratching is a natural behavior of cats, and providing an outlet for this behavior is a must for all kittens and cats.  Cats need to scratch.  It allows them to sharpen their claws and get rid of pieces of old, loose claw.  It is also a way for them to mark their territory. Cats have little scent glands in their feet that mark an item with their scent when they scratch.

A scratching post is a must for kittens and cats, and training should begin early, before destructive behavior turns the joy of owning a kitten into distressful dilemma.  There are many types of commercially available scratching posts.  A simple wooden post covered with carpet works fine.  The post should be at least 3 feet long so that the kitten/cat can stretch its whole body when it reaches up to scratch.  Attaching a toy to the top of the post is a great way to attract kittens to it.  The most effective scratching posts, in my experience, seem to be those simple rectangular pieces of corrugated cardboard material.  Cats and kittens love ‘em. 

As American fashion designer John Weitz said, “Cats are always elegant”. By keeping these ten aspects of kitten health and cat ownership in mind, raising a kitten and watching it transform into a well-behaved, healthy, elegant companion becomes one of life’s greatest pleasures. 

         

Updated 2/9/06