6 Kitten Health Issues to Watch For

By PetMD Editorial on Oct. 29, 2013

By Amanda Baltazar

Congratulations on bringing a new kitten home. Still, you may be a bit nervous. After all, there are some illnesses that are common to new pets — especially kittens. Below are six common illnesses to look out for. Just remember that your kitten is less likely to contract one if you feed her a healthy diet. Good food will help her immune system develop in early days.

1. Upper Respiratory Infections

Upper respiratory infections, like feline calicivirus and feline herpes virus, are “kitten killers, especially if the cats are just a few weeks old,” says Dr. Tony Johnson, DVM, DACVECC, clinical assistant professor, emergency and critical care, Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine West Lafayette, Ind. Upper respiratory infections in cats are typically caused by bacteria or viruses, which are passed along when other cats sneeze or exhale.

Symptoms: Sneezing is the main symptom of upper respiratory infections in cats, though sometimes kittens will develop a yellowy goopy discharge from their eyes and a runny nose. If your kitten is having trouble breathing or refuses to eat, the situation is more serious.

Treatment: Take your kitten to your veterinarian. “If he’s eating and drinking and feeling comfortable and breathing, it can probably wait until the next day, but otherwise, an emergency visit is best,” Dr. Johnson says. Upper respiratory infections in cats are very hard to treat, he adds, especially the viral ones since there are no effective anti-viral medications.

Recovery time: After five to seven days, upper respiratory infections in cats tend to wane. However, some linger longer and the feline herpes virus can even remain dormant in your cat’s body, only to resurface and cause another upper respiratory infection later in life.

2. Feline Distemper

Feline distemper (panleukopenia) is pretty rare, but is very nasty and can be lethal. It’s a virus that attacks your kitten’s immune system, depleting it to nothing, meaning distemper is almost untreatable. Feline distemper vaccines are available and routinely given. Feline distemper is transmitted through the fecal-oral route and even just a microscopic amount of contaminated stool can pass it on.

Symptoms: Kittens with feline distemper are usually deathly ill, suffering from vomiting, lack of appetite, and a horrible, mucusy white diarrhea.

Treatment: Kittens suffering from feline distemper need to be hospitalized and isolated so they don’t transmit this virus. Veterinarians often give them antibiotics to prevent secondary infections, as well as lots of fluids. Unfortunately, kittens with feline distemper are often euthanized.

3. Intestinal worms

Intestinal worms in cats come in many varieties, all of which are unpleasant and can be dangerous. Roundworms, hookworms, and whipworms, for instance, can burrow into your kitten’s intestine and cause diarrhea (sometimes with blood), weight loss, and failure to thrive.

Kittens develop worms through ingesting worm eggs from another cat’s fecal matter. Humans can also contract worms (e.g., visceral larva migrans) by eating fruit or vegetables that were in contact with infected soil and not washed thoroughly before eating.

Symptoms: Weight loss and diarrhea.

Treatment: Routinely have your kitten dewormed by your vet, beginning at about eight weeks old. There are lots of cat deworming products, Dr. Johnson says. These are available over the counter “but veterinarians carry the good stuff,” he says. Additionally, it's important your veterinarian examines a stool sample to identify which type of worm your kitten has, as certain medications may be better suited for certain types of cat worms.

Recovery time: Two weeks but there’s a re-infection risk, he says. “Kittens can consume the eggs they passed a couple of weeks ago.”

4. Coccidia

This intestinal parasite is transmitted through the fecal-oral route. “Meaning, it’s passed along when kittens ingest poop,” says Dr. Johnson. Unfortunately there is no vaccine to protect against coccidian in cats, but the good news is it’s not a common ailment overall.

Symptoms: Diarrhea and sometimes dehydration and lack of appetite. The only way to check for sure if your kitten has coccidia is by having your vet conduct a stool examination — or several examinations.

Treatment: Medications from your veterinarian.

Recovery time: About a week after starting therapy, though some veterinarians may treat cats for up to 3 weeks and then need to re-treat if a new stool sample analysis comes up positive for coccidia.

5. Fleas

Fleas are pretty common and easy to treat. Your kitten could catch fleas from the environment and these little nuisances are very patient, waiting for a host for months. They are visible, or you can see flea dirt — black specks that look like pepper. When you grind fleas (and flea dirt) they turn red since they are made of digested blood. You can find the fleas and the flea dirt in your kitty’s fur.

Symptoms: Itching and hair loss are common for cats with fleas, usually over the rump.

Treatment: There are prescription and over-the-counter topical medications to treat cats with fleas. Be careful to never use dog medications on your kitten, however, as they can be lethal, causing your cat to have a seizure. Also, read the flea medication label instructions carefully and follow them precisely. For instance, the label will indicate the age a kitten can start using the product.

Recovery time: 24 hours.

6. Ear mites

Ear mites in cats are likely transmitted in the same way as fleas. They are microscopic and white and you can see them if you look very carefully, but they are half the size of a grain of salt. You may also see a crumbly white product in your kitten’s ear, which is the digested blood the mites have sucked.

Symptoms: Kittens with ear mites will scratch their ears and shake their head. If they shake their head too much, they can burst a blood vessel, which is very painful.

Treatment: Liquid drops in the ear then again two weeks later.

Recovery time: One to two weeks.

More to Explore

9 Ways You Can Be the BEST New Pet Parent on the Block

New Kitten Checklist: Getting Off To a Great Start

Healthy Ways to Treat Your Cat

How to Read a Cat Food Label

Help us make PetMD better

Was this article helpful?

Get Instant Vet Help Via Chat or Video. Connect with a Vet. Chewy Health