Despite all the fighting talk of ‘cats versus dogs,’ the emotional side of owning a pet is much the same, in either case. When they hurt themselves, you feel it too. When they get sick, you do everything in your power to get the help they need. Your pet is a part of the family, so maintaining their health is an important part of your life. Whether you’re a cat or a dog person, this doesn’t change. In fact, many symptoms of sickness and injury are common to both species. For instance, lost appetite, weight loss, and persistent lethargy are signs of illness not just in people, but in felines and canines too. So, even though pets are good at hiding their pain, there are some clear indicators of poor health.
How to Know If Your Cat Is Sick
Cats can be a lot harder to diagnose than dogs because they’re more independent. Certainly, for adult cats, much of the day is spent away from humans, either sleeping or hunting. If you’ve got an indoor pet, it’s easier to keep an eye on things. However, even house cats attract little attention if they’re generally aloof and resistant to cuddles. So, cats show signs of sickness just like other animals. Though, they may be easier to miss because you’re not in close contact all the time. Many owners, particularly those with outdoor cats, use mealtimes as an opportunity to get a look at weight, fur, eyes, nose, and other key parts. It’s a time when most cats are relatively still and compliant with touching and probing.
If you suspect your cat is poorly, try to contact a vet as quickly as possible. Some illnesses are more serious than others, of course. Wounds from fighting may require urgent attention, while a few episodes of vomiting probably aren’t indicative of a dire condition. Just make sure to exercise caution. Be practical, but don’t delay treatment for longer than a week.
This guide to spotting the signs of feline sickness will help you stay on top of your cats’ health.
Changes in Weight/Body Conformation
It’s a big concern when a cat loses weight quickly. However, weight gain is not always a healthy thing either. Regardless of whether a pet is piling on the pounds or losing them, extreme changes in weight can be dangerous. So, keep an eye on their body composition. Even if you’re not weighing your cat on a regular basis, you should still notice if they lose or gain at speed. Excess body fat is usually associated with poor diet or bad feeding techniques. Though, it may also be caused by thyroid problems, parasites, diabetes, or intestinal issues. If your cat has lost a lot of weight, contact a vet immediately. These animals are only small, so the loss of a few pounds can be disastrous. Often, the problem is entirely treatable. In a small percentage of cases, it is caused by cancer, organ disease, or an intestinal blockage.
Loss of Appetite
All pets feel under the weather sometimes. So, it’s not a huge concern if a cat behaves differently for a day or two. There are many reasons why a feline might go off their food, for example. It doesn’t always indicate a serious problem. On the other hand, prolonged episodes (two days or more) of listlessness or poor appetite indicate a problem. In fact, for cats and dogs, appetite is the first place where sickness becomes evident. Few things keep moggies away from their dinner. Therefore, you should be concerned if food is repeatedly ignored. Just 72 hours without a meal is enough to cause liver damage. Any unexpected changes to feeding routines should be monitored. Normally, an increase in consumption is not a problem. However, do keep an eye on your cat if they are suddenly eating a lot more than usual. They may be pregnant, suffering from parasites, or have diabetes.
Atypical Feeding Behaviors
When it comes to food, the best advice is to keep a close eye on things. What you’re looking for is change. Alterations to routine aren’t always indicative of sickness, but they’re a useful tool for monitoring a pet’s health. Keep an eye out for changes in feeding behavior. For instance, cats with dental problems may chew in an irregular manner. Certainly, if a tooth is causing pain, they’ll avoid it altogether, even chewing on one side at mealtimes. When a cat gets older, it may have trouble bending its knees and neck to reach a low lying bowl. You can remedy the issue by lifting the bowl a little way off the floor, so the cat doesn’t have to strain as much. Fussiness around food is a common feline trait. It can be extremely frustrating for owners, but it is rarely a sign of serious sickness.
Changes to Water Consumption
Hydration is a tricky subject for cat owners. The species needs water, just like every other, to stay healthy. However, cats are notoriously fussy about what and how they drink. It’s not uncommon for pets to completely shun water bowls because the liquid is too still. This innate response protects cats from diseases in stagnant water. Unfortunately, the instinct remains strong even when indoors with fresh, clean bowls. It’s one of the reasons cats love drinking from the tap. They’re drawn to moving water. As a result, monitoring water consumption can be tricky. Instead of watching to see if your cat drinks regularly (they probably don’t), keep an eye on the litter box and the frequency of urination. Of course, this is much harder to do if your pet spends most of their time outdoors.
Unhealthy Littler Box Routines
If appetite is the first place to look for signs of sickness, the litter box is the second. It may be icky, but your cat’s bowel movements are a window into their health. You can tell a lot about an animal from the way they defecate, which is why vets regularly use fecal testing. Diarrhea is a lot more serious for cats than it is for humans, due to the difference in size. When a human has diarrhea, it’s no threat to their body composition. However, the smaller the cat, the bigger the risk of it ending in serious weight loss. So, don’t delay treatment. Vets advise an urgent appointment if diarrhea lasts for longer than 72 hours. When dealing with kittens, seek help after 24 hours of consistent sickness. The issue may be minor and fleeting, but you can’t know for sure until you’ve got the all clear.
Persistent Bad Breath
It’s rare for a cat’s breath to smell pleasant. After all, they eat fish and spend most of the day licking their private parts. However, persistent and offensively foul breath is unusual and may indicate a dietary or dental problem. These issues require attention, but they’re probably not urgent. The exception is if you spot blood in your cat’s mouth or around feeding bowls. It may be a sign of periodontal disease. Your pet could be in pain and have trouble eating. Or, they may be suffering from a minor bout of gastric reflux. In either case, make an appointment with the vet. Not all owners clean their cat’s teeth, but it is strongly recommended by animal experts. If you don’t know how to do this, just ask for a quick demonstration while at the vet. In the meantime, feed your feline treats designed to support dental health.
Excessive or Insufficient Grooming
Again, this next symptom is typical of cats, insofar as they tend to overcompensate or underperform when sick. For instance, excessive grooming can be an indicator of several different problems, from parasites to bladder discomfort, and even intense anxiety. It’s not common, but some cats get sick and groom so excessively that they start to rub the fur away. If you spot this compulsive behavior in your animal, consult with a vet. On the other hand, a sudden lack of grooming is a clear sign that your pet just isn’t feeling right. It is usually accompanied by a total change in mood and demeanor. For example, a previously playful and energetic cat may grow listless and tired. Certainly, if a feline is in pain, it will have less of interest in staying well groomed.
Constant Meowing and Yowling
Many cat owners associate meowing with happiness because happy moggies are often vocal and expressive. This isn’t necessarily the case though, as meowing is a form of communication. In fact, it’s really the only way your pet can make themselves understood. So, don’t assume a vocal cat must be expressing happiness, especially if some of their behaviors have changed in recent days. Oftentimes, a quiet cat begins to vocalize because they’re in pain or sick and need help from their owner. Of course, some cats are just big talkers. Others like to stay quiet. Again, what you’re looking for is unexplained change. If a peaceful pet starts to yowl, try to investigate and see if there is an underlying problem. Ultimately, just stay in touch with what your cat is trying to tell you.
Difficulty Walking and Jumping
Healthy cats in the prime of life should have no trouble leaping 5-7 times their own height. Older pets naturally slow down a bit. The more advanced their age, the less inclination they have to be bounding across rooms and jumping impressive distances. Yet, even older cats should have little trouble climbing stairs and getting to their favorite lounging spots. If you do notice difficulty with walking or clambering, spend a few days monitoring their behavior. Check to see if they’re favoring one leg and avoiding others. For the most part, it is older pets that develop chronic issues with movement. If your animal is young and otherwise healthy, check them for injuries. Outdoor cats get into fights, and they can come away with serious wounds.
Domestic felines are prey animals. When they are sick or injured, their instinct tells them to hide the fact so predators cannot take advantage. It’s one of the reasons cats can be so difficult to diagnose. Even when they’re seriously sick, many felines are great at hiding the signs. One indication of poor health is a change in social habits. Often, poorly cats withdraw completely. Just like humans, they don’t always want to be around people when they’re under the weather. Your pet may hide in dark, inaccessible spots around the house. Or, if you have a very close and trusting relationship, your cat might seek you out for comfort. They may become excessively clingy and follow you around the house yowling and meowing. Before getting frustrated with this behavior, just check to see if anything may be wrong.
Cloudy, Sticky Eyes
You can tell a surprising amount from the condition of a cat’s eyes. When there are issues with the eyes themselves, it’s usually obvious. For instance, if your pet has sustained an injury during a fight or while climbing, the poorly eye will likely be squeezed shut. Certainly, if there is pain, the cat will close the damaged eye. This can make it hard to get a proper look. If you’re not sure of the nature or the severity of the issue, you may want to wait for a day or two before calling a vet. Some conditions, like minor obstructions, fix themselves. However, a direct injury requires medical attention. If your cat continues to protect the eye and is reluctant to open it, get them to the vet. Similarly, if their third eyelid is clearly visible and covering a large proportion of the eyeball for an extended period, seek professional advice.
The thing about cats is they’re prone to bouts of vomiting. It’s just something they do. Hairballs, picking up food from the floor, eating too quickly, and being handled roughly after meals can all cause a feline to evacuate their stomach. For the most part, it is nothing to worry about. You should only be concerned if vomiting occurs repeatedly. Most cats are sick just a few times a month, maybe more if they’re outside and exposed to dirt and germs. They should not be vomiting multiple times a day, over several days. Again, there is no need to panic unless your pet is showing other signs of sickness such as lethargy and a loss of appetite. If this is the case, seek treatment immediately. Otherwise, keep a close eye on them and, if the problem persists, get them to the vet.
Straining to Urinate
Unfortunately, cats are susceptible to bladder dysfunction. Bladder infections are quite common, but they’re very treatable. They must be addressed, however. As with humans, bladder problems are quick to fix and only become life-threatening if left to advance. Some signs of a bladder dysfunction include increased frequency of urination and signs of painful urination. For instance, a cat may visibly strain and vocalize while voiding because they are in great discomfort. Males are particularly vulnerable, so watch for changes. Some pets alert you to the problem in the only way they know how, by peeing or pooping in the wrong place. This can be annoying, but it’s important not to judge your cat too harshly. Felines are naturally clean animals. Aberrant behaviors are usually an indication they’re unhappy with something.
Dull and Matted Fur
Healthy cats have shiny, silky coats that feel soft to the touch. When they get sick, physical resources may need to be diverted away from this outside layer and used to fight pain or infection. Thus, pets that have been under the weather for a while may have dull, tough fur. The cause may be relatively minor, but there’s only one way to rule out more serious conditions like kidney and intestinal diseases. Book a non-urgent appointment with your vet, unless the rough coat is accompanied by other symptoms. Dehydration is one explanation for a rapid change in fur quality. In healthy, hydrated pets, the coat is shiny, soft, and elastic. You can test this by pulling gently at the folds of fur on top of the neck. They should pull out easily and snap back quickly. Reduced elasticity may mean your cat is seriously dehydrated.
Unexplained Lumps and Bumps
Swellings of any kind should be checked out as quickly as possible. In outdoor cats, the most common cause is a wound from fighting or climbing. Most are treatable, but care must be sought immediately to ensure the injury does not become infected. Tumors are possible at any age, but they are more prevalent in older felines. As your pet ages, the vet will tailor their inspections to meet developing needs. Most check for lumps as a cat gets older and the risk of cancer increases. Don’t assume all lumps and tumors are cancerous. Oftentimes, these growths are entirely benign. Depending on its size and location, it may still need to be removed, but there is no risk from a benign tumor. Cancer, on the other hand, must be caught early for the best chance of survival.
Cats are not like dogs. They have no need to pant or breathe excessively with their mouths. They may do this for a brief time after physical exertion, but their breathing should settle down very quickly. In felines, persistent panting is a sign the respiratory system is not working efficiently. If you’re concerned about this, spend a few days watching your cat and see if it is a persistent problem. You may have just caught your animal at a funny moment or spotted them immediately after jumping, leaping, or bounding. Keep an eye out for repeat episodes. Certainly, cats should not be panting and excessively mouth breathing while relaxing at home. Consult with a vet if you see this happening, particularly in very young cats. It could be the circulatory or respiratory organs have not developed in the correct way.
Sleeping All the Time
This is a tricky problem because anybody who owns cats will know they sleep for an enormous amount of their lives. In fact, it’s perfectly normal for a healthy cat to sleep up to 20 hours per day, with only a few hours of activity. Though, every animal is different. Also, cats are crepuscular. So, you may not see them during their most active phases. They sleep through the day and only come alive in the twilight hours. Nevertheless, if your cat suddenly starts sleeping more than usual or at different times, be on the lookout. For instance, some sick animals become disorientated and start sleeping through the night and becoming excessively vocal during the day. Just be on alert for unexplained changes. Even the laziest of felines wake up when they smell food or hear their owner at the door.
If your pet has been acting different lately, see if you can pick them up and have a look at their teeth. Whether or not you can do this will depend on how wriggly and evasive your animal wants to be. The best approach is to try when they’re feeling relaxed and happy. With a gentle hand, lift your cat’s mouth to expose the gum tissue. Press softly against the gums with a clean fingertip. In a healthy cat, the mouth is a rosy pink color. When you press and release, the pink shade returns quickly as blood rushes back to the area. If this does not happen, your cat could be dehydrated. It’s not an exact science though, so try not to worry unless you have spotted other concerning symptoms. If the gum tissue is bluish or yellow though, take your pet to the vet. Yellow gums can be a sign of kidney disease.
Persistent Coughing and Sneezing
Gums with a bluish tinge may indicate respiratory problems, especially when accompanied by a persistent cough or fits of sneezing. All cats sneeze and wheeze a little sometimes, but it shouldn’t be happening all the time. Conditions like asthma, lung, and heart disease are usually treatable as long they are diagnosed at an early stage. Healthy cats have no trouble breathing. The heart rate and rate of inhalation slow quickly after physical exertion. The gums are a rosy pink color. Persistent sneezing may just be a sign that your cat is allergic to something. Often, the dust from litter trays gets into the nose and causes wheezing. Try swapping your current litter for a less dusty, less abrasive product.
Nagging Concerns and Worries
It can be hard to know for sure if a cat really is sick. However, vets never penalize owners for getting it wrong. While it’s important to be sensible and realistic about day to day issues, an expert is not going to be angry if you take a pet in and there’s nothing amiss. It’s always better to be safe than sorry. Cats are small animals. They are remarkably resilient, but their size makes them vulnerable. Even seemingly trivial conditions can progress quickly and turn into serious threats. So, if you’re genuinely concerned, give your vet a call.