My freshman year of college, I took a science course to fulfill a university requirement. I selected it because of its title: Common Human Diseases. I thought, “If they’re so common, how hard can the class be?” I ended up with something like a C+. My critical error? Assuming that “common” meant the course content would be obvious, easy, and demand little effort.
The same mistaken assumptions are often made of common cat health problems. They are the ones most frequently diagnosed and treated by veterinarians, not necessarily the ones that laypeople — even cat people — can name right away. Much like my college class, the cat illnesses in this brief survey include feline afflictions that are common, but not as widely known as, say, rabies.
Diseases, disorders, and other health problems we’ll look at include:
- Cat viruses
- Digestive issues
Once viral cat diseases are contracted, many are difficult to treat and are incurable. Prevention is key and can be handled for the most part by combination vaccines administered to kittens. Periodic booster shots throughout the course of a cat’s life are useful as well. Common cat viruses include:
- Feline Leukemia Virus: FeLV, as it is also known, is a retrovirus that is passed from cat to cat. It can be transmitted through bites, scratches, or other open wounds, and by contact with communal items — bowls, dishes, toys, or litter boxes — where the retroviral agent is present in any type of bodily fluid. A retrovirus is RNA based; once inside the cat, it uses an enzyme to reproduce itself, effectively hijacking host cells. Feline leukemia weakens and compromises immune system function, rendering cats susceptible to many other diseases. Vaccines have been available since the mid 1980s.
- Feline Immunodeficiency Virus: FIV is another retrovirus. Like feline leukemia, transmission occurs through contact with other infected cats or their saliva, typically during cat fights that lead to deep bite wounds. There are so many different strains of FIV in cats that vaccine development is still in progress. Most sources recommend keeping your cat indoors to prevent exposure to infected cats.
- Feline Infectious Peritonitis: FIP in cats is caused by a mutated form of the coronavirus, a name that refers to its rounded shape. While incurable, FIP is easily contracted but in most cases remains dormant. It can be passed in a variety of ways, including contact with bodily fluids and feces, but is most dangerous to kittens and cats with weak immune systems.
- Feline Distemper: Technically known as feline panleukopenia virus, and more suggestively as “Cat Plague,” this is an extremely common cat viral infection, but fortunately, the easiest to prevent through vaccination. It attacks blood cells, especially white blood cells, and does its worst on a cat’s digestive tract. For cats, it’s a zoonotic disease, meaning it can be contracted through contact with a variety of animals and their excretions.
Unvaccinated cats can contract a range of feline viruses from fighting. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Parasitic infestations: Worms
We are all familiar with external parasites like fleas and ticks. What you may not know is that these pests serve as intermediate hosts for a range of more insidious parasitic organisms, such as:
- Tapeworm: Tapeworms are flatworms that infect cats and kittens when they ingest fleas. A cat with fleas can easily ingest them in the normal course of self-grooming, or if they happen to eat an infected animal that has fleas. Tapeworms grow and develop in a cat’s small intestine. As segments break off, eggs are released through a cat’s feces. Unless there’s a major infestation, tapeworms may not cause any discernible symptoms.
- Roundworm: Like tapeworms, roundworms live in the intestines of cats. Unlike tapeworms, they do not attach or affix themselves; instead, they spend their lives swimming around in a cat’s intestines. Roundworms can cause serious problems, mostly in very young or weaker senior cats. The clearest sign of a roundworm infestation is bloating or a swollen belly.
We may tend to associate digestive health problems in cats with the stomach or intestines, but the urinary tract is a critical part of digestion. The most common urinary problem for cats is:
- Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease: Rarely an issue in kittens, this is not a specific disorder, but rather a blanket term which encompasses a constellation of problems that affect cats, especially male cats, as they age. These conditions manifest in a number of ways, mostly related to blockages of the urethra. Typical symptoms include difficulty urinating or bloody urine. The best ways to prevent these illnesses are through a healthy diet and regular exercise. Obesity in cats is probably the most common of all cat health problems, and urinary tract dysfunction is only one long-term effect of an overweight cat.
Vaccination and boosters can prevent many cat diseases. Photo via Shutterstock.
Many common cat health problems are easily prevented
Treatment and prevention of external parasites, such as fleas and ticks, can go a long way to keeping your cat generally healthy. This is because these parasitic pests are not only troublesome of their own accord, but also serve as secondary hosts for a wide, and actually quite frightening, range of viral agents. We can detect their presence if a cat is relentlessly scratching, but as disease vectors, the biggest danger comes when a cat swallows a stray flea.
Cats are constantly cleaning themselves, but that doesn’t excuse cat owners from practicing proper hygiene with their cats. This includes not only bathing the cat, but also washing their bedding, and disinfecting their food and water dishes once in a while. Simple measures like these can prevent bacterial, fungal, and other microbial nuisances.
Is pet insurance worth it?
With so many cat health problems, illnesses, and disorders out there, it’s fair to inquire whether cat health insurance is a worthwhile investment. Well, the best insurance doesn’t require substantial payouts. It’s more effective to get your cats vaccinated at the earliest opportunity. Combination vaccines and periodic booster shots do cost money, but far less in the long run than the mounting costs associated with palliative care or regular veterinary appointments.
About the author: Melvin Peña trained as a scholar and teacher of 18th-century British literature before turning his research and writing skills to puppies and kittens. He enjoys making art, hiking, and concert-going, as well as dazzling crowds with operatic karaoke performances. He has a one-year-old female Bluetick Coonhound mix named Idris, and his online life is conveniently encapsulated here.