How to Keep a Cat’s Body Healthy (Part 1)

The Veterinarians’ Guide to Your Cat’s Symptoms: How to Keep a Cat’s Body Healthy

Just as is true in human health care, the best way to assure a cat’s physical well-being is to practice common sense care and preventive medicine. Proper veterinary care, immunizations against contagious diseases, nutrition that meets a cat’s needs at each stage of his life, basic grooming and cleanliness, some kind of play or exercise, and generally good daily care all combine to form a routine that will help a cat’s body function at its maximum potential.

Choosing a Veterinarian

Before bringing a new kitten or cat home, it’s a good idea to shop for a veterinarian, because a thorough head-to-tail checkup is one of the very first steps to take in sensible preventive medicine.

Although there are low-cost clinics that will perform most routine services such as yearly immunizations and boosters and simple neutering operations, most cat owners want a veterinarian with whom they can consult if some aspect of their pet’s well-being troubles them. For this purpose a good companion animal practitioner is the best choice, especially for pet owners with both cats and dogs. As a good pediatrician does with a child and his parents, it is important that a veterinarian get to know both pet and owner in order to be effective in assessing illnesses and disorders that may arise later on in a cat’s life. There are veterinarians who limit their practices to feline medicine only, but they are not necessarily feline specialists. Cats-only veterinary practices may be more satisfactory for owners of particularly timid cats, which may not appreciate an office full of barking dogs.

Veterinarians differ greatly in ability and personality, just as human doctors do. For general, routine pet care, probably the most important aspect in selecting a veterinarian is an owner’s ability to get along with and communicate well with the doctor. In case something very complicated should come up, a general-practice veterinarian will usually refer a pet owner to a specialist in the area of concern, such as dermatology, cardiology, internal medicine, and so forth. It’s a good idea to find out ahead of time if the veterinary practice being considered has access to these types of specialists, or to a large veterinary teaching facility or hospital with specialists on staff The best sources of information about local veterinarians are pet- owning friends and neighbors. Breeders, groomers, and even pet- supplystore owners may also know of good local veterinarians. Many veterinarians are in group practice and share facilities and staff. Barring any of these resources, call the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) toll free (for the number). They have the names of member animal hospitals in all geographical areas. They set high standards for their animal hospital members in equipment, procedures, and physical facilities.

Nowadays a great many animal hospitals are closed on Sundays, holidays, and during nighttime hours. For off-hour and holiday emergencies several practices often join to establish a centrally located emergency clinic, manned by member veterinarians and employees on a rotating basis. If this arrangement is not satisfactory it may be best to find a veterinary practice in which one of the doctors is on call all of the time.

Once a preliminary decision is made to choose a particular veterinarian and/or practice, an appointment should be made for a checkup for a new kitten or cat as soon as possible after he comes home.

At that time, if an owner finds the veterinarian is not satisfactory, common sense dictates that another doctor be found. More about what to expect on the first veterinary visit later in this chapter.

Choosing a Healthy Pet

The first decision a potential kitten or cat owner has to make is, purebred or mixed breed? There are advantages to each kind of cat, and a lot depends on an owner’s lifestyle and the expected lifestyle of the pet.

If a potential owner has decided on a particular kind of cat, a purebred may be ideal. Purebred cats differ from mixed-breed cats in that they have been selectively bred to develop particular body conformations, haircoats, temperaments, and personalities. It’s important for a potential owner to be aware of the differences among breeds.

Persian cats are quite different from Siamese, for instance, just as British Shorthairs are very unlike Abyssinians. A purebred kitten raised in good conditions by a reliable breeder will grow into an adult cat with a predictable haircoat, body conformation, and so on. Some cat breeds may be prone to particular physical disorders. For a list of some congenital diseases and defects common to particular breeds, see Appendix B.

For first-time cat owners who know they want a purebred cat, the best source for a kitten is a breeder. It is very unusual to find an adult purebred cat for sale. Breeders and owners of purebreds are generally very devoted to their cats and will not part with them. Unlike the American Kennel Club for dogs, there is no one, central registry of standards for purebred cats in the United States. One of the best ways to locate a breeder is to visit one or more cat shows: talk to breeders and cat owners and see the kittens and cats. For someone who wants a pet, not a show cat, breeders will often offer what they call a “pet quality” kitten with less-than-show-perfect markings for a price less than that for a showquality kitten. Purebred-cat breeders are usually very careful of their animals and take good care of them, although there are exceptions.

Even the most careful breeder may not be able to prevent all disease, so it is still very important to visit a veterinarian immediately.

Breeders often travel far to attend cat shows so it may not be possible to see the parents or littermates of a kitten being considered. If a purebred kitten has been raised in a private home, on the other hand, a potential owner should be sure to see both parents to make certain a kitten actually is purebred and not the product of accidental mating, and to evaluate their health and personalities. It’s important for a kitten obtained from any source to visit a veterinarian right away, and for a new owner to obtain a binding return agreement should the kitten turn out to have a serious defect or disease.

Serious cat breeders are very unlikely to sell their pets to chain pet stores. The kittens in these stores are generally obtained from opportunistic breeders who want to cash in on the popularity of certain cat breeds and who may have little interest in proper genetics or preventive health care.

Nearly 90 percent of pet cats owned in this country are mixed breeds.

Mixed-breed cats are generally healthy and hardy and make excellent pets. Mixed-breed kittens are not difficult to find, especially in the spring when the breeding season is at its height. Kittens, and grown cats, too, of all combinations of colors and haircoats can be located through Humane Societies, shelters, or even advertisements on supermarket bulletin boards. For first-time pet owners, and owners who want a special cat, the best bet is to find a kitten or cat that has been raised in a caring home in which the mother of the kittens is someone’s well-loved pet. A kitten from this kind of home will have been born into a relatively clean, disease-free environment to a mother who has been well fed and is probably parasite free.

However, little kittens are especially vulnerable to disease, and even loving pet owners may not be aware of the necessity to immunize them.

Be sure to obtain a vaccination and health certificate signed by a veterinarian if you opt to adopt a kitten from a private home. Then take the new kitten or cat to the veterinarian right away to have a complete physical examination, and additional immunizations if necessary.

If there are other cats in the household, isolate the newcomer until he’s given a completely clean bill of health. A minimum of two weeks is recommended to be certain a new pet isn’t incubating an infectious disease that even a veterinarian may not be able to detect (see incubation periods, below). This means providing separate living quarters, litter pans, food and water dishes, and toys. Even if the existing resident cats have up-to-date immunizations, there may be strains of disease to which they are not immune. This is especially true in the case of very young or elderly cats, who are apt to be less resistant to disease than healthy young adults.

If a new kitten or cat is obviously unwell, or develops symptoms of illness, even stricter care is necessary to protect resident felines from exposure. An owner can become a carrier of viral diseases on clothing, shoes, and hands. Protective clothing, such as a smock and gloves and old socks and slippers, should be worn over regular clothing when taking care of a sick newcomer, and this clothing should stay in the “isolation room.” Careful hand washing after handling a sick cat is a must. If these steps seem difficult, remember, it is much easier to prevent infection than to have several sick cats to take care of.

A Veterinary Checkup

Many young kittens have roundworms. Left unchecked, roundworms can cause a kitten to have diarrhea and eventually become very sick.

They can also infect humans. Roundworm eggs are shed in the feces of an infected kitten, and if they are ingested by a human can migrate to various organs, most particularly the eyes, where they will eventually cause blindness. Since most young children frequently put their unwashed hands into their mouths, this is especially important to know if there are young children in the household. Roundworm eggs are not infectious when first passed. They need time to become contagious, so frequent emptying of litter pans is very important. Because of the serious nature of roundworm infections in humans it is essential that a kitten be dewormed, even if no worms are visible in a stool sample. Treatment with proper medication should be given at least twice at two to-four- week intervals, usually at the same time immunizations are given. The medication is safe, effective, and not expensive. Over-the-counter products are usually unsatisfactory and can be dangerous for a small kitten.

The veterinarian will check the kitten all over, from head to tail. She’ll listen to his heart and lungs, check the insides of his mouth and ears for any abnormalities or signs of ear mites, and feel his rib cage and stomach for any swelling or abnormality. She’ll check the kitten’s skin and coat. She’ll check the kitten’s genitals and determine his (her) gender. She’ll weigh the kitten in order to keep a record of growth, and take his temperature. She will also perform blood tests to be sure the kitten is free from either the feline leukemia virus (FeLV;) or feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV;), both of which are retroviruses and lead to serious illness.

If a kitten or cat seems to be in general good health, the next step is to establish an immunization schedule. Kittens need to be vaccinated against infectious diseases every few weeks in order to be fully protected. If a kitten is going to be an indoorsoutdoors pet, ask the veterinarian at what stage in the immunization process it will be safe to allow him outdoors. Owners should be aware, however, that indoor-only cats are much healthier than those that are allowed out, and tend to live longer.

No matter if a cat is strictly an indoor pet, he still needs protection from dangerous infectious diseases. He can be exposed to disease organisms from infectious feces brought in on peoples’ shoes, by viruses that are airborne, or carried on clothing and hands, by insect carriers, and by exposure to other pets in veterinary hospitals. Immunity to disease is not a lifetime condition for cats but must be reinforced regularly for the animal to remain protected. Adult cats need revaccinations, called booster shots, to retain immunity from disease.
They are usually given every year, except rabies. For an adult cat’s booster schedule.

One piece of equipment that should be mentioned here is a sturdy carrying case for a cat. The cardboard boxes that are often given to new cat owners are not really escapeproof. A roomy, hard-sided case with a latched door is a good choice (see illustration). Soft-sided, nylon-mesh cat carriers are also popular. Most veterinarians insist that cat patients come to their offices in carrying cases.

How Do Vaccinations Work, and What Do They Prevent?

Vaccinations help a cat’s body develop antibodies, which fight off specific infectious diseases by awakening his body’s immune system to the particular bacterium or virus that causes the disease when it invades the animal’s body. An antibody is a protein that is manufactured in the cat’s body when it is exposed to the disease organism in the vaccine. Vaccines are used to prevent diseases, not treat them, and will do no good if a kitten or cat is already infected with a disease.

The infectious cat diseases for which vaccines have been developed are: feline panleukopenia, rhinotracheitis, calicivirus (these three are often prevented with one vaccine); pneumonitis, also called chlamydia (which may be included in four-component vaccines); feline leukemia virus (FeLV), and rabies (killed vaccine only for cats). Veterinarians usually recommend the three-component vaccine because pneumonitis is relatively mild and uncommon in household cats. If a cat is boarded or taken to cat shows, pneumonitis vaccine is often added. Upper respiratory infections such as rhinotracheitis and calicivirus can be very serious in cats and may lead to death.

A vaccine to prevent feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) is now available through veterinarians. The vaccine is different from the injectable ones mentioned above. It is given in a cat’s nose, because the nose is where the FIP virus is thought to enter the cat’s body and cause infection. The remainder of a cat’s body is warmer than the nasal passages and this increased temperature causes the virus to die so it cannot infect the entire cat. Not all veterinarians feel this vaccine is necessary or effective because kittens are usually affected with FIP shortly after birth. Indoor- only cats are not at risk for acquiring FIP because it is caught from other cats. The need for this vaccine should be discussed with a veterinarian.

One of the things for owners to remember is that various diseases have different incubation periods, or lapses of time between exposure to the disease and the actual outbreak of the disease. During the incubation period of a disease an animal will show no signs of illness; it isn’t until the disease has spread throughout a cat’s body that he will become visibly ill. This lack of symptoms is especially common with young kittens that have not been given good health care. It is very important to begin a kitten’s immunization process right away; the so-called temporary shots often given to kittens are not very effective—see below for more details about this. If a kitten is started on an immunization schedule while he is incubating a disease, it is really a matter of chance whether the disease or the antibodies will win. Sometimes seemingly healthy kittens that are in the process of being immunized can sicken and even die because of this.

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There is currently a controversy about feline immunizations. A growing number of people believe cats are being vaccinated too frequently and do not need yearly boosters. Opponents are afraid that if the frequency of vaccinations is reduced, the result will be the return of many feline diseases. At the time of this writing, we still recommend following the schedules found here.

It is very rare for a vaccination to cause a cat to become ill, but beginning in 1991 several reports in veterinary medical journals associated the administration of feline vaccines with the development of skin tumors (sarcomas) at the spot where the vaccine was given. This occurred most often when killed rabies vaccines and FeLV vaccines were given.