It happens all too often — by the time an owner realizes her cat is sick, the cat is very sick. Cats tend to hide their illnesses, and they even hide themselves when they're ill. But many problems are best treated when they're caught early, which means you are your cat's most important health care provider. You're the one who sees him every day and decides when he needs to see the veterinarian. Don't ignore what he's trying to tell you — or trying not to tell you. Here are just a few of the clues you should look for.
The most common sign of illness in some cats is hiding in a quiet, out-of-the-way place. Sick cats often lie quietly in a hunched position.
They might neglect grooming. They may be purring, which cats do not only when they're happy, but also when they're sick or in pain. A cat with breathing difficulties may refuse to lie on his side and may keep his head raised. Cats with neurological problems may be confused, have seizures or press their heads into furniture or walls. This is not the head butting that cats do on your leg affectionately but rather prolonged pressing on a surface.
Cats who don't feel well usually don't want to eat. Some illnesses, however, can cause increased appetite, so don't ignore your suddenly ravenous cat. Increased thirst and urination may indicate kidney disease, diabetes or other illness. Frequent, sudden attempts to urinate, especially if only small amounts are produced or if accompanied by signs of pain (including meowing or straining in the litterbox), may indicate a urinary tract infection or blockage. Inability to urinate is a life-threatening emergency that is all too common in cats, especially males.
If your cat regurgitates food soon after eating, he may have a problem. Vomiting food after it’s been in the stomach can indicate poisoning, blockage or a host of other problems. If your cat vomits for more than a few hours or vomits repeatedly for more than a day, she probably needs to see a vet. And if any vomiting episode is accompanied by lethargy, diarrhea or reluctance to move, you should seek medical attention. When in doubt, it is always better to call the vet instead of waiting to see what will happen.
Diarrhea can result from nervousness, a change in diet or water, food sensitivities, intestinal parasites, infections, poisoning or many illnesses. Watery diarrhea, diarrhea with blood, or diarrhea accompanied by vomiting or other signs of illness warrants a call to the veterinarian. Cats commonly become constipated. They may strain to defecate; cry or meow in the litterbox; pass only small, hard feces; or pass small amounts of watery feces. Examine your cat's litterbox to make sure he's defecating as he should be.
Coughing can be caused by a variety of conditions, including foreign bodies, hairballs, allergies, asthma, tumors, heart disease, lung disease or several contagious illnesses. If coughing persists for more than a day, don't wait — contact your veterinarian. If your cat is coughing over and over, has difficulty breathing or has bluish gums, he needs to see his veterinarian immediately.
If you suspect a problem, check the gums. They should be a deep pink, and if you press with your thumb, they should return to pink within two seconds after you lift your thumb. Very pale gums or slow relinking may indicate anemia, shock or poor circulation. Bluish gums or tongue can mean a life-threatening lack of oxygen. Bright red gums may indicate overheating or carbon monoxide poisoning, and yellow gums could be a sign of jaundice. Tiny red splotches may indicate a blood-clotting problem. Tooth and gum problems often cause bad breath and pain, with redness around the gum line.
To take your cat’s temperature, lubricate a rectal thermometer (petroleum jelly or personal lubricant are both OK to use) and insert it 1 to 1.5 inches into the cat's rectum. Depending on the thermometer, leave it there from 10 seconds to a minute. The normal temperature for a cat is 100 to 103 degrees, averaging 101 degrees. If the temperature is 104 degrees or above, or 99 degrees or below, call your veterinarian for advice; if it’s 105 degrees or above, or 96 degrees or below, go to your veterinarian.
When in doubt, call your veterinarian. A false alarm is better than ignoring the symptoms of a sick cat.