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Adopt a Cat, Save Two Lives

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When you adopt a cat from a shelter, you not only save that cat’s life, you also free up space for another cat to have a chance for adoption. Adopting and rescuing cats is a trend, and in the process lives are being saved. According to the ASPCA, over 1.6 million cats and kittens are adopted from shelters annually.

The Million Cat Challenge, supported by Maddie’s Fund, was originally launched to save the lives of one million shelter cats in North America. Exceeding all expectations, it has currently helped to save the lives of two million cats and counting in more than 1,500 North American animal shelters.

Kate Hurley, DVM, director of Koret Shelter Medicine Program at University of California, Davis, is a co-founder of the challenge. “Of course, we are so pleased that more cats are being adopted. And as we better understand what cats require in a shelter environment, we can improve the job we currently do of adopting healthy cats into homes.”

Dr. Hurley isn’t speaking only about the medical care cats and kittens receive in shelters; the environment they live in also contributes to their health, for good or ill.

Research demonstrates that while dogs are susceptible to stressors of being in a shelter environment, cats and kittens are even more at risk. Fear, anxiety, and stress affect the immune system of cats, increasing their vulnerability to infectious disease. But changes in shelter management, including Fear Free practices, mean that many healthy cats are available for adoption.

Dean Vicksman, DVM, a private-practice veterinarian in Denver, Colorado, who once chaired the board of the Denver Dumb Friends League and currently is a board member for Winn Feline Foundation says, “Absolutely, there are far more healthy cats (in shelters).”

Worried About Health?

No doubt the scariest problems when adopting a cat or especially a kitten are feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) and panleukopenia (feline distemper)

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

“Nothing is so horrible as FIP,” says 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 with kittens in an over-crowded facility with group housing, or many kittens co-habituating in a sanctuary.”

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

Adoption Considerations

If you’re the cautious type, it’s reasonable to adopt a cat who has been in the shelter for a while so any medical issue will perhaps have had enough time to be exposed and treated. On the other paw, the more quickly 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.

Consider the facility where you are adopting the cat or kitten and inspect it in person. If the facility is filthy, it may be prudent to take a pass, no matter how badly you feel for the kitties you want to rescue.

While panleukopenia and FIP are serious and life-threatening, it’s rare to adopt a kitten who develops one of these diseases. More likely, you will encounter the most common health problem seen in shelter cats: the herpes virus. That’s the same virus that causes cold sores in humans. In cats it causes upper respiratory infections, much like our common colds. (Just so you know, you can’t get herpes from your cat.) And just as those cold sores in humans can manifest as a result of stress, the same is true in infected cats; the stress of being in a shelter can prompt signs associated with feline upper respiratory infections. Typically, signs are mild and may disappear when the stress vanishes. Once the cat settles in to a new home and stress disappears, so do the sneezing, runny eyes, runny and stuffy nose, and appetite loss.

Sometimes upper respiratory infection is chronic and may recur periodically throughout the cat’s life. 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 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. It is highly infectious in unvaccinated cats. While some strains may be serious, this virus is typically not a threat.

If you see the pheromone Feliway plugged in at the shelter, that’s a good sign that the shelter is attempting to mitigate at least some of the anxiety associated with living in that environment. Studies demonstrate that Feliway, enrichment with toys, and providing extra space and a hiding place for cats reduces stress.

Taking Cats Home

Quarantine the new cat before introducing him to cats already in your home to prevent potentially introducing disease, as well as to give the cats time to get know one another by sniffing under the door long before they actually see one other. This is a good reason to plug in or spray Feliway, a stress-reducing pheromone product.

As soon as possible after adopting your new purring pal, take her to the veterinarian for any necessary vaccinations, parasite checks, baseline bloodwork, and a general exam.

Vicksman suggests purchasing pet health insurance sooner rather than later. “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. I love pet insurance.”

Vicksman concedes some health risks but is overall a huge proponent of adopting. “Of course, something can happen; that’s life, but odds are your new friend will be very healthy for a very long time.”

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Steve Dale, CABC (certified animal behavior consultant), hosts two national pet radio shows and is on WGN Radio, Chicago. He’s a regular contributor/columnist for many publications, including CATSTER, Veterinary Practice News, and the Journal of the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America. He’s appeared on dozens of TV shows, including Oprah, many Animal Planet Programs, and National Geographic Explorer. He has contributed to or authored many pet books and veterinary textbooks such as “The Cat: Clinical Medicine and Management” and co-edited Decoding Your Dog, by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. He speaks at conferences around the world.


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