Winter made its presence certain today when we woke up to some snow on the ground. Whenever the weather turns cold like this, I wonder what happens to all of the stray cats and dogs that have been outside since the summertime. I always hope that someone will be able to take them in so they don’t suffer from exposure to the weather or starvation. It’s a rough time of year.
We frequently see stray cats that are brought in for the winter. Most of the time, clients have the best intentions and I certainly applaud their generosity in opening their homes, hearts, and wallets for these ragtag pets. There are a few dangers that I wish clients knew about ahead of time, especially if there are already cats in the house.
This week’s post was written by Diane, one of our LVTs. She will touch on a few of the concerns we have when taking in a new cat.
A gentleman was in the hospital with his dog recently, and mentioned that he got a cat. I said, “Oh, where did you get him?” He responded that the cat wandered to his house, and the man decided to keep him. The gentleman commented, “We figured he’s been around a while outside and is still alive, so he must be healthy because he hasn’t died from anything yet, right?” I shuddered and my mind raced with all of the possible diseases and problems I needed to warn him about. I gathered some informational brochures and started the conversation.
I started with zoonotic diseases, which are diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans. Rabies is by far the most important and deadly disease, but not the most common, and is transmitted by a bite from an infected animal. Intestinal parasites carried by animals must be addressed first. Roundworms, hookworms, and toxoplasmosis are all parasitic diseases that are spread to humans by contact with cat feces in soil or cat littler. Cat Scratch Fever is a flea-borne infection typically transmitted by a cat’s scratch or bite. A stool sample to check for intestinal parasites is the best way to find out what a cat may be carrying inside.
The next topic of conversation was about two viral diseases that the new cat could be carrying without any signs. Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) and Feline Leukemia (FeLV) are diseases in cats found in every region of the country. Each is highly contagious fro cat to cat. They can be fatal infections. Both have few outward signs initially, and no “sure” signs. [Dr.H adds: when a sign of disease is 100% certain to be from that disease, we call it a pathognomonic sign. FIV and FeLV don’t have pathognomonic signs.]
These viral diseases are associated with illness and death of more cats than any other disease. The viruses work by weakening a cat’s immune system. Without testing, there is no way to know whether the cat is infected. Without a diagnosis, the cat cannot be treated properly. In some cats, signs don’t appear for weeks, months, or even years after they are infected. Testing is important so we know whether a cat is carrying these diseases.
Infected cats can show vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, weakness, fever, pale gums, dull or matted hair coat, swollen lymph nodes, mouth sores, or behavior changes. If the cat has been living outside for months or years, a new owner might not be aware of these sometimes subtle changes.
[Dr.H adds: Upper respiratory diseases, fleas/ticks, and ear mites are also very common problems seen in stray or orphan cats. While these problems aren’t generally life-threatening, they can be a serious headache for a new owner. These problems are highly contagious and rapidly spread to other cats in the household. Fleas and ticks are also a risk to humans. Vaccination and treating external parasites are a critical part of a “new stray cat” vet visit.]
If a person wants to bring in a stray, it’s imperative that the cat is examined and tested before coming into contact with people or other pets. Testing, vaccinating, and deworming should be performed, and a quarantine period may be appropriate, too.
I thanked the client for his willingness to give a stray cat a permanent home, but also tried to show him the risks a cat with an unknown history can bring. A full health check with the veterinarian is the first step to providing a loving, caring home.
Diane’s focus on the viral diseases is very appropriate. I counsel all owners of newly acquired cats to allow us to perform the simple blood test that can detect FIV and FeLV. Results are available within 10 minutes right in the hospital, and the test is quite sensitive. There are some nitpicky concerns with the age of testing for FIV, but FeLV can be tested for at *any* age.
I feel that knowing the viral status of new cats is the most important first step. These diseases will shorten a cat’s life considerably. While some owners are able to take in a cat that is positive for one/both of these infections, some owners don’t want to put their other cats at risk. In a rescue situation, the resources that will be spent on a cat with a generally fatal viral infection could be used to rescue several other healthy cats. It’s a very sticky situation wrapped up in ethics and harsh realities. Ultimately, as each owner or rescue group makes a decision about how to handle these cats, one thing is clear: it’s better to know what you’re dealing with. Testing is step one!
Please ask questions. We’ve brushed the surface of adopting a new cat, so I know there must be some things that you’d like us to go over in more detail. Thanks for reading!