There are few things more exciting than bringing a cat or a kitten into your home for the first time. Before an adult cat or kitten takes up permanent residence in your home, a visit to the veterinarian is in order to make sure things start out on the right paw. Let’s review your kitty’s wellness checklist.
Check for FeLV and FIV
First things first: Confirm your new cat’s virus status. It’s hard to imagine an adoption agency placing a cat for adoption without testing for feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). FeLV is one of the most feared viruses in cats. Adult cats who contract this virus may live for months (or perhaps years) if well-cared for at home, but kittens who contract FeLV rarely survive more than a few weeks after the diagnosis is made.
FIV is the feline equivalent of human HIV. It’s not as deadly as FeLV, but it’s still a significant concern. Cats who test positive for FIV eventually become more susceptible to a variety of infectious diseases and cancers as the virus slowly weakens the immune system. Even if the cat has been tested by the adoption facility, I recommend repeating the test at the first visit so there is no doubt.
Confirm your cat has been spayed or neutered
Cats and kittens are wonderful, but there is no need to bring any more of them into the world. Many shelters spay or neuter kittens very early, around 8 weeks of age. It would be quite surprising for an adoption facility to release an adult cat who hasn’t been sterilized.
If your kitten hasn’t been sterilized, it should be done as soon as practical, typically around 5 months of age. For male cats, the reproductive status is easy to confirm: Just lift up the tail and take a peek. If a female cat has been adopted out and there are no records to indicate that she has been spayed, your veterinarian can shave the abdomen and look for a spay scar.
To ensure that cats remain healthy, their vaccination status must be current. Feline vaccinations are categorized as either “core” or “non-core.” Core vaccinations are those that every cat should receive. Non-core vaccinations are those that may or may not be necessary, depending on that cat’s lifestyle.
CORE: All cats should be vaccinated against the herpes and calicivirus. These viruses are the main culprits in causing upper respiratory infections. Panleukopenia is a viral disease that causes severe (sometimes fatal) diarrhea in kittens and is also a core vaccine. All cats should be vaccinated against rabies, as well.
Other non-core vaccines are available for cats (Bordetella, Chlamydia, etc.). Whether they are appropriate depends on your cat’s lifestyle. Your veterinarian can advise you further.
Examine for URIs
Upper respiratory infections (URIs) are common in newly adopted cats, especially kittens. They’re mainly viral in nature and can often cause:
✤ watery eyes
✤ runny nose
✤ poor appetite
The herpes virus is the most common respiratory virus, causing profuse sneezing and nasal discharge. The calicivirus causes milder respiratory signs; however, it can cause painful mouth ulcers, especially on the tongue. Conjunctivitis (“pink eye”) in both eyes often accompanies these symptoms.
Treatment of URIs consists of supportive care in the form of oral antibiotics, oral antivirals and medicated eye ointments. As mentioned above, there are vaccines against these viruses, and all cats should be vaccinated and kept current on these vaccines.
Look for parasites
Gastrointestinal parasites are a common finding in cats and kittens who have come from a multi-cat environment. Roundworms and hookworms can accumulate in the digestive tract, depriving a kitten of valuable nutrients during this vulnerable stage in their life.
Coccidia are protozoan parasites often found in kittens that have come from an unsanitary environment. Diarrhea flecked with blood, accompanied by straining and increased frequency of defecation, are classic signs of coccidiosis. Adult cats, fortunately, are less commonly affected. You should bring a fecal sample to the veterinarian during that first visit, if possible, to make sure your cat is free of internal parasites.
Search for ear mites
Ear mites are pesky, microscopic bugs that live in the ears, causing intense itching and constant discomfort. Kittens are more commonly affected than adults, and the incidence is higher in cats from a multi-cat environment, such as a shelter, cattery or pet store.
Kittens with ear mites sometimes scratch their ears so vigorously as to cause bleeding, and severe infestations can cause rupture of the eardrum and inflammation of the middle ear, resulting in balance and coordination problems. Ear mites often manifest as an accumulation of dry, brown, crusty material in the ear canals.
During that first exam, your veterinarian will examine the ears and will sample any debris, if present, for evaluation under the microscope. If mites are seen, there’s no need to worry, as they are easily treated.
Scrutinize for ringworm
Ringworm is the most common infectious skin disease of cats. Despite the name, ringworm is a fungus, not a worm. The classic appearance of ringworm is one or more areas of patchy hair loss, accompanied by some scaling and crusting. Any part of the body can be affected, but it has a particular affinity for the head, especially the hair around the eyes, ears, nose and lips.
Long-haired cats, especially Persians and Himalayans, are more commonly affected than short-haired cats. Ringworm is a zoonotic disease, which means that it can be spread to humans. I’ve seen many cat owners become afflicted along with their cats during an outbreak.
Ringworm is treatable with oral medication and shampoos, but it is a major nuisance. All cats (especially kittens) coming from a multi-cat environment should be thoroughly checked for ringworm during that first veterinary exam.
Fleas will always be a major annoyance to cats (and their owners), so seek out flea solutions.
Fleas cause itchiness and are associated with a variety of disorders in cats, such as bartonellosis, flea allergic dermatitis and tapeworms. Fleas feed on blood, and severely infested kittens can experience life-threatening anemia from blood loss.
Fortunately, there have been major breakthroughs in the field of flea control, making old-fashioned sprays, powders and shampoos obsolete. Oral medications kill fleas rapidly, and topical preparations, usually administered once a month, provide long-term flea control. (Some of these products control internal parasites as well, giving cat owners additional bang for their buck.)
The safest and most effective products are available only through veterinarians. Beware of over-the-counter products packaged to mimic the veterinary products. These may contain permethrin which, in concentrated doses, can cause severe and often fatal toxicosis if applied to cats and kittens.
Adopting a kitten or adult cat is a rewarding experience. They relieve loneliness and are good for your mental and physical health. Ensuring your cat’s good health is key to making sure your cat sticks around for the long haul, and it all begins with that first post-adoption veterinary visit.