Cats can get a lot of different types of infections. While it’s impossible to discuss all of them at once, during this Zoom call, Indiana small animal veterinarian Dr. Leslie Brooks breaks down the general categories, with a heavy focus on viral infections.
Fostering and behavioral specialist Liz Italia co-hosted the call and shared her experiences battling these viruses.
Note: We host these interactive calls exclusively with some of our customers—once every two weeks 🙌
Recorded: October 26th, 2020.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this call are those of the guest(s) and/or host(s) and may or may not reflect the views or opinions of My Lovely Feline.
Cat Infection Types
Infections are living organisms that invade a body. They include:
- Bacterial - One type is Bartonella, which is transmitted by fleas (and causes cat scratch fever in people). Cats don’t usually show symptoms from it, but it is fairly common.
- Viral - This includes feline herpes virus, feline leukemia virus (FeLV), feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), panleukopenia virus (aka feline distemper or feline parvo), feline infectious peritonitis (FIP, caused by a feline coronavirus, but is not transmissible to people).
- Fungal - Ringworm is a fungus that cats can harbor and hide because of their fur, which can hide skin lesions. Other fungal infections include blastomycosis and cryptococcosis.
- Parasitic - Roundworms, tapeworms (from fleas), hookworms, and heartworms (from mosquitos).
- Protozoal - Cats can have toxoplasmosis without symptoms, and it’s the reason doctors tell pregnant women not to scoop the litter box. If the mother is infected, she can pass it onto the fetus.
There’s a vaccine your cat likely gets at their annual visits (called FVRCP) to prevent panleukopenia, but there’s no cure or direct treatment for infected cats.
Panleukopenia more often infects kittens and unvaccinated cats in shelters or rescue situations. Some people call it feline distemper or feline parvovirus.
This virus attacks the actively replicating white cells in the intestinal lining and bone marrow causes a lot of inflammation. They aren’t able to absorb nutrients through their food, and they get really nauseous and vomit or don’t want to eat. They often suffer from really bad diarrhea, often with blood in it. It makes them really dehydrated.
Symptoms are managed with fluids, antibiotics, antidiarrheals, and anti-nausea meds. Even with managing symptoms, you can only hope for the best. Many kittens still don’t survive.
Panleukopenia is also extremely contagious, and if a kitten enters the same area where a previous kitten had panleukopenia, the virus can still be in the environment for up to a year.
Kittens can get their first vaccine at 6 weeks of age, and then boosters every 2-4 weeks up until 16 weeks old. There isn’t much you can do to prevent panleukopenia before 6 weeks old unless the kitten’s able to get antibodies from the mother’s milk.
Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP)
Caused by a feline coronavirus, it causes issues most of the time in kittens but also cats of any age, especially if they’re sick with something else. Most cats have this in their systems and don’t have any issues with it, but in some cats, the coronavirus mutates into the angry form, FIP, and it’s fatal.
There are two forms:
- Wet form - Causes vessels in the body to be leaky. The virus attacks the lining of the cat’s blood vessels or lymphatic vessels and their immune system starts attacking their body. Fluid leaks out into their belly or into their lungs. These cats will have a distended belly while being really skinny. They could also have a cough or be struggling to breathe.
- Dry form - Affects the cat’s nervous system. They’ll lose a lot of weight and possibly develop seizures because it affects the spinal cord and brain.
Sometimes steroids can help because it decreases the body’s immune response. Vets will drain the fluid in the belly, but the kittens especially usually pass within a few weeks.
There is an experimental and expensive treatment involving a lot of shots that’s not approved, but some rescue organizations and fosters have been trying the treatment. The results so far are positive.
The FVRCP vaccine also protects against this virus. It’s similar to a kitty cold, but the cat also gets horribly painful ulcers all over their tongue and mouth. Most cats recover, as long as the symptoms are managed and they don’t get a secondary infection.
Feline Herpes Virus
The feline herpes virus (the FVR part of the FVRCP vaccine) is also called feline rhinotracheitis, and it’s sort of like the flu in humans. Most kittens are exposed to it before they’re vaccinated. The vaccine helps the cat clear the virus more quickly, but doesn’t prevent the cat from getting the virus. For this reason, cats can get a herpes flare at any time because the herpes virus will always live in their systems.
Herpes virus causes upper respiratory issues, like a runny nose and sneezing. In kittens, it can also cause corneal ulcers (essentially a scratch on the eye). They could go blind or end up with a scar on the eye.
Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) & Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV)
Feline leukemia is called the lover’s disease because it’s transmitted through sharing bowls and bedding and grooming each other.
FIV is the fighter’s disease, transmitted from one cat to another cat through a bite. Cats can live full lives with either of these viruses, but others do not. Their lifespans are extremely variable.
There is a lifestyle vaccine for FeLV, which is typically given when a cat is young, and if they stay inside, they won’t need it again. If they go outside, your vet may recommend additional vaccinations.
Complications from FeLV include anemia, seizures, predisposition to cancers, and susceptibility to getting really sick from other infections.
Sometimes kittens will get a false positive for FIV because of the antibodies they receive from their mother. These kittens should be retested a few months down the road.
Q: What infections can affect a cat’s eyes?
Leslie: Herpes virus can cause issues in the eyes, mostly with kittens. Chlamydial conjunctivitis can cause eye issues. Also, if a cat scratches its eye, they could get an infection and need antibiotics.
Liz: One of my cats had eosinophilic keratitis, which is a rare complication from herpes. It appears as a cloudy spot from white blood cells clumping together. It’s treatable with eye drops when caught early.
Q: My cat came back from being outside with little freckles and spots on his ears. The doctor gave him meds and he recovered, but we don’t know what it was from. Any ideas?
Leslie: It could have been an allergic reaction to something.
Q: What’s the typical lifespan of a cat?
Leslie: 12-15 years, but some cats can live longer.
Q: What protocol should I use for panleukopenia?
Leslie: We’ve always done subQ fluids, broad-spectrum antibiotics, liquid metronidazole if we can. If they’re vomiting too much, we’ll do an injection of convenia and cerenia. There was a study done using filgrastim, a bone marrow stimulant, with some promising results, so that could be an option as well. Enrofloxacin (or Baytril) is an antibiotic that can be used for panleukopenia, but if you go over a certain dosage in cats, it can cause blindness. It can also cause problems in growing bones and joints, so we try to avoid it in kittens and puppies.
The most common bacterial, virus, fungal, parasitic, and protozoal infections are treatable, so if you suspect your cat is sick, take them to the vet.
If you have a kitten and are seeing anything concerning, it’s even more important that you get them seen. Kittens have small bodies where any infection can spread quickly, plus they can easily get dehydrated. Their bodies and immune systems aren’t the strongest, so acting quickly can change the outcome.
And, of course, make sure to take your cat for annual wellness visits to keep them healthy and up to date on vaccines.