Learning to recognise when your cat is feeling under the weather and being aware of any signs and symptoms that might signal the early onset of disease are both vital in keeping your pet in peak condition.
Knowing when to call your vet for advice and treatment could also help save your cat’s life in an emergency. Your vet will also be able to advise you on how regular check-ups and vaccination can protect your pet against potentially fatal disease. Diseases and danger signs to be aware of include;
Panleukopenia - a highly contagious viral disease of cats often called feline distemper and is most often fatal in young cats. Cat flu is caused by both Feline Calcivirus and Feline Herpes Virus – both cause upper respiratory tract infections in cats. Feline Chlamydophila (formerly known as Chlamydia) causes conjunctivitis with redness and discharge and is usually treated with antibiotics. Feline Leukaemia virus (FeLV) can suppress the immune system and causes a range of serious illnesses in susceptible cats.
If you ever board your cat in a cattery, then it's particularly important to ensure vaccine protection against possible disease risks. 'Cat flu' is one of the biggest risks in a cattery and recent research shows that a bacterium called Bordetella bronchiseptica is responsible for some of these outbreaks. This is a highly contagious disease of the cat's respiratory tract and occurs where cats are in close contact with each other.
Bacterial infections in cats
Bordetella bronchiseptica (Bb) is a bacterium closely related to Bordetella pertussis, the cause of whooping cough in man. It may cause problems either in conjunction with infection due to the cat 'flu viruses (feline herpesvirus or feline calicivirus) or may cause disease entirely in its own right. It can therefore be termed as a 'primary pathogen' in feline upper respiratory tract disease (FURTD).
Is my cat at risk of Bordetella Bronchiseptia?
Some may recognise that the Bordetella bacterium is more commonly associated with dogs and is one of the main causes of kennel cough. But, cats in homes with more than three cats, or in boarding and breeding catteries or rescue shelters are particularly at risk of disease fromthis highly infectious organism. It has also been shown that this disease will spread from dogs to cats and vice versa as well.
Bordetella infections can be extremely serious in young kittens, leading to severe breathing difficulties and rapid death. Reports of the loss of whole litters of kittens to this infection are not uncommon.
How is Bordetella Bronchiseptia spread in cats?
The bacterium is transmitted by saliva and respiratory secretions through direct contact with an infected cat, eg grooming one another, or a contaminated environment, eg sharing food or water bowls as the bacteria can survive in or by aerosol infection through sneezing or coughing In addition, during the stress of mothering, an infected queen can often shed the Bb bacteria, also putting her kittens at risk.
What are the signs and symptoms of Bordetella Bronchiseptia?
Signs include sneezing, snuffling, discharge from the nostrils, swollen glands, depression and fever.
Coughing can also occur in some cats, but it is not as common as with the same infection in dogs. In the very young and weakened, the disease can prove to be very serious indeed and prove rapidly fatal.
Stopping your cat getting Bordetella Bronchiseptia
There is now an improved vaccination regime available which offers broader spectrum prevention of cat 'flu and it is recommended you consider these options if you have a few cats or you are to board your cat in a cattery.
The vaccine offers immunity against Bordetella bronchiseptica for a full 12 months. This means that even if you leave your cat in the cattery more than once during the year, it only requires a single vaccination. It's literally just a few drops of vaccine gently trickled into one nostril and your cat is protected in as little as 72 hours! Ideally your cat should be vaccinated at least two weeks before arrival at the cattery.
What is the treatment for Bordetella bronchiseptica?
If you have more than one cat in the house then the infected cat should be isolated from the others and should be kept indoors at all times. Don't forget this bacteria is highly contagious and can spread rapidly.
Bordetella bronchiseptica is known to infect humans too, especially those with an immune system which is not functioning properly so always ensure that you wear disposable gloves when handling your cat and their belongings and wash your hands immediately after removing the gloves to prevent contamination.
- Remove any discharge from around your cat's eyes and nose using a warm pad of cotton wool.
- Tempt your cat to eat with slightly warmed 'wet' food to increase palatability.
- Food bowls, bedding and litter trays should be washed and cleaned daily.
- Antibiotics may be required in cases where the symptoms are more severe.
Cat 'flu remains is still relatively common despite the important contribution made by vaccines. The disease can vary in severity, but kittens are particularly at risk and entire litters have been known to die soon after contracting it.
Which cats are at risk of cat flu?
Cat flu is most commonly seen in situations where cats are kept in large groups such as breeding catteries, rescue centres and feral cat colonies, although it can also be seen in pet cat households.
Cats most at risk include unvaccinated cats, kittens, elderly cats and cats which are immunosuppressed for any reason.
What are the symptoms of cat flu?
Symptoms of cat flu include sneezing, nasal discharge, conjunctivitis (inflammation of the lining of the eyes), discharge from the eyes, loss of appetite, limping in one leg that may then change to another, fever and depression.
Occasionally, mouth and eye ulcers and excessive drooling of saliva may be seen. The very young, very old and immune suppressed cats are more likely to develop severe disease and possibly die as a result of their flu.
What causes cat flu?
Despite the name, the causes of cat flu bears no relation in those of human influenza. Whereas influenza is caused by a single virus, cat 'flu is a syndrome: the signs of this disease may be caused by one or more of several different infectious agents (pathogens).
There are primarily three known primary pathogens, capable of causing cat flu on their own. These are feline herpesvirus (FHV), feline calicivirus (FCV) and the bacterium Bordetella bronchiseptica. Respiratory disease problems within a household or cattery environment may involve one or moe of these infectious agents.
What is Feline herpesvirus (FHV)?
Although the majority of cats infected make a full recovery from feline herpesvirus, this often takes several weeks and some cats are left with the permanent effects of infection such as recurrent eye problems and chronic rhinitis (inflammation of the nose). Cats with chronic rhinitis are usually well in themselves but have a persistent discharge from the nose. Secondary bacterial infection of damaged tissue can cause chronic conjunctivitis, sinusitis and bronchitis (inflammation of the linings of the eyes, sinuses and air passages).
Antibiotic treatment usually only provides temporary relief of these symptoms as the bug is a virus and not a bacteria.
Herpes carriers may come down with cat 'flu (clinical signs and viral shedding) following potentially stressful events, like staying in a cattery, many months after first catching the disease.
What is Feline calcivirus (FCV)?
Infection with Feline Calcivirus (FCV) usually causes a milder form of cat 'flu with less dramatic nasal discharges. Mouth ulcers are sometimes the only sign of infection with FCV. The ulcers may be present on the tongue, on the roof of the mouth or the nose. Some strains of FCV cause lameness and fever in young kittens. Cats with the infection recover over a few days although they may benefit from pain killers at this time.
Cats carrying FCV shed virus continually with most cats eventually becoming carriers, but some are persistently infected - sometimes this is associated with mouth inflammation (gingivostomatitis).
What is Bordetella Bronchiseptica (Bb)?
This infectious bacterium is more commonly known as the most important cause of canine infectious tracheobronchitis (Kennel Cough). However, this bacterium also causes respiratory signs in cats that can be hard to differentiate from cat 'flu caused by viral infections. Bordetella can be a particular threat to young kittens and occasionally whole litters of kittens may be lost to this infection.
Cats that recover from cat flu are often unable to completely eliminate the virus or bacteria from their body and many become 'carriers', able to transmit the disease to other cats for years
How is cat 'flu spread?
Both cat flu viruses and bacteria are relatively sturdy and can survive in the environment for several days. They are spread in several ways; through direct contact with an infected cat showing signs of flu or disease, from direct contact with a contaminated environment for example, clothing, food bowls and other objects and from contact with a cat that is a carrier of cat 'flu - the carrier may or may not be showing signs of disease.
How do you prevent cat flu?
Risks of developing cat flu can be reduced by regular vaccination against FHV, FCV and Bordetella bronchiseptica.
How do you treat cat flu?
If your cat comes down with cat flu then take them to your veterinarian as they will need medical supervision to help with the pain, any eye infections and secondary bacterial infections requiring antibiotics.
Your veterinarian may decide to swab the nose, eyes and mouth to determine which pathogen is involved.
The eyes and nose should be kept clean by wiping with a cotton wool pad dipped in warm water to remove discharge.
Your cat may be reluctant to eat so tempt your cat to eat by offering slightly warmed wet food which is more palatable.
If you have more than one cat in your house then the cat should be isolated and you should wear disposable gloves to prevent contamination.
Feline Chlamydophila (formerly known as Chlamydia) mainly causes conjunctivitis in the cat. Conjunctivitis may be defined as the inflammation of the delicate membranes or conjunctiva that cover the inner surface of the eyelids and over the white part of the eye (the sclera). However, this infectious organism is not responsible for the full range of signs associated with cat 'flu.
Can my cat catch Feline Chlamydophila?
Infection is relatively common in cats, with up to 30% of cases of chronic conjunctivitis caused by this organism. Although cats of all ages can be infected, disease is seen most commonly seen in young kittens (5 - 12 weeks old) with persistent or recurrent infection.
How is Feline Chlamydophila spread?
Chlamydophila organisms are very fragile and cannot survive for any period of time in the environment. Infection therefore typically occurs through direct contact and disease is more commonly seen where large groups of cats are kept together, such as multi-cat households, breeding catteries and shelters.
What are the signs and symptoms of Feline Chlamydophila?
Clinical signs normally develop within a few days after infection, beginning as a watery discharge from one or both eyes. Due to the discomfort, affected cats may hold their eyes partially closed.
As the disease progresses, severe swelling and reddening of the conjunctiva may be seen and the discharge changes from watery to a thicker yellowish substance. There may also be very mild sneezing and nasal discharge in some cats with a mild fever resulting in lethargy.
If left untreated, the conjunctivitis can often persist for six to eight weeks or longer and cats may continue to shed the organism for many months.
What is the treatment for cats with Chlamydophila?
Chlamydophila infections respond well to a number of different antibiotics. Topical therapy with eye drops or ointment is usually recommended, but this should be combined with systemic (oral) therapy as the organism can be present at sites other than just the eyes. If giving eye drops is difficult, infections will still respond well to oral therapy alone.
Generally, treatment is recommended for a period of four weeks and all cats in the household should be treated (irrespective of whether they are showing clinical signs).
How do I stop my cat getting Chlamydophila?
Vaccines exist to protect cats against Chlamydophila conjunctivitis. These vaccines do not always prevent infection, but are certainly helpful in preventing severe clinical disease. Its use can be recommended in high risk situations, but should not be part of a standard vaccination regime.
Can I catch Chlamydia from my cat?
Humans can be infected with Chlamydia but the organism that infects cats, Chlamydophila felis, is highly adapted to this species. There have been one or two reports that have suggested human conjunctivitis has occurred following contact with a cat harbouring Chlamydophila felis, but the risk appears to be extremely low.
Routine hygiene precautions are recommended when handling and treating infected cats (washing hands after stroking or giving medications, and avoiding close face-to-face contact until the infection has resolved).
Feline leukaemia virus (FeLV) is associated with the occurrence of tumours and anaemia in cats but also causes disease by suppressing the cat's immune system.
This leaves the cat susceptible to a variety of other problems, which may then be more serious as the cat is unable to combat disease effectively. This is similar to the problems seen in man with the AIDS virus and in cats with Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV).
Is my cat at risk of FeLV?
The FeLV virus cannot survive for long in the environment, so spread of infection between cats is reliant on prolonged close contact. Therefore, infection may be common in environments where there are a large number of cats or where cats go outside and fight. It is estimated that currently 1-2% of cats in this country are infected with FeLV.
In multi-cat households where FeLV is endemic, up to 30% of the cats may be infected. Young cats and particularly kittens are especially vulnerable to becoming infected with FeLV.
As cats get older their susceptibility to infection will decline. Nevertheless, vaccination of older cats is recommended if they are considered 'at risk'.
How is it FeLV spread?
The FeLV virus is spread mainly via the saliva from a persistently infected cat exchanged, for example, by mutual grooming or sharing of food bowls. In addition, the infection can also be caused by biting or contact with urine and faeces containing the virus.
The virus can also pass from a queen to her kittens either in the womb or after the kittens are born, via infected milk.
The majority of cats become infected with the virus entering the body via the mouth or nose.
The virus multiplies at these sites before spreading through the bloodstream to the rest of the body and, in particular, to the bone marrow.
Not all cats which are exposed to the virus become persistently infected. If the cat is able to eliminate the virus, this will occur during the initial stages (4-12 weeks) of infection. Once significant infection of the bone marrow is present, the cat remains infected for the rest of its life.
Signs and symptoms of FeLV
Signs of FeLV infection can take months or years to develop and so infected cats can appear to be totally normal and healthy for quite some time. The first signs of infection may be vague and non-specific because of the huge variety of problems that can occur with FeLV infection. The cat may appear to be slow to recover from minor infections, may be off-colour and have a poor appetite over a period of time or may develop chronic or recurring problems such as diarrhoea.
If tumours develop, the signs seen will depend on the site of the tumour and a variety of different sites may become infected like the chest, kidneys, gut and spinal cord. As the bone marrow is affected the cats ability to produce red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body, decreases and an anaemia ensues, this results in pale gums and listlessness due to the lack of oxygen.
How is FeLV treated?
There is no treatment to eliminate a FeLV infection, although interferons are now being used in an attempt to eliminate disease in some cases. Treatment must therefore be aimed at maintaining quality of life and managing the effects of infection such as immunosuppression, anaemia and cancer.
How do I prevent my cat getting FeLV?
There are several vaccines on the market to protect your cat against FeLV. Vaccination helps to prevent cats from becoming persistently infected by helping to stimulate a successful immune response.
Unfortunately, no vaccine is likely to be 100% effective at protecting against infection. Vaccination is recommended in situations where cats have a risk of exposure to the virus. This includes cats that go outdoors and all those in contact with potentially infected individuals.
Feline Panleucopaenia is a very serious disease of cats which carries a high risk of mortality especially in young cats and kittens. The virus is very similar to the one that causes parvovirus in dogs and indeed recent parvovirus strains of dogs have been shown to infect cats, however, generally does not cause disease, unlike the potentially fatal consequences in dogs.
Who is at risk of Feline Panleucopaenia?
All unvaccinated animals at at risk of contracting the disease, but young kittens are particularly susceptible.
How is Feline Panleucopaenia spread?
Infected cats pass the virus in their urine and faeces for a maximum of six weeks. The virus persists in the environment for long periods over many months or even years and is resistant to many cleaning products and disinfectants. For these reasons, contact with a contaminated environment is the most likely source of infection. Kittens may also be infected inside the womb by the virus passing across the placenta from their mother, if she is infected while pregnant.
What are the signs and symptoms of Panleucopaenia?
Panleucopaenia causes severe vomiting, anorexia and fever. Sometimes the disease can progress so quickly that a kitten may die before the owner even notices any signs, 'fading kitten syndrome'.
The disease may initially be mistaken for foreign bodies stuck in the gut or poisoning. Kittens deteriorate very quickly because once they stop eating and drinking, they become severely dehydrated.
Older cats tend to show less severe signs and, if queens are infected whilst they are pregnant, they often show no signs of illness. The unborn kittens, however, can be infected inside the womb and this may lead to their death 'in-utero' or damage to their developing brains.
What is the treatment for Panleucopaenia?
Treatment of cats with Panleucopaenia is typically supportive often including intravenous fluids and antibiotics. Without intensive nursing, many cats can die from the effects of the disease.
What are the recovery rates from Panleucopaenia?
Cats that survive more than five days without developing complications have a better chance of recovery although frequently it takes several weeks for this to occur. If a cat recovers from panleucopaenia, it is highly unlikely that they will catch the disease again.
How do I prevent my cat getting Panleucopaenia?
Most cat vaccines on the UK market includes panleucopaenia as one of the diseases it protects against and is recommended for all cats as part of their regular healthcare. Boosters are required to maintain immunity and it is particularly important that queens are up-to-date before any planned breeding. One of the vaccines on the UK market has been shown to cross protect against the canine Parvo strains that can cause panleucopaenia and prevent shedding of the virus from the cat which can then infect dogs.