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

Identifying potential ailments in newly adopted cats is crucial for ensuring their health and well-being.

Adopting a cat from an animal shelter or rescue group can be a rewarding experience, but these felines often come with their unique set of health challenges.

This article delves into the most common issues these cats may face, providing you with the knowledge to recognize symptoms and seek timely treatment.

Before Adopting: Know the Policies

Adopting a cat from a shelter or rescue group is a significant commitment, both emotionally and financially.

While these feline companions often bring immense joy, they might also come with certain health concerns.

It's essential to be well-informed and prepared before making the decision to adopt.

Medical History and Support

Cats that come from rescue groups and animal shelters often have a past that we may not fully know about.

They might have been exposed to stressful environments, making them more susceptible to various ailments.

Before leaving the shelter, inquire about the cat's medical history, if available.

Some shelters might have information about previous illnesses, vaccinations, or treatments that the cat has received.

Post-Adoption Medical Support

Different shelters and rescue groups have varying policies when it comes to post-adoption medical support. It's vital to get a written copy of their medical support policies. Clarify details like:

  • Will they provide any veterinary care post-adoption?
  • Are there any medicines or treatments that they will cover?
  • How long does their medical support last after the adoption?

Understanding these policies will not only help you be better prepared for potential medical expenses but also ensure that your new furry family member receives the best care possible right from the start.

Bringing Your New Cat Home

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.

Common Symptoms to Watch Out For

As a responsible cat owner, staying observant of your cat's health is paramount.

While cats can be adept at hiding their discomfort, there are specific symptoms that should immediately catch your attention:

Medication Warning

It's essential to note that human medications can be lethal for cats. Never administer drugs like aspirin or Tylenol to your feline friend. Always consult a veterinarian before giving any medication.

Signs of Distress

If your cat exhibits any of the following symptoms, it's crucial to seek veterinary advice promptly:

  • Sneezing
  • Discharge from the nose, mouth, or eyes
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lethargy or unusual tiredness
  • Diarrhea
  • Bald spots, especially if accompanied by scabby, reddish, or gray welts. These are often found around the face, ears, paws, or tail.

Inter-Cat Transmission

If you have multiple cats at home and one displays the above symptoms, even if the new addition seems healthy, there's a possibility that the new cat is a latent carrier of a disease or ailment.

It's vital to monitor both cats and consult a vet for guidance on containment and treatment.

Upper Respiratory Infections

One of the frequent ailments that cats from shelters might exhibit is an upper respiratory infection, often abbreviated as URI.

Recognizing and addressing this ailment promptly is crucial for the cat's well-being.

Domesticated cat with runny nose, suffering with cold, allergy or rhinitis . Animal health problem.

Identifying The Symptoms

If Miss Kitty starts sneezing, it might be more than just a random sneeze. URIs, commonly known as colds in cats, often begin with sneezing.

As the ailment progresses, other symptoms can include discharge from the nose or eyes, nasal congestion, loss of appetite, and an overall sense of lethargy.

A more severe sign to watch out for is coughing.

Immediate Action And Consultation

Spotting these symptoms should prompt a consultation with your vet or the shelter from which you adopted the cat.

While the majority of URIs are viral, cats are also susceptible to secondary bacterial infections. Thus, putting cats with these ailments on antibiotics is a common practice.

Home remedies might seem tempting, but they could exacerbate the problem. Notably, one prevalent viral URI is Feline Herpes or Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis.

This ailment tends to recur, especially under stress. Many veterinarians recommend adding a pinch of L-Lysine to the cat's diet as a preventive measure.

Importance Of Nutrition

During this ailment, it's imperative for the cat to maintain its nutrition. Eating not only provides them with energy but also aids their immune system in combatting the cold.

However, a stuffy nose can diminish a cat's sense of smell, often leading them to refuse food.

To combat this, consider offering foods with stronger odors or adding dried fish flakes, available at most pet stores.

For nasal congestion, consult your vet about saline solutions like "Little Noses" or even try creating a steam bath in your bathroom.

If these efforts don't coax your cat into eating, syringe feeding might be necessary. A cat that doesn't eat for about 48 hours is at risk of serious liver ailments.

Eye Care

If you notice your cat's eyes looking teary, goopy, or if the eyelids are partially closed, it's time to consider eye treatments.

These symptoms, if left untreated, can cause permanent damage to the cornea, exacerbating the ailment.



Diarrhea can be distressing for both cats and their owners.

A ginger cat is experiencing diarrhea and using a violet-colored litter box

Recognizing the potential causes and seeking appropriate treatment for these gastrointestinal ailments is vital, especially since diarrhea can have severe implications if not addressed promptly.

Kittens And Diarrhea

Young kittens are particularly vulnerable to diarrhea. Their small bodies can become dehydrated rapidly, and certain parasites that induce diarrhea can be fatal if not treated.

While adult cats also require medical attention for diarrhea, it's especially crucial for kittens.

Dietary Changes

A sudden switch in your cat's diet, especially from one type of wet food to another, can lead to diarrhea.

The cat's digestive system might not have had ample time to adjust to the new ingredients.

If you've adopted a cat, inquire about its previous diet from the shelter or rescue group.

It's advisable to continue with the same food or gradually transition to a new diet to prevent digestive disruptions.


Many kittens are born with roundworms, making them the most common type of worm in kittens. These can result in mild diarrhea, occasionally with traces of blood.

It's imperative to treat young kittens for roundworms. Treatment typically involves a liquid medication administered orally by a veterinarian.

Avoid over-the-counter treatments, as they may not be effective or safe.


These single-celled organisms are a frequent cause of diarrhea in both cats and kittens.

Diarrhea caused by coccidia often has a distinctive sour-fruity odor and can vary in appearance – from pale to bloody or watery.

Due to the rapid progression of complications from coccidia, especially in kittens, treatment is often initiated based on symptoms even before a confirmed diagnosis.

Remember, a negative float test doesn't guarantee the absence of coccidia.


Giardia is another parasite known to cause diarrhea with a foul odor in cats. The onset is typically swift, with the feces often containing visible mucus.

Again, a negative float test doesn't confirm the absence of giardia infection.

Modern Diagnostic Tests

The PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) test is a groundbreaking diagnostic tool.

It amplifies pathogenic DNA, allowing early and precise detection of various illnesses, including respiratory conditions and parasite-induced diarrhea.

With results available in 1-3 days, the PCR test is rapidly becoming the gold standard in diagnostics, combining speed with accuracy.

Skin Related Issues

Cats, especially those from shelters or rescue groups, can sometimes face skin-related challenges. Here's a deeper look into some of the common skin ailments:

A stray cat with infectious ear discharge

Ringworm (Not an Actual Worm!)

Contrary to its name, ringworm is a fungal infection, not a worm. While it can be transferred to humans, causing mild irritation, there's generally no cause for panic.

It's not life-threatening to cats or most humans, but extra care should be taken around young children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems.

The most noticeable sign of ringworm in cats is a circular bald patch, often surrounded by scabby, reddish, or grayish welts.

These are commonly found on the face, ears, paws, tail, or head.

Treatment: Over-the-counter anti-fungal creams applied twice daily or more to the affected areas can help. For more severe cases, vets might prescribe lime dips or oral medications like Terbinafine.

Ear Mites

These are tiny creatures, akin to microscopic ticks, that can reside in a cat's ears. A telltale sign is dark, coffee-ground-like dirt inside the ears.

Before treating for ear mites, ensure the ears are cleaned thoroughly. If the dark residue reappears over time, ear mites are likely the culprits.

Treatment: Typically, ear drops are recommended post-cleaning to combat ear mites.


These pesky parasites might be hard to spot, but their remnants aren't. Look for "flea dirt," which appears like pepper specks and is actually flea feces containing digested blood.

Fleas sucking on cat skin

A simple test involves placing some of this "dirt" on a wet paper towel; a bloodstain confirms its flea origin.

Treatment: For kittens aged eight weeks and above, "spot-on" treatments such as Advantage, Revolution, and Frontline are popular choices.

However, some regions report that fleas are becoming resistant to Frontline.

Another option, Program, is a chewable pill that disrupts the flea life cycle, taking a bit longer to show results but posing no toxicity risks.

Capstar, another oral pill, can be added to food and, while not providing prolonged protection, eradicates fleas within a few hours.

This pill, under vet consultation, can be safe for kittens under eight weeks.

Warning: Avoid flea collars. They're not only ineffective but also continuously expose your cat to insecticides, posing a toxicity risk. Additionally, they can be a strangulation hazard.

Closing Thoughts

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 ailments 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 of ailments 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!


Comments? Leave them using the form below. Questions? Please use the cat forums for those!

Read more on:

Heart Disease In Cats: Real Stories of Detection, Treatment, and Recovery

Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease (flutd)

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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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