How do you know if your cat is sick?
Perhaps you’re reading this blog post because something about your cat has got you worried. Something seems “off” about your cat today, but you also think you could just be imagining it, or being a worrywart over nothing.
I’m going to applaud you for being such a careful and loving observer of your cat, and then assure you that you are right to be concerned, because if your cat is sick or hurt, she is doing everything in her power to avoid letting you know.
Cats hide pain and illness, making it hard to know that they are sick or hurt
Cats are prey animals. Yes, they are also predators: cunning hunters of insects, spiders, small reptiles, tiny mammals, and birds – prey animals that are smaller than they are.
But they are also prey themselves to predators who are larger than they are, and they know it. Predators seek out the weak and the sick because they make easier targets. Prey animals evolved to hide discomfort from those looking to turn them into dinner. Even though cats have been domesticated for thousands of years, that prey-animal hiding behavior is very deeply rooted.
Animals also tend to accept whatever it is that has happened to them. Their current condition of being sick or hurt becomes the new normal and they try get on with their lives as best as they can.
Dr. Deb told Medium.com, “I’ve seen a kitten running, jumping, and playing despite an entirely broken leg; I’ve seen a cat with a baseball-sized tumor in her lung continue to chase string toys; I’ve seen a cat with an entire stomach filled with indigestible and unpassable hair-ties continue to eat like no tomorrow.
By the time you start wondering aloud to yourself if there might be something wrong with your cat, the illness or injury has probably been going on for some time.
You are your cat’s most important healthcare provider
You probably already spend too much time gazing at your cats. It’s not time wasted, for many reasons, not the least of which is that doing so has made you an astute observer of her body language, energy level, way of moving, activities, and personality.
No one knows him better than you. Read that sentence 11 times if you have to. If you think something is wrong with your cat, don’t doubt yourself. Health problems, caught early, are often easier, faster, and cheaper to fix, and some are only possible to fix if caught early.
Some problems are easier to notice: if your cat is sitting in a hunched position, not lifting her head, she may look sick (and by this point, she has probably been sick for a while). Some problems are more subtle, like weight loss, which can happen so gradually that you’re eventually shocked to find out it’s happened at all. And some cats seem perversely well when they are sick. Did you know that cats will purr not only when they are happy, but when they are sick or in pain as well? Read Why do cats purr? for more information.
Don’t write off personality changes as your cat being suddenly “pesky” or “unfriendly” or “demanding.” Some cats may become withdrawn and hide when they are feeling unwell, while others become more clingy or cranky or needy. Remember who your cat is: is she normally playful, but is suddenly sleeping more? Is she normally relaxed, but is now restless, howling, or waking you up at night? Is your friendly cat suddenly shy and anxious? Trust what you know about the cat you love.
You may currently be a just a casual observer of your cat. You’re not looking at him for any particular reason, other than the fact that he is a living, breathing work of art. But start now to make a habit of deliberately noticing him. Note how he sits, how he carries his head and tail, how he sleeps. Periodically run your hands down his spine, not just because touching his fluffy self is so delightful, but so you can remember for next time when you’re wondering if he was always this thin. Taking conscious mental notes about your cat when he’s healthy will give you something to compare to next time you think he seems “off.”
The importance of routine veterinary care
Even if you are the most discerning observer of your cat, and quick to rush to the vet any time you suspect illness, routine veterinary care is still an essential element of good cat guardianship.
The American Veterinary Medical Association recommends twice-yearly wellness exams for the average adult cat. And yet, I understand why some people don’t do it. It’s stressful for the cat and some loving people don’t want to put their cats through that.
It’s also expensive. Why spent the money on healthcare when the cat doesn’t “need” it? You be able to apply those funds to the vet bill, you tell yourself, when he’s really sick.
But annual (at least) or bi-annual healthy-cat visits are absolutely necessary. It’s important that your veterinarian gets to know your cat when he’s healthy. Vets are also able to pick up the subtle signs that a cat is developing a health problem – things even a loving owner might not notice. Routine lab work, which can obviously only be performed by a vet, can help identify a minor problem so you can take action before it becomes serious.
Do you avoid taking your cat to the vet because you know he gets nervous in the car on the way over? Learn how to make your cat more comfortable on car rides. If she is anxious in the vet’s office, seek out a cat-friendly vet, or even a cats-only vet. Or try a mobile veterinarian who will come to your house to perform the exam.
Signs your cat may be sick or injured
Are you reading this blog post because you’ve noticed a change in your cat and are wondering if it’s “serious”? Following are some signs and symptoms of disease or injury and what they could mean. Note that this list not exhaustive and is not intended to replace the advice of a veterinarian. If you suspect something is wrong with your cat, consult a veterinarian. Trust your instincts.
Appetite and thirst changes
Loss of appetite.
Skipping the occasional meal is OK, but watch your cat closely after the first missed meal. If your cat stops eating entirely or is only eating tiny bits of food
, this is an emergency. A cat can die if he stops eating for only two days, because not eating can cause hepatic lipidosis,
also called fatty liver disease.
Fatty liver disease is so named because when a cat stops eating, triglycerides begin to accumulate in the cat’s liver and it becomes unable to function.
Why might a cat stop eating? Cats with dental disease, infections, and cancer can become picky about food. Cats with liver or kidney disease may also lose their appetite.
Increase in appetite or thirst.
A cat with a sudden exuberance for food
is also cause for concern. Is your cat emptying her water bowl
more quickly than normal or looking to drink from the sink or toilet? Endocrine diseases like hyperthyroidism and diabetes mellitus, can cause an increase in hunger or thirst. Kidney and urinary tract problems are also a concern.
Cats already spend a lot of time grooming – 15-15% of their waking hours.
But there’s such a thing as too much grooming. Over-grooming can be a result of parasites, such as fleas or mites, allergies, or a fungal infection, like ringworm, all of which can be irritating to the skin. Over-grooming can also be behavioral: cats may over-groom due to pain or stress, almost as a way to distract themselves from what they are feeling.
An over-grooming cat may spread the licking out all over his body, or he may lick himself so obsessively in one area that a spot becomes bald, or red with raw skin.
The signs of under-grooming are unmistakable: a messy or greasy coat, with mats of fur or clumps of loose hair. There may be more dandruff
than is normal and less shine. A cat that under-grooms may be too tired from an illness, or uncomfortable from an injury to tend to her coat.
Cats are individual shedders: some lose only a little bit of fur, some lose a lot, and each cat will have his own seasonal shedding schedule. A cat who is shedding normally will have a soft, silky coat texture. If you feel your cat’s shedding is excessive, there are a number of potential causes, from less-than-optimum nutrition, to allergies, infections, or an hormonal imbalance.
Litter box changes
Changes in urination.
Have you noticed a change in frequency or quantity of urine your cat is producing? Is there blood in her urine, or is she peeing outside of the litter box
? Does she lick her private parts excessively? Does she spend a lot of time stepping in and out of the box without peeing? If a cat is straining to urinate and nothing is coming out, this is a life-threatening emergency. Urinary tract and kidney issues are serious – get help for your cat immediately.
Diarrhea can have a number of causes, from stress, to diet changes, food sensitivities, intestinal parasites, infections, or even poisoning. Chronic diarrhea can quickly lead to dehydration and intestinal inflammation. Watery diarrhea, bloody diarrhea, or diarrhea accompanied by other signs of illness demands an immediate call to the vet.
Bring a stool sample with you when you go.
Constipation. Constipation, or the passing of small, hard, dry stools are worrisome, too. Constipation can be an early indicator of kidney disease.
Breathing problems. Is your cat wheezing or breathing rapidly? Does she seem short of breath, or is the breathing raspy or shallow? Is your cat mouth breathing or panting? Other respiratory symptoms to watch for: cats with breathing problems will overextend their head and neck, or might not be able to sleep their normal position. You may notice that your cat won’t lie on her side or may keep her head raised.
A cat’s normal respiratory rate is 16-40 breaths per minute when he’s at rest. To count, watch your cat’s rib cage when he’s lying down or sitting. Count the number of times you see the rib cage rise over the course of 30 seconds then multiply by two.
While you’re at it, check your cat’s heart rate, too. A normal heart rate for a cat is 120-140 beats per minute. Place your hand behind your cat’s front left leg, at the armpit. You should be able to feel his heart beating here. Count the number of beats in 15 seconds and multiply by four.
A cat with breathing problems may have an upper respiratory infection or allergies. A cat who has heat stroke may also exhibit some of these symptoms. Cats who are stressed, in pain, or sick with another illness may exhibit respiratory symptoms. A cat with an elevated heart rate could have heart disease or hyperthyroidism.
A coughing cat may be trying to dislodge a foreign body in his airway, or may be suffering with a hairball
, allergies, asthma, tumors, heart disease, or lung disease. If your cat is continuously coughing, or if bouts of coughing persist for more than a day, call your vet. Some causes of coughing can also be contagious and you want to address illnesses before your entire cat household becomes sick.
Eyes, ears, nose, and mouth changes
Discharge. Any discharge from the eyes or nose, or sneezing, could be sign of an upper-respiratory problem (see above) and might be contagious. An upper respiratory problem can cause your cat to suddenly stop eating, which can be a life-threatening problem (see hepatic lipidosis, above). Other causes of discharge from the eyes or nose are infections and parasites.
Excessive tearing of the eye could also indicate a clogged tear duct.
A healthy cat should have bright clear eyes with pupils that match in size. Anything abnormal with the eye can result in blindness. Look for droopy eyelids, a cloudy film on the eyes, squinting, and mismatched pupils: where one pupil is dilated and the other is constricted (also called anisocoria
). Note that cats who are sick often will also display their third eyelids. The third eyelid is located beneath the lower eyelid, but it will come up and cover part of the eyeball in a cat who is feeling ill.
Look for debris or discharge from the ear
which could indicate an ear infection or ear mite infestation. Get help before your cat’s eardrum is affected.
Gum-color changes. A healthy cat’s gums should be a deep pink. If you press on the gums with your thumb and then release your thumb, the pinkness should return within two seconds. If your cat’s gums are pale rather than pink, or if they don’t return to pink quickly enough, it could be a sign of anemia, shock, or poor circulation. If your cat’s gums or tongue have a bluish tone, it’s a life-threatening sign of lack of oxygen. Bright red gums are not good either: they may indicate overheating or even carbon monoxide poisoning. Yellow gums are a sign of jaundice and tiny red splotches on the gums could relate to a blood-clotting problem.
Bad breath is sign of dental problems, which is more serious than it sounds. Gingivitis and tooth decay can cause an infection which could lead to heart issues.
Note that 95% of cats have periodontal disease by the time they are three,
so this is no small problem. Drooling
or bleeding from the mouth can be due to an oral infection. Sweet-smelling breath (in combination with increased thirst and urination) can be a sign of diabetes. Breath that has an ammonia smell could be due to kidney disease.
Personality and neurologic changes
f your cat seems to be lying around more than usual, sleeping
more than usual, or has a lower energy level than she usually does, it’s usually a sign of illness. There are too many potential causes – see your vet.
Cats who are sick, in pain, stressed, or even bored may meow
more than usual. It’s important to rule out a health issue first, however, before deciding that increased vocalization is behavioral.
Temperament changes. If your friendly cat becomes aggressive or your happy cat is acting afraid, be concerned. You know your cat.
If your cat suddenly seems confused or disoriented, or is having seizures, contact your vet immediately. If your cat is pressing his heads into furniture or walls it’s a sign of damage to the nervous system, from a wide range of potential causes including poisoning, stroke, and brain tumors. Note that this behavior is very different from head butting or head bunting
Limping. If your cat suddenly has trouble jumping up onto furniture or counters, or if you notice a change in the way he jumps onto higher surfaces, it could be a sign of injury or arthritis. A cat who cannot use his back legs needs to be seen immediately.
It’s not uncommon for a cat to vomit right after eating or from hairball from self-grooming. Anything more necessitates a trip to the vet, especially if your cat is vomiting clear, foamy fluid or greenish-yellow material.
Make note of how often your cat is vomiting, and what the vomit looks like so you can tell your veterinarian. Infection, intestinal obstruction, liver disease, cancer, and poisoning are all potential causes of vomiting. If the vomiting is accompanied by any other symptoms such as lethargy and diarrhea don’t wait to call your vet.
Weight gain. If you notice sudden weight gain in your cat, it’s probably not from eating too much. Bloating, abdominal swelling, pregnancy, tumors, parasitic infections, hypothyroidism, and Cushings Disease can all cause unexpected weight gain.
Swelling. A wound you might not have noticed at first can turn into an abscess. Cysts and tumors can also form lumps on the skin and body. Do not ignore lumps, bumps, and swelling.
Fever. If you suspect your cat might have a fever, you can check his temperature yourself. I always keep a separate thermometer in the house for our pets. Taking a cat’s temperature is not difficult. Use petroleum jelly or personal lubricant on the thermometer and insert it into your cat’s rectum only one to one-and-half inches.
A cat’s normal body temperature is between 100.4° and 102.5° F. Anything below 99° or above 104° warrants a call to the vet.
Health emergencies that absolutely cannot wait
There are times in a cat’s life when you have to act, not think. There are some things that can’t wait until morning, or until Monday, when your regular vet’s office opens for the week. The following is not an exhaustive list, by all means, and if you have a feeling something shouldn’t wait, listen to your gut. Find an emergency veterinary hospital and bring your cat there immediately if your cat:
- Has been hit by car, or experienced other serious trauma, like a fall.
- Consumed something poisonous.
- Hasn’t eaten for 24 hours.
- Is bleeding profusely.
- Is having trouble breathing.
- Is unconscious or not moving.
- Is unable to walk, or dragging his hind legs.
- Has a temperature over 104° or under 99°.
- Has gums that are blue or white.
- Cannot urinate.
- Has eye damage, or one pupil is larger than the other.
- Had a seizure.
- Is crying out in pain.
- Is vomiting profusely (more than 6-12 times in a 12-24 hour period)
- Had an allergic reaction to a medication or insect sting.
- Has a string hanging out of the mouth, nose, or rectum.
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.
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