Understanding Your Cat’s Health: Subtle Signs of Illness

Understanding Your Cat’s Health: Subtle Signs of Illness

Cats are not just small dogs; we are taught this simple, and seemingly obvious, fact  repeatedly in veterinary school. We are reminded daily that cats have their own unique  medical, environmental, and social requirements and communicate much differently than  other pets. Likewise, when they are sick, they often have different signs they may display that can be difficult to understand.  

A quick sidenote: Within the veterinary field, and throughout this blog, you will often hear  veterinarians refer to “signs of illness” in pets and not “symptoms of illness.” Since symptoms  are defined as self-reported changes, it is not possible for our non-verbal pets to have  symptoms from a medical standpoint. Instead, we commonly refer to “signs” or “clinical  signs” which are changes in behavior, patterns, or physical examination that can indicate  illness or injury. 

As an AAFP Certified Cat Friendly Practice, we take pride in our knowledge of recognizing  signs of stress and discomfort in cats. Our staff is trained in cat-specific needs and diseases, allowing us to translate what behavior changes you see at home and help determine if  something is affecting your cat’s health. 

So how can you tell if your cat may be sick or injured? Here are some guidelines that can  help you recognize there’s a problem before it becomes serious.  

1. A change in pattern. Cats are creatures of habit. They like to keep their routines  more or less the same from day to day. Are they suddenly eating and/or drinking less  or more? Are you scooping more urine clumps out of the litter box? Are you seeing  more matted, greasy or flaky fur indicating they are not grooming? Are they  struggling to jump up onto counters or sofas or hesitating to walk up the stairs?  These can all be signs of a variety of different illnesses, ranging from dental disease  and arthritis to hyperthyroidism or kidney disease.  

2. Hiding. Cats are mid-level predators, meaning from an evolutionary standpoint, they  are both hunted and are hunters. They generally do not want to show signs of illness  or injury, so to avoid drawing attention to themselves, they will retreat to a safe hiding spot. Where a dog in pain may tremble, whine, or seek attention if they are hurting, a  cat may just hunker down and wait for the pain to go away.  

3. Respiratory rate. Has their breathing changed at all? Are they coughing or  sneezing, Are they “trying to bring up hairballs” but not producing anything? Is their breathing more rapid than normal? A sleeping or resting cat, that is not purring,  should have less than thirty breaths per minute. Are you seeing increased abdominal  movements when breathing? Will your cat lay on their side or only rest sitting up? Are  they breathing more rapidly, especially after eating? These can be signs of heart or  lung disease and should be addressed immediately. 

4. Hairballs/Vomiting. Is your cat regularly vomiting? Do you see hairballs more than  once a month? Though cats groom and ingest hair, their digestive systems have  evolved to handle hair ingestion. While there is not a specific agreement from  veterinary specialists on how much vomiting is considered “normal,” if you find  yourself cleaning up vomit, spit-up, or hairballs on a weekly or daily basis, your cat  should be examined. They may have food sensitivity, an inflammatory disease of  their intestines, chronic pancreatitis, or another underlying disorder. 

5. Bathroom Habits. Is your cat urinating or defecating outside of the litter box? Are  they struggling to jump up onto counters or sofas or hesitating to walk up the stairs? Many cats suffer from painful joint disease, especially as they age which can cause  them to avoid taking the long trek to the litterbox or shy away from countertop naps.  We have more therapies than ever to help an ageing cat have less daily pain and  improve their mobility or quality of life. Urinating outside the litterbox can also indicate  a bladder infection or a painful and potentially life threatening (especially for male  cats) bladder disorder called idiopathic cystitis.  

6. Trust your gut. Does something just seem off? We know the strong bond that forms  with our pets, and we are especially attuned to their nuances. If something seems  wrong or different, trust your instincts and have your cat examined.  

Working with your observations at home, we can perform diagnostics like digital radiographs,  complete urinalyses, fecal testing, comprehensive blood work including blood gases and  thyroid levels, and many other procedures to get to the root cause of what is bothering your  cat. 

At L&L Animal Urgent Care, our staff is trained to translate the subtle changes you report in  your cat’s behavior. By keeping track of your pet’s normal day to day routines and behaviors,  you are taking the first step in diagnosing potential illnesses and injuries. We are here to  help; please don’t hesitate to have your feline friend examined if you are seeing any of the  signs mentioned above.