An Explanation of Why Cats Die in Our Shelter...
and Other Shelters as Well.


In 2007, I am writing to enable an understanding of why kttens and adults die in our shelter. We always make our statistics available to the public and believe people deserve an explanation of why our no-kill shelter and other shelters have high mortality rates.

In 2007, the number of kittens taken in by Friends of Pets was 379 and, of that number, 229 died, giving a 60% mortality rate. For adults, 102 were taken in and, of that number, 36 died, or 35%. Each of the past 7 years seems to result in the same 50%+ statistics for kittens. Despite the depressing percentage, we continually work to reduce these numbers through public education to keep cats in homes and out of shelters, searching for better treatments, and providing strong spay/neuter programs to eliminate the numbers of unwanted felines.

The purpose of this writing is three fold: (1) to help members of the public become knowledgeable of felines' complicated health issues when under stress; (2) fulfill our organization's duty to be truthful and open about the plight of cats in shelters; and (3) to share the emotional pain and sadness that arises after helplessly watching beautiful, innocent felines painfully die from illnesses.

What are the physical symptoms causing young felines to die within 14 days?

Most deaths occur within 7 to 14 days after entry and result from viruses loosely grouped as "feline distemper." Many kittens will enter our program with no apparent health problems but develop symptoms that can result in death within 14 days.

The most common occurs when a kitten begins vomiting white, green, or bloody foamy liquid, commonly on the 7th day. Once vomiting begins and dehydration becomes a factor, the kitten often dies within 12 to 24 hours, resulting from these viruses attacking the brain, bowel, bone marrow, and other organs. Prior to the onset of vomiting, a kitten may appear normal. However, should the kitten be closely watched it becomes apparent that eating that stopped a day or two prior and the activity level was reduced to lethargic.

Once begun, the vomiting can be very difficult to terminate. The best hope would be for the kitten to go to a veterinary clinic for several days of intravenous fluids and antibiotics. But even with this approach the survival rate is very low. I have had some success in ending vomiting by subcutaneously injecting anti-nausea medication and fluids at regular intervals.

The other deadly route is viral attack of the intestinal tract which destroys tissue in a manner similar to parvovirus in canines. Diarrhea becomes the feline's stool form, often greenish in color or bloody pulp in consistency. Many times, sections of intestinal lining are passed. In some cases, a feline will begin with a soft stool but within a few days the condition develops into full-blown distemper.

I have some success in treating intestinal distemper provided the feline has the strength and body mass to outlast the duration of the outbreak. Very young kittens do not survive. It should be noted that it is common for the distemper virus to attack the brain and intestine simultaneously, all of which is very painful and deadly to the kitten or young adult.

In most cases, distemper-surviving felines will develop a very serious upper respiratory infection (including bloody nose and sore throat) that challenges recovery. Needless to say, survivors of feline distemper require many weeks to rebound to a level of good health.

Recognizing oncoming death is important because our commitment is to prevent suffering from illness that cannot be curred. Needless to say, it is emotionally painful to end a feline's life when it still wants to be held, is not at the moment of imminent death, purrs when touched, and looks as if it knows you are the only hope to survive. For felines that are too weak and sick, it is believed that allowing them to suffer further is morally wrong.

Nearly every death in our shelter is a result of these viruses. Our other euthanasias, although few in number, include felines testing positive for Feline Leukemia Virus or Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, adults that refuse to eat and develop lipidosis, felines that cannot be handled or are aggressive to other cats or people, and felines with incurable illnesses.

The viruses are "in the cat," passed from mother to offspring.

Over three thousand cats have crossed our threshold since we formed January 2001. Since we try to save every one, we witness a plethora of health problems cats encounter after abandonment that may not be evident to the public at large. We have come to accept the theory that the viruses are "in the cat" upon arrival, were passed from mother to offspring, and break out when the feline is under stress. Maternal antibodies are found in kittens up to 4 months of age and reflect the health and immune status of the mother at birth. Further testimoney comes from watching all kittens of one litter die within two days of one another after the onset of illness. Other litters never become symptomatic and maintain good health throughout, despite interaction with other kittens that die.

Triggers causing virus outbreaks, death, and other illnesses:

Cats are very complicated due to their mix of intellect, emotion, and potential health problems and are easily prone to infections in the intestine and respiratory tracts. Those who consider cats to be "tough as nails" do not understand the true nature and sensitivity felines possess, particularly when the world a cat has known has been taken away.

Stresses are the triggers to health problems. High stress levels suppress the immune system, enabling viruses to attack. Kittens, like human a, have little or no immunity which makes them helpless victims. One would think that people would have a concept of how stress brings on sickness, but this consideration is, unfortunately, not often applied to the animal kingdom.

A plethora of reasons why cats become ill:

Cats are very social, intellectually complex, and have strong emotions. I have witnessed a broad range of behaviors that give glue why cats fail in shelters and other stressful situations. I simply list the stresses I see that can cause a feline to fail:

1. Unhealthy mothers pass viruses and weak immune system onto offspring.

2. Felines receive no health care prior to abandonment, such as vaccines and neutering.

3. Kittens not loved or disciplined in prior family setting.

4. Stresses from the period of abandonment prior to entry--including starvation, fear, lack of shelter, and isolation.

5. "Fight or flight" instinct produces continuous high levels of adrenalin suppressing the immune system.

6. Over stimulation, such as too much activity, competition, or playing, suppressing the immune system.

7. Vaccinating when the immune system is too weak.

8. Sudden change of environment, such as previously living outside but now confined to a room with strong smells, noises of other animals, or confinement in a cage.

9. Placed into what is perceived as a threatening environment.

10. Cruel or neglectful treatment prior to abandonment.

11. Overwhelming fear or distrust of new situation. The term "scared to death" applies.

12. Loss of familiarity of people in its life; everyone now is a stranger.

13. Presence of other cats unfamiliar to the feline.

14. Intolerance of competition for attention by other kittens or cats.

15. Presence of too many other cats in area; crowding.

16. Loss of freedom, particularly being caged.

17. Change of diet.

18. Poor diet prior to entry.

19. Parasites, such as roundworms, tapeworms, fleas, or coccidia.

20. Depression from lack of stimulul from being caged, such as in pet stores and shelters.

As implied, stresses arise after loss of, or change in, a feline's home or known environment. Some felines are slow or simply refuse to adapt to new situations. It is my opinion that these difficulties arise from the nature, temperament, and spirit of the beautiful cat.

Thank you. Kathy.


Phone: 541-850-0750 ~ Email pets2@kfalls.net

Located in Klamath Falls, Oregon

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