Radiography is only one of the many diagnostic procedures available to veterinary surgeons.
To keep fit and well your cat needs regular health care. Some of it will be provided by you, and some by your local veterinary clinic.
Veterinary clinics are not just centres for the treatment of ill health. They are also a valuable source of practical information, specialized products and friendly advice from veterinarians and their trained nursing staff.
Most veterinary clinics also act as valuable community resource centres, providing information about local boarding facilities, cat groomers or cat-sitting services, for example. Many also have notice boards on which their clients can post information, such as photographs of missing pets or kittens looking for a new home.
The changes in veterinary science over the years, and particularly during the last decade, have been remarkable. In addition to radiography (X-rays) and routine blood sampling, modern diagnostic aids include ultrasonography (the use of ultrasound scanning equipment), Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Computer Assisted Tomography (CAT) scans.
Once your cat is 10 years old or so, it should get a thorough veterinary check-up every year.
Chiropractic treatment is one of many alternatives to traditional veterinary medicine.
Other areas of veterinary specialization include:
ο Animal Behaviour
ο Diagnostic imaging
Certain methods of diagnosis and therapy – some ancient, some new – are also now becoming a recognized part of a comprehensive approach to animal health care. Known as Complementary Veterinary Medicine (or Complementary and Alternative Medicine – CAVM), many of these methods have been used in human medicine for years, but their integration into veterinary practice has been comparatively recent. For example, some veterinarians are now trained in veterinary acupuncture and acutherapy (the examination and stimulation of specific points using acupuncture needles, injections, low-level lasers, magnets and a variety of other techniques for diagnosis and treatment); veterinary chiropractic (the examination, diagnosis and treatment through manipulation and adjustments of specific joints, particularly the vertebrae, and of areas of the skull); veterinary massage therapy; homeopathy; botanical medicine, nutritional therapy and even the use of flower essences (dilute extracts from certain flowers).
Kittens receive antibodies in their mother’s milk, which protect them against certain diseases until they are between six and 12 weeks old.
The immune system
The bodies of animals, like those of humans, have various defence mechanisms to protect them against microorganisms in the environment.
Healthy skin acts as a physical barrier, while the mucous membranes in the nose, trachea and bronchi help to trap foreign substances and prevent them from entering the lungs. Other primary barriers include acid in the stomach, which kills many invading organisms, and mucus produced from the lining of the intestines. The liver destroys toxins produced by bacteria.
These defence mechanisms work well when an animal is healthy, but are less effective if it is weakened, unhealthy, or mentally or physically stressed.
Most organisms that cause disease consist mainly of proteins. If an organism gets past the primary barriers, the body quickly detects its ‘foreign’ proteins and produces antibodies against them. Antibodies are produced by specialized white blood cells found mainly in the lymph nodes and spleen. They circulate in the blood and are usually very specific, destroying only the organism (the antigen) that stimulated their production.
The first time the cat’s body encounters a specific disease, introduced from the environment or by means of a vaccine, it may take up to 10 days to produce antibodies. The next time the disease is encountered, antibody production occurs very rapidly, preventing the disease from becoming established.
Antibody levels wane with time, but if the antigen is encountered again (either through infection or a booster vaccination), antibody production immediately resumes. Immunity created by vaccines is not generally as long lasting as the ‘natural immunity’ created by exposure to a disease, which explains why booster vaccinations may be needed to keep an animal protected.
Passive (maternal) immunity
Passive immunity occurs when a newborn animal acquires antibodies from its mother.
Newborn animals have a rudimentary immune system that takes many weeks to fully develop. To tide them over this period they receive passive immunity from their mother in the form of antibodies, some of which enter their body while they are still in the uterus, but most of which are taken in with the mother’s colostrum, or first milk. This is a critical period for the newborn animal, which can only absorb these antibodies during the first day or two after birth. If a queen has a prolonged kittening or gives birth to a large litter, the early kittens will have more opportunity to ingest colostrum than those born later, so the degree of passive immunity may vary between littermates.
A queen can only pass on antibodies to the diseases that she herself has encountered, or against which she has been vaccinated. Therefore a queen that is not vaccinated, or lives in isolation from other cats, will have fewer antibodies to pass on, and her kittens will be more vulnerable from birth. A queen used for breeding must be vaccinated, and her booster vaccinations kept up to date.
Passive (maternal) immunity is only temporary. Passive immunity wanes over time, the amount of antibodies in the blood halving every seven days or so. In most kittens the level of maternal immunity will have fallen almost to zero by the age of 12 weeks.
Active immunity is the result of an animal producing antibodies from its own immune system, in response to disease or vaccination.
Painless laser therapy can be effective in relieving muscular aches and pains and can speed up the healing of ligament injuries.
Soon after you get your new cat, register it with your local vet, who will keep up-to-date records of vaccinations and booster dates, saving you from having to remember these details yourself.
To be protected, kittens must develop their own, active immunity, either by contact with a specific disease or through vaccination.
While its passive immunity is high the kitten is protected from disease, and its own immune system may not respond to a vaccination, although some brands of vaccine are designed to override it and stimulate the kitten’s immune system.
Although we know that the level of passive immunity steadily decreases, we cannot be sure at what age each individual kitten will entirely lose this immunity and respond to vaccination. In some kittens this can occur much earlier than 12 weeks, so these will be at risk if they are not vaccinated and are exposed to a virus.
The typical recommendation for a kitten from a queen that has been properly vaccinated is to receive two vaccinations, the first at eight or nine weeks of age and the second (booster) four weeks later. In areas of high risk, vaccination may be started at six weeks of age and repeated at fortnightly intervals until 12 weeks. Your vet will advise you if this is necessary.
Vaccinating your cat
In many countries routine vaccination programmes have greatly reduced the incidence of several important feline diseases. Many different brands of vaccine are available, including multiple vaccines that are effective against several diseases. Your veterinarian will advise you which vaccines are the most suitable for your cat.
Feline respiratory diseases
Many different organisms can cause respiratory infection in cats, but two in particular are equally responsible for about 90 per cent of cases, and for the disease complex that is commonly called feline influenza or cat ‘flu.
Feline herpesvirus-1 is a virus similar to the one that causes cold sores in humans. The disease that it causes is called feline viral rhinotracheitis (FVR), and is highly contagious. Initial signs are sneezing, fever, and a discharge from the eyes and nose that quickly becomes purulent due to secondary infection by bacteria. As the disease progresses an affected cat may develop ulcers in the mouth, bronchitis and eventually pneumonia. A pregnant queen may abort her kittens. Although not many adult cats die from the disease, the death rate amongst kittens can be 50–60 per cent. Recovered cats often carry the virus for years. Much of the time they are not infectious to other cats, but every now and again they go through episodes during which the virus is shed.
A similar percentage of feline respiratory infections are caused by feline calicivirus (FCV). In these cases ulceration in the mouth, nose, and on the tongue, is common. Other symptoms are similar to those of FVR, although the disease may be less severe. Recovered cats become carriers of the virus, which may then be persistently shed.
Respiratory infections due to a combination of both the above viruses are not uncommon.
Heart murmurs are common in cats, and a heart check should be part of your cat’s annual check-up.
A not-too-unusual friendship: introduce a kitten to this little family pet and they could become great companions – do remember, though, that guinea pigs and cats can transmit fleas to one another.
About five per cent of respiratory infections are caused by Chlamydia psittaci, an organism called a ‘rickettsia’ that is classified as intermediate between a virus and a bacterium. It causes a disease that was once called feline pneumonitis and, unlike the viruses mentioned above, will respond to certain antibiotics. It causes runny eyes (conjunctivitis) and nose (rhinitis), although fever or more severe respiratory symptoms are uncommon, and deaths are fortunately rare. It can be particularly troublesome where there are groups of cats, such as in boarding catteries or breeding establishments.
Feline infectious enteritis (FIE)
Also known as feline panleucopaenia (FPL), this was once one of the most common, widespread and serious diseases of domestic cats. As a result of vaccination programmes it is now well under control. It causes a dramatic drop in the numbers of circulating white blood cells, and symptoms include fever, loss of appetite, vomiting, depression, and diarrhoea. Kittens are most susceptible and there is a high mortality rate. Cats that survive often remain debilitated for the rest of their lives.
Feline leukaemia virus (FeLV)
This is the most important cause of feline cancer. Symptoms are variable, and can include vomiting, diarrhoea, lethargy and laboured breathing.
Various types of treatment may be tried, including chemotherapy, but these are often unsuccessful.
On average FeLV affects about one to two per cent of cats, but the disease is more common in some countries than others so you should talk to your veterinarian about the incidence in your area, and whether your cat needs to be vaccinated.
In countries where this viral disease is endemic, cats are routinely protected by vaccination. Rabies can affect any mammal and is almost always fatal. Transmitted through the saliva of infected animals, usually the result of a bite, it can also be spread by infected saliva coming into contact with mucous membranes (eye, nose or mouth) or a skin wound.
In Europe foxes are the most important carriers, while in North America raccoons, bats, skunks, foxes and coyotes are the culprits. In Mexico and other Latin and Central American countries, cats are the most common carriers.
The incubation period is usually two to eight weeks, but can be up to six months. The virus travels via the nerves to the brain where it causes inflammation (encephalitis) resulting in nervous symptoms. In the last stages of the disease the virus moves into the salivary glands and saliva.
In its early stages rabies commonly causes changes in behaviour and personality. Affected animals become anxious and increasingly sensitive to noise and light. Nocturnal animals may be seen out during the day, and wild animals may lose their fear of humans. A normally timid cat may become more friendly, while a normally friendly cat may become shy and hide away from light.
As the disease progresses, affected cats may become restless and irritable, and they are likely to attack other animals or humans without provocation. They eventually develop paralysis of the throat and cheek muscles, which makes it impossible for them to swallow – as a result, saliva drools from their mouth. Breathing becomes increasingly difficult, and in the final stages the animal collapses, enters a coma and dies.
In certain countries where rabies is endemic their law requires the vaccination of cats and dogs. Many island nations, in which the disease is not endemic, have strict quarantine laws to prevent its introduction. In Britain a scheme has been introduced that allows vaccinated cats and dogs entry under certain conditions (see PETS Travel Scheme, pp42–3).
If your cat fights with any mammal that is a rabies carrier, saliva carrying the virus could be present on that cat’s coat or in any of the wounds inflicted on it.
The easiest way in which to administer liquid medicine is with a syringe.
If you think your cat has been in a fight with a rabid animal:
ο Don’t try to capture the attacking animal.
ο Take extreme care when handling your pet. Use gloves, and cover it with a towel.
ο Allow as few people as possible to handle it.
ο Call Animal Control or an equivalent organization.
ο Take your cat to a veterinarian.
ο If your cat has a current rabies vaccination, get advice about giving a booster within 72 hours (this is compulsory in the USA).
ο In the USA, if your cat does not receive a booster within 72 hours, then unless the attacking animal tests negative your cat will be quarantined for six months at a veterinary clinic or disposed of by Animal Control.
If you are bitten or scratched by an animal you suspect is rabid, or if its saliva enters an open wound or comes into contact with your nose, eyes or mouth, wash the wound or contact area using household detergent or soap. These kill the virus faster than any disinfectant. Get immediate medical attention – treatment involves a course of vaccinations.
Take these routine precautions to prevent rabies:
ο Don’t feed or attract wildlife into your yard.
ο Call Animal Control if you suspect there is a rabid animal in your yard. Don’t try to capture wildlife.
ο Don’t allow bats to live in your attic or chimney.
ο Don’t pick up dead or abandoned animals.
ο If you are particularly at risk (eg if you regularly handle dead animals or nervous tissue), ask your physician if you should be vaccinated.
External parasites live on or in the skin of the cat. Most external parasites are host-specific, which means that they infect one particular species of animal only – among the exceptions is the cat flea, which may also infect dogs.
Most cats are likely to become infected with fleas at least once during their life. Sources of infection include other cats, dogs, hedgehogs and even rabbits. The flea most commonly found on cats is the cat flea (Ctenocephalides felis).
The major natural factor controlling the flea population is not so much the temperature but the humidity, because the cat flea cannot effect development if the humidity is less than 50 per cent. In winter, even in homes that are centrally heated, the humidity is around 40 per cent, so fleas are less of a problem. In summer humidity and air temperature both rise, so the flea population increases.
The most common symptom of flea infestation is the cat repeatedly scratching, and nibbling or licking at its fur – some cats may even become skittish and edgy, as if they are trying to run away from their fleas. Fleas occur in greater numbers on some areas of the body than others; especially along the back just in front of the tail. You can see if there are any fleas present by grooming the cat with a flea comb, which will comb out either the live fleas or their droppings (flea dirt). To identify the latter, squeeze them between two pieces of damp tissue. They contain digested blood, which will stain the tissue reddish-brown.
Flea powders have now been largely superseded by easy-to-use topical liquid preparations.
Cat fleas remain on a cat only long enough to feed and lay eggs. The latter quickly fall off into the environment, and contaminate the cat’s bedding and household carpets. Flea control must include treatment of the cat (and any other pets), and also the household environment.
There are various treatment preparations available, including liquids, powders, sprays, collars (which may cause a skin reaction) and medallions that are worn by the cat and gradually release an insecticide. Environmental treatments include ‘flea bombs’. Talk to your vet about what products are best for your particular area.
The most common mange mite to infect the cat is the ear mange mite, Otodectes cynotis.
These are more common in rural areas, and often attach to a cat’s head or neck. To remove them, swab them with alcohol or methylated spirits for a short time, grip them as close to the skin as possible with a pair of tweezers, then pull them off.
Some ticks (particularly in Australia) are toxic and can kill small animals such as cats. Your local vet will have upto-date information.
The ear mange mite (Otodectes cynotis) results in irritation that causes the cat to scratch at its ears. In doing so it often introduces a secondary bacterial infection, and the ear becomes inflamed and painful. If your cat often scratches at its ears, get a vet to check them. Treatment usually involves ear drops or an ointment. Use a product prescribed by your vet.
A very small mange mite (Notoedres cati) may burrow into the skin, especially around the sides of the face and between the eyes and ears. It causes irritation and skin thickening, and scratching and licking by the cat results in hair loss and baldness. This type of infection can take some time to treat, and veterinary advice is essential.
The larvae of the harvest mite (Trombicula autumnalis), variously called red bugs or chiggers, can infect cats during the summer and early autumn. They are usually found on less furry areas of a cat’s skin, such as the ears, sides of the mouth, and between the toes. Various insecticides are available, so talk to your veterinary clinic.
Fur mites (Cheyletiella species) are common on cats, dogs and rabbits – each type of animal has a specific mite species. These mites may cause itching, but the most common sign is profuse dandruff, especially along the cat’s back and sides. Although not particularly serious to cats, this mite can also infect humans, on whom it causes itchy weals and blisters that progress to dry scaling. Areas most commonly infected are the hands and forearms, and sometimes the chest.
The sarcoptic and demodectic mange mites are not uncommon on dogs, but are rarely seen on cats.
Healthy cats are unlikely to become infected, but debilitated or sick cats may contract an infection because they are unable to groom themselves properly. The lice (Felicola species) lay white eggs (nits) that are firmly attached to the hairs. Various insecticides are available for the treatment of this condition.
Regular veterinary checks (including, if necessary, examination of faecal samples) and regular de-worming should ensure that your cat does not suffer from these internal parasites. Ask your vet clinic for advice about the treatment procedures best suited to your cat’s particular infestation.
The ascarid worms, Toxocara cati and Toxascaris leonina, are the most common roundworms in cats. They can grow up to 10 cm (4 in) long, and lay eggs that under suitable conditions can remain viable in the environment for years. Infection may be direct (from eggs) or indirect (from eggs that have hatched into infective larvae in an intermediate host such as a mouse or rat).
In most parts of the world, about one cat in every five is infected with Toxocara cati. While infected adult cats may show few, if any, signs of ill health, the larvae of this worm can infect suckling kittens via the mother’s milk, and kittens can be seriously affected.
When infected by the roundworm Toxocara cati, adult cats show few signs of ill health.
Getting their own back: mice infected with tapeworm (Taenia taeniaeformis) will transmit the parasite to their killer, the cat.
These tend to be a problem in warmer and more humid areas, so are more common in Australia, New Zealand, parts of the United States, and South Africa than in the United Kingdom. The Ancylostoma species is the most important, and a heavy infestation can cause severe anaemia and even death. Veterinary treatment is essential.
Whipworms (Trichuris) and threadworms (Strongyloides)
These mainly occur in the warmer, more humid areas such as parts of the United States and Australia, and are rarer in cats than in dogs. The life cycle is direct.
Tapeworm segments may be shed in a cat’s faeces, or adhere to the fur at the rear end.
The most common tapeworms in cats are the Dipylidium caninum, transmitted by a cat eating infected fleas or lice during grooming, and Taenia taeniaeformis, transmitted by a cat eating infected prey such as rats or mice.
Areas of risk are mainly North America and tropical regions. Most infections are the result of cats eating raw fish. Veterinary treatment is possible.
A number of different species of lungworm can infect cats, but most cause few problems.
Aleurostrongylus abstrusus needs veterinary treatment, though, and symptoms range from mild coughing to severe breathing problems.
Although more common in dogs, these parasites can infect cats, especially in warmer areas such as around the Mediterranean, Australia and parts of the United States. Signs include coughing and breathlessness, and sudden death may occur. Treatment is essential.
Infection by the protozoan Toxoplasma gondii rarely causes symptoms in cats, but the significance of this parasite lies in the fact that the disease can be transmitted to humans through the faeces of infected cats. Pregnant women are particularly at risk. Simple precautions include wearing rubber or cotton gloves when emptying a cat litter tray, and avoiding contact with cat faeces. Children’s sandpits should be covered.
The fungal infection ringworm causes bald patches on the cat’s skin, and is highly contagious to humans.
Avoid direct contact with cat faeces, as it can transmit a number of parasites, such as the protozoan Toxoplasma gondii – wear rubber gloves as a precaution.
Feline infectious anaemia (FIA)
The incidence of this disease varies in different parts of the world. It is caused by Haemobartonella felis (or Eperythrozoon felis), a protozoan parasite transmitted by biting insects such as mosquitoes. The parasites destroy the red blood cells, and early symptoms include pale mucous membranes and lethargy. The disease is usually noticed by the cat’s owner during its early stages, and can be treated with antibiotics. However, it is often associated with feline leukaemia virus (FeLV) and in these cases the chances of recovery are poor.