Top 7 Adopted Cat Health Problems Common Health Issues for Adopted Cats and What You Can Do

Top 7 Adopted Cat Health Problems
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It's becoming more and more common for people to adopt cats from a local shelter. That's great news! Here's what you need to know about some common health problems that may need to be treated in shelter cats.

The good news: It is becoming more and more common for people to adopt cats from a local shelter. This means that more cats are given a second chance at a home and shelters can help many more cats.

There are some health problems that should be considered and looked for when adopting a cat, though, as well as precautions you should take to protect the health of the pets you may already have at home and to ensure a long, healthy life for your shelter cat.

Top 7 Health Concerns For Adopted Cats

1) Upper Respiratory Infections (URI)

Cat colds are one of the most common health problems when adopting from a shelter.

  • Symptoms: URIs are often visible in the form of a runny nose or eyes, paired with sneezing or congested breathing. Cats may also appear lethargic, have a fever, or loss of appetite.
  • Causes: Viruses and bacteria cause URIs, but overcrowding is often the main cause of transmission. URIs are spread to new cats by fomites (any inanimate object which can transfer the infectious agent to another animal), so they can spread to new animals if contact is made with clothing, hands, carriers, or toys which have been in contact with sick cats.
  • Treatments: Some cats can recover from a mild URI without medication, but be sure to consult with your veterinarian. With or without medication, it is important to nurse the cat, wiping their eyes and mouth, and ensuring they are warm, fed, and watered.

2) Feline Panleukopenia Virus (aka Feline Distemper)

The Panleukopenia virus is incurable and possibly fatal within 24 hours of symptoms. Because of this shelters should be taking steps to vaccinate cats against Panleukopenia, and should isolate cats suspected of being sick. The virus is highly contagious and attacks the gastrointestinal tract, but also suppresses the immune system.

  • Symptoms: Symptoms are sudden and may include bloody diarrhea, lethargy, depression, vomiting, loss of appetite, or biting of the tail or legs.
  • Causes: Panleukopenia is caused by the feline parvovirus and is spread by contact with bodily fluids or other fomites. The virus can survive for long periods of time and across distances if carried on bedding, clothing, or food dishes.
  • Treatments: There is no proven medication to kill the virus, but treatments may include whole blood transfusions, antibiotics, and intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration while the cat fights the virus. 

3) Ringworm

Ringworm is actually a fungus (not a worm) and can easily spread to any mammal, including humans. It may or may not cause itchiness, but because it is highly contagious, should be investigated and treated if the cat has symptoms.

  • Symptoms: The name “ringworm” comes from a ring-shaped rash seen on humans, but for cats, it may only look like a dry patch of missing hair.
  • Causes: The highly contagious fungus travels as spores and can be transmitted through direct contact or contact with a contaminated environment, such as bedding or carriers. It continues to spread even after the symptoms have disappeared, so symptom-less cats can easily carry the fungus into a new environment, such as a shelter or your home, and infect other animals.
  • Treatments: Ringworm can be treated with oral and topical anti-fungal medications but most cats will recover from ringworm without medication within 3 months.

4) Stress

Stress is difficult to diagnose given the variety of cat personalities, but even the best shelter creates a stressful environment for a cat. Stress is a health concern not only because it decreases the quality of life for the cat but because it suppresses the immune system and makes cats more susceptible to illnesses. This is a reason why the longer a cat is in a shelter, the more likely they are to contract an illness or infection.

  • Treatments: The best treatment is adoption into a loving home, but even the process of adoption can be stressful, so it may take time for your cat to relax. Talk to your vet about medications and homeopathic remedies if you think your cat's stress level isn't improving.

5) Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV)

Feline Leukemia Virus is sometimes confused with Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV), but the two viruses lead to very different outcomes. The Feline Leukemia Virus is cancer-causing and ultimately fatal. 

  • Symptoms: The infection can take time to develop, so continuous testing is necessary. The shelter should test the cat when it was admitted, but adoption is another good time for a blood test. Symptoms include pale gums, yellow color of eyes or mouth, weight loss, progressive weakness, fever, diarrhea, or frequent infections.
  • Causes: FeLV is most commonly spread through saliva contact with an infected cat, which can happen when sharing bowls. The virus causes various types of cancer, especially Leukemia, and the immune suppression caused by the virus leads to vulnerability to secondary infection or disease.
  • Treatment: There is no known treatment to cure FeLV, so the best treatment is good care of the animal, limiting stress and treating any secondary illnesses. If the cat is well taken care of, they should have a few good years of life.

6) Fleas, Lice, Ticks, and Mites

External parasites, especially fleas, are a common problem in shelters with a constant influx of new animals. These insects and arachnids cause discomfort, the potential for secondary infections, and can also pose a risk to people.

  • Symptoms: If fleas are irritating the cat, you might see excessive scratching, licking, head shaking, or biting of skin, but some cats may show no signs of discomfort. Fleas, lice, or ticks may be visible in their fur (especially if combed with a fine-toothed comb), or sores or bald spots may develop from scratching or licking.
  • Treatments: The most common treatment for all external parasites are topical ointments and combing, but there are also oral medications which specifically target fleas. Areas where the animal spends a lot of time may be breading grounds for flea eggs (bedding, carpets, toys, etc.), so cleaning is also crucial for treatment.

7) Intestinal Parasites

Worms and protazoans can attack your cat's digestive system, and leave them vulnerable to illnesses. Even cats that appear healthy may have parasites which could infect other animals, or in some cases, humans.

  • Symptoms: Diarrhea is the most common sign of an intestinal parasite, but some, such as tapeworms, may not cause noticeable signs unless there is a serious infection. Cats may also scoot their rear ends along the ground if the anus is irritated. Worm eggs may be visible, looking like small grains of rice, in the cat's feces.
  • Causes: Internal parasites are primarily transmitted through fecal contact, or the eating of an infected animal (such as a mouse).
  • Treatments: Most parasites can be treated with oral or injectable de-worming or anti-parasitic medication, but it is important to pair the type of parasite with the appropriate medication. Your vet should identify the type using fecal or other samples, and recommend medication accordingly.

What You Can Do:

Here's what you can do to prepare for any health problems, and reduce the risk of spreading disease to other animals you may already have at home.

  • Schedule your veterinarian visit for the same day you pick up your cat from the shelter. This will allow the veterinarian to check them out before coming home and possibly exposing other pets in the house to communicable diseases.
  • Ask your shelter about the cat's health and vaccination history. This information may not be available, but you won't know if you don't ask.
  • Check out your shelter. Talk with people who have adopted and ask about their experiences. It's important to remember that shelters have to do with what they have, (which can lead to overcrowding), but if you're prepared and know about possible health issues, you'll be ready to adopt.
  • If you do find yourself with a sick cat, follow the instructions of your veterinarian carefully and be sure to clean contact areas effectively while treating your cat.
More on Cat Health

What to Do When Your Pet Gets Tapeworm
Principles of Nutrition for Adult Cats
Antibiotics for Cats

This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian with respect to your pet. It has, however, been verified by a licensed veterinarian for accuracy.

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URI (Upper Respiratory Infection) Tapeworm Feline Leukemia
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