Veterinary Guidelines for Maine Coon Breeders

by Mary D. McCauley, D.V.M. - Kenland Maine Coon Cats

Contents: Virus Testing | Vaccination | Parasites | Genetic Disorders | Breeding | Disclaimer

Virus Testing:
All newly acquired kittens and cats should be isolated from other kittens and cats for a period of four weeks to be observed for signs of illness. Toward the end of this isolation period, the kittens/cats should be tested for feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV); this is accomplished by a simple blood test. Kittens/cats which test positive for either or these viruses should have follow-up testing and must be kept in strict isolation pending the outcome of confirmatory or follow-up tests. Both of these viruses are contagious (FeLV more so than FIV), incurable and ultimately fatal, although cats can live with FIV for quite a long period of time with good veterinary care (up to several years). It is imperative that these viruses be kept out of a breeding cattery.

Ideally, both studs and queens should be tested for FeLV and FIV before each breeding when the cats have different owners or reside in different households. If a stud is used frequently, then testing at least twice a year is recommended. All queens should be tested before each outside breeding, and once a year otherwise.

Blood testing for feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) is not highly specific for this viral disease; however, if an antibody test is performed in a cat which appears healthy, then a negative result is probably meaningful (i.e., the cat has not been exposed to feline coronaviruses). A positive result on a blood antibody test may indicate exposure to a related but not life-threatening virus, feline enteric coronavirus, (FECV) or may indicate that the cat could have feline infectious peritonitis. Research is ongoing in this very important area. FIP can only be definitively diagnosed by histopathology (microscopic examination of suspicious tissue) from tissue obtained by exploratory surgery or necropsy (post-mortem examination). However, a high and rising FIP titer along with other clinical signs of this disease does suggest that a cat has this incurable and fatal illness.

 

Vaccination:
The minimum recommended vaccination protocol includes vaccination against feline panleukopenia (feline distemper), feline calicivirus, and feline herpesvirus (a "3-way vaccine") at 9 and 12 weeks of age. Vaccination beginning at 6 weeks of age is strongly recommended. If a cattery has had an outbreak of either calicivirus or herpesvirus, then the use of an intranasal vaccine against these two viruses is strongly recommended at 3 weeks of age, with 3- or 4-way vaccination begining at 6 weeks. Vaccination against chlamydia, which also causes upper respiratory disease, is recommended if needed (it is included in "4-way" feline vaccines); however, the immunity produced against chlamydia is shorter than for the other upper respiratory diseases, and should be boostered at 6 month intervals for maximum effectiveness. There are products available with contain only the chlamydia vaccine, which could be used for this purpose if needed. At this time, I recommend annual boosters for 3-way vaccinations in cattery situations, although studies are underway to determine the actual duration of immunity. For the usual neutered or spayed pet cat that lives strictly indoors, and either individually or in small groups, after the cat is boostered at approximately 1 year of age, boosters for the core vaccines should be continued every 3 years under recently published American Association of Feline Practitioner guidelines. The core vaccines are defined as those vaccines against panleukopenia (feline distemper), calici virus, and herpes virus. The AAFP also recommends rabies vaccination every 3 years (using a product licensed specifically for every three year use, not an annual rabies vaccine) where required by law. Please note that the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association has not adopted any changes in its vaccine protocol recommendations, since the risk of vaccine-associated fibrosarcoma is low, the risk of infectious disease is unknown, and the fact that feline immunity duration statistics come from titers, not from disease challenge studies. The CVMA warns that veterinarians are liable for off-label vaccine use (i.e., using vaccines labeled for annual use only every three years). This issue is probably several years away from being decided definitively.

Queens should be boostered 2-3 weeks or more before breeding. Pregnant queens should never be vaccinated with a modified live vaccine; however, if a pregnant queen is very overdue for her annual booster vaccination, then an all-killed 3-way vaccine should be given at mid-gestation (about 3-4 weeks before her due date). This will allow her to have good antibody levels in her blood and also in her colostrum once the kittens are born.

There are a variety of feline leukemia vaccines available which are both safe and effective, however, not all are equally effective. Vaccination against feline leukemia is optional and not medically necessary in a completely closed cattery which isolates and screens all incoming kittens and cats for FeLV (and FIV) as described above. However, it does provide an additional measure of protection in catteries that provide or receive outside stud service. Vaccination against FeLV does not substitute for diligent testing, however.

If a cattery houses any breeding cats outdoors, or owns any other cats which are indoor/outdoor pets, then FeLV vaccination is recommended. These cats are at risk because they are potentially exposed to free-roaming cats of unknown FeLV status, and FeLV could be transmitted through repeated contact with an infected cat through a wire enclosure. The first vaccination is at 9 weeks or older, with an initial booster 3 weeks later. Annual boosters are recommended for cats at risk. A blood test for FeLV is strongly recommended before vaccination; it is not harmful to vaccinate a FeLV-positive cat, but it won't help either, and may lead to a false sense of security.

There is no vaccine available at this time against FIV. Fortunately, this virus is the least contagious, generally requiring either contact with infected blood (i.e., fighting) or from sex. Outdoor, indoor/outdoor, and breeding cats are at greatest risk. It is related to the human AIDS virus (HIV), but is absolutely not transmissible to humans.

There is an FDA-approved intranasal vaccine on the market at this time against FIP (Primucell). It is thought to be safe, although its effectiveness is widely questioned in the veterinary medical community, and its routine use is not recommended by most veterinarians. Another drawback to this vaccine is that its use does create antibodies which will show up on the routinely used (but not highly specific) blood screening test for FIP, so a positive result in a vaccinated cat is very difficult to interpret.

There is also a vaccine available which may help in the treatment of dermatophytosis, commonly called ringworm (Microsporum canis, a fungus). The organism that most commonly causes ringworm is a fungus which is highly contagious, and is shared among cats, dogs, and humans. There are other species of fungus which can also cause ringworm, and this vaccine would not be helpful in such cases. Definitive diagnosis is made by culturing hair samples from suspected cats; however, ringworm has a fairly typical appearance and can be presumptively diagnosed by your veterinarian based on the appearance of the skin lesions. The vaccine does not prevent ringworm, but it appears to improve the immune response of affected cats and allow them to recover and clear the fungus somewhat faster than unvaccinated cats. Ringworm often requires aggressive, long-term treatment which may include a combination of topical dips, oral medication, disinfection and vaccination.

Rabies vaccination may be required for kittens and cats in some states, counties and cities. It is also required in some states even for kittens and cats being shown from out of state. Rabies is extremely uncommon in exclusively indoor cats since they must be bitten by another rabid animal in order to contract this disease. Depending on what part of the country you live in, rabies may be prevalent in raccoons, foxes, skunks, coyotes and/or bats. Indoor/outdoor cats and cats housed outdoors should be vaccinated against rabies even if not required by law, except in Hawaii and in some rabies-free foreign countries in which such vaccination is not performed. Rabies is a public health issue since humans contract this disease from domestic and wild animals. It is invariably fatal in animals, and can be fatal in humans if they are not treated before symptoms appear. At present, there are more reported cases of rabies in cats than in dogs.

 

Parasites:
It is very important to keep indoor kittens and cats free from internal and external parasites. Of the internal parasites, tapeworms are the easiest to identify (the proglottids, or egg packets, look like rice grains, and when "fresh" are mobile) and the most common species in cats is transmitted by fleas. Control of tapeworms involves oral medication plus flea eradication, or the cats will become reinfected. Roundworms and hookworms are rare in indoor catteries, but if there is a problem, it is readily controlled with oral medication.

External parasites include fleas, ear and body mites. Not all ear infections involve ear mites; a simple microscopic exam of an ear swab by your veterinarian can detect ear mites or their eggs, if present. Body or mange mites are fortunately uncommon in cats, especially indoor cats. Ear and body mites are generally easily treated in cats.

Fleas are widespread througout the U.S., and are a year-round problem in the southern states. Fleas are the most common cause of allergic dermatitis in cats, carry one common species of tapeworm, and severe infestations can cause anemia and even death in young kittens. Indoor catteries, even those with no dogs in the household, are not guaranteed to be free of fleas. Flea control involves treating the cats, the house, and often the yard. A full discussion of the scope of flea control products is beyond the scope of this Advisory. In general, however, one should avoid shampoos or other products unless they are specifically labeled for use in cats; dogs can tolerate many products which cats cannot. Pyrethrin (a marigold extract) products are among the safest and most effective products to use on cats to kill adult fleas. Insect growth regulators greatly improve the effectiveness of flea treatment, and include methoprene (Precor) and fenoxycarb, found in some flea "bombs" and sprays, as well as lufeneron (Program); Program is available as an oral monthly product or as an injection lasting for 6 months. Newer topical prescription products like Advantage and Frontline are very effective at killing adult fleas, and a single dose works for about one month. Proban, an oral product designed for use in dogs, had been used in cats "off label" for many years; however, there are now better and safer products which are label-approved for cats, including Program, Advantage and Frontline. More "natural" ways to control fleas include borax or diatomaceous earth treatments, and citrus-based shampoos. Dips, because they are designed to leave a residual chemical on the coat, are less safe for cats than for dogs, and must be used with caution. All flea products should be used exactly according to label directions.

Cats are also susceptible to heartworm disease. Cases of feline heartworm disease have been identified in 38 states. The immature larvae of this parasite are carried by mosquitos, and while much more common in dogs than in cats, can infect cats with serious consequences including sudden death. In areas where canine heartworm disease is very prevalent, it may also be worthwhile to consider monthly heartworm prevention for cats. Mosquitos do gain indoor access, and heartworm disease has been diagnosed in strictly indoor cats. Treatment of this disease in cats is not as safe or effective as in dogs.

 

Genetic Disorders:
Maine Coon cats are unfortunately subject to at least two serious genetic (hereditary) disorders, hip dysplasia (HD) and hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). The precise gene(s) for these disorders have not yet been identified, but research is ongoing in the hope that both affected cats and carriers can be identified at an early age.

At present, hip dysplasia is best identified by x-rays of the hips. Hip dysplasia is a developmental abnormality of the hip joint. Preliminary hip x-rays should be taken at approximately 8-12 months of age, before a cat is first used for breeding. Final hip x-rays should be taken at 24 months of age. Certification by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA), a panel of board-certified veterinary radiologists, is recommended. Copies of the OFA evaluation, regardless of the result, should also be sent to the cat's breeder. Only cats with hips graded fair or better (good, excellent) should be used for breeding. Cats which have been identified as having any grade of hip dysplasia must not be used for breeding.

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is a disorder in which the heart muscle becomes abnormally thick and decreases the effectiveness of the heart, eventually resulting in heart failure and/or embolism (blood clots). It can be diagnosed by echocardiography (cardiac ultrasound examination) which should be performed and interpreted by a board-certified veterinary cardiologist. Some affected cats and kittens have an audible heart murmur, while others do not, so the absence of a heart murmur is not definitive evidence that a kitten or cat is normal. It is recommended that an initial echocardiogram be performed before a cat is bred for the first time, and that another one be performed at approximately two years of age. This disease is treatable, but can result in sudden death in older kittens and young adult cats. Sudden death in breeding cats or kittens should be investigated by necropsy (post-mortem examination) performed by either your regular veterinarian or a veterinary pathologist.

Deafness is a concern with solid white cats of all breeds, including Maine Coon cats. Deafness is associated with the dominant W gene which produces the solid white phenotype. Approximately 60% of all solid white longhaired cats are deaf. Deafness is somewhat more likely in blue-eyed or odd-eyed whites, but on an absolute numerical basis there are more deaf green- or gold-eyed whites than any other eye color. The absence or presence of a colored spot on a kitten's head does not indicate at all whether that kitten is more or less likely to be deaf. Deaf cats should not be used for breeding. Solid white to solid white breedings should not be done since this further increases the likelihood of producing deaf kittens. It is also suspected that solid white to "with white" (i.e., tabby with white, bicolor) breedings also increase the probability of producing deaf white kittens.

 

Breeding:
There are many excellent resources providing detailed information on kitten rearing and husbandry. A queen should not be bred until she is at one year of age unless she has had at least two estrus cycles (heats). Under no circumstances should a female kitten under 8 months of age be intentionally bred. Male kittens may be potent and physically able to breed as early as 5 months of age, although intentional use as a stud should not begin before 8 months of age. Queens should not be bred more often than twice a year unless one or more of the litters are very small (1-2 kittens). Queens who have large litters should be given proportionately more reproductive rest. Ideally, studs should have brief periods of reproductive rest in between queens (approximately one week).

For testing and vaccination recommendations with respect to breeding, see the appropriate sections above.

The normal gestation period for cats is 63-70 days, with 63-67 being more usual. The gestation period is counted from the first day of breeding. Pregnant queens should be fed a high quality diet, preferably a kitten/growth formula, during gestation and lactation. Vitamin or calcium supplementation is neither necessary nor desirable for cats eating a commercially available feline diet, and may in fact contribute to the problem it is hoped to prevent (eclampsia). However, supplemental feeding of a small amount of cottage cheese or plain yogurt is safe and acceptable. Feeding a predominantly dry diet is probably more practical and comfortable for late-term and nursing queens, since it is much more nutritionally dense than canned food.

A queen's body temperature drops 1-2 degrees (often to 100 degrees or lower) in the 24 hours immediately before parturition (birth). A queen needs to be provided with an isolated, quiet, warm and clean environment in which to have her kittens. It is strongly recommended that breeders isolate queens within a week before birth, and keep them and their kittens isolated from the rest of the household/cattery cats until 3 months of age. Ideally, each litter should be isolated from other litters to the maximum extent possible.

Disposable bed/chair pads designed for use in human incontinence are ideal to line the queening box. Two or three layers of these pads may be placed on top of each other, and removed as needed to minimize disturbing the queen and kittens during the first hours of life. There should be one placenta for every kitten delivered, and the queen may eat none, a few, or all of these. The queen should break the sac which encloses each kitten immediately after birth, begin licking the kitten vigorously (especially the face/head), and then bite through the umbilical cord.

Human intervention is required if the queen fails to do this (most commonly with first-time mothers); the sac may be broken with clean hands, and the mucus/fluid wiped from the kitten's face and body with a clean washcloth or towel. The cord may be cut with sterilized scissors (using ordinary rubbing/isopropyl alcohol), leaving about 1/2-3/4" attached to the kitten. Do not tug or pull on the umbilical cord; excessive pressure can create an umbilical hernia.

The stump of the umbilical cord should then immediately have Betadine (tamed povidone iodine) solution or gel placed on it; the gel remains on the stump longer. It is safe for the queen to lick this off, although it should be reapplied as needed until the stump dries (usually about 24 hours). Betadine should be applied whether the queen or the breeder breaks the umbilical cord to help prevent infection of the umbilicus.

Kittens should be kept warm, clean and dry. They cannot regulate their body temperature like adults until several weeks of age. However, a heating pad is generally not necessary for kittens raised indoors at comfortable, draft-free room temperature; the queen's body heat is generally sufficient to keep the litter warm. If a heating pad must be used, it should be kept on its lowest setting with a heavy layer of towels on top to help diffuse the heat, and the queen must be able to remove the kittens if the queening box becomes too hot. Heating pads must be checked often to ensure that they are not overheating.

The queen's vaginal discharge (lochia) should not persist more than 2-3 days, and should not have a foul odor. A queen which shows any sign of illness (lethargy, poor appetite, fever, dehydration, hot, hard and swollen mammary glands, etc.) should immediately be seen by a veterinarian. Metritis (uterine infection) and mastitis (mammary gland infection) can be serious.

Ideally, kittens should be weighed daily using a small kitchen or postal scale for the first 2-3 weeks of life, then biweekly to weekly until the kittens are weaned. There is wide variability in the rate of growth among different kittens, but any individual's weight should steadily increase. A plateau or decreasing weight trend in a very young kitten generally indicates illness and/or failure to nurse, and requires prompt attention. Recommended vaccination protocols for kittens are given above.

 

Disclaimer:
This information is not diagnostic or therapeutic advice, but rather preventive care and husbandry information. A veterinarian cannot diagnose an illness or prescribe treatment without a complete history, a physical examination, and in some cases, other clinical procedures. For all specific problems regarding animal health, your local veterinarian should be consulted.

Copyright 1997 Mary D. McCauley. May not be reproduced in any form without permission.

 

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