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Adopting a Shelter Cat


People are adopting cats from shelters and rescues in record numbers. According to the ASPCA over 1.6 million cats and kittens annually.

Further evidence is the Million Cat Challenge. The Million Cat Challenge was originally launched to save the lives of one million shelter cats in North America. Exceeding all expectations, the more than 1,500 participating North American animal shelters have saved two million cats.

But do adopters pay too hefty a price by adopting 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.

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

All those things you’ve heard are true. By adopting you are not only saving that life, you’ve freeing up space for another cat at the shelter.

The problem is that, of course, in a shelter environment there is likely no way to get a cat’s medical history, but the immediate history is what matters most.

If you’re the cautious type, it’s reasonable to adopt a cat that’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. And shelters can be stressful places, and stress may lower the immune system increasing the odds of illness.

Scariest Diseases

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. Challenging for shelters, for starters because kittens get so sick that they may not survive. And since 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,” adds Hurley. FIP itself is not contagious – though the benign enteric feline corona virus 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,” says Hurley “Mostly we experience FIP when kittens in an over-crowded facility with group housing, or many kittens co-habituating in a sanctuary.”

Hurley will be among those participating in the Winn Feline Foundation FIP Symposium, Pursuing FIP And WINNing, November 13 and 14 and University of California, Davis. Investigators from around the world will be there for the event. Registration HERE.

Up their Noses: Herpes and Calici

Actually, the most common problem is the simple herpes virus. That’s the same virus that causes cold sores in people which 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 trigger symptoms associated with feline upper respiratory infections. Typically, the signs are mild and may disappear when the stress dissipates. 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 do 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. 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.”

Calicivrus is a 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. Calicivirus is highly contagious in unvaccinated cats. While some strains may be serious, this virus is typically not life threatening.

Adoption Can Be the Right Option

If you see the pheromone Feliway plugged in at the shelter – it’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 a hiding place for cats minimizes stress. While stress is associated with disease in people and in dogs, an argument can be made that is even more true in cats.

Vicksman  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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Steve Dale is a certified animal behavior specialist who has been a trusted voice in the world of pet health for over 20 years. You have likely heard him on the radio, read him in print and online, and seen him speaking at events all over the world. His contributions to advancing pet wellness have earned him many an award and recognition around the globe.

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