Kittens are subject to many different diseases, just like any baby animal with an immature immune system and exposure to many new things in its environment. Some conditions may be congenital or inherited, while many others are infectious including viral, bacterial, or parasitic infections. Fortunately, vaccinated kittens are protected from many of the most deadly diseases.
Feral cat mothers and their kittens may be more at risk for certain health problems. There are many reasons for this:
- Feral cats are likely to have more kittens than they can care for combined with a lack of safe housing;
- Ferals are more prone to have parasites that can cause disease;
- Ferals are often undernourished and unable to provide proper nutrition for kittens.
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Panleukopenia (Feline Distemper)
Panleuk, as it is commonly called, is a highly contagious parvovirus. It is especially dangerous in large groups of unvaccinated cats where it can spread quickly. It targets cells of the bone marrow as well as the cells that line the intestine, which can lead to severe vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, and sepsis.It is transmitted through bodily secretions and can survive in the environment for a long time. Treating Panleukopenia requires hospitalization with intensive care in most cases, and many cats do not survive. The best approach is prevention and luckily, the vaccine for Panleukopenia is very safe and effective.
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Upper Respiratory Infections
Upper respiratory infections caused by viruses include Rhinotracheitis, a.k.a. Feline Herpes Virus and Feline Calicivirus. There are core vaccines for both of these viruses. These viruses can cause sneezing, nasal discharge, and conjunctivitis (commonly known as pink-eye).They are highly contagious and most cats will be exposed to them at some point. For cats who are already vaccinated, they tend to have milder symptoms if they are exposed later in life.
Some upper respiratory infections are also caused by bacteria, with the most common causes being Bordetella, Mycoplasma, and Chlamydia species. Cats with bacterial infections tend to have nasal discharge that appears more milky in color due to a combination of pus and mucus. These cats will likely need to be treated with antibiotics. The Chlamydia infections seen in cats is not the same as the sexually transmitted disease of humans, but it can cause conjunctivitis in humans in rare cases.
Many cats will not need medical treatment if they have symptoms of a respiratory infection, however, if they stop eating, seem to have difficulty breathing, or have signs of conjunctivitis (squinting their eyes, holding their eyes shut, or rubbing at their eyes), they should be examined by a veterinarian.
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Fading Kitten Syndrome (FKS)
FKS is the term used to describe death of a neonatal kitten due to a number of causes. Anyone who has fostered mother cats and kittens, or orphaned kittens who need to be bottle fed, is likely familiar with this syndrome, which may appear shortly after birth or up until kittens are weaned. There is no single cause but many factors which may play a role including infections, congenital abnormalities, being exposed to extreme temperatures (hot or cold), and/or poor nutrition . In many cases the cause is not identified as the kitten may decline rapidly and pass away before any diagnosis can be made.
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Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV)
FIV is transmitted by bite wounds (saliva to blood), or during gestation (in-utero) or from nursing mothers to their kittens. The virus is a retrovirus that attacks the immune system. Cats with FIV are more likely to get secondary infections because of their compromised immune systems. Many cats with FIV may live normally for years before they become ill and many studies have shown it does not shorten their lifespan.Cats with FIV may also be more prone to certain dental conditions and should be monitored closely by a vet for this condition. There is a non-core vaccine for FIV that is not appropriate for all cats, however, those at high risk of acquiring FIV including outdoor cats or cats who live with FIV+ cats may benefit from being vaccinated.Continue to 5 of 13 below.
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Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV)
FeLV is a retrovirus that is extremely contagious and can be spread through casual contacts, such as shared food dishes or litter boxes, grooming each other, as well as in-utero from a mother cat or during nursing. FeLV suppresses the immune system and causes a number of other syndromes that are nearly always fatal. In some cases cats may have a regressive infection where the virus is not actively replicating and this will cause some tests to become negative. These cats tend to have lower risks of developing FeLV-related diseases, however the virus can become reactivated. There is a non-core vaccine that can be used to prevent FeLV infection and this is most appropriate for outdoor cats who are at high risk of contracting FeLV.
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Some kittens are born without hearing, known as congenital deafness. This condition, while incurable, does not limit a cat's quality of life, however owners may notice that a deaf cat will vocalize more loudly, or play more aggressively with other cats. White cats with two blue eyes are at a higher risk of being deaf since these traits are often inherited together.Deaf cats do not require much specialized care, however, owners should be aware that they may startle awake since they won't hear someone approaching, so they should be gently roused. They should not be allowed outside since they cannot hear approaching danger.
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Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP)
FIP is a strange disease in that it is a mutated form of a very common infection in cats caused by Feline Coronavirus. Feline Coronavirus is a very common virus in cats and most cats will have very mild symptoms which completely resolve on their own. However, in rare cases, this same Coronavirus can mutate into FIP, which is almost always fatal. Cats who live with many other cats may be more at risk, and certain purebred cats also seem to be more likely to develop FIP including Ragdolls, Abyssinians, Rexes, Himalayans, and Bengals. Symptoms can vary as there are multiple forms of FIP. but many times owners will notice a kitten that is lethargic, not eating much, or losing weight.
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Hip dysplasia is thought to be a genetic disease, although it does not always show up immediately. It is rare in cats compared to dogs, and it is a deformity that can, in many cases, be corrected through surgery.Many cats with hip dysplasia will not be symptomatic for the disease, and in those cases, no medical intervention may be needed.Continue to 9 of 13 below.
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Feline Cerebellar Hypoplasia (FCH)
FCH is caused by a neurological birth defect that occurs in-utero. A common cause for this can be feline distemper (Panleukopenia virus), contracted by the mother while she is pregnant, but other exposures can also cause FCH. Kittens with CH usually show signs of an underdeveloped cerebellum including poor balance, tremors, and a wobbly gait. There is no treatment for the condition but many of these kittens learn to compensate very well and can have a good quality of life. The best prevention is to make sure cats are up to date on their vaccines to prevent the spread of Panleukopenia. Pregnant cats should not be vaccinated with a modified live form of the vaccine, however, since this could induce FCH in the kittens.
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Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM) is a disease of the heart muscle caused by thickening of the left ventricle. Certain breeds of cats are more prone to HCM than others. They include Maine Coon Cats, Ragdolls, and Sphynx, among other breeds. While there is often a genetic predisposition, it does not typically affect cats until they are over age 5. In other cats, the condition can arise secondarily to other medical problems including high blood pressure or hyperthyroidism. Regular veterinary check-ups are important to catch some of these pre-existing conditions and your vet can help you decide if referral to a veterinary cardiologist is in order.
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Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD)
Polycystic kidney disease is found most often in Persian cats and related breeds. It is a progressive genetic disease affecting the kidneys, and is often not diagnosed until later in life. Conscientious breeders are now testing their breeding queens in an effort to keep the PKD gene out of their line.
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Several parasites are carriers of dangerous diseases to kittens. The common flea, as well as ticks and mosquitos, can transmit a number of diseases:
Hemotropic Mycoplasmosis, formerly called Hemobartonella, a.k.a. hemobartonellosis, is a parasite of red blood cells that can cause anemia. It is potentially deadly (particularly in kittens), and infected cats may even need blood transfusions as part of the treatment.The exact modes of transmission are not well-understood but it is thought that it can be transmitted through fleas and mosquitos, as well as between mothers and kittens, and through bite wounds.
Even if a kitten doesn't get Hemotropic Mycoplasmosis from fleas, a large enough infestation of fleas dining on the kitten's blood over a period of time can cause a different type of serious anemia if enough blood is lost to the fleas.This condition may also require a blood transfusion in addition to aggressive treatment of the flea infestation.Continue to 13 of 13 below.
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Veterinarians will almost always treat flea-infested kittens for tapeworms since fleas can carry tapeworm larvae. When a kitten ingests a flea (usually they eat the fleas in response to being bitten and feeling itchy), the tapeworm larvae can enter the kitten's intestines. You may be asked to bring a fecal sample from the kitten with you at appointment time, as they are also susceptible to other parasites, such as roundworms and all of these can be screened for with a fecal sample.Treatment is usually straightforward and involves a deworming medication in addition to eliminating the fleas.
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