Common Cat Diseases & Viruses

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As a cat owner, you want your pet to remain healthy. Unfortunately, your cat can be at risk of exposure to several illnesses every day. This risk can increase if your cat spends a considerable amount of time outside. With preventative measures such as vaccines, routine testing for viruses and good husbandry, the risk of exposure can be greatly reduced.

Feline Panleukopenia

Feline distemper is another name for the disease feline panleukopenia. This is a highly contagious disease in cats caused by the feline parvovirus. Kittens tend to be the most susceptible to this disease. If a young kitten is showing signs of vomiting, diarrhea, depression or a fever, this illness should be considered. Confirmation of this disease is determined by detecting the virus in the feces. Bloodwork will also show a very low white blood cell count.

Cats commonly contract this disease when they are in direct contact with an infected animal. A contaminated environment is also a factor in transmitting this disease. This can be an issue in shelters or other environments that may house a large amount of cats. Since the symptoms of diarrhea and vomiting can be very serious, intravenous fluid therapy to address dehydration is often required. Additional treatment may involve antibiotics and medication to help with vomiting. Favorable response to treatment is dependent on how early the kitten is treated due to the aggressive nature of this virus.

Feline Leukemia

If your cat spends some time outdoors then feline leukemia can be a concern for your pet. Feline leukemia is caused by a retrovirus that can cause immunosuppression and predisposition to cancer such as lymphoma in infected cats. Infected cats may have upper respiratory signs -- sneezing or runny eyes -- persistent diarrhea, severe gingivitis and persistent fevers as symptoms. Cats that develop lymphoma can have enlarged lymph nodes and neurological signs due to tumors infiltrating the nervous system.

The two tests available to confirm diagnosis are an enzyme-linked immunoabsorbant assay (ELISA) and the immunofluorescence assay (IFA). Both tests detect a protein component of the virus in the blood. The virus is shed in saliva, urine and feces. This allows transmission with casual contact through grooming, bites and sharing food dishes or litter pans. It could also be transmitted to kittens from infected mothers through the placenta prior to birth and during nursing through the milk. Treatment is not very successful with this disease with more than 80 percent of cats infected dying within 2 to 3 years. Antiviral and immunomodulatory drugs are available to help improve signs, but none are able to cure the disease. Prevention through vaccinating and testing of all new cats entering the household is the best course of action.

Feline Immunodeficiency Virus

Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) is a retrovirus that is similar to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS in humans. This infection is most prevalent in intact male cats. These cats tend to be more aggressive with each other leading to bite wounds. They also tend to roam more, increasing the likelihood of exposure to infected cats. The main source of infection is through bites from infected cats. Sexual transmission of the virus can occur but it is uncommon. Cats who are infected with FIV show symptoms that are consistent with immunosuppression, such as chronic infections of the skin, mouth and sinuses.

Diagnosis is through an ELISA test that detects antibodies in the blood. Sometimes an additional test called a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is needed to detect the virus’s DNA in the blood. There is no specific anti-viral treatment for FIV. Your veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics to cats that develop infections from immunosuppression. Immunomodulatory drugs may be used to help enhance a cat’s immune response if necessary.

Viral Upper Respiratory Infections

Feline herpesvirus (FHV) and Feline calicivirus (FCV) are common viruses to consider if your cat is showing upper respiratory signs. Symptoms typically include sneezing, nasal discharge and runny eyes. Cats with FHV may develop ulcers of the eye and while cats with FCV develop them in the mouth. In both diseases, transmission can occur through contact with nasal or eye discharge and contaminated surfaces.

Treatment is tailored to the symptoms that are seen. Antibiotic eye ointment or drops are typically given for cats with eye discharge. Oral antibiotics are prescribed for those who are sneezing or have nasal discharge. Classic symptoms such as ulcers are typically used to diagnose these viruses. However, a diagnosis can be confirmed using the PCR test to detect the viruses from eye, throat and nasal swabs. Vaccines are recommended to help prevent these diseases especially between the ages of 6 and 16 weeks.

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