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How To Tell If Your Cat Is Sick

Cats are clever, particularly at masking disease. There’s an ethological explanation for this skill. In the wild the ancestors of today’s domestic cats are both predator 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, if cats don’t tell us they’re not feeling so great, how can you tell? Here are a few subtle things to look out for (remember, if you suspect your cat may be ill you should always consult your veterinarian):

  1. Changes in Interactions: Anytime there is a change in behavior, that’s a red flag that something is up, behaviorally or medically or both. For example, if your previously clingy kitty is acting uncharacteristically aloof or a more independent cat suddenly transforms into “Velcro kitty,” something is up.
  2. Changes in Activity: All cats are creatures of habit. Any decrease or even increase in activity and/or changes in the cats daily routine, is a potential sign of a medical condition. For instance, arthritis is far more common in cats than previously suspected (JVMA). Don’t wait for a cat to say “it hurts.” However, if your cat isn’t jumping up on the counter as often, don’t be so fast to credit yourself as a good cat trainer after 12 years of trying. Likewise, in an older cat, an increase in activity may be a clue that kitty is hyperthyroid.
  3. Changes in Eating Habits: Contrary to popular belief, most cats are not finicky eaters. If a kitty begins to eat less (and this doesn’t typically happen overnight, it’s gradual), it could be a sign of dental and or gum disorders, even diabetes, cancer or kidney disease to name a few possibilities. Cats who are hungrier may also have a medical problem.
  4. Bad Breath: If those pearly whites don’t smell fresh as a daisy, there may be dental and/or gum issue. Bad breath may also be related to a digestive disorder or kidney disease.
  5. Changes in Water Intake: Drinking more water or drinking less water can be an indicator of health problems, ranging from diabetes to kidney disease – even arthritis if the water is located up or down the stairs.
  6. Gaining or Losing Weight: A change of two pounds within four months is quite significant and can mean kidney disease, diabetes, hyperthyroid disease or cancer.
  7. Not so Neat: Cats are fastidious groomers, letting themselves go – even just a little bit — may be related to stress, pain, skin conditions and/or arthritis. Over grooming is clearly a sign of a problem. The same conditions listed above as well as allergies may be responsible.
  8. Changes in Sleep: From catnapping more often to awakening overnight, the explanation may be anything from intestinal issues, hyperthyroid disease, high blood pressure, pain to age-related feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome.
  9. Becoming Less or More Opinionated: Wallflowers who begin to vocalize or cats who howl overnight may be doing so as a result of any number of medical problems, such as feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome, hearing loss, pain, high blood pressure, hyperthyroid disease or anxiety.
  10. Inappropriate Elimination: Cats do have accidents as a result of behavioral related issues, but very often there’s also a medical explanation which contributes. Any time a cat has accidents more than a few times, it’s appropriate to contact your veterinarian. Explanations include (but aren’t limited) to diabetes, interstitial cystitis, kidney stones, hyperthyroid disease, kidney disease, arthritis (it hurts to step into the box), gastrointestinal issues (if the cat is “pooping” outside the box) and feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome.

Even the most observant cat parents don’t notice changes, partially it’s because 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.]

Steve Dale, a certified dog and cat behavior consultant, is the host of the nationally syndicated radio shows Steve Dale’s Pet World and The Pet Minute with Steve Dale.

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