We have all heard the saying that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” When it comes to cats and early diagnosis of disease, this saying has never been truer.
When we focus on preventive care in cats, much like ourselves, we appreciate that a big part of that is going to the doctor (veterinarian) for a “check-up.” But what happens to us after we have had a check-up? Even if healthy, on a regular basis, our family doctors will run blood work on us. The likelihood of blood work being done increases as we get older. The purpose of regular blood work is, not only catch diseases before they become serious enough to show symptoms, but to help establish individual baselines. To have the same level of purrfect preventive care in our feline friends, we also need to focus on establishing baselines (aka running lab work) on a regular basis as well.
What is a baseline and why is it important? To know if a lab test is normal or abnormal, we compare the number to something called the reference range. Reference ranges were made by averaging the blood test results of apparently healthy individuals. Much like our family doctors, your veterinarian will know if Kitty’s test results are “normal” or “abnormal” by comparing them to the reference range of healthy cats. But what if mine or my cat’s normal is not the same as everyone else’s normal?! This is where baseline blood work comes in. A baseline helps veterinarians (and doctors) determine what is normal for an individual cat (or person) when they are healthy. If a patient becomes sick, we can compare back to this baseline to know how things have changed. Much like in the human world, cat lab work includes blood, urine, and fecal analysis.
What does a blood test tell us? If a physical examination tells a doctor how an organ feels, blood work tells doctors how an organ is working. As organ function changes at the cell level first, lab work can catch disease processes before we can feel changes in the shape or structure of the organ itself. The organs we look at the most in cats include the liver, pancreas, and kidneys. In older cats, we will also look at the thyroid gland for signs of increased activity (hyperthyroidism). Apart from organ function, blood work also looks at red and white cell counts.
Red cell counts are used to look for signs of anemia. Although anemia can happen in blood loss, it is more often due to chronic disease in cats (like kidney disease). White cell counts looks at the total number of white cells as well as a differential. A white cell differential takes the total number and divides it up into the five most common types of white cells. These white cells can go up or down because of stress but also because of different diseases and in allergic reactions.
Urine is fantastic at assessing kidney function, ruling out diabetes, and looking at urinary health in cats in general. Compared to people, cat urine is naturally very, very concentrated. This is why cleaning the litter box out will bring tears to the eyes from the ammonia smell! At this level of concentration, cats can develop urinary crystals and stones, which may show up as blood in the sample. Catching crystals and stones early will not only lead to a happier bladder but also reduce the risk of a cat peeing outside the litter box.
Fecal analysis is done more often in animal medicine compared to human medicine. Fecal analysis can help detect worm eggs as well as diseases. Depending on the local environment (worm risk), fecal analysis for parasites may be considered part of our baseline workup.
As with any cat care question, your veterinary team is there to help support and guide you. It always amazes me how human and veterinary medicine follows the same goals and principles in preventive care. Doctors look to lab work and baseline testing to better predict how to care for us, as patients, as we age. Your veterinarian can give the same level of care to your purrfect cat friend as well.
This article was sponsored by IDEXX and written by Cat Healthy feline specialist Dr. Liz Ruelle, DVM, DABVP