Identifying Common Ailments In Cats Adopted From Animal Shelters And Rescue Groups

Cats that come from rescue groups and animal shelters are more likely to have relatively minor illnesses that if untreated can become serious.

Before you leave the shelter, ask the shelter or rescue group for a written copy of their medical support policies. Will they provide vet care, medicines, and for how long?

So congratulations, you've just brought home your new furry friend and you want to know what to do next. If you already have a resident cat at home I strongly urge you to do a slow and gentle introduction. Not only may this assist you with the introduction between them, but it also makes it much less likely that your resident cat will catch anything from your new friend.

Never give your cat any human medication unless directed to do so by your vet! Many common human medications (like aspirin or Tylenol) are dangerous to cats and can kill them.

Please contact your vet or shelter if any of the following symptoms listed below appear.

  • Sneezing
  • Discharge from the nose, mouth or eyes
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Diarrhea
  • Small bald spots with scabby, possibly reddish or gray welts (commonly around the face, ears, and paws or tail)

If you already have a cat at home and he develops any of the above symptoms even though the new cat appears healthy, then the new cat is likely to be a latent carrier and has infected your resident cat.

Upper Respiratory Infections

Miss Kitty is sneezing! Probably the most common illness in shelter cats is URIs (colds). The first symptom is usually sneezing. Additional symptoms include discharge from the nose or eyes, nasal congestion, loss of appetite, and lethargy. Coughing is a more serious symptom.

You should consult your vet or shelter if you see cold symptoms. Most URI's are viral, so medical care is generally supportive. Cats are prone to secondary bacterial infections, so it is standard practice to put cats with colds on an antibiotic. Do not attempt home remedies to take care of the problem. The most common viral URI is Feline Herpes aka Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis and it tends to be chronic and recurring (especially when kitty is stressed). Most vets say that adding a pinch of L-Lysine to the diet helps prevent this virus from replicating and reduces flare ups. Seek veterinary help for any URI and always before starting a treatment.

It's very important that a cat keep eating during the cold. Eating helps her immune system fight the cold, and without sufficient food your cat will lose energy and possibly become dehydrated. When cats get stuffy noses they lose their sense of smell, and cats that can't smell their food will generally refuse to eat. The first step to keep a cat eating with a URI is to motivate her to eat with foods that may be smellier than you’re used to feeding or by adding dried fish flakes to her current food (available at pet stores). Talk to your vet about using saline drops like “Little Noses” to help unclog the cat's nose. You can also create a steam bath in your bathroom to help with the congestion. If you cannot coax the cat into eating the next thing to do is start syringe feeding. Your shelter or vet will give you specific instructions on how to do this but a cat that stops eating must take in food within about 48 hours or be at risk for a serious liver disease.

If the cat's eyes become goopy or teary, or the eyelid is partially closed, you will need to get some eye cream or eye drops for her. This is important to prevent permanent damage to the cornea.


Young kittens are at greater risk from diarrhea because they can easily become dehydrated, and also because some parasites that cause diarrhea can kill a young kitten if untreated. Adult cats need treatment too.

A cat that makes a rapid change from one type of wet food to another will often get diarrhea. His digestive tract simply hasn't had a chance to adapt to the new ingredients. Ask your shelter or rescue group what food he's been eating, and either keep him on this, or slowly migrate him to a new food. This is particularly true with canned food. Diarrhea from a change in diet shouldn't be watery, bloody or mucous filled - just loose.

Roundworms are the most common type of worm in kittens (most are born with them). They can cause mild diarrhea, sometimes with a little blood, and if untreated can become serious. Treatment is a liquid medication that is given orally by your vet. All young kittens should be treated for roundworms. Please do not seek over-the-counter treatment for roundworms.

Coccidia are single-celled organisms that are a common cause of diarrhea in cats and kittens. The smell of coccidia-related related diarrhea is often described as sour-fruity. The diarrhea can be pale colored, bloody or watery. Kittens and cats are often treated on the presumption of coccidia because of the speed with which coccidia can cause serious complications even death in kittens if untreated. A negative float test result does not mean that the cat is not affected.

Giardia is another parasite that causes a foul-smelling diarrhea - it often appears quickly, and tends to have visible mucous in the feces. A negative float test does not mean the cat is free of infection.

A relatively new type of test called a PCR test (Polymerese Chain Reaction) amplifies pathogenic DNA material allowing for an early (even before antibodies are produced) and extremely accurate test result for many types of illnesses including respiratory illnesses and parasite induced diarrhea. The PCR test is both fast (1-3 days) and affordable and is the new gold standard in testing for these types of illnesses.

Skin Related Issues

Ringworm is a fungus, and not a worm! While mildly contagious to humans, ringworm isn't as bad as many people think, so don't panic. Ringworm is not dangerous to cats, or to humans except for young children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems. It typically appears as a roundish bald spot commonly found around a cat's face, ears, head, paws, and tail accompanied by scabby, reddish or grayish welts.

Common treatments include twice or more daily applications of over-the-counter anti-fungal creams to the affected spots. Lime dips, and other prescribed oral medications like Terbinafine may be worth reserving for more serious cases.

Ear mites are little organisms that resemble microscopic ticks. Sometimes shelter cats have dirty ears. If the dirt is black and crumbly like coffee grounds it may be ear mites. The ears should be thoroughly cleaned before leaving the shelter. If the black dirt returns over time then the cat probably has ear mites. Treatment for ear mites (typically ear drops) should only be used after the ears are cleaned.

Fleas are hard to see - more commonly you will see flea "dirt" which looks like specks of pepper and is actually flea feces with digested blood. Use a flea comb to remove some of the dirt and put it on a wet paper towel - if in a few minutes a small bloodstain appears then it's definitely flea dirt.

For kittens eight weeks and older, common "spot on" treatments include Advantage, Revolution, and Frontline. They all provide protection for a month but many parts of the USA are reporting increasing flea resistance to Frontline. Program, a chewable pill, works by interrupting the life cycle of the flea, so it takes longer to be effective but has no toxicity issues. Capstar is an oral pill that can be crushed in food and while it doesn't provide long-term protection, it will kill the fleas in 3-6 hours, and in consultation with a vet is safe in kittens under 8 weeks of age.

Please don't use flea collars! They aren't effective, and because they surround your cat with an insecticide 24/7 they pose a risk of toxicity. They are also a strangulation hazard.

You've done a wonderful thing by adopting a cat or kitten from a shelter or rescue group! Despite the best efforts of these organizations, many cats will still have some medical issues around the time of adoption. Most of these problems are easily resolved with the timely intervention of the adopter and with the help of a vet.

If you see symptoms in your adopted kitten or cat, please don't wait to get help, and don't wait for the symptoms to go away by themselves. Contact your vet or shelter at the first sign of symptoms. And may your cats live long, healthy and happy lives!

Written by StephenQ [emoji]169[/emoji] Copyright 2015, StephenQ, All rights Reserved.

StephenQ works in the medical department of a nationally recognized animal rescue team that responds to natural disasters and cruelty cases across the USA. He has both a beautiful blind-from-birth cat named Jenny and her feline friend Cricket whom he shares with his human companion. He can be reached via his forum profile at

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13 comments on “Identifying Common Ailments In Cats Adopted From Animal Shelters And Rescue Groups

red top rescue July 20, 2016
There has been some controversy recently about the use of Lysine to combat herpes in cats.  We have already discovered that when lysine doesn't seem to be helping, adding LACTOFERRIN does help.   This is a very long thread (212 posts so far) but taking a quote from my own post at #211, about lactoferrin: Since it is not a medicine but more of a food, being derived from bovine colostrum, it will not interact with any medications like antibiotics or antivirals a cat might be taking.  Google it and you can read some of the research on it.    "Research has found out that lactoferrin possesses a potent anti-viral activity and may be useful in preventing certain types of viral infections in humans” (Hasegawa) Therefore bovine colostrums lactoferrin and its other beneficial components may help people suffering with herpes."   Hasegawa, K, et al. Inhibition with lactoferrin of in vitro infection with human herpes virus. Japanese Journal of Medical Science and Biology 47:73-85 (1994). Both human and bovine lactoferrin inhibit infection with human herpes simplex virus and human cytomegalovirus in cell cultures.
Anne June 23, 2016
@JMarkitell and anyone who may have been following, I moved the comment by catkisses4 into a thread. You can find it and follow here -
jmarkitell June 23, 2016
This is heartbreaking...if you are helping a vet to foster some kittens, they least they shoud do is to try to determine what is making them so sick. I know that kittens are succeptible to a lot of maladys, but I'm wondering what they could have caught that was so virulent?
stephenq December 30, 2015
@Donutte I agree!  My most recent cat came with some teeth issues, diarrhea and ringworm :).  And Jenny, is blind!
donutte December 30, 2015
I think if the shelter is up front and honest, about health issues, and someone wants to adopt anyway, I don't think it's a problem. There are people that looks specifically for special-needs cats. Not that this was special needs per se, but I took in my Penelopy knowing she'd had a recurring cold for some time. So long in fact they couldn't spay or vaccinate her until after I'd adopted her. They adopted her out in hopes that she could get rid of the cold for good (after finishing the course of antibiotics of course). She's been good since then.
stephenq August 17, 2015
@godschildren I agree completely and I am going to add a section on L-Lysine to the article, so many thanks.
godschildren August 17, 2015
@StephenQ   Many of the cats that come into a shelter already have herpe virus that lays dormant in the body.  And if they dont they will soon get it in a overcrowded shelter.  Stress is the number 1 cause of an outbreak of herpe virus. When a cat is stressed his immune system is compromised and the cat comes down with a cold and starts sneezing all over-thats how herpes is spread.  At the first sign  of herpes you need to start all the cats on Lysine  and if they should get conjunctivitis of the eyes put them on terramycin to stop the infection.  Where most shelters go wrong is they wait til the virus turns into secondary bacterial infections.requiring antibiotics. But just remember the antibiotics wont do anything for the virus- You still have to treat the virus with Lysine.
stephenq August 3, 2015
@JMarkitell You make many good points.  Some shelters, perhaps many, don't have the resources to adequately separate the sick ones from the healthy ones, although this is a priority that many shelters strive to do.  Shelter illnesses are sadly common, in large measure because many of the rescued cats come in with these illnesses.  Fortunately, with treatment, most of these illnesses can be cleared up fairly quickly, and the cats can go on to live happy long lives.
jmarkitell August 2, 2015
The sad thing about many cat shelters is that many of the problems that infect the cats are viral in nature, which makes treatment difficult, especially if you have an influx of cats constantly. I agree that many shelters could stand to clean up their facilities, but the fact is that many maladies are also very contagious and difficult to prevent when you have a large host population. I have come to expect shelter cats to have colds and similar sniffles and runny eyes...although I certainly don't enjoy it. It gives me a good reason to take my new bundle of joy to my vet's for a thorough once over. As someone mentioned...I'm glad to remove a cat from a shelter to save it from the stress of such a crowded environment and give it the chance to enjoy life on the back of my couch!
stephenq June 8, 2015
@PHarber-Murphy I agree it does pay to check the reputation of the group in advance. But the good thing is that even though you went to a shelter with a poor reputation, you still saved your cat from ma worse fate, and got him into your home, a rescue from a shelter!
pharber-murphy June 7, 2015
Mr. Grimsby came home with us from a no-kill shelter that was literally overrun with cats. He had conjunctivitis and it took two rounds of medication to clear it up. The shelter was closed by the SPCA a couple of weeks after we took Mr. Grimsby home.   Bertha came from the British Columbia SPCA and was healthy as a horse. She hasn't looked back >^^< I guess it pays to go to a reliable source for your cats and kittens, eh.
greencateyes April 11, 2015
Not only did I have a terrible experience with Animal Samaritans of Palm Springs, they lie and do not properly care for their animals in my experience.  I adopted 2 three month old kittys in May, 2014.  I asked if the kittens were healthy. I was told  yes.  As I was getting ready to leave, I was looking at one kitten, Posie, and saw a lot of black crud in her ears.  I asked if she had ear mites; I was told no, and they cleaned her ears.  After I formally adopted my fur babies, I was given folders of all their medical procedures to date.  When I got home and looked through them, I saw that Posie had just recently been treated for earmites; however she only received one round of treatment instead of two rounds, as recommended.   My first night home, the other kitten, Dandy, began sneezing, and by the morning, she had pink eye, and Posies ears were full of black crud again. I called the person who handled the adoption; she told me, their contracts state that once I adopt the animals, I am responsible for any medical issues; the fact that she lied about them being healthy was of no concern to her.  She told me I could bring them back if I wanted to, but I could not re-adopt them.   There was no way I was going to return them; I was (and still am) quite upset that an organization that claims to save animals, take them in and care for them until they are adopted, do not always get proper medical attention to cats/kittens who need it, and then they lie about their condition when asked!!
kirasheba February 25, 2012
Great information!!!!!! I think it's a pity the shelters & rescue groups apparently don't know this.....I see quite often "sick" cats being adopted out just so they can make room for more. While I understand the need to make more space, it is not fair to let people adopt cats that have medical problems. The last cat I adopted came with parasites and infected my other cat. They KNEW he had them......yet allowed him to be adopted out into a home with another cat. Prior to that the 2 kittens I adopted 2 years ago came incredibly sick! 2 days after I adopted them they were at the Vet and it took 5 months to get them well! Sadly 1 died at the age of 1yr 9 months from FIP. his sister is still alive thankfully!

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