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Feline Bordetella

A Tenacious and Controversial Respiratory Disease in Cats


The four kittens were very sick with an upper respiratory infection (URI) when California Siamese Rescue pulled them from the city shelter. Although their age was guessed to be approximately eight months, none of them weighed over two pounds. They had thick crustings of mucous on their noses and mouths and their congestion caused them to refuse food and fluids. They were placed on Amoxicillin and for two days they were force fed every few hours with a syringe. After the first 48 hours, they began eating and drinking on their own. It was slow at first, but soon they were playing and running around the room in which they were isolated. They still had some congestion, some sneezing, and a bad cough, but I no longer worried that I might lose them. One Saturday evening, I noticed that Kai-ann, the smallest of the group, was a bit slowed down. I made a note of it, but slept late the next morning. I went into the room where they were isolated on Sunday and saw Kai-ann laid out on a blanket and looking like she was dying. I grabbed her and ran to the emergency veterinarian. Every time we hit a red light, I gave her rescue breaths, which helped her breathing some. The emergency hospital put her on a warming bed and gave her oxygen and medications, including vitamins. They told me I could come back to visit her around 4 p.m. When I went back at 4, I was told that she'd died, but they'd done CPR and saved her. I was very relieved, although perplexed about what disease this cat could have. I went in to visit her and while I was petting her, she died again. This time, no amount of resuscitation could bring her back. I'm convinced that she waited for me so she could die and because she wanted her story told, with the hope of saving another life someday.

The veterinarian said she died of pneumonia, but it was puzzling because it seemed to come on so suddenly. Obviously, Kai-ann had something else which caused the pneumonia. and whatever Kai-ann had, it was obvious that all the kittens had it. Were they in danger of dying, too? Obviously, we had to find out exactly what was wrong with these kittens. When the answer came, it was more than a bit shocking. Kai-ann had Feline Bordetella. also known as Bordetellosis. I was familiar with Bordetella in dogs ("kennel cough"), but had never heard of it in cats. I started investigating the disease and one of the first things I learned is that cats that have a URI from another bacteria may also have Bordetella underlying it. Bordetella bacteria are resistant to Amoxicillin, so while the many of the URI symptoms improved, the Bordetella was continuing to worsen. Often seen in catteries or shelters, Bordetella is most lethal to young kittens and whole litters have been known to die overnight because pneumonia can develop quickly. A kitten may seem fine and then be at death's door a few hours later.

Coughing in a cat is never normal. According to Dr. Janet Foley of UC Davis, "My (four) rule-outs for cat cough are pneumonia, heart failure, asthma, and Bordatellosis, all bad." Other symptoms that are often seen are difficulty breathing, discharge from nose and eyes, lack of energy, fever, and loss of appetite.

The only way to make a true diagnosis of Feline Bordetella is with a tracheal wash and culture and sensitivity, and your veterinarian has to send the sample in as "canine" because most labs don't have it on the feline charts.

Since Feline Bordetella is treated in much the same way as the canine variety, many veterinarians will treat it without doing the tracheal wash. This means prescribing antibiotics, which Bordetella is known to be sensitive to, as well as using cough suppressants, and humidifiers. This is a very tenacious disease, so the kitten must be treated for a full 21 days. If there are other cats in the household who've been exposed, they must also be treated for that length of time in order to avoid having a situation where cats keep re-infecting each other.

The big difference in treating Feline Bordetella has to do with nutrition. While dogs can manage to go a few days without eating, cats must eat or they can develop a potentially fatal disease (Feline Hyperlipidosis). This means that they must be force fed until they are ready to eat on their own.

There is still much controversy about this disease. Some experts believe that it is present in many cats and doesn't cause problems, while others believe that it is rare.

The good news is that because it's a bacterium, if caught early enough, it can be treated and your kitten can live a very long and loving life.

Kari Winters is a Registered Nurse who lives in the Los Angeles area. She is the author of the book, "Princess Fiona: My Purrsonal Story" which was written as a fundraiser for California Siamese Rescue, and was reviewed on the About Cats site. Her website is www.ShelterPetsInk.com

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