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Health Threats to Kittens: Infectious Disease
Kittens are subject to many of the same common infectious diseases which affect adult cats, and in most cases, these diseases are more serious for kittens. If a pregnant cat is protected by Core vaccines for the more common (and most serious) diseases, kittens generally have immunity from mom's protection for a few weeks. Feral cats' kittens or kittens born by queens not immunized lack this immunity, and should be vaccinated around three weeks of age, while kittens with mom's... immunity may wait until six to eight weeks old. While vaccination will not guarantee 100% prevention of these diseases, some infectious diseases can wipe out a whole litter of kittens in a short time. Consult with your veterinarian for your "kitten shots" options.
Most Common Infectious Diseases in Kittens
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- Panleukopenia aka Feline Distemper
Panleuk, as it is commonly called, is a particularly virulent virus in the Parvovirus group, and is often found in feral cat colonies, or any other areas where large groups of cats gather. I once had a kitten, found on the street, who nearly died from Panleuk, but was saved by our veterinarian. "Spooky" forever after was unable to hold her head erect, and was left with a sort of endearing "bobble-head" walk.
- Upper Respiratory Infections
These include the viruses Rhinotracheitis aka Feline Herpes Virus and Feline Calicivirus. There are core vaccines for both of these viruses. A third infectious disease is Chlamydia, which is bacterial and can be treated with antibiotics such as Tetracycline. Although there is a vaccine for Chlamydia, its potential for harmful side effects is such that the AAFPC does not recommend routine use of this vaccine. In addition to sneezing and runny nose, Chlamydia can cause Conjunctivitis (commonly known as pink-eye), which can be spread to humans. It is important, therefore, to use latex gloves when handling the kitten, to wash hands thoroughly after treating him, and to keep your hands away from your own eyes.
- Panleukopenia aka Feline Distemper
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Parasitic Carriers of Disease in Kittens
Several parasites are carriers of dangerous diseases to kittens. The common flea, as well as ticks and mosquitos, can transmit a number of diseases:
Hemobartonella, aka Hemobartonellosis, is a form of anemia. It is potentially deadly in kittens, and they may even need blood transfusions as part of the treatment.
Even if a kitten doesn't get Hemobartonella from fleas, the mere act of the fleas dining on the kitten's blood over a period of time can cause a different,... still serious anemia.
Veterinarians will almost always treat flea-infested kittens for tapeworms. However, you may be asked to bring a fecal sample from the kitten with you at appointment time, as they are also susceptible to roundworms. Here are a few tips on how to do it.
- Ticks Can Carry Lyme Disease
Lyme Disease is a Zoonotic Disease which cat affect cats and other mammals, as well as humans. We do not contract Lyme Disease from our cats, but from the same kind of ticks that transmit it to them. It is therefore extremely important that we wear protective latex gloves when handling a cat with suspected ticks, or when removing a tick from a cat. See also the Review by Janet Crosby, DVM of the Tick Twister tool for safely removing ticks.
In adult cats, topical flea control products can kill fleas. However, none of these products are safe for kittens six weeks old and younger, and I would be personally cautious in using them for kittens under three months of age. Your veterinarian is your best source of information about these products.
Aside from the topical flea control products, it is important to rid the entire house of both fleas and their eggs and larvae. If the adult cats are treated with flea control products and the house is clear of fleas, your kitten should be safe from infestations. According to Janet Crosby, DVM, only 10% of the fleas in a home are on the cats. The rest are in the household, in carpeting, drapes, and upholstery - probably even on clothing in your closet. Therefore, it is extremely very important to clear the entire home of fleas, their eggs, and other detritus. The linked article at the very top of this section will give you help for accomplishing that.Continue to 3 of 3 below.
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Congenital Disease and Deformity in Kittens
Kittens may "inherit" either disease or deformity from conditions of the mother cat during pregnancy. Some unfortunate kittens may have both. Most of these congenital problems are kittens born by feral cats or stray cats with unknown history. In both instances, veterinary care is unheard of and the food is scarce and rarely nutritious. Feral females often give birth to several litters a year, and with each litter, their own physical condition lessons until they are barely skin and bones.... Many kittens born late in the breeding season are stillborn, because of the queen's poor health. Experienced rescuers and fosters of pregnant strays and ferals are aware of this trend, and are happier during the first part of kitten season because the kittens tend to be healthier then, and there is a better chance of finding them good homes.
Congenital Conditions in Kittens of Feral Queens
- Fading Kitten Syndrome
FKS is a group of symptoms rather than a single disease. Fosters of pregnant cats and their kittens are well familiar with the symptoms, which may appear shortly after birth, or as late as six to eight weeks. There is no known single cause, although compromised health of the mother cat undoubtedly weighs heavily.
- Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV)
Transmitted by deep bite wounds (saliva to blood), or during gestation (blood to blood), cats are more likely to die of infection or other causes because of their compromised immune systems. Even kittens who survive may be hard to place in permanent homes because of humans' misunderstanding of this disease.
- Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV
FeLV is extremely virulent and can be spread through casual contacts, such as shared food dishes, as well as from the mother cat. Please read this story of Tatiana, a FeLV kitten rescued off the streets, for more information.
White cats with two blue eyes are often (but not always) deaf from birth.
- Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP)
While FIP can often be found in areas with large numbers of cats, it can also be found in kittens with a genetic predisposition. While exposure to this coronavirus is widespread, few of the infected cats actually get FIP. The downside is that once contracted, the disease is fatal.
- Hip Dysplasia
Hip Dysplasia is thought to be a genetic disease, although it does not always show up immediately. Oliver (pictured above), adopted at six weeks, was born with hip dysplasia, and also with Cauda Equina Syndrome (a narrowing of the vertebral canal.) He had surgeries after the diagnoses when he was about a year old. Now 15, he is doing quite well, with just a few household adjustments to make him more comfortable.
- Feline Cerebellar Hypoplasia
CH is commonly caused by Feline Distemper, contracted either after birth or during gestation. As it centers in the cerebrum, CH is a neurological disease, which usually affects motor skills, including the ability to walk and control of the head.
Tashi, the kitten in the linked page, came 400 miles to Tabby's Place from a group in Ohio, who had rescued him from a cat colony. The kitten was paraplegic in his back legs, and since he had no feeling in his hind quarters, he was also incontinent. Although not much more is known about his background, I'd assume he had been birthed by a malnourished feral cat.
Congenital Disease in Purebred Cats
However, even purebred cats are not immune to a congenital disease. As an example, certain breeds of cats are subject to Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM). They include Maine Coon Cats, Ragdolls, and Sphynx, among other breeds. The Winn Feline Foundation Ricky Fund was set up by Steve Dale, in memory of his Ricky, a Devon Rex cat, who died at the age of four of HCM. The Ricky Fund has donated tens of thousands of dollars for grants to veterinary colleges and scientists toward research into HCM, its cause, and treatment. This eventually fatal disease is sometimes also a side effect of Hyperthyroidism in cats.
Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD)
Polycystic Kidney Disease is found most often in Persian Cats and the related breed, Exotics. It is a progressive genetic disease affecting the kidneys, and 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.
Kittens who survive any of the diseases and conditions covered here can often live long, healthy lives as wonderful companions when they are adopted by someone with "the right stuff," someone who will love them for who they are, and who will be willing to care for their physical and medical needs, and give them the same kind of unconditional love these cats give us.
Disclaimer: I am not a veterinarian. This article is meant only to give you a starting place to do your own research so you can make an informed decision, should it ever become necessary.
If you found this article helpful, you may wish to enroll in the Kitten Care E-Course, or the Kitten Care Online Course.
- Fading Kitten Syndrome