Some signs of health are obvious to anyone; others require a veterinarian’s help to pinpoint. Before you settle on a promising kitten or cat, perform your own health check, and be sure to follow up with your veterinarian within a day or so.
The outer cat
General impressions are important. You should get a sense of good health and vitality from the animal you’re considering adopting. He should feel good in your arms: neither too thin nor too fat, well put-together, sleek, and solid. If ribs are showing or the animal is potbellied, he may be suffering from malnutrition or worms — both fixable, but signs of neglect that may indicate deeper problems with socialization or general health.
With soothing words and gentle caresses, go over the animal from nose to tail, paying special attention to the following areas:
Fur and skin: Skin should be clean and unbroken, covered thickly with a glossy coat of hair. Bald patches may mean ringworm, not a parasite but a fungal infection that you can catch, too.
Part the hairs and look for signs of fleas: The parasites themselves may be too small and fast for you to spot, but their droppings remain behind. If you’re not sure, put the cat on a clean surface, such as a stainless-steel counter or white towel and run your fingers against the grain. Then look on the surface: If fleas are present, you see the droppings as little bits that look like pepper. If you add water to them, they turn reddish in color — because they’re made up of dried blood.
You shouldn’t count a cat out because of a few fleas, but a severe infestation could be a sign of a health problem, especially for kittens. (Some kittens become anemic from having so much of their blood sucked by the pests.)
Ears: These should be clean inside or, perhaps, have a little bit of wax. Filthy ears and head-shaking are signs of ear mites, which can require a prolonged period of consistent medication to eradicate.
Eyes: Eyes should look clear and bright. Runny eyes or other discharge may be a sign of illness. The third eyelid, a semitransparent protective sheath that folds away into the corners of the eyes nearest the nose (also called a haw), should not be visible.
Nose: Again, the cat should have no discharge. The nose should be clean and slightly moist. A kitten or cat who is breathing with difficulty, coughing, or sneezing may be seriously ill.
Mouth: Gums should be rosy pink, not pale, and with no signs of inflammation at the base of the teeth. The teeth should be white and clean of tartar buildup.
Tail area: Clean and dry. Dampness or the presence of fecal matter may suggest illness
The inner cat
In the best circumstances, your kitten or adult cat will come with a clean bill of health certified by the shelter or other placement service, or vouched for by the cat’s own health records kept by the person trying to place him. If that’s not the case, you need to have any adoption prospect checked out by a veterinarian for serious problems you can’t see. Following are some problems you should have your pet checked for:
Infectious diseases: Feline leukemia is the biggest concern. Though many cats live with the virus well enough for years, you may want to consider carefully the added worry and health-care expense of owning such a cat.
Then, too, if you already have cats, you may want to safeguard their health by not exposing them to the contagious virus. Your veterinarian can determine the presence of infectious disease with a simple test, and explain to you the results — and your options.
Parasites: Worms are the biggest problem. Your veterinarian needs to verify their presence and prescribe an appropriate course of treatment.