Most cat owners know that cats are experts at hiding signs of illness. It’s a good strategy for a cat living in the wild, as predators view an obviously sick animal as easy prey. But for a domestic cat, hiding illness from the people they live with is not always a good strategy, because it means they don’t get the help they need. So, how can you pick up on the subtle clues that all is not well with your kitty?
For kittens, illness is usually pretty obvious. Your normally crazy little mischief-maker stops playing and sleeps rather than tearing around your house. This doesn’t necessarily indicate a life-threatening illness (for example, some kittens will act like this the day after a vaccination) but it does indicate that something is going on, and a phone call to your veterinarian is definitely in order.
Cats tend to sleep more as they get older, making it difficult to tell the difference between a lazy, contented cat and a cat that isn’t feeling well. Watch your cat’s position – is she stretched out or curled into a ball (both of these are normal), or is she sitting hunched up (which could indicate abdominal pain)? Is he sleeping in abnormal places, for example, under the bed instead of in his favourite chair? These can be signs that your kitty is under the weather.
Cats love routines. They tend to eat at predictable times and interact with their owners in familiar ways. Changes in these routines can be a sign of illness. For example, if your cat normally comes to you for a bedtime snack or treat, and one evening seems to have no interest, this could indicate an illness or a reaction to something in the house that is causing stress.
A cat should be seen by a veterinarian if they experience unexplained weight loss (for example, weight loss without food restriction or increases in activity). For many chronic diseases, such as hyperthyroidism or lymphoma, weight loss is often the only sign, particularly in the early stages. Know your cat’s normal weight, and monitor it regularly. Standing on a good digital scale with and without your cat is the easiest way to do this at home.
It’s a good idea to clean urine clumps and poop out of the litter box daily – not just because your cat will appreciate a nice clean box, but also because you’ll have a good idea of what is normal for your cat. Watch for smaller than normal urine clumps, which could indicate a painful bladder. An increase in the number or size of urine clumps could indicate early kidney disease or diabetes.
Most cats pass at least one stool daily. It should be tube shaped (not a cow pie) and slightly moist. In older cats, constipation is a common problem – if your cat’s poops are infrequent, dry, and hard, speak to your veterinarian as the cause should be investigated and treated.
Osteoarthritis is very common in older cats, and the early signs can be subtle: the normally fluid movements become stiff and a cat that used to jump up on a chair now waits to be lifted (or finds a circuitous route to get up there). Talk to your veterinarian. Pain control medications are now available that can help arthritic kitties get around better. But beware: over-the-counter drugs such as ibuprofen that are commonly used by people may be harmful or fatal to cats.
Heart disease is unfortunately common in cats. There is a quick test you can do at home to check if active heart disease is present. Simply count your cat’s breathing rate when he or she is asleep. Each “in and out” breath counts as 1, and a sleeping cat’s respiratory rate should be less than 30 per minute (or less than 15 breaths in 30 seconds). The breathing should be slow and relaxed with only a small amount of chest movement. If your cat’s breathing rate when asleep is elevated, you should see your vet, as it could indicate heart, lung or chest disease.
If your cat will allow you to do so, comb or brush your kitty every day. Start when your cat is young so they get accustomed to it, and be gentle. Your cat may have favourite spots to be brushed (for example the side of the face) but will let you know if he or she doesn’t appreciate being brushed in some areas. Do what you can, and take a look in the ears and at the nails. Changes such as hair loss, scabs, or overgrown nails are easily missed if you aren’t looking!
Last but not least, remember regular visits to the veterinarian can help you prevent illness or detect it earlier. Don’t wait until your cat is showing signs of illness.
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This article was written by feline specialist Dr. Diane McKelvey DVM, DABVP and sponsored by Boehringer Ingelheim.