Gazette Vet: The Typical Diseases of Kittens

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Michelle and I met during my first few weeks of veterinary school at Virginia Tech and just a few months after that, began dating. So, what was I to say when one evening over pizza she tells me about a really cute kitten up for adoption in her medicine ward?  She fed me a few beers and then drove me to the hospital where we found an adorable not-even-two-pound little girl kitten who was reaching at me through the cage doors and purring loudly. I was powerless and accepted this new course in life with grace and humility.  

We had 17 wonderful years with our cat Lucy before finally losing her. It’s funny to think of the somewhat spontaneous decision making that created an opening for her into our lives.  

Kittens are loads of fun and despite all of their crazy behavior, they make relatively easy pets.  However, you should always be ready for that 17-year commitment and also for the reality that kittens can often come with a few minor health problems. My new kitten Lucy was so perfect for about a week, and then she broke with a terrible fever that required a visit back to the teaching hospital. Fortunately, she made a quick recovery, but she taught me quickly that there is no such thing as a free kitten. Let’s explore some of the more common kitten issues that veterinarians see on a regular basis.  

Upper respiratory viral infections:  This is one of the most common problems we see new kittens come down with.  Most cats in the U.S. have been exposed to feline herpes virus, which can cause anything from conjunctivitis and eye infections to snotty, sneezing noses and sinus infections.  Classically, kittens get this infection from their mom. They may break with it before they are found behind the dumpster by your work, or they may break with it a few days after coming home from the SPCA.  

Most kittens come from pretty humble backgrounds—born in a barn and raised by a teenage mom is a typical story. In tough environments, immune systems are often taxed and viral disease is common.  Many adult cats and kittens who get exposed to feline herpes virus will simply get a “cold” and fight it off in a few days. Unfortunately, a lot of cats’ and kittens’ immune systems are unable to keep things in check and get pretty severe herpes virus infections. High fevers, corneal ulcers, severe sinus infections are some of the many manifestations we can see. With quick intervention, we are often able to remedy these illnesses, however some cats’ immune systems don’t ever seem to be able to catch up and they can have chronic eye and nasal problems for life. So, your new kitten is sneezing and has runny eyes?  Bring it to your vet.

Roundworms:  Gross. But yeah, most kittens have roundworms, a common type of intestinal parasite that they typically get from their mom. Many kittens will be so loaded with roundworms that they may vomit up a pile of “spaghetti” or have it coming out the other end. More common however, is a kitten with diarrhea and a few worms in it. Roundworms are easy to treat and we deworm every kitten several times for this reason.

Ear mites:  Thank God we don’t get ear mites! There are few times that I feel worse for an animal than when I look into a kitten’s ears and see hundreds of ear mites crawling around and causing itchy chaos. Ear mites are very small, but not quite microscopic mites that crawl around in the ear canals of dogs and cats. Although we do see them in dogs, it’s pretty rare, but kittens have them commonly. In fact, most young kittens with black discharge in their ears have ear mites (whereas most dogs with black discharge in their ears have a yeast infection). Mites crawl around and cause lots of inflammation and itching as they feed inside the poor kitten’s ears.  The ears produce a lot of wax in response and the result is an ear canal that is packed with wax, ear mites, and often yeast and bacteria. These kittens must be miserable! Fortunately ear mites are easy to treat with topical medications like Revolution. The harder thing to resolve is the chronic inflammation they have caused in the ear canal. If the ear mites are severe enough or persist long enough, some cats have chronic inflammatory problems in their ears.  

Fleas:  If ear mites didn’t creep you out enough, don’t forget about the more common and equally disturbing fleas! Fleas don’t discriminate between older or younger animals, and some kittens can be so severely infested with fleas that they have hardly any blood remaining in their bodies. Fleas are easily treated with topical treatments, but for kittens less than a month old, bathing and combing regularly is probably the best treatment.  

Diarrhea:  Aside from intestinal worms, there are several other causes of kitten diarrhea, some of which can be quite difficult to remedy. Viruses, protozoal diseases, food allergies, and intestinal bacterial overgrowth are all possible causes for the young kitten with diarrhea that doesn’t seem to resolve.  Most of the time, treating for parasites and getting on a good food can remedy “kitten diarrhea,” but I regularly see cases where we are essentially waiting for the kitten’s immune system to grow up a bit.  

Ringworm:  Ringworm is a fungal disease of the skin that causes crusts and scabs, typically around the face and paws. Ringworm is often contagious to people, so if your young kitten has scabs and dermatitis it’s good to wash your hands regularly until you get it checked out.  

There are, of course, many more problems that kittens can break with, but these are by far the most common that we see. Many of them are pretty gross, right?  But don’t worry, these are typically just “diseases of the young” and pass with proper treatment and care. 

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