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Cats are relatively low maintenance, but your feline friend isn’t immune to health problems and diseases. It’s important to recognise the signs and symptoms of common cat diseases and seek treatment appropriately. This could literally save your cat’s life and save you from expensive vet bills.

Here’s a list of common cat health problems and diseases that all cat owners should know about.

Eight common cat diseases and illnesses in Australia

1. Feline immunodeficiency virus

Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) is a common disease estimated to infect about a quarter of the Australian cat population.1 FIV is typically found in cats’ saliva and transmitted through bite wounds, making it more prevalent in outdoor cats. It’s difficult for the virus to spread through casual contact, so the disease is unlikely to spread through grooming or sharing feeding bowls and litter trays.

The virus causes a gradual decline in immune function, making cats more susceptible to other illnesses and diseases. Common symptoms include fever, gum inflammation, eye and nose discharge, diarrhoea, lethargy, anaemia, and weight loss.2

An FIV diagnosis is not necessarily a death sentence. Many FIV-positive cats live up to their average life expectancy and have a similar quality of life to uninfected cats. It’s also worth noting that there’s a distinction between FIV and feline AIDS (although the two terms are often used interchangeably). Feline AIDS is the end stage of the virus, which occurs after a long latency period, although some cats with FIV may never develop feline AIDS.

Prevention: The best way to protect your cat against FIV is to vaccinate them. The non-core FIV vaccine consists of an initial course of three vaccinations two to four weeks apart, followed by a recommended yearly booster. Reducing your cat’s exposure to the virus by keeping them indoors can also help.

2. Cat flu

Cat flu is a group of highly contagious upper respiratory infections caused by feline herpesvirus (FHV1) and feline calicivirus (FCV).3 This disease is debilitating for all cats, but this common cat disease is particularly aggressive in kittens and older cats due to their less developed or compromised immune systems.

Cat flu is highly contagious, as it can spread through indirect and direct contact (e.g. bodily fluids like saliva and nasal discharge or contact with food bowls, litter boxes, or human hands). The symptoms of cat flu are similar to the symptoms of the influenza virus in humans and include sneezing, coughing, difficulty breathing, fatigue, loss of appetite, and mouth and eye ulcers. If untreated, the condition can worsen and cause permanent eye damage, pneumonia, or death.

Prevention: Get your kitten or cat vaccinated against cat flu as early as possible (vaccination can start at six or eight weeks of age). Vaccination is the best prevention.

3. Fleas

Fleas are tiny parasites that feed off the blood of many hosts (including you and other animals) and are the most common skin concern in all pets.4 It’s important to treat your cat for fleas straight away for several reasons. Firstly, some pets are allergic to fleas and can contract flea allergy dermatitis – a painful condition that can cause hairless, itchy ‘hot spots’ on their skin. Secondly, flea infections can cause anaemia in pets if left untreated. Common symptoms of flea infection include itching and scratching, redness of the skin, hair loss, and visible fleas on your cat’s body.

Prevention: Over-the-counter flea products like a spot-on treatment, tablets, a spray, or a collar to control fleas can reduce the likelihood of infestation. It’s also important to regularly check your cat for fleas, especially if they’ve been outdoors. Try to limit their contact with stray pets and wild animals that may be carrying fleas.

Tabby kitten being held in one hand by a vet

4. Dental disease

The most common causes of dental disease are plaque and bacteria, which can eventually harden into tartar and cause gingivitis and periodontitis if left untreated.5 Periodontitis can escalate further and destroy the bone and supporting teeth around the affected area, leading to tooth loss. Gingivitis and periodontitis are also commonly called gum disease.

Symptoms of dental disease may include mouth soreness, difficulty eating, reduced appetite, loss of teeth, red or bleeding gums, bad breath, tartar build-up, and excessive drooling.

Prevention: The best way to prevent gingivitis and periodontitis in cats is to brush their teeth to remove plaque regularly. Be sure to use feline toothpaste, not human products, as these can be toxic to cats.

5. Ringworm

Ringworm is a fungal disease that can be passed between animals and humans, which makes it particularly difficult to deal with. Ringworm infection occurs when a minor break in the skin is exposed to the fungus.6 The fungus lives in soil, animals, and humans, which means if your cat has ringworm, you’re at risk of getting it too. Common symptoms of ringworm infection include hair loss, dry or scaled skin, red ‘ring’ lesions on hairless areas, scratching, and itching. Skin conditions like ringworm are more prevalent in long-haired cats.

Prevention: Practice good hygiene by regularly grooming your cat. It’s also important to clean pet blankets and bedding and vacuum pet hair. If your cat is diagnosed with ringworm, treatment typically includes anti-fungal medication and shampoo.

6. Heatstroke

Cats can’t cool down the same way humans do and rely only on panting and the few sweat glands in their paws and nose to release heat.7 Being trapped in a hot environment, inadequate drinking water or shade, dehydration, and excessive exercise can contribute to heatstroke.

Heatstroke in cats can be fatal, as it could cause organ failure. Common symptoms of dehydration may include dizziness, vomiting, little to no urination, rapid panting or breathing distress, lethargy, muscle tremors, nose bleeds, and anxiety.

Prevention: Ensure your cat always has fresh water and access to a cool shaded area, indoors and outside. Long-haired and medium-haired cats may require clipping during the warmer months. Keeping your cat at a healthy weight can also help to prevent heatstroke.

7. Abscesses

Abscesses are painful build-ups of pus underneath the skin or between organs. This common condition is caused by bacterial infections and generally acquired from catfight-related injuries.8 Common symptoms of abscesses include swelling of the affected area, swollen glands (lymph nodes), fever, pain, and skin rupture. The healing time for an abscess can vary from cat to cat.

Prevention: Abscesses are often caused by injuries incurred in cat fights, so keep your cat away from unknown or stray cats to avoid scuffles. You also may want to get your adult cat de-sexed, which may reduce aggressive and territorial behaviour.

A cat being held by a student veterinarian while another veterinarian bandages its paw

8. Obesity

Obesity in cats is becoming more prevalent, with pet owners keeping their cats indoors while also overfeeding them. Obesity can increase the risk of common cat diseases and significantly shorten your cat’s lifespan. Symptoms to watch out for include weight gain, excess body fat, and difficulty walking or exercising.

Prevention: Feeding your feline a balanced diet, following your vet’s feeding guidelines, enforcing strict mealtimes and portion control, and ensuring your cat gets enough playtime for their size and breed can help prevent and manage obesity. 9 Remember, your cat’s wellness starts with you.

Other ailments your cat may encounter

  • Cancer. Just like humans, cats can get various types of cancer. The most common feline cancers include lymphoma, squamous cell carcinoma, mast cell tumours, and bone cancer. Treatment options for cancer in cats vary but may include surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy. Vets will advise on the best course of action for each case.
  • Infectious/viral diseases. Some common infectious diseases are feline leukemia virus (FelV), herpesvirus and feline parvovirus (also known as feline panleukopenia virus). Cats contract these diseases through direct or indirect contact with an infected cat. This may include contact with saliva, nasal secretion, urine, faeces, food bowls, and litter trays. Infectious and viral diseases can weaken your cat’s immune system. Fortunately, there are vaccines available to protect your kitty from these illnesses.
  • Kidney disease. Cats can be prone to kidney disease (or chronic renal failure), which may develop after an infection, cancer, or exposure to toxins. Some cat breeds and pets with immunodeficiencies are more at risk of kidney disease.
  • Intestinal parasites. Gastrointestinal parasitism is another common problem in cats and may present as worms, like roundworms, hookworms, and tapeworms, or infections like Giardia.
  • Heartworm. Cats can also get heartworms, a mosquito-borne disease, although they are not as susceptible to this infection as dogs.
  • Urinary tract infections (UTIs). Like humans, cats can get UTIs when there is a bacterial infection in their bladder or urethra, or their immune system is weakened.
  • Conjunctivitis: A common feline eye disorder, conjunctivitis is the inflammation of the conjunctiva − the mucous membrane on the inside of the eyelids. Many cats will experience one or more episodes of conjunctivitis. This disease can be easily treated with medication.

Vaccinations for cats

In Australia, there are core and non-core vaccinations. Core vaccines protect cats against (potentially fatal) feline diseases like cat flu (FCV), feline herpesvirus, and feline panleukopenia. These are combined within a single vaccine, commonly known as the ‘F3’ vaccine.10

When your cat is a kitten, their immune system is still developing. Therefore, it’s important to get them vaccinated as soon as possible. The first core vaccine should be given at six or eight weeks, followed by a booster vaccine every two to four weeks until they reach 16 weeks of age.

Non-core vaccines for FeLV, FIV, and Chlamydia felis will incur additional costs. Consult your local vet on a vaccination schedule for your pet.

Blood tests for cat health

Blood tests for cats can help diagnose deficiencies or viral infections early, giving your furry friend a better chance at recovery and a healthy life. Vets typically recommend blood tests for cats during annual check-ups. Blood screening is essential when your cat is young and up until their immune system is fully developed, and as your pet ages, as they tend to develop more health issues (similar to humans). Vets may also ask for a blood test if your cat is prescribed medications or needs surgery under anaesthetic. This ensures they have a complete picture of your feline’s health.

Protect your feline friend.

Thankfully, there’s a way to protect your cat for life without breaking the bank. Pet insurance can potentially help you cover costly vet bills that often come with unexpected, health-related issues. Remember to read the Product Disclosure Statement (PDS) before purchasing to know exactly what you are and aren’t covered for.

Choosing a suitable pet policy is easy with our online comparison tool. It can help you compare pet insurance policy features, exclusions and costs in a convenient side-by-side view.

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1 RSPCA Knowledge Base – ‘What are Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) and Feline Leukaemia (FeLV), and how do I protect my cat from them?’ Accessed March 2023.

2 RSPCA NSW – ‘Everything you need to know about Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV)’. Accessed March 2023.

3 RSPCA Knowledge Base – ‘What is cat flu and how is it managed?’ Accessed March 2023.

4 RSPCA Victoria – Flea and tick prevention. Accessed March 2023.

5 Greencross Vets − Caring For Your Cat’s Teeth. Accessed March 2023.

6 RSPCA Knowledge Base – ‘What is ringworm and how do I know if my companion animal has it?’ Accessed March 2023.

7 RSPCA QLD – Heatstroke & Your Pet. Accessed March 2023.

8 PetMD − Cat Abscesses. Accessed March 2023.

9 RSPCA − Cat care handbook. Accessed March 2023.

10 RSPCA Knowledge Base – ‘What vaccinations should my cat receive?’ Accessed March 2023.

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