10 Things to Test For Before Adopting a Stray Cat

Joy, friendship and companionship are not the only things that an adopted stray cat can bring into your life but also health problems. Compared to indoor cats, stray cats are at higher risk of diseases. Because you want to change the life of a homeless cat and yours, too, for the better, you can’t help but wonder: What should a stray cat be tested for?

Stray cats need testing for external and internal parasites, some of which can affect humans and dogs. They also need testing for viral diseases such as feline leukemia, panleukopenia, infectious peritonitis, and immunodeficiency virus. Stray cats need testing for rabies, heartworm, and others, too.

Especially if you have other pets, it’s a must to ensure that the new furry addition to your pawed family won’t be bringing and spreading anything that can endanger every meowing and barking friend of yours.

Before giving a stray cat a new home, allow the vet to give the four-legged creature a thorough exam and carry out the steps necessary to keep it in the pink of health. Below, we will talk about some of the most important matters about feline health and provide definitive answers to the question “what should a stray cat be tested for?”

1. Ear Mites and Fleas

Felines can get ear mites in two ways. First, from coming into contact with infested cats. Second, from the environment, which is why it’s quite common for stray cats to suffer from ear mites.

And if you adopt a stray cat with ear mites and you have other cats, the rest of your pets can get it, too.

Besides ear mites, fleas are also quite common in stray cats.

stray cat at vet
Image credit: Canva

Refrain from assuming that itchiness and scratching are the only problems that can stem from a flea infestation, which is why it could make you assume it’s alright to take a stray cat to the vet another day for flea treatment. In severe cases, fleas can cause anemia, which can kill a cat.

The problem with cat ear mites and fleas is that they can spread not only from cat to cat but also from cat to human — from an infested stray cat to you! It’s true that cat ear mites and fleas cannot live on your body.

However, they can still bite you and leave you itchy, which can break your skin and lead to secondary infections if you scratch too hard.

Some telltale signs that ear mites and fleas are feasting on you are:

  • Red marks
  • Small, hard bumps
  • Pain or discomfort
  • Blisters
  • Open sores (due to scratching)
  • Skin infections

Before you welcome a stray cat into your life, have a vet test it for ear mites and fleas.

Ear mites can be treated by cleaning the feline’s ears and administering topical, oral or systemic ear mite medications.

On the other hand, fleas can be treated by the administration of oral solutions or spot-on treatments.

2. Internal Parasites

Other than parasites that live on a stray cat’s body, it’s also important for the whiskered wonder that you are about to turn from feral to indoor to be tested for the presence of internal parasites, such as worms.

Some of the most common worms in cats are roundworms, tapeworms, hookworms and whipworms.

Stray cats can get parasites from hunting and eating small animals that are infected with them, such as mice, rats and birds.

They can get parasites from contaminated food in trash cans and dumpsters, too. Stray cats can also get parasites, such as tapeworm eggs, from fleas carrying them when they groom themselves and accidentally eat them.

It’s important that a stray cat is tested for the presence of parasites and treated, too, before adopting it. Otherwise, it may spread the problem to your other cats and even dogs.

Besides your other pets, you can also get parasites from a stray cat carrying them inside its body!

Here are some signs and symptoms of worms in cats:

  • Bloating
  • Enlarged belly
  • Vomiting
  • Weight loss
  • Constant coughing
  • Diarrhea
  • Bloody stool
  • Worm on the feces or around the anus

To test for the presence of internal parasites, a vet will get a stool sample from the stray cat and take a look at it under a microscope. If worms are present, the cat will be given a dewormer orally or via an injection.

3. Heartworms

Just because you are planning to adopt a stray cat doesn’t mean that you can quit worrying about taking care of a pet with heartworms, which many dog owners fear.

It’s true that heartworm disease is common in dogs — while it has been reported in canines in all 50 states, the health issue is more common along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

However, heartworms can affect cats, too, although some cases get resolved on their own since felines are not ideal hosts for these wriggling parasitic worms.

All domestic cats can get heartworms. However, free-roaming ones, such as stray cats, are more susceptible to having heartworm disease. That’s because it is caused by being bitten by an infected mosquito.

The problem with heartworms in cats is that it tends to produce signs and symptoms that can be caused by other feline health concerns, too, although the most common is an abrupt onset of cough and labored breathing, which can result in the sudden death of the infected cat.

Some of other signs and symptoms of feline heartworms include:

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Gagging
  • Blindness
  • Collapse
  • Fainting
  • Lethargy
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss

Luckily, heartworms in cats can be kept at bay through the regular administration of preventive medications.

While getting the feral cat you have just adopted checked, ask the vet about protecting the whiskered creature from getting heartworm disease.

Prescription medications for heartworms are available in many forms.

For instance, there is one that comes in a chewable tablet to be chewed once a month. There is also a twice-a-year injection for it.

4. Feline Leukemia

The number one cause of death in cats is trauma. The second leading cause of death in cats is feline leukemia virus (FeLV).

Up to 85% of infected cats die within three years of being diagnosed with it.

What makes FeLV dangerous is that it can cause anemia — severe cases of anemia can keep a cat’s vital organs from getting oxygen, causing them to get damaged. Besides anemia, FeLV also suppresses the immune system of the infected cat, which is why it predisposes it to catching or developing infections, some of which can be fatal.

Unlike some health concerns in cats, FeLV cannot be passed by an infected cat to humans, dogs and other animals. However, it can definitely pass it to other cats.

If the stray cat you have just adopted has FeLV, it can spread the disease to your other purring pals if they share food and water bowls.

The same is true if they share kitty litter boxes. Your other cats may catch FeLV from an infected stray cat, too, when they groom one another — FeLV can be passed via saliva.

Here are some of the signs and symptoms of FeLV:

  • Pale gums
  • Jaundice
  • Weakness
  • Lethargy
  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Skin infections
  • Poor coat condition

Luckily, about 70% of cats that come into contact with FeLV are able to deal with the viral infection on their own.

But don’t risk it — before allowing a stray cat into your home, allow a vet to check it for the presence of FeLV. And to keep it from striking, get the stray cat vaccinated against it.

5. Feline Panleukopenia

It’s true that feline panleukopenia virus (FPV) and feline leukemia virus, the one we just talked about, may sound kind of the same.

However, they are two different matters that the stray cat you are adopting may have.

While FeLV attacks the immune system only, FPV attacks both the immune system and intestinal tract. This can cause the number of white blood cells, immune cells that protect cats against infections, to drop dramatically.

kitten at vet
Image credit: Canva

Because of this, the affected cat can develop serious infections involving the intestines.

FPV is also known as “feline distemper”. Just like canine distemper, FPV is highly contagious and often fatal.

Young kittens, especially those that are ill and have a weakened immune system, are at higher risk of getting FPV.

Adult cats may get FPV, too, although usually mild only. In fact, some adult cats with FPV may show absolutely no signs and symptoms. What’s more, after recovering from it, adult cats may develop immunity to FPV.

It’s through contact with the blood, saliva, nasal discharge, urine and feces of an infected cat that FPV is spread from feline to feline. Needless to say, it can be spread by sharing food and water bowls and kitty litter boxes, too.

Some cats may suddenly become ill from FPV and die within hours after the signs and symptoms appear, like:

  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Discharge from eyes
  • Vomiting
  • Dehydration
  • Loss of appetite
  • Diarrhea (sometimes bloody)
  • Fever
  • Lethargy

To date, there is no known treatment for FPV, although the different signs and symptoms can be managed with medications.

The good news is that FPV can be prevented with vaccination, which is why the stray cat you have just adopted should be vaccinated by a vet against the deadly infectious disease.

6. Feline Infectious Peritonitis

Both wild and domestic cats can catch the feline coronavirus. Worry not because feline coronavirus is different from the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 in humans.

Anyway, cats that get infected with the feline coronavirus, which is quite common, usually do not develop any signs and symptoms.

So, in other words, they can be asymptomatic. However, some may develop mild diarrhea, but that’s it — feline coronavirus will go away on its own after a few days, leaving cats unscathed.

Unfortunately, feline coronavirus can mutate, just like COVID-19. And when it changes to a specific type of coronavirus, what’s called feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) can develop.

By the way, mutation of the feline coronavirus happens in only 5% to 10% of cases.

The problem with FIP is that it can cause inflammation of the tissues surrounding the various organs in the belly area, causing fluid to accumulate in the abdominal and chest cavities.

It’s because of this why some cats with FIP have distended stomachs. And while it’s not contagious, FIP can be very serious and almost always fatal.

Other signs and symptoms of FIP are:

  • Sneezing
  • Watery eyes
  • Nasal discharge
  • Vomiting
  • Jaundice
  • Labored breathing
  • Seizures
  • Abnormal or uncoordinated movement

FIP is rare in indoor cats. However, it’s quite common in stray and feral cats.

Luckily, a vaccine for FIP is available, although it can be given only to kittens 16 weeks of age — by the time that stray kittens can be vaccinated for FIP, they may have already been exposed to the feline coronavirus, making the vaccine pretty much useless.

7. Feline Immunodeficiency Virus

Sometimes, feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) is called “feline AIDS”. Like HIV in humans, FIV also attacks the immune system of the cat, thus making it extremely vulnerable to a host of infections, some of which can be fatal.

It’s no secret that one of the most common ways HIV is spread in people is through having unprotected sex with each other. Well, it doesn’t work that way in cats — instead, FIV is spread through bite wounds, and outdoor cats such as stray and feral ones are at higher risk of FIV. In humans, by the way, HIV may be transmitted through a bite, too!

A mother cat with FIV may also pass the viral infection to its kittens, but this rarely happens.

The problem with FIV is that it can be already present in the bloodstream and still produce no signs and symptoms.

As a matter of fact, the infected cat may appear healthy and perfectly normal for several years. And when the signs and symptoms occur, it only means one thing: the disease is already at its worst.

Some of the signs and symptoms of FIV include:

  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Diarrhea
  • Anemia
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Tongue sores
  • Inflamed gums
  • Disheveled coat
  • Skin disease
  • Fever that keeps coming back

While there is no cure for FIV, infections and other problems that can stem from it can be managed. And to keep FIV from striking, cats that are at least eight weeks old can be vaccinated for the virus.

8. Rabies

In the US, it’s very rare for community cats, such as stray cats, to have rabies. Sadly, some people in the country do not know this.

This is why many get alarmed at the sight of free-roaming cats on their property and contact animal shelters to capture the wrongly accused felines — up to 70% of cats in animal shelters are killed.

Needless to say, ending up with a rabid stray cat should be the least of the worries of a cat lover like you.

Because rabies these days mostly affect wild animals only, such as skunks, raccoons, foxes and bats, it’s unlikely for the vet to recommend getting the stray cat tested for rabies. But if he or she suspects that the feline has been potentially exposed to rabies, a booster shot may be given.

Although you should not worry about a stray cat having rabies, here are the signs and symptoms of a rabid cat:

  • Drooling
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dilated pupils
  • Aggression
  • Changes in behavior
  • Loss of muscle control
  • Fever

Before we proceed to the next topic, here’s one more reason why it’s unlikely for the stray cat you have been wanting to adopt for some time now to have rabies: an infected cat usually dies within seven days.

9. General Health of the Organs

Especially if the stray cat that you have just adopted is no longer young, it’s a good idea to have it thoroughly checked by a vet.

It’s because many health problems that tend to affect adult cats do not produce any signs and symptoms — many of them do so only when they are at their worst and already impossible, if not difficult, to treat.

Just because a cat looks healthy doesn’t mean right away that it’s healthy.

Chronic kidney disease (CKD) — this is the most common silent killer in felines. It’s called that because it doesn’t usually have signs and symptoms during its early stages, which is when it’s easier to deal with and keep from worsening. With CKD, up to 75% of both kidneys of the concerned cat no longer work properly.

CKD may lead to kidney failure, which can cause signs and symptoms such as:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Bad breath
  • Lethargy
  • Excessive drinking
  • Excessive urinating
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

It’s not just CKD that may affect cats, especially older ones, but also diabetes, pancreatitis, heart disease, thyroid disease and many others.

This is why a trip to the vet is of utmost importance if you want the stray cat to spend so many years with you and the rest of your furry family.

10. Spaying or Neutering

Besides health problems, it’s also a good idea to have a vet check whether or not the stray cat is already spayed or neutered, especially if you don’t want it mating with your other cats that are yet to be sterilized.

It’s customary for animal shelters to clip the tip of the ears of feral cats trapped, neutered and released.

Many stray cats are already fixed, but the tip of their ears remains intact — their former owners probably felt that ear-tipping is an inhumane process and a form of mutilation, too.

Most of the time, it can be easy to tell if a stray male cat is already neutered — all you have to do is give its rear end a quick inspection.

However, it’s a different thing when it comes to determining whether a stray female cat is spayed or not, although a scar tissue under the skin or a small tattoo is a telltale sign.

Some cat owners refrain from getting their four-legged friends spayed or neutered, mainly due to some myths surrounding the surgical procedure.

Just Before You Adopt a Stray Cat

The life of a stray cat and yours, too, will never be the same the minute you welcome the furry fellow into your home.

But to make sure that all the changes will be positive only, it’s a must that you schedule a veterinary appointment as soon as you have decided to take the homeless animal in for the safety and protection of all parties concerned.

Because the stray cat you are about to adopt has been living outside for a while now, it has a higher risk of disease. Worry not, as a trip to the vet can help detect and treat existing ones and prevent potential ones.

If you don’t have the budget for a veterinary visit, you can opt for low-cost or free stray cat exams. However, you will have to meet certain requirements for you and your new feline friend to be able to get your hands on one of them.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of The Pet Rescue.

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