Cat Health

Cat Health

Here are some examples of our research and the impact it has on companion animal health


Inspiring Stories ImageNew Hope for FIP

A collaborative group of researchers has successfully blocked progression of feline infectious peritonitis in a clinical trial for the first time

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Veterinary nutritionists try to curb obesity in cats

Inspiring Stories Image

Obesity in cats and dogs is a — no pun intended — big problem. Almost 50 percent of our pets are overweight or obese. “It’s one of the easiest problems to diagnose and one of the hardest to treat,” says Dr. Andrea Fascetti, a professor of nutrition at the school.

Over thousands of years, cats and dogs evolved to efficiently accumulate body fat to prepare for regular periods of famine; those with the largest fat stores had the greatest likelihood of surviving scarcity. But times have changed. Today, our pets continually feast on high-calorie food and treats. Their human companions often feed them scraps from the dinner table. Our pets lounge around much of the day, and don’t necessarily get plenty of exercise. They aren’t adapted to this modern era, so they gain more and more fat. Overweight pets are at increased risk for developing diseases such as diabetes and arthritis, and breathing problems.

The CCAH has funded multiple studies over the past few years related to nutrition. A healthy diet for pets supports longevity and can minimize and prevent many health problems, including obesity.

Fascetti, chief of the Nutrition Support Service in the school’s veterinary hospital, is using CCAH grants for research to help cats. She is the principal investigator on a pilot study conducted by her graduate student Kassidy Burnett, along with doctors Birgit Puschner, Jon Ramsey, Yanping Lin and Alfreda Wei examining the safety of resveratrol in cats and resveratrol content of pet foods. Resveratrol is most widely known as the antioxidant in red wine that changes metabolism and might be associated with weight loss. Resveratrol is already included in some dietary supplements for pets — none of which are regulated.

Another CCAH-funded project involves the use of probiotics in obese cats — do they result in the animal changing its eating behavior? Some of the human literature suggests that probiotics produce changes in the gastrointestinal tract that affect appetite and food intake, and possibly alter hormones associated with obesity. Associate Professor Jennifer Larsen and nutrition resident Dr. Aarti Kathrani collaborated with Fascetti on this project, and their findings are currently under review.

Additionally, the CCAH funded a study looking at the effect of water content of food, and therefore calorie intake. Molecular biosciences professor Dr. Jon Ramsey collaborated with Fascetti on this study, which essentially duplicated the recommendation by many veterinarians to put cats on canned diets to induce weight loss — the idea being that the water content of a canned food, which is around 80 percent water, will provide satiety (feeling full) and reduce food intake. Their short-term study found that cats fed a canned diet did indeed have a lower calorie intake and achieve weight loss; a longer-term study is currently ongoing.

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Researchers discover revolutionary treatment for No. 1 eye problem in cats


In early 2013, life was looking bleak for a cat named Sadiqi. “Her right eye was swollen and entirely closed, and her left eye was crusty and bloody,” explains owner LeAnne Crowell, of Nevada. Worse, they’d been like that for months. “She was so depressed, staying in her tree all day,” says Crowell. “Her quality of life was terrible.”

Photo: Cat
Sadiqi received groundbreaking treatment for her eye disease.

Like 97 percent of cats, Sadiqi has feline herpesvirus type-1, a disease that stays latent in a cat’s body for life and can cause recurrent and painful eye problems, including conjunctivitis, a condition in which the tissues of one or both eyes become inflamed or infected. Historically, no good treatment options have existed for cats with severe herpes-related eye disease. That is, until Dr. Sara Thomasy, a vision researcher in UC Davis’s Murphy-Russell Laboratory, and Dr. David Maggs, a UC Davis professor of veterinary ophthalmology, along with a team of other vets, launched the first of many investigations into famciclovir, a drug used in people to treat cold sores and other diseases caused by the human versions of herpesvirus.

Their research led to one of the biggest breakthroughs in modern veterinary medicine. Though safe for humans, famciclovir belongs to a family of drugs that have proved toxic — and even fatal — in cats. So when Thomasy and Maggs learned that veterinary ophthalmologists around the country were starting to use the drug to treat herpes-related eye problems — yet just estimating the dose — they felt it was critical to study the drug. “These vets were reporting that it was working really well,” Thomasy says. “But they were experimenting with a potentially toxic drug.”

After an initial safety study, funded by the CCAH, they launched a second study looking at the drug’s efficacy. In the experiment, 10 cats received famciclovir three times a day, and the remaining six cats received a placebo. All 16 cats were infected with feline herpesvirus. The results were both quick and astounding. “We had six cats that were sneezing, just feeling awful, not eating, and looking terrible,” Thomasy says. “Then we had 10 cats that were playing and looked amazing. And we saw that difference in just a few days.”

As a result of their work, famciclovir has become standard treatment for a disease that has stymied veterinarians for decades. “It has completely revolutionized our ability to treat the most common form of conjunctivitis in cats,” Maggs says. “It has changed the way we practice veterinary medicine.” After several courses of the drug, Sadiqi’s eyes are now clear, and she has transformed from depressed to playful.

Because famciclovir is a very complex drug, our researchers are continuing their work to unlock its mysteries, including finding a dosage that will be effective in 99 percent of cats. The team has begun working with zoos and with a cheetah conservancy in Namibia to look at the usefulness of famciclovir in nondomestic cats. They are also studying herpesvirus in the shelter setting, where it remains the most common reason for the euthanasia of shelter cats. And they are looking at whether famciclovir might be used not just to treat outbreaks but to prevent them in the first place.

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Using stem cells to treat a debilitating feline disease


When Cyndi Luke’s family cat, Lilli, was 5 years old, she suddenly developed trouble eating and began rapidly losing weight. A trip to the local veterinarian revealed devastating news: Lilli’s mouth was filled with painful, open sores — the primary symptom of feline chronic gingivostomatitis (FCGS), a debilitating inflammatory disease that can be extremely difficult to treat, let alone cure.

Photo: Cat
After her stem cell treatment, Lilli became playful and active again.

After her stem cell treatment, Lilli became playful and active again.

While the cause of FCGS is unknown, its standard treatment is drastic: a full-mouth tooth extraction, which cures about 80 percent of cases. For cats that don’t respond to this treatment, the inflammation of their gums and oral cavity persists, leaving them to face a lifetime of advanced pain management. “It’s the most horrible cat disease, and every doctor we saw said so,” explains Luke.

The Lukes were quickly referred to UC Davis veterinary hospital, where Lilli’s teeth were removed by the Dentistry and Oral Surgery Service, which sees several cats a month with the disease. Unfortunately, Lilli’s symptoms endured. She was put on steroids, and eventually morphine. Her weight dropped to five pounds. The Luke family spent five long years trying to find help for Lilli.

Two years ago, just as Luke and her husband started talking seriously about putting Lilli down, they received a call from Dr. Boaz Arzi, an assistant professor in the Dentistry and Oral Surgery Service. Arzi had received a grant from the CCAH to pursue a new kind of treatment for FCGS using stem cells extracted from a cat’s own fat tissue — and he was hoping that Lilli might join the study. The Lukes quickly said yes.

Arzi theorized that the stem cells could “jumpstart” the immune system and reduce the inflammation in cats that hadn’t responded to tooth extraction. Stem cell therapy has been used in both human and veterinary medicine for a variety of inflammatory diseases—but it had never been used to treat FCGS. “If we could reverse their poor immune status, we believed that cats affected by the disease could have a pain-free quality of life with normal mouth health,” Arzi says. “Essentially, they’d be cured.”

Lilli’s second treatment brought incredible results: she started getting better. Within three months, her mouth was lesion-free, she was off all medication and she’d doubled her weight. “She started acting like a kitten again, playing with toys and chasing bugs,” says Luke. “We couldn’t believe it.” While Dr. Arzi and fellow researchers Dr. Dori Borjesson and Dr. Frank Verstraete are still fine-tuning their protocol, the CCAH-funded study has already made a significant contribution to feline oral health, revolutionizing the understanding and treatment of a disease that, until now, has caused horrible pain for so many cats. Arzi is already fielding inquiries from veterinarians and cat owners all over the Unites States, eager to learn more about this new treatment option.

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Study finds flawed claims on pet food labels

Choosing the right food for your pet can be a confusing process, but most of us take it for granted that the information found on pet food labels is always 100 percent correct and accurate. Not so, says Dr. Jennifer Larsen, an associate professor of clinical nutrition with the school's Nutrition Support Service.

Photo: Cat
Study finds flawed claims on pet food labels.

Larsen co-authored a study, funded by the CCAH, investigating whether vegetarian diets — for both cats and dogs — marketed as “complete and balanced” were providing the levels of amino acids they claimed to contain, and whether these foods were accurately labeled. As it happened, many of them weren’t, on both fronts.

Of the 24 vegetarian diets the researchers studied, six did not contain adequate levels of one or more amino acids — organic compounds that play a critical biological function, helping to manufacture proteins within the body. “Some of the diets that were below the minimum weren’t just a little bit below,” Larsen says. “Some were as much as 34 percent lower than what was supposed to be there.” Amino acid deficiency is associated with several animal diseases, including skin diseases and dilated cardiomyopathy, a devastating heart condition.

Vegetarian diets are not the norm for most pets. However, some owners prefer to feed plant-based diets to their animals for ethical reasons, while other pets require non-meat diets due to specific health problems, including bladders stones, some types of liver disease and food allergies. But these diets can be difficult to balance. “When you formulate a diet for a dog or a cat using vegetarian protein sources, you have to be really careful that you’re doing it appropriately,” Larsen says.

The study, which was led by clinical nutrition resident Dr. Kayo Kanakubo with support from Larsen, also looked at the labels on these diets, and what they found there was more surprising. While the rules about pet food labeling can be confusing, most manufacturers follow the regulations set forth by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), which require them to disclose nine different categories of information on their labels, including calorie content and an ingredient list.

Only three of the 24 vegetarian diets the researchers studied had accurate labels that included all nine components. For example, seven diets got the guaranteed analysis wrong, seven had errors in their ingredient list and many didn’t have feeding directions. “If a company does not have accurate or legal labels, then I don’t have a lot of confidence that they can handle the many other details required to make a really healthful, wholesome and safe pet food,” Larsen says.

Larsen’s advice to pet owners: Be sure to read the nutritional adequacy statement on the label, which is often in tiny type on the back. This statement explains which species and life stage the diet is intended; whether the diet has a complete and balanced claim; and how the company substantiated that claim.

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Kittens more susceptible to cat-scratch disease

For nearly two decades, Dr. Bruno Chomel has researched cat-scratch disease, intrigued by how the disease has long been an enigma to scientists. French physician Dr. Robert Debré first diagnosed it in a 10-year-old boy with swollen lymph glands in 1931. Other doctors thought the boy had tuberculosis. By 1950, Debré determined that cats were the carrier. But a mystery remained.

Photo: Vet studies susceptibility of kittens to cat-scratch disease
Kittens are more likely to carry the bacteria responsible for cat-scratch disease.

For a long time, scientists thought cat-scratch disease was a virus, and it wasn’t until 1992 that the real cause of cat-scratch disease was identified: It’s the bacterium Bartonella henselae. This discovery was an unexpected consequence of the AIDS epidemic, as the pathogen causes bacillary angiomatosis — characterized by the presence of lesions — in AIDS patients or people with immunodeficiency.

Cat-scratch disease is an infection that affects cats, dogs, people and other wildlife. Domestic cats are the natural reservoir — meaning the long-term host of the pathogen — of B. henselae. When multiple cats live in the same household, spend time outdoors or lack flea control, they may become infected. Kittens are also more likely to carry the bacteria. About 40 percent of cats carry B. henselae at some point in their lives, although most show no signs of illness.

Cats transmit the disease to humans mainly through infected scratches: symptoms include fever, fatigue, headache, skin vesicles at the scratch site and enlarged lymph nodes. Generally, the infection isn’t serious, although (rare) complications can occur in people with weakened immune systems.

Chomel, a professor and researcher in the school’s Department of Population Health and Reproduction, received a grant from the CCAH to study cat-scratch disease.

He found that young kittens can become easily be infected with a different strain of B. henselae at a very young age, even in the presence of maternal antibodies. That finding underlines the importance of flea control in pregnant queens and young kittens to prevent the infection. Stopping early infection in cats will reduce how many kittens with the bacteria in their blood go to new homes and will protect new owners from the dangerous risk of contracting cat-scratch disease and other Bartonella-related diseases.

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UC Davis has long history of studying feline infectious peritonitis


Research into feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) at the school began in 1964 with Dr. Niels Pedersen, who was then a veterinary student, and Dr. Billy Ward, a veterinary pathology graduate student at the time. Pedersen went on to become a professor of Medicine and Epidemiology and the CCAH's founding director.

Photo: Vet studies susceptibility of kittens to cat-scratch disease
UC Davis has a long history of studying feline infectious peritonitis.

Ward and Pedersen published their research on FIP in 1969. Pedersen maintained an interest in the disease during his internship at Colorado State University and PhD training from the Australian National University. He actively resumed research on FIP and other infectious diseases of cats after returning to UC Davis and the veterinary school in 1972. He has maintained an active research program on FIP to this very day.

Many great discoveries on FIP have come out of our school and Pedersen’s laboratory, including the first propagation of the causative coronavirus in tissue culture, recognition of its close relationship to common coronaviruses of other species, the development of an antibody test for feline coronavirus, and the recognition that the FIP virus (FIPV) was an uncommon mutation of a ubiquitous and largely non-pathogenic feline enteric coronavirus (FECV). A number of studies defining FECV infection in nature and how mutations in FECV lead to FIP followed. Attempts to develop vaccines against the disease failed, leading to studies on how to decrease the incidence of disease in catteries, shelters and other high-risk environments by changes in husbandry and genetic selection.

Pedersen is considered a world authority on FIP and has 45 major publications on the disease in the veterinary literature. His textbook on “Feline Husbandry, Diseases and Management in the Multiple-cat Environment” is still considered a classic for cat breeders. Pedersen retired in 2013, but continues to maintain an active research program on FIP as an Emeritus Distinguished Professor. The emphasis of current research remains on how FIPV causes disease, genetic and environmental factors affecting disease incidence, and most recently the use of specific drugs that target the replication of FIPV in the cat. Research on anti-viral drugs has involved collaborations with investigators at institutions such as Kansas State University and with corporations such as Gilead Sciences.

Pedersen feels fortunate to have had the support of private organizations, such as the Winn Feline Foundation, Morris Animal Foundation, Save Our Cats and Kittens (SOCK) and SOCK FIP, private foundations and pedigreed cat registries, and many individual donors. “As my career starts to wind down, it has given me great pleasure to be joined by my colleagues, including Dr. Brian Murphy and Dr. Patty Pesavento, to help maintain the reputation of the School of Veterinary Medicine as one of the leading research groups on coronavirus infections of cats such as FECV and FIPV,” Pedersen says. “We are in full agreement: FIP is one of the most complex infectious diseases of human and animal.” But hopefully Pedersen’s research over a half century has helped to unravel much of that complexity.

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Nasal disease rampant among cats and dogs


Not many clinician scientists want to study nasal disease in cats and dogs, a common syndrome that involves chronic mucus discharge from the nose and sneezing. It’s just too frustrating, explains Dr. Lynelle Johnson, a professor in the Department of Medicine and Epidemiology. Tests for nasal disease can be expensive and invasive — including MRI or CT scans, biopsies or rhinoscopy — and the results often difficult to interpret. Accordingly, this disease remains somewhat mysterious and its causes hard to pinpoint.

Photo: Cat
Nasal disease is common among cats, but the causes are hard to pinpoint.

But Johnson is on the case because nasal disease is rampant. She wants to come up with the answers that could help so many cats and dogs, as well as their owners. “You can imagine a large-breed dog, like a German Shepherd, a collie or a Labrador retriever with nasal discharge all over the house. It’s a significant issue,” she says. “And cats, although they’re small, are equally problematic because they sneeze with such force that there’s discharge everywhere. Cats are particularly challenging because they will get worse, then better, then worse again, which also makes this disease so difficult to fully understand.”

Since joining the faculty in 2000, Johnson has devoted much of her research to both feline and canine nasal disease. She and her colleagues take a step-by-step approach to determining possible causes behind the disease. Her research is often made possible through grants generated by private donations to the CCAH.

Previous studies have examined a fungal infection in the nose of dogs, called Aspergillus. This fungal infection can destroy the nasal turbinates and other structures in the nose and lead to pain, sneezing and bleeding.  Left untreated it can invade into the brain and be fatal. The researchers studied a blood test to diagnosis Aspergillus, and proved that if the result came up positive, the animal had the disease; although a negative result didn’t rule it out. That’s important because treatment for this fungal infection requires many hours under anesthesia.  If the disease can be diagnosed early with a blood test, then veterinarians and owners can better prepare for the steps needed to treat the disease.  Other studies have shown that the clinical signs of sneezing and nasal discharge don’t correlate with whether or not the dog has been cleared of fungus. People may think since the nasal discharge is gone, their dog must be cured. But that’s not true, which reinforces why accurate diagnostic tests and follow-up are so critical.

Nasal disease in cats has also been a focus of research. “It’s so common in the cat population, and although it’s often not life-threatening depending on the cause, it’s often about quality of life for the cat, as well as the human companion,” Johnson says. “Owners and veterinarians get very, very frustrated because you try all these different therapies but when you don’t know what causes a disease, you don’t know how to cure it.” The UC Davis team continues to investigate many infectious causes for feline nasal disease, while also evaluating management strategies for chronic nasal discharge.

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Diet is critical to the health of a cat's intestinal tract

Diet plays a significant role in the health of cat’s intestinal tract and in inflammatory bowel disease. The Center for Companion Animal Health has long been involved in supporting the school’s reputation as a leading institution for feline nutrition research.

Inspiring Stories ImageDiscoveries from researchers at UC Davis have led to several changes in the formulation of commercial cat foods to combat such disorders as dilated cardiomyopathy and feline lower urinary tract disease.

In spite of the many advances in feline nutrition, our knowledge of nutrient requirements for cats is still incomplete. Unlike other domestic species, cats are obligate carnivores. The carnivorous diet provides cats with a ready dietary source of certain nutrients not supplied by an omnivorous or vegetarian diet, thus negating the need to synthesize them. Without evolutionary pressure to maintain the relevant metabolic pathways, cats have lost their ability to synthesize those nutrients within their bodies.

For instance, cats have a greatly diminished ability to synthesize retinol (Vitamin A), arachidonic acid and taurine, because these micronutrients are amply present in the tissues of their prey animals. However, most household cats no longer hunt, but rather are fed commercially prepared foods. These foods are often rich in plant-derived nutrients because to supply cats with all-animal diets is significantly more expensive. The trend, therefore, has been to make foods with greater proportions of vegetable-based products and to supplement them with the necessary nutrients.

Modern commercial cat diets, even though they are “unnatural,” are highly effective at providing the essential nutrient requirements of adult cats, growing cats, the fetus and the pregnant/lactating queen. Although nutrient deficiencies and excesses are still being discovered, these discoveries are becoming less common and the deficiencies less serious. However, one aspect of modern commercial cat diets that is now receiving substantial attention is the issue of adverse reactions to food.

Adverse reactions to foods are based on the mechanisms of disease. The term food hypersensitivity (food allergy) is reserved for those adverse reactions that have an immunological basis. In contrast, food intolerance refers to a large category of adverse reactions due to non-immunological mechanisms. The outward manifestations of food intolerances and hypersensitivities are virtually identical and include vomiting, chronic or intermittent diarrhea, flatulence and inordinately odorous stools, mucus-laden stools or blood in the stools. Gastrointestinal disorders may be accompanied by skin diseases, such as miliary eczema with scab like lesions, highly itchy lesions around the head and neck or a poor quality hair coat. Weight loss may be pronounced in severe cases of either type of disorder. In a significant proportion of cats with adverse reactions to food, inflammation of the intestinal lining is a prominent feature. Although inflammation is a common feature of many types of feline bowel disorders, the term "inflammatory bowel disease" (IBD) is reserved for those cases where no specific cause can be identified.

IBD, the most common cause of chronic vomiting and diarrhea in cats, is a disease in which diet may have an important role. The clinical course of IBD in cats may be intermittent at first, with periods of normalcy becoming shorter. The intestinal wall becomes thickened by an infiltrate of inflammatory cells, and the microscopic and gross surface folds of the intestinal lining are flattened, leading to a great loss of surface area. As the surface area is reduced, the ability of the cat to digest and absorb nutrients is reduced, leading to weight loss in the face of a normal or increased appetite. The stools often become looser and in some cases, more odorous. A sequel of chronic IBD can be intestinal lymphosarcoma (lymphoma). These tumors may occur because of the notorious habit of cats to develop tumors at sites of chronic inflammation.

The importance of IBD in cats has been an impetus for several studies conducted through the years by faculty affiliated with the Center for Companion Animal Health. The role of diet in IBD is difficult to study because there are many ingredients within each food that potentially contribute to the disease. A diet that may cause problems in one cat may be perfectly fine in another. Our researchers continue to unravel these complexities, with support from CCAH-funded studies.

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Keeping your pet safe in the Great Outdoors


Each year as the weather turns warm, not only do we enjoy the Great Outdoors, but so do many of our pets. However, there are hidden risks to our pets when they venture outside, even if it’s only in the back yard. Take precautions and be aware of lurking dangers that can sicken or injure our animal companions. Here are some tips for keeping your pet safe during the warm weather. Tick and flea prevention is one of the most important things that can be done if your animal spends time outdoors.

Photo: Keeping your pet safe in the Great Outdoors
Tick and flea prevention is one of the most important things that can be done if your animal spends time outdoors.

Avoiding heatstroke

Increased outdoor temperature is a contributing factor to heatstroke, but it is an avoidable condition. An animal develops heatstroke when its body temperature rises to a dangerous point (often, over 106 degrees Fahrenheit) that will damage cell health and normal functions. Heatstroke often occurs during the first warm spell of spring, when a pet is not used to activity in warmer temperatures. Dogs at greater risk are those that are older, overweight and brachycephalic. Also at risk are pets left unattended in a parked car, which can reach dangerously high temperatures very quickly on a warm day.

“The best way to avoid heatstroke is to slowly reintroduce activity to your pet, while ensuring it has breaks for drinking plenty of water or cooling off in a pool or safe body of water,” says Dr. Karl Jandrey, an assistant clinical professor in the Small Animal Emergency and Intensive Care Service. If you suspect your pet is overheated — with signs of weakness, increased respiratory effort or rate, excessive “panting” (or not panting at all) or even vomiting — stop the activity. Cool your pet by soaking its coat down to the skin and then see a veterinarian as soon as possible. Drive with the air conditioning on, or if your pet is secured and away from the windows, have the windows down to encourage evaporative cooling. Always know the location of the closest emergency clinic, even when traveling.

Protecting against rattlesnake bites

Some dogs love to hike with their owners, especially as the weather warms. The risk of rattlesnake bites is most common between April and October. Here are some tips to help avoid rattlesnake bites:

  • Keep away from areas with tall grass, rocks or wood piles
  • Stay on trails and have your dog on a leash
  • Use a walking stick to rustle brushes along the trail to alert snakes of your presence.
  • If your dog is bitten, get to the nearest veterinarian quickly.

Preventing Infectious Diseases

Infections from fleas, mosquitoes and ticks:
Cats and dogs that go outdoors are susceptible to infections transmitted by fleas, mosquitoes and ticks. Even though your pet may not leave the yard or have direct exposure to other animals, it’s still at risk for infection.

The most common disease transmitted by mosquitoes is heartworm disease. Since there are mosquitoes living year- round in many locations, the use of heartworm preventatives is an effective way to protect against this disease. In California, dogs are more likely to develop tick-borne diseases than cats, which include a febrile illness known as granulocytic anaplasmosis, and, in some parts of California (primarily Humboldt County), Lyme disease. Bartonella is a bacteria transmitted by fleas and possibly ticks (which manifests as cat scratch disease in people). It can cause heart problems in dogs, though most cats infected with Bartonella do not get sick at all. A variety of products is available to protect against ticks. Make sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions, or the products will not be effective. “Cats are susceptible to toxicity from many tick products (permethrin and amitraz), so sometimes cats can get sick if they live with a dog using these products. If you have cats, make sure you use a product that is safe for cats, such as flumethrin or fipronil,” says Dr. Jane Sykes serves as director of the Small Animal Clinic in the veterinary hospital.

Check your pet for ticks after outdoor activities and remove any ticks promptly to help prevent the spread of tick-borne infectious diseases. Do not use bare hands when removing ticks — use a special device (or curved forceps). With the forceps, grasp the tick as close to the skin’s surface as possible. Pull upwards with steady, even pressure and make sure mouth-parts do not break off and remain in the skin. If that happens, disinfect the area and watch carefully for the possibility of infection. If you see signs of swelling or redness, your pet should be checked by a veterinarian.

Feline infectious diseases: Cats who spend time outdoors are at risk for a number of infectious diseases. The most common one is an abscess that occurs from an injury received during a fight with another cat. Cats who fight are also at risk for acquiring two viral infections: feline leukemia virus and feline immunodeficiency virus. These viruses can gradually impair a cat’s immune system. The end result, often several years later, may be cancer or other infectious diseases. Feline viral upper respiratory disease and feline panleukopenia virus are also transmitted between cats.

Leptospirosis: This disease is seen most often in dogs who are outdoors, but more often during times of warm and wet weather. Leptospires are bacteria that can cause fever and kidney failure in dogs. Dr. Sykes advises, “Good vaccines are available for the prevention of leptospirosis and are recommended for dogs who spend a lot of time outdoors.”

Other infectious diseases: Kennel cough is a respiratory illness contracted when cats or dogs are housed in close quarters. “If you are planning to travel and leave your pet at a boarding kennel, consult with your veterinarian and care provider for the proper vaccination requirements,” Dr. Sykes recommends. It is also important to allow time for adequate immune response.

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Beware: pets and toxic plants

A surprisingly large number of common garden and household plants are toxic to pets, and reactions to toxicity range from mild to life-threatening. Pets, like young children, explore the world with their senses, and they are therefore vulnerable to accidental poisoning.  Many of these plants make wonderful additions to the garden, but it's important to know which plants are toxic. Avoid planting these where pets (or children) will have frequent unsupervised access to the plants. 

These 12 plants below are responsible for the majority of calls to our veterinary hospital about possible plant poisoning. The list was compiled by Director of Pharmacy Dr. Valerie Wiebe. The toxicity of the plants below varies according to the species of animal exposed (cat, dog, bird, etc.), the amount of the plant that was ingested, and the specific variety or species of the plant. 

If you suspect your pet has ingested any of these plants, call your veterinarian immediately. Do not wait to see if symptoms appear, because in some cases of poisoning, by the time symptoms appear it's too late to save the animal. 

  1. Lilies (Lilium, all spp.): Ingesting any part of the plant can cause complete kidney failure in 36-72 hours. First symptoms appear in a few hours and may include appetite suppression, lethargy, vomiting.  Cats are especially sensitive to lily poisoning, so be very careful to keep your cats away from liliies of any kind, including the Amaryllis, Easter lilies, and Stargazer lilies so often found in homes around the holidays.
  2. Lily of the Valley (Convallaria majalis): Ingesting any part of the plant can cause cardiac dysrhythmias, vomiting, diarrhea, confusion, weakness, and even death. (Photo courtesy of web site).
  3. Anemone (Anenome and Pulsatilla, family Ranunculaceae): Irritating to the mucus membranes, and can cause blisters, hemorrhagic gastritis, shock, convulsions, and death. (Photo is Japanese Anemone).
  4. Aloe Vera (family Liliaceae): Vomiting, depression, diarrhea, anorexia, tremors, change in urine color.
  5. Amaryllis (family Amaryllidaceaea, incl. Hippeastrum spp.) All species, including Belladonna Lily, are toxic, and especially dangerous to cats. The bulbs are the toxic part of the plant.  The "Amaryllis" commonly seen during the December holidays are Hippeastrum species.  Symptoms include vomiting, depression, diarrhea, abdominal pain, hyper-salivation, anorexia, tremors.  (Photo courtesy of Ellen Zagory, UC Davis Arboretum).
  6. Asparagus Fern (family Liliaceae): Allergic dermatitis, gastric upset, vomiting, diarrhea.
  7. Daffodil (Narcissus): Vomiting, diarrhea. Large ingestions cause convulsions, low blood pressure, tremors, cardiac arrhythmias.
  8. Philodendrons: Irritation, intense burning and irritation of the mouth, lips, tongue, excessive drooling, vomiting, difficulty swallowing.
  9. Jade Plants (Crassula argentea): Vomiting, depressions, ataxia, slow heart rate.
  10. Chrysanthemums: Vomiting, diarrhea, hyper salivation, incoordination, dermatitis.
  11. Cyclamen (Cyclamen persicum): The tubers or rhizomes contain the toxic glycoside cyclanin, a terpenoid saponin.  Ingestion can cause excess salivation, vomiting, diarrhea, heart rhythm abnormalities, seizures, or even death in rare cases.
  12. Cycads (including Sago palm; cardboard palm; etc.): The "Sago palm" is a cycad, not a true palm, and all parts of the plant are poisonous. Symptoms include vomiting, lethargy, melena (black "tarry" feces), icterus (jaundice), increased thirst, hemorrhagic gastritis, bruising, coagulopathy, liver failure, and death.  A northern California police dog, a patient at one of our Companion Animal Memorial Fund donor clinics, died in November 2011 after ingesting parts of this plant.

Common plants that are highly toxic but only rarely ingested by pets include:

UCD Toxic Plant Garden Information

On the School of Veterinary Medicine campus, visitors can explore the Toxic Plant Garden (north of Vet Med 3A and south of Tupper Hall), which includes many plants commonly grown in Northern California known to be toxic to pets.

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What is the West Nile virus?

The West Nile virus is a strain of encephalitis disease, genetically similar to St. Louis encephalitis, that can affect the central nervous system. WN virus causes a swelling of the brain that, though treatable, can be fatal in a small portion of infected people and animals. The virus can be carried by birds and transmitted by mosquitoes that feed on an infected bird and then feed on a human or animal.

Among wild birds, Corvids such as crows, scrub jays and magpies are particularly susceptible. Indeed, WN virus has had a significant impact on these and other bird species. Pet birds are probably at greater risk to WN virus than dogs or cats. Owners of pet birds should refer to the CDC website table of bird deaths from WN virus between 1999 and 2007. Pet species are usually classified as exotic in this table. (

Can small companion animals such as birds, cats and dogs contract WN virus?

Dogs and cats are susceptible to infection, but considerably more resistant to disease than horses, humans, and some species of birds. Very young and very old cats and dogs, and animals that are immunocompromised for some other reason, are the most likely to show signs of illness. Signs of a possible infection include weakness, fever and muscle spasms, although blood tests are needed to confirm a diagnosis. Treatment is consistent with standard veterinary practices for viral infections, and recovery is likely. If you suspect that your animal may be infected, seek the advice of your regular veterinarian.

How likely is it that my cat or dog will catch WN virus?

It is very unlikely for healthy dogs or cats to become ill with this virus. Pet owners should do the same things that they should do to protect themselves and family members: eliminate mosquito habitat and avoid mosquito exposure. Private veterinarians may also be consulted for recommendations on safe, effective mosquito repellents that may be used on pets. DEET-containing products are not approved for pets and should not be used. It is very important not to use human insect repellent on your animal as it may cause poisoning.

Can I contract the virus from my infected animal?

West Nile virus infection has been confirmed in some domestic animals, including pet birds, dogs and cats. However, there is no evidence that a person can get the virus from handling any animal, including live or dead infected birds. Furthermore, there is no evidence that West Nile virus can be transmitted to humans through consuming infected birds or animals.

There is no evidence that a person can get WN virus from handling live or dead infected birds. However, one should always use caution when handling dead birds. Persons should avoid bare-handed contact when handling any dead animals, and use gloves or double plastic bags to place the bird carcass in a garbage bag or contact their local health department for guidance.

Can the virus be transmitted from animal to animal?

It is possible that dogs and cats could become infected by eating dead infected animals such as birds, but this is undocumented. Veterinarians should take normal infection control precautions when caring for an animal suspected to have this or any viral infection.

How common is WN virus in California?

For information on WN virus in California please visit the California Vectorbourne Disease Surveillance Center's website This site contains the most current information on the spread of WN virus in California.

What can I do to protect myself as well as my companion animals?

WN virus is transmitted by infectious mosquitoes. Dogs or cats could be exposed to the virus in the same way humans become infected. To protect your self as well as your animals these precautions are recommended:

  • Make sure that doors and windows have tight-fitting screens. Repair or replace all screens that have tears or holes.
  • Eliminate mosquito breeding sites from around your home (standing water).
  • Don't go outside in the early evening or at dawn.
  • If you are outdoors during those times, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants. But bear in mind that mosquitoes can bite through thin cloth.
  • Consider using insect repellent (the CDC recommends using one with permethrin or DEET) on your skin and clothing, particularly if you live in a wet, low-lying area where mosquitoes might breed. But use insect sprays sparingly and cautiously. (This means never spraying repellents on children under the age of three or on the hands of children who might put them in their mouths.) DEET-containing products are not approved for pets and should not be used. It is very important not to use human insect repellent on your animal as it may cause poisoning.
  • Dispose of any unused outside water containers and drill holes in the bottom of containers that are left outdoors. Turn over plastic wading pools or wheelbarrows when not in use, and do not allow water to stagnate in birdbaths.
  • Clean clogged roof gutters regularly.
  • Ventilate ornamental pools or stock them with fish.
  • Clean and chlorinate swimming pools that are not in use.
  • If you have livestock, thoroughly clean their troughs every month.
  • Don't rely on ultrasonic mosquito-repelling machines or vitamin B to ward off bites.

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