Transmittable Diseases in Cats
By Ingrid King
Cats are susceptible to a number of infectious diseases. Some of them are preventable, and most boarding and grooming facilities require cats to be current on vaccinations. However, no vaccine is 100% effective, and regardless of a cat’s vaccination status, scrupulously clean facilities and a staff trained to understand disease transmission protocols are a must to prevent disease transmission.
Upper Respiratory Disease
Upper respiratory issues are the most common transmittable illness in cats. They are most frequently seen in shelters or catteries. Symptoms include sneezing, runny nose, runny eyes, lack of appetite, and fever. These cold like symptoms can be caused by either a viral or bacterial infection. The two most common viruses that cause upper respiratory infections in cats are Herpes and Calici. Bacterial infections are most commonly caused by Mycoplasma Pneumoniae, Bordatella Bronchiseptica, and Chlamydia Psittaci bacteria.
The feline Herpes virus is not the same strain as the human one, and it is not contagious to people, or vice versa. Herpes virus in cats causes primarily cold like symptoms, but it can also cause serious eye infections. 80-90% of cats have this virus in their systems. Cats with a healthy immune system will usually be asymptomatic unless their immune system becomes stressed. Cats who carry the virus are only contagious when they’re showing symptoms.
The feline Calicivirus, or FCV, also causes symptoms similar to those of a common cold. This infection quickly spreads among cats housed together. While Calici symptoms usually mimic those of a cold, they can also include painful ulcers inside the mouth, nose and throat area. Current Calici vaccines contain about 40 different strains of the virus, and as such, the vaccine provides pretty good protection. However, since the virus is constantly mutating, complete protection cannot be guaranteed even for vaccinated cats.
It is important to understand that once a cat is infected with either the Herpes or Calici virus, she may carry the virus in her body for life. A carrier cat may show mild symptoms when she is stressed, which makes outbreaks during boarding a very real possibility.
Feline Leukemia (FeLV)
The feline Leukemia virus affects the cat’s blood, causing various blood diseases. It also suppresses the immune system, making it harder to protect against infection by bacteria, viruses or fungi found in our everyday environment that wouldn’t affect healthy cats. The virus is transmitted through direct contact from cat to cat. The primary route of transmission is through saliva and nasal secretions, but it is also present in the urine and feces of infected cats. Cat-to-cat transfer can occur through bite wounds, but also through grooming. The virus only lives outside its host for a few hours, and because of this, transference through shared use of litter boxes and food dishes is not as common, but it can occur.
Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV)
The FIV virus affects approximately 1.5 to 3 percent of healthy cats in the United States, with slightly higher rates in cats that are sick or at high risk for infection. FIV is a lentivirus, which means it moves very slowly, and it gradually affects a cat’s immune system. It is passed from cat to cat through blood transfusions and serious, penetrating bite wounds. Infected cats may never show symptoms. The only way to diagnose FIV definitely is through a blood test.
This highly transmittable disease is caused by a virus that causes fever, weight loss, diarrhea, vomiting, dehydration, anemia, or persistent chronic infection. Unless a cat receives immediate supportive care, distemper is usually fatal. Distemper is highly transmittable via contact with infected saliva, urine or stool.
The Rabies virus attacks the nervous system and travels to the brain. It is transmitted through the saliva of infected animals, and it is transmittable from animals to humans. There is no cure for Rabies, which is why most municipalities require Rabies vaccinations for all pets. If a person is bitten or scratched by a potentially rabid animal, he must seek immediate medical care, and may require prophylactic Rabies vaccinations.
Toxoplasmosis is caused by the Toxoplasma Gondii parasite, which can be found in the feces of cats who eat infected mice, birds, raw meat, or contaminated soil or water. Toxoplasmosis is rare in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 60 million men, women, and children in the U.S. carry the Toxoplasma parasite. Of those who are infected, very few have symptoms because a healthy person’s immune system usually keeps the parasite from causing illness. Most cats infected with T Gondii will not show any symptoms, but occasionally, cats with a weak immune system will show symptoms such as lethargy, fever, and loss of appetite. Even though cats can be carriers of the parasite, the highest risk of contracting the disease does not come from cat feces, but from eating raw or undercooked meat or unwashed fruit and vegetables, or from gardening in contaminated soil.
Proper Hygiene Procedures
Appropriate staff hygiene and proper facility cleaning and disinfection can prevent the spread of most of these diseases. Written procedures for both cleaning and staff hygiene will ensure the greatest success in providing a clean and safe facility for all cats and prevent transmission of disease.
There is no single cleaning product that will kill all possible viruses or bacteria, but regardless of which product is used, some general principles apply. Always follow label directions for dilution, allow sufficient contact time with surfaces, and ensure that all surfaces are dried completely. Residual water may become a breeding ground for pathogens. The Koret Shelter Medicine Program at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine provides detailed protocols for sanitizing animal shelters. The protocols can be easily adapted for grooming and boarding facilities. Staff should follow thorough hand washing procedures in between handling cats. Some diseases, especially upper respiratory viruses, can be transmitted via staff clothing. Protective garments should be available when dealing with infected animals. Bedding and towels should be washed in hot water with bleach added to the cycle.
Understanding feline transmittable diseases and how to prevent them will ensure a happy boarding or grooming experience for feline clients.