Tips for Managing Cat Illnesses

Top 5 Serious Cat Illnesses Only Your Vet Can Diagnose

Cardiomyopathy: The most common form of heart disease and sudden death in indoor cats, cardiomyopathy has few visible symptoms. But Judi H.’s vet heard something during her cat’s checkup. “My vet found a heart murmur when my cat was 7 that wasn’t there when she was 6,” Judi says. “It turned out to be cardiomyopathy, which we treated and she lived to be 16. Even if your cats are inside, they should go to the vet every year. Mine are only inside, but if my vet hadn’t found that murmur, my cat would have been dead by the age of 8.”

Hyperthyroidism: Overactive thyroid disease is the most common glandular problem in cats. It may cause weight loss, increased appetite and thirst — but not always, and those symptoms can be easy to miss. Amy M. says, “During Zoe’s routine senior blood workup, the vet found she was hyperthyroid — it was still in its early stages. This was when she was 12. She had radioactive iodine therapy and now my elder kitty is 18 and still going strong. Those routine tests can be worth every penny.”

Kidney Disease: Because it causes gradual changes such as a dry coat, weight loss and bad breath, you might not recognize the symptoms of kidney disease—a common and potentially serious condition if left untreated. “I was taking my cat in to get her teeth cleaned,” says Becky I. “[Kidney disease] showed up on the blood screening they do before anesthesia. My girl lived to be 15 years, 8 months.”

Urinary Crystals or Blockage: If your cat suddenly starts peeing outside the litter box, or straining painfully when he tries to urinate, he may have crystals in his urine, which, left untreated, can cause a blockage and even death. But Melanie L.’s regular trip to the vet spared her cat the pain of a blockage by detecting crystals early. “We found out my male cat had crystals from doing routine work,” she says. “We would never have known otherwise! It kept a potentially very bad thing from getting worse.” Diabetes: Banfield Pet Hospital reports that diabetes in cats has increased 16% since 2006. But the early signs of disease — a big appetite, frequent urination, increased thirst and weight loss — can be easy to overlook, and might not be present at all. “I thought my Abbikitty was just slowing down, getting older; she’s 11,” says Sue P. It turned out her cat had diabetes. “Now that she is on her special diet, she acts like a kitten again!”  

10 Subtle Signs of Illness in Cats

Changes in Interactions: A previously clingy cat acting uncharacteristically aloof, or an independent cat transforming into “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 awaking 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 may be 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.

Additional Signs: 

  • Inappropriate elimination/”going” outside the litter box
  • Infrequent urination or constipation lasting more than 24 hours
  • Vomiting (digested food or bile, not hairballs/undigested food), diarrhea or blood in urine or stool
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Lack of appetite or sudden weight loss
  • Unexplained weight gain
  • Bleeding, tenderness, redness, swelling or open sores
  • Atypical vocalizing, such as loud yowling
  • Fever of 103°F or higher
  • Inability to walk or persistent limping
  • Dry, sticky mouth, loss of skin elasticity, slow capillary refill time, sunken eyeballs, muscle twitches, or cold paw pads, which indicate dehydration

Be observant as you care for your cat each day. When your cat suddenly starts acting or looking different, it may be time to seek medical help.  

When to Call the Veterinarian

If something is wrong, it’s best to catch it early so it can be treated right away. Your veterinarian helps to identify potential health problems at your cat’s annual exam, but it’s also very important to do your part at home between visits. During weekly grooming sessions, carefully look over your cat’s body. Become familiar with the signs of normal health, and you’ll know when something doesn’t look right. Here’s What to Look For:

  • Body should have a healthy weight: the ribs should be felt but not prominently seen.
  • Skin and coat should be free of odor, grease, dandruff, lumps, bald spots, cuts and irritations.
  • Eyes should be bright and clear, with no discoloration, cloudiness or heavy discharge, and the third eyelid should not be noticeable or inflamed
  • Ears should be clean, pink and odorless.
  • Mouth should contain white teeth, pink gums with no redness or swelling, and no bad breath.
  • Nose should be clean and not runny.
  • Paws should be free of any cuts or scrapes, and nails should be trimmed.
  • Under the tail should be clean, with no redness, bumps or colored discharge.

No one knows your cat better than you. Trust your gut. When she’s not acting like herself, give your veterinarian a call. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.