Ideally when you adopt a new kitten, the kitten will be healthy and without any medical issues. However, that's not always the case. There are a few problems that seem to occur with relative frequency in young kittens. These are the conditions that I see most commonly in my practice.
Upper respiratory infections are one of the most common illnesses I diagnose in young kittens. Characterized by sneezing, coughing, runny eyes, runny nose, lack of appetite, and lethargy, upper respiratory infections are extremely contagious and easily passed from one kitten to another. Adult cats may be infected as well but the symptoms are generally most severe in kittens.
Ear mites are also extremely common in kittens, though cats of any age can be infected and this parasite is contagious to other cats. The most common sign of ear mites is a black/brown discharge in the ears that appears similar to coffee grounds. The kitten's ears are usually itchy as well, and there may be sores and inflammation in and around the ears if the kitten has been scratching at the ears.
Intestinal parasites are common enough in kittens to warrant routine dewormings for the most common ones. Roundworms and hookworms are the most frequently seen intestinal parasites and many kittens are born with these worms. However, other parasites such as tapeworms, coccidia and Giardia may also be seen. Besides routine dewormings, all kittens should have fecal examinations performed as well.
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Fleas are not an uncommon finding in kittens either. Naturally, fleas can infest cats of all ages but flea infestations can be particularly troublesome for young kittens. Because of their small size, tiny kittens heavily infested with fleas may become anemic due to blood loss. Fleas can also spread other diseases to infested kittens.
Diarrhea can have many causes. In many cases, stress associated with major changes in a kitten's life contributes to the development of diarrhea. Being separated from the mother and litter mates, moving to a new home, and meeting new people are all stressful for kittens though they are a necessary part of kittenhood. In addition, a change in diet can cause diarrhea, as can intestinal parasites.
This is obviously not an exhaustive list of all of the potential issues that kittens can face. Fortunately, I don't see feline infectious peritonitis frequently in my practice but this disease is serious and almost always fatal when diagnosed.
Feline leukemia is another potential viral disease that may be seen in kittens. When symptomatic, feline leukemia is usually fatal. However, a positive test result in the absence of clinical illness is not a death warrant. Talk to your veterinarian about a preventive health care program to keep your feline leukemia positive kitten safe and healthy.
Feline panleukopenia (aka feline distemper) was once commonly diagnosed in kittens. However, with the advent of vaccinations against this disease, we don't see it nearly as often as previously. Still, it's a disease that can be seen, especially in young unvaccinated kittens. Symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, lack of appetite, lethargy, and dehydration.
Have you adopted a kitten that had a medical issue? What kind of problem did your kitten suffer from?
-Dr. Lorie Huston