How to Tell if Your Cat is Sick

PetMD Editorial
Updated: March 10, 2016
Published: February 22, 2016
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By Teresa K. Traverse

Cats are cunning creatures. Most are not known for showing their emotions, which can make it tough for caring pet owners to tell if their cat isn’t feeling well. Here are signs and symptoms you should look for to determine if your cat is indeed sick and at what point you should see a veterinarian.

Signs Your Cat is Sick

Overall, you’ll want to look for any changes in your cat’s normal routine or behavior. Any abrupt change that lasts for more than a few days may be an indicator of a more serious issue. Watch out for the following changes:

  • Decreased Movement: although many cat owners will attribute a decrease in activity to old age, it can actually be a sign of arthritis or other ailments, said Michelle Newfield, DVM at Gause Boulevard Veterinary Hospital in Slidell, Louisiana. If your cat is not jumping up on counters or running around after a toy like she used to, she may be experiencing joint pain.
  • Changes in Grooming Habits: if your cat suddenly stops grooming herself, take note, as an unkempt coat and poor grooming habits can be indicative of thyroid disease or a sign of poor health. You’ll also want to look for excessive itching or licking in addition to shedding or hair loss, says Christina Chambreau, DVM and associate editor of the Integrative Veterinary Care Journal. A dry, oily or lack-luster coat also can be a sign of larger issue.
  • Unusual Bowel Movements: Large or more frequent stools can be a sign of an internal disease or issue, Newfield said. Bloody stools should also be addressed immediately.
  • Changes in Attitude or Behavior: if your older cat starts acting spunkier, don’t rejoice too quickly, as over-active behavior might be a sign of hyperthyroidism, Newfield said. Additionally, if your cat is suddenly fearful, overly timid or rough, or you notice any major change in behavior, those also can be signs of a problem, Chambreau said.
  • Increased Hairballs or Vomit: unless the hairballs your cat coughed up are comprised completely of hair, chances are high that your cat actually vomited, Newfield said. Vomiting repeatedly can mean your cat has heartworm or other ailments.

Why Won’t My Cat Eat?

One of the biggest indicators of illness in cat? A change in appetite. A decrease in appetite could be caused by infection or liver disease, according to Newfield. If your cat is eating well but losing weight, you’ll want to watch out for that too. It can be a sign of early diabetes, hyperthyroidism or even cancers of the gastrointestinal tract.

Likewise, you’ll want to monitor thirst levels, Chambreau said. Drinking excessively or barely drinking any water can also be an indicator that your cat isn’t feeling well.

Over the Counter Medication to Watch Out For

Sometimes, a certain medication may be the culprit for making your cat feel sick. You’ll want to be careful with over-the-counter flea medication for cats, as Newfield said that she sometimes sees adverse reactions to those medicines. Reading the label of your cat’s flea and tick medication is essential, and cats should only be given cat-specific flea and tick prevention as dog-formulated medication can cause a cat to become ill.

In general, kittens or cats that have been living with other cats are more prone to ear mites, Newfield said. An older cat that has been living at home with you for years likely won’t have them, but if your cat does have ear mites, bring them to a veterinarian for an examination and prescription of an appropriate treatment rather than purchasing a store-bought treatment.

When to Seek Veterinary Care

If you cat is exhibiting any of the above symptoms, speak to your veterinarian immediately. Usually, by the time a cat is exhibiting signs of being sick, they’ll need to see a veterinarian because they’ve been covering up their illness until that point, Newfield said.

Many cats will pass upper respiratory infections naturally, so you notice your cat sneezing, wait to see if your cat heals on his or her own. If you notice discharge, however, bring your cat in, Newfield said.

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