The purpose of this study was to determine the origin and subsequent spread of feline calicivirus (FCV), feline herpesvirus (FHV), and feline enteric coronavirus (FECV) in cats relinquished to shelters. FCV was isolated from the oral fauces of 11% of healthy cats upon entry, and isolation rates were highest for kittens (33%). FHV shedding was very low (4%) at the time of entry and occurred mainly in juveniles. FECV shedding was also common among newly relinquished cats (33%), especially older kittens and juveniles (90%). The subsequent spread of all three viruses was rapid and efficient in the shelter environment. Fifteen percent of cats were shedding FCV, 52% FHV, and 60% FECV after 1 week. More detailed studies were done with FECV shedding, which could be accurately quantitated. The amounts of FECV shed by infected cats ranged from 10(2)to 10(16)particles/swab of feces. FECV shedding was several logs higher in young kittens with primary infection than adult cats with primary infections. The mean levels of FECV shedding among adults were the same for primary and chronic infections. Although shelters were not the primary source of these viruses for many relinquished cats, factors intrinsic to the shelter environment were critical in amplifying shedding and spread to susceptible individuals. Extrinsic factors were especially important for the spread of FHV and FECV. FHV shedding rates increased from 4% to 50% in 1 week's time. The speed and magnitude of the increase in FHV shedding suggested that there was reactivation of latent infections as well as acquisition of new infections. FECV shedding increased 10 to 1,000,000 fold in 1 week among cats that were already infected at entry, and more than one-half of initially negative cats were shedding FECV a week later. Feline calicivirus infection was the least likely to spread in the shelter. The infection rate only increased from 11 to 15% in 1 week.