shelter cat health
Seek out the medical history of any cat you are considering adopting. Your shelter will have at minimum the most immediate history.

Health Help for Shelter Cats


Increasingly, people are adopting cats from shelters and rescues. To be exact, more than 1.6 million cats and kittens annually, according to the ASPCA. Further evidence is the Million Cat Challenge (, which was originally launched to save the lives of one million shelter cats in North America. Exceeding all expectations, the more than 1,500 North American animal shelters in the Challenge saved 2 million cats.

And what about concerns that the shelter cat you adopt is a sick cat? “Oh no; the vast majority are just fine,” reassures Dr. Kate Hurley, director of Koret Shelter Medicine Program at University of California, Davis, and a co-founder of the Challenge, supported by Maddie’s Fund.

kitten and cat tree
Seek out the medical history of any cat you are considering adopting. Your shelter will have at minimum the most immediate history.

Dr. Dean Vicksman, a private practicing veterinarian in Denver, Colorado, who once served as the chair of the board of directors of the Denver Dumb Friends League and currently is a board member for the Winn Feline Foundation. “Absolutely, there are far more healthy cats.”

That’s good news! And, all those things you’ve heard are true. By adopting, you save that life and free up space for another cat. But, what should you be looking for in your new rescue cat?

“When it comes to adopting a new cat into your household, there are a few factors at play to help you make the best decision,” says Shannon Bowers, a registered veterinary technician and also a claims adjuster at Embrace Pet Insurance. “One of the most important factors is the potential new cat’s medical history. You, of course, want to be sure that your new pet is healthy before welcoming him or her into your home and exposing him or her to your other cats.”

The problem is that, of course, in a shelter environment there is likely no way to get the entire medical history, but the immediate history is what matters most, which Dr. Vicksman says shelters are ethically obligated to be honest about.

The faster kittens are removed from a shelter to a home environment, the less stress and exposure they will have to infectious diseases.

If you’re the cautious type, it’s reasonable to adopt a cat who’s been in the shelter a while so any medical issue will perhaps have had enough time to be exposed and treated. On the other paw, the faster cats, especially kittens, are removed from even the best of shelters into a home environment, the less exposure they will have to infectious disease in the first place. So what diseases should you be on the lookout for?

Top potential health issues

No doubt the scariest problems are panleukopenia (feline distemper) and feline infectious peritonitis (FIP).

Panleukopenia is the feline parvovirus, and it can spread quickly through a population of unvaccinated kittens. It’s challenging for shelters, not only because kittens get so sick that they may not survive, but the virus can survive for up to a year in the environment. Cats may become infected without ever coming into direct contact with an infected cat.

While Winn Feline Foundation-funded research now shows promise for some drugs to treat FIP, nothing has yet been approved by the FDA. And FIP is otherwise fatal.

“Nothing is so horrible as FIP,” Dr. Hurley says. FIP itself is not contagious — though the benign enteric feline coronavirus that mutates in some cats into FIP is contagious. FIP is complicated. “FIP certainly occurs in well-maintained and well-run traditional shelters, but it’s rare,” Dr. Hurley says. “Mostly we experience FIP with kittens in an overcrowded facility with group housing or many kittens cohabitating in a sanctuary.”

So, think about the facility where you are adopting the cat or kitten in the first place. And visit it yourself. If the facility is filthy — no matter how badly you feel for the poor kitties and you want to rescue them, it may be prudent to take a pass. Luckily, while these conditions are serious and definitely life-threatening, adopting a kitten that develops panleukopenia or FIP is rare.

The most common problem is the simple herpesvirus. It’s similar to the virus that causes cold sores in people and can produce upper respiratory infection in cats, kind of like our common cold in many ways. And just like stress in humans can manifest those cold sores, the same is true in infected cats, as stress can prompt symptoms associated with feline upper respiratory infections.

Typically, signs are mild and may disappear when the stress disappears. Being inside a shelter is stressful, and so are the first few days, weeks to months in a new home. Once the cat settles in, that stress goes away — as does the sneezing, runny eyes, runny and stuffy nose, and appetite loss.

Sometimes upper respiratory infection is chronic and may appear on and off again throughout the lifetime of the cat. Dr. Vicksman says, “Sure, some cats are chronic and periodically get pretty sick. And yes, hospitalization could be involved for those cats. But in my experience, mostly the clinical signs are mild, very infrequent when they do occur.”

Calicivirus is another common respiratory disease in cats. The virus attacks the respiratory tract (nasal passages and lungs), the mouth (with ulceration of the tongue), the intestines and the musculoskeletal system. It is highly communicable in unvaccinated cats. While some strains may be serious, this virus is typically not a threat.

Stress, while not a disease, can affect a cat’s health (and yours, too!). If you see a pheromone diffuser, like Feliway, plugged in at the shelter — that’s a good sign that the shelter is attempting (and perhaps succeeding) at mitigating at least some of the anxiety associated to living in that environment. Studies demonstrate that Feliway, enhanced enrichment and providing extra space and hiding places for cats minimize stress. While stress is associated with disease in people and in dogs, an argument can be made that it is even more true in cats.

Steps to take when bringing home a cat from a shelter

If you have existing cats, keep the new cat quarantined for health reasons and to give the cats time to get to know one another by sniffing under the door long before they actually see each other. (Another reason to plug in a stress-reducing pheromone diffuser.) And, as soon as you can, visit your own veterinarian for any vaccines, parasite checks, baseline bloodwork and a general exam.

vet examining cat
Make visiting the vet with your new friend a top priority once you bring him home.

Another protection is pet insurance, Shannon from Embrace adds. “Even though you may ask all the right questions regarding the health of your new cat and they may be healthy when you first adopt them, you never know what might develop. This is when pet insurance plays a major role in your cat’s health. Enrolling your new cat in pet insurance as soon as possible can help with any medical costs that may arise down the road.”

Dr. Vicksman agrees. “You should get pet insurance as early on as possible, so you don’t deal with pre-existing conditions, and so you’re protected the first time something happens,” he says. “I love pet insurance.”

And even more — he loves the idea of adopting. “Of course, something can happen — that’s life; but if you ask questions, odds are your new friend will be very healthy for a very long time.”

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