Veterinary Care for Stray/Feral Cats
Please note that the information on this page is not intended as a substitute for veterinary care. City Kitties volunteers cannot provide medical advice. If you believe a cat or kitten is sick, take it to the vet office immediately for an exam and treatment.
Stray cats that have been outside on the streets are at risk for a number of health issues. The most important thing you can do is take them to the vet as soon as possible. We’ve compiled some basic information on common health issues in rescued cats and kittens to help you along the way.
- Cost of Veterinary Care
- Feline Leukemia
- Flea Treatment
- Upper Respiratory Infections
- Feline Herpesvirus
Cost of Veterinary Care
Unfortunately, helping stray cats does cost money! People ask us all the time, How much will it cost to take the cat to the vet? The actual cost varies drastically depending on which veterinarian you use and the age and health of the stray you’re caring for. The best thing you can do is call several veterinarian’s offices, tell them you want to bring in a stray, and ask for some basic prices (FIV/FeLV test, rabies and distemper vaccines, fecal exam, spay or neuter, routine exam). Prices will especially vary for spay and neuter procedures. Some offices offer more comprehensive care such as preanesthetic screening to ensure the animal is healthy enough to undergo surgery, as well as pain medication for the days after surgery. Other offices may have lower prices and offer fewer standard services. It’s up to you and your budget to decide which to choose. For a list of local low-cost clinics, visit our Affordable Veterinary Care page for a list of local clinics and services.
Spaying and neutering pets and strays alike is critical. It prevents unwanted litters, reduces the chance of certain cancers and infections (eliminates ovarian, uterine, and testicular cancer), reduces spraying and marking behaviors, and helps control the stray and feral population. Spayed and neutered pets are less likely to bite, and are less likely to try to escape your home. And male cats who have been neutered are less likely to fight, reducing their chance of contracting FIV or leukemia, or suffering puncture wounds and infections. It is especially critical if you want to make a dent in the stray population in your neighborhood. Even if you are unable to permanently rehome a friendly stray, spaying/neutering the cat will protect its health and prevent yet more kittens. For a list of local low-cost clinics, visit our Affordable Veterinary Care page.
Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV)
FIV is a virus that affects the cat’s immune system. This virus is spread primarily through bite wounds. Kittens sometimes contract FIV from their mother during birth, but often they test negative in a few months. Cats should be re-tested in 90 days as the virus can incubate and may not show up on an initial test if the cat was recently infected. Cats can and do live long, healthy lives with FIV–in fact, most cats don’t show any signs or symptoms for years. Just as people living with HIV can take charge of their health to prolong their lives, so can the owner of an FIV+ cat! There is no cure for FIV. However, keeping the cat in a low-stress indoor environment, taking him to the vet for regular check-ups, and feeding him high-quality food increases the chance that your cat will have a long and happy life. A healthy cat cannot get FIV from simply being in close contact with an infected cat, and for this reason many people have “mixed households” with both FIV+ and FIV- cats. This is a personal choice as there is always some risk involved. Read Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine’s brochure on FIV for more details on the virus. Ask your vet for more information.
Feline Leukemia (FeLV)
FeLV is a virus that is spread through close contact between an infected cat and a healthy cat. Bite wounds, mutual grooming, sharing food/water dishes, or other close contact involving body fluids is required–the virus is not airborne. Kittens can also become infected if their mother has FeLV, and in general are more susceptible to this disease. A healthy adult cat with a normal immune system is not as likely to contract the virus, though it is still possible. Unlike FIV+ cats who can often live in harmony with FIV- cats, a FeLV+ cat should never be placed in a home with an FeLV- cat due to the risk of infection. There is no cure. Cats should be re-tested in 90 days as the virus can incubate and may not show up on an initial test if the cat was recently infected. In some cases (particularly if the initial test is a “weak positive”), the cat’s immune system may fight off the virus entirely. For more information, read Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine’s brochure on FeLV.
Distemper most commonly affects young kittens and can be fatal if it isn’t caught early and treated. Symptoms include fever, loss of appetite, fatigue, vomiting/diarrhea and dehydration. If a pregnant female is exposed to the virus or vaccinated against it while pregnant, the kittens can die or can be born with cerebellar hypoplasia (brain damage affecting coordination). Distemper is preventable with a vaccine. It is highly contagious to cats who have not been vaccinated, and if you ever have distemper-infected kittens/cats in your home you should disinfect the area thoroughly and keep other cats out.
Fleas are a common problem with a relatively easy solution. Over-the-counter flea shampoos and collars are known to cause seizures or even death in cats, so never use these products. Monthly application of Revolution, Frontline, or Advantage (available from your vet office) will protect cats year-round. Treat all animals in your home–fleas can’t live off of people, so even if you feel one biting, as long as the furry creatures in your home are medicated against them, you’ll be in good shape soon. Be sure if you have a younger kitten that it is old enough to be treated, and that you have the correct kitten dosage. If you’re worried that flea eggs will return, continue treating your animals monthly. You can also put a flea collar in your vaccuum bag and run it on any carpeted areas or furniture. Dispose of the vaccuum bag and you’ll be getting rid of some flea eggs, too.
Upper Respiratory Infection (URI)
URIs are like the common cold in humans (though cats and humans cannot infect one another). And like the common cold, URIs can be very mild and a minor annoyance, but they can also be severe or even life-threatening for sick or immunocompromised felines. Kittens are especially prone to URIs since their immune systems are not fully developed. Symptoms include sneezing, runny eyes/nose, discharge from eyes/nose, fatigue, or fever. Though most cats recover in days or a week, if a cat ever stops eating, drinking, or appears fatigued, it should go to the vet immediately. URIs are typically caused by one of two viruses, including Feline Herpesvirus detailed below.
Feline ocular herpes is very common in cats in shelters or outdoors and in fact is the cause of many URIs. Like the herpes virus in humans, there are different strains but no cure. (Herpes viruses cannot be transmitted between cats and humans.) Ocular herpes in cats is similar to Herpes Simplex I in humans–annoying and can cause complications, but not life-threatening. Most cats are infected but not all show symptoms. Typical symptoms include runny eyes/nose with a whitish or yellowish discharge, and inflamed eyelids/inner eyelids. Your vet may prescribe an antiviral eyedrop, or if symptoms persist, antibiotics to prevent secondary infection from the damaged tissues around the eye/nose. Since there is no cure, affected cats may have flare-ups throughout their lifetime during times of stress. Then again, they may never show symptoms again.
An abscess is an infected wound that has healed over, trapping the infection beneath the skin. Abscesses are especially common in unneutered males who fight and may sustain bite wounds. You may see a cat with a large, tender lump, or if it has burst, a large (typically round) open wound. If the abscess hasn’t burst, it will need to be lanced and drained. In either case, the cat will likely need a round of antibiotics and you should consult a vet as soon as possible.