Many common feline ailments can be prevented through vaccination. Initial vaccinations against feline diseases as well as annual checkups and booster vaccinations should be part of your pet's annual health care routine.

  • Rabies. This is one of the most dreaded animal diseases. It attacks the nervous system and travels to the brain. Frequently fatal, rabies is transmitted through the saliva of infected animals. A vaccination is available to prevent this disease and should be given to both dogs and cats. Most cities have laws requiring that any animal over 6 months of age must be vaccinated against rabies. Any person bit by an animal with rabies must see his physician immediately and report the bite to the local animal control or public health departments.
  • Panleukopenia (feline distemper). This highly transmittable disease travels from one cat to another through contact with infected saliva, urine or feces. Clinical signs can vary and may include depression, fever, weight loss, diarrhea, vomiting, dehydration, loss of appetite, swollen lymph nodes, anemia, or persistent chronic infection. If the animal does not receive prompt supportive care, he can die within days. Initial vaccinations and annual boosters are available to prevent this disease.
  • Feline leukemia (FeLV). This is an immuno-suppressant disease and is recognized as a contagious virus responsible for certain cancers, the two most common being lymphosarcoma and leukemia. The virus is also responsible for several other diseases known as FeLV-related diseases. Noncancerous diseases associated with FeLV infection include anemia, reproductive problems, and secondary infectious diseases.

Feline leukemia is spread in moist secretions, such as saliva, urine, blood, and placental fluids. Behaviors such as grooming/licking, biting, sharing litterboxes, and sharing feeding bowls can allow for transmission of the disease. The best method of diagnosing FeLV is by having a blood test performed by your pet's veterinarian. A positive test means that a cat is infected with FeLV and thus contagious to other cats; however, presence of the virus is not a disease in itself, rather a disease-causing agent. A negative test means that no virus was detected in the blood at the time the sample was collected; however, the cat could be in the early stage of infection when no virus is detectable. A negative test in no way suggests that a cat is immune to the virus.

If your cat's test is positive, he must be kept away from other cats so that he cannot infect them.

If your cat's test is negative, he is to be kept strictly isolated from strange cats and vaccinated annually against FeLV. (This vaccination will not help a cat already infected with FeLV.)

The Michigan Humane Society does not condone the practice of letting or keeping cats outdoors. They will be much safer if kept indoors.

Cats require an initial series of two FeLV vaccinations; then a yearly booster. Adult cats should be tested for feline leukemia before a vaccination schedule is begun. Your pet's veterinarian will determine a proper schedule for vaccinations.

If you lose a cat to FeLV, it is recommended that you wait 1 - 3 months before admitting a new cat into the house. It is also recommended that you throw out any litterboxes, food bowls or toys that were used by the previous cat. All areas of the house should be cleaned with bleach, especially the areas where the previous cat spent the most time.

Treatment for FeLV is limited to supportive care as well as treatment of symptoms. The use of anti-cancer drugs, as a treatment, is being studied, but, as yet, there are no cures for feline leukemia.

  • Respiratory diseases. Cats can be affected by respiratory diseases ranging from upper respiratory disease (URI) to pneumonia. Infected pets may show signs of coughing, sneezing, eye or nose discharge, fever, depression and loss of appetite. Vaccines are available for some of the respiratory diseases.
  • Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). This is a disease of the immune system. The method of transmission for FIV has not yet been determined. Because no vaccine is available, the best method of prevention is to keep your pet indoors and away from strange cats.
  • Feline infectious peritonitis (FIP). Two types of this disease, which spreads through contact with an infected animal, have been identified. Wet FIP is characterized by chronic weight loss, fever, depression, an enlarged belly and labored breathing. Symptoms of dry FIP include weight loss, chronic and unresponsive fever, depression and inactivity, liver failure, renal insufficiency, pancreatic disease and eye lesions. This disease is usually fatal. No vaccine or cure has been discovered.
  • Toxoplasmosis. Toxoplasma gondii is a protozoan that lives inside the cells of many humans and animals. Toxoplasma infection is common. By age 19 approximately 30% of people have been exposed to toxoplasma, and as many as two-thirds of the human population are eventually infected. It lives in the body and generally causes no symptoms whatsoever.

However, some people do have trouble with toxoplasmosis. Those with impaired immune systems including AIDS patients, cancer patients receiving chemotherapy, and transplant recipients who are on rejection suppressing medications can have serious problems with toxoplasmosis.

Women who have been exposed to toxoplas-mosis before getting pregnant are not at risk for a new infection and will not transmit the infection to their babies. (A simple blood test can determine exposure.) A woman who first contracts toxoplas-mosis during pregnancy may transmit the infection to her developing baby. Most women infected during pregnancy give birth to a child with no ill effects, but, not infrequently, miscarriage, stillbirth, or birth defects affecting the brain and eyes will result.

Cats rarely shed toxoplasma in their feces, but, if a cat eats an animal infected with the protozoan, the cat will begin to shed an inactive form of toxoplasma (termed oocysts), starting within 3 - 24 days, and will continue to do so for 1 - 3 weeks. If the litter from an indoor cat's box is not discarded within 2 - 3 days after oocysts are shed, these oocysts can change to a form that can infect humans. A cat who has once become infected and shed oocysts will not do so again after the 3-week period has passed, unless the cat becomes re-infected. Human risk from cats is virtually eliminated if cats do not hunt and if litter is promptly removed.

By far, the most common source of toxoplasma is raw and undercooked meat. Toxoplasma is present in many meats. Thorough cooking destroys the organism, but, like salmonella and other germs, the problem is cross-contamination. When raw meat touches the kitchen counter, the carving knife, or your hands, some of the microbes can be transferred to a new surface, where they can survive, waiting to contaminate other foods.
Two rules for protection against toxoplasmosis are: pregnant women should not clean litterboxes, and all meats should be throughly cooked. The cat can be kept!

  • Heartworm. Heartworm disease is spread by mosquitos. Although not as common in cats as in dogs, heartworm can be deadly to both. Heartworm disease can be difficult to diagnose because symptoms may vary significantly from cat to cat. Vomiting or respiratory problems are the most often seen symptoms. Please consult with your pet's veterinarian about ways to protect your cat against heartworm disease.

(Written in part by Neal D. Barnard, M.D. for Animals' Agenda, May 1991)


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