Bacterial Overgrowth

Big Cat Rescue has evolved since its inception in 1992. By 1997 we had seen enough of the abuse and abandonment caused by the pet trade that we had previously engaged in to know that there was no reason to breed exotic animals for lives of captivity.  As a result we increased our efforts through spaying, neutering and cage building to ensure that we would no longer be a part of the problem. As we have continued to learn about the causes of so much suffering we have become active in stopping the exotic pet trade through education and legislation.  The following is provided only for those who have already made the mistake of supporting the pet trade so that the animal in your care does not suffer even more after being ripped from his mother.

To fully appreciate this problem of bacterial overgrowth it is necessary to understand the workings of the intestines in food absorption. The cat, compared to many other animals has a very short intestinal tract. The intestines in a healthy cat are lined with hair like fingers that absorb the moisture and nutrients from the digesting food. There is a very delicate balance of good bacteria or flora and bad bacteria in the intestines and the slightest dietary change can upset this balance into total chaos in no time. The good bacteria help to break the food down into something that the “fingers” can suck out of the intestines and into the blood stream. The bad bacteria are always present, but in a perfect world, are kept in check. Introduction of more bad bacteria comes from not properly sterilizing the feeding equipment and utensils, from leaving the food out too long (twenty minutes is too long), not keeping your hands or garments sterile and not keeping the kittens surroundings sterile and germ free. If it sounds impossible to keep a kitten and everything that goes near him sterile, you’re right, and that is why bacterial overgrowth is the number one killer of infant cubs.

The change of diet, from mother’s milk to A NY other formula is the catalyst that sets the whole miserable process in action. Exotic kittens require a higher percentage of fat in their diet than any other mammal and there is nothing that bad bacteria feeds on better than fat. It’s a catch 22 to properly nourish the cub without killing it with kindness. We’ve raised close to a hundred cubs of 11 different species and the only kitten that did not suffer some degree of bacterial overgrowth was a premature Bobcat, whose wild mother was free roaming and who was hit by a car, exposing her unborn young. The first fluids that ever went into that cat were man made and even though her diet was changed from time to time, the balance was never upset in the intestines and despite being born nine days premature, with an esophagus that was not fully formed and no feline colostrum, she was never sick a day in her life.

It would stand to reason that a cub born at your facility, by two cats you’ve owned all their lives and who have been wormed and vaccinated and properly fed and cared for should have everything going for him at three weeks when you take him over to raise. But unfortunately, this just isn’t the way exotic cats work. You still must be vigilant in your weighing and note taking to notice the slightest decline. The typical pattern of a fading kitten will be one that nurses and gains vigorously and then begins eating a little less at each feeding, resulting in weight loss. The stool, if not full blown diarrhea, will be runny, green, blood stained or will have particle of undigested materials in it. The kitten will cry and may scream when defecating. When you pinch the skin on the back of the neck it won’t snap right back, but will go down slowly or not at all. Sometimes this is accompanied by vomiting, and sometimes by the animal appearing bloated. If this describes your kitten the next twenty four hours could mean the difference between life and death. If the kitten begins moaning or gasping it is probably too late.

A fecal examination will reveal a bacterial overgrowth and your Veterinarian may prescribe an antibiotic such as Cefalexin, Cefadrops, Amoxicillan or Ditrim to kill the bacteria. These drugs are usually administered one cc every eight hours for ten days. Albon, or Ditrim will kill coccidia but it is ineffective against E. Coli which is the culprit in the case of bacterial overgrowth. What most Veterinarians do not realize about exotic cats, and even those who understand the problem have a hard time preventing, is the loss of the good bacteria or flora. Because the intestinal tract is so short in exotic Felidae there is little opportunity for the food to seep through the walls before passing from the body. When the good bacteria are destroyed by the antibiotics which were being administered to kill the bad bacteria then the food cannot be broken down sufficiently for the cub to reap any benefit and the kitten literally starves to death.

As soon as the kitten is taken from it’s mother we dose it with Probiocin or Benebac, available through most mail order pet catalogues without prescription according to label instructions. These products have Acidophillus Lactobacillus which is the good bacteria and it helps to keep the good bacteria bolstered in the inevitable event that the cub comes in contact with something that isn’t sterile. For the first twenty four to thirty six hours we only offer a water mixture of Purified water, pediatric electrolytes and a little 50% dextrose. Only very gradually do we add milk to this mixture, up to a 50/50 ratio for a week or better before adding more milk. During any antibiotic therapy we administer the good bacteria daily, even in each feeding in severe cases. A tertiary problem with antibiotic treatment is that exotic kittens always contract Candida or thrush, which looks like milk scum on their tongues and in severe cases is little blisters around the edges of their tongues that are so painful, the kitten will refuse to eat or drink. The edges of the tongue may look ragged, lacy or look as if the kitten has been biting himself. As a preventative, we begin treating with Nystatin on the second day of antibiotic therapy and continue for two days after the antibiotics have been discontinued. Nystatin is a human drug, available only by prescription, for the treatment of thrush in babies. It is sweet tasting and administered one cc every eight hours for ten days to kittens up to 10 pounds.

It typically takes two or three doses before there is any improvement in appetite. There are appetite stimulants available, but I don’t like to use any chemistry in exotic cats unless it is a matter of life or death. A few tricks to tempt an ailing cat into eating are to warm the food, salt it or add a little garlic or light karo syrup. Sometimes hand feeding the cat, or even just sitting with him and encouraging him to eat will help. While a cub is not eating, it may be willing to suckle water, or dextrose. You can use an eyedropper and drop one drop of water at a time onto the tongue, allowing time in between for the kitten to swallow. If it won’t drink anything you may have to give it fluids subcutaneously. See chapter in Emergencies / Dehydration.

Gastrointestinal problems have been blamed for the deaths of several adult Clouded Leopards recently. The symptoms included vomiting and weight loss. In 1993 a Clouded Leopard at Minnesota Zoological Gardens was still ailing after several therapies had been tried to stimulate her appetite and weight gain. Drs. Petrini and Bell used a non surgical procedure called endoscopy to view the gastrointestinal tract. Normal intestinal tissue should have a velvet like appearance and be a healthy pink in colour, but the Clouded Leopard’s mucous lining had a cobblestone appearance. When this lining is inflamed it cannot process food normally, resulting in weight loss and ultimately starvation. Typically, in the past, this has been treated by switching to a more bland, processed diet and Prednisone, but most exotic cats will not tolerate a cooked diet and would rather starve as did this Clouded Leopard.

A second Clouded Leopard soon showed similar signs and again chose starving over the lamb based cooked diet and prednisone, but before she had completely wasted away she was put back on her raw diet and given long lasting injections of a slow release steroid. She regained her weight and the vomiting was reduced but the damage to the lining of her intestines showed little improvement. Six more Clouded Leopards, only three of which showed clinical signs, received the endoscopic examinations revealing that all of them had inflammatory bowel disease. Dietary changes have not proved successful in reversing this problem. Another interesting correlation appeared between the Clouded Leopards who chronically overgroom themselves to the point of baldness and the degree of inflammation, but conclusive studies have not confirmed which is the cause and which is the effect.

Note: I am not a veterinarian. If your cat is sick, please consult with a licensed veterinarian.

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