Subtle Signs & Symptoms Your Cat Is Sick

Sleeping cat

Cats outnumber dogs in the U.S. by about 15 million, according to the CATalyst Council. But cats receive less frequent veterinary care than dogs, and their signs of illness are often more subtle than their canine counterparts.

Dogs are more than twice as likely to visit the veterinarian than cats are. 

Cats are clever, particularly at masking disease. There’s an etiological explanation for this skill. In the wild, the ancestors of today’s domestic cats are both predators and prey. If a wild cat shows weakness, it’s not long before that individual becomes dinner for a predator. The same holds true for community cats who reside outdoors, and though predators aren’t an issue for our pet cats – they inherit the same intrinsic need to hide weakness.

So, is my cat sick? How can you tell? What can cat parents do? Familiarize cats early and regularly with cat carriers, take cats to the vet for routine care, and learn how to tell if your cat is sick.

Here are subtle signs your cat is sick and what to look out for (remember, if you suspect your cat may be ill you should always consult your veterinarian):

Sick Cat Symptoms

Changes in interactions: A previously clingy cat acting uncharacteristically aloof, or an independent cat transforming into a “Velcro kitty” are examples.

Changes in activity: A decrease or increase in activity and change in the cat’s daily routine are red flags — of arthritis, for example, which is far more common in cats than previously thought. So a cat who jumps on furniture less often is a potential sign.

Changes in chewing or eating habits: Contrary to popular belief, most cats are not finicky eaters. Look for changes, an increase or decrease, in a cat’s food intake. Eating less can signify several disorders, including dental problems. Increased appetite may mean diabetes or hyperthyroidism.

Changes in water intake: Drinking more or less can indicate a cat health problem, such as diabetes or kidney disease.

Unexpected weight loss or weight gain: Weight doesn’t always go up or down with a change in appetite. Cats with diabetes or hyperthyroidism, for example, may lose weight even if they eat more.

Bad breath: If those pearly whites don’t smell sweet as a daisy, something may be rotten in the mouth, or perhaps kidney disease or a digestive disorder.

Changes in grooming habits: Fastidious groomers letting themselves go — even just a bit — is a sure sign of potential illness. Over-grooming may be related to stress, pain, or allergies.

Changes in sleeping habits: From catnapping more to waking in the middle of the night, the explanation may be pain and/or illness, perhaps associated with aging.

Changes in vocalization: Wallflowers that begin to offer sermons or cat howling overnight may be doing so as a result of a medical condition. Possible explanations include hyperthyroidism, hypertension (high blood pressure), or anxiety.

Signs of stress: Cats dislike changes more than anything. Changes in your family’s schedule, new pets coming or going, or even rearranging the furniture can cause stress. A cat that isn’t feeling well maybe anxious as a result. Geriatric cats may be especially prone to stress. Anxious cats might exhibit behavioral changes (such as missing the litter box). Anxiety requires the same professional attention as diabetes or a heart condition.

See more subtle signs that your cat may be sick.

Even the most observant cat parents don’t notice changes, partially it’s because as mentioned earlier, cats are so good about faking us out and we see them every day so subtle changes are hard to notice. And truly, I don’t know any cat parent who can do blood work at home or carries around a stethoscope. Often, by the time cat parents realize their cat isn’t “acting normal,” the cat’s actually been sick for some time, so treatment may be more difficult and more expensive.

This is why preventive care, twice-a-year veterinary visits are so important.  [Learn more about how to make those visits easier.] If your cat or your cats have not seen the veterinarian in six months, I suggest you make an appointment, even if your cats seem healthy. It’s the best investment you can make.

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