How to tell if your cat is sick

How to tell if your cat is sick

Imagine you’re both a hunter for the food that sustains you, but also prey for larger species. This is how cats evolved, and explains much of why they keep secrets in order to survive. Sick cats are masters at hiding their illnesses because if they show weakness to a predator, today may be their last.

When I was in veterinary school, the focus in small animal (pet) practice was on dogs, with only an occasional mention about what was “different” about cats. Thankfully, this has changed and veterinary students now learn much more about feline medicine and surgery. 
I chose to specialize in cats early in my career. Cats require a different approach. They generally respond better to quiet voices and slow, gentle handling, so I’ve built my practice around those needs. I am one of about 90 feline specialists certified through the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners. As a feline specialist, I ask “why” the cat is showing certain signs, as well as what the problems are, to find a solution. Sometimes, this may mean lower costs for testing because I have a better understanding of and empathy for feline behavior.For example, my client Suzanne brought in her cat Cleo, concerned because her cat wasn’t eating well. Her physical exam was normal, so I asked if there were any recent changes in the home. I could hear the stress in Suzanne’s voice as she described hosting relatives during the holiday weekend, so I wasn’t surprised when I learned Cleo spent much of the weekend hiding. 
We discussed doing nothing but let Cleo set her own pace, as long as her appetite picked up. Cleo soon returned to her regular appetite and activities.

Sometimes, however, problems are life-threatening. Signs of emergencies include: difficulty breathing, prolonged bleeding or straining in the litter box. If you observe these signs, your cat should be seen right away. More subtle signs that your cat should be seen by a veterinarian include:

Inappropriate elimination (changes in urine or stool, or voiding outside the litter box)Changes in interaction (such as when your cat is hiding more than interacting with you)Changes in sleeping habits (one of the most common signs of sickness in cats is sleeping more)Changes in food and water consumption (this can be 
challenging to detect when 
there is more than one cat in 
the household) Changes in grooming 
(such as when the cat’s coat is no longer shiny and becomes matted, or you notice more dandruff)Changes in vocalization (sometimes, older cats will vocalize more at night as their vision and hearing decline, but this can also be a sign of a thyroid problem that can be corrected with medication)

The first veterinarian I worked for said cats hate being sick and will fight to get better as soon as possible. This helps explain why their health problems can go undetected for a long time, and why 
cats often are quite sick by the time I see them.

Communicating with my clients and teaching them the early warning signs of illness helps keep their cats comfortable and happy.B

Dr. Dale Rubenstein owns highly rated A Cat Clinic in Boyds, Md. She is certified in feline practice by the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners and is co-president of the Montgomery County Veterinary Medical Association.


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Dr. Jen Olson says biannual checks for older cats can catch treatable problems early. (Photo courtesy of Alamo Feline Health Center)

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