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Breed & Health Resources

How to Tell if Your Cat is Sick

By Dr. Jacqueline Brister

cat hiding under bed

In the wild, predators hide their illnesses from other animals so they don’t become prey. Even though our pet cats are now domesticated, they too are predators and carry this natural instinct. Unfortunately, that makes it tough for pet owners to figure out if their kitty is sick. Here are some signs and symptoms that may mean your cat is ill or injured:

  • Hiding – Hiding is a common sign of a sick or injured cat. A cat will instinctively hide to avoid showing illness
  • Urinating and/or Defecating Outside the Litterbox – Going to the bathroom outside the litterbox can mean joint or bone pain because the box is too hard to get into to, urinary or gastrointestinal tract issues, stress from illness or the environment, or too tired (lethargic) to get to the litterbox
  • Not Eating – Cats tend to be picky eaters, but skipping meals and treats is definitely a sign that something is not normal
  • Not Grooming – When your cat stops giving their usual tongue bath, matted hair develops, or their toenails become long and curled, your cat may have stopped grooming. This can be an indicator that they don’t feel well or that they are in pain and it is too uncomfortable to perform these actions
  • Bleeding – Whether from the skin, mouth, nose, urinary tract, etc., bleeding is always cause for concern and should be checked by a veterinarian
  • Laying Around More Than Usual – We all know that cats love their naps, but an unusually lethargic cat can be a sign they’re not feeling well
  • Unusual Breathing/Struggling to Breathe – Snoring, rapid breathing, and breathing with the mouth open are all signs that something is up
  • Weight Loss – Losing weight is generally a cause for concern. If you are unsure if your cat is losing weight, you can weigh them on your home scale periodically
  • Runny Nose or Eyes/Sneezing – This can be a sign of upper respiratory illness (e.g. kitty cold), allergies, or poor grooming
  • Swelling Under Skin – Tumors and abscesses (i.e. a type of infection pocket under the skin) can cause areas of the skin to become swollen. Sometimes these areas ooze or become reddened
  • Painful Tummy – This could be a sign of gastrointestinal illness or issues with joints or internal organs
  • Vomiting & Diarrhea – While some cats do occasionally vomit (throw up or spit up), this is not generally normal for cats. Vomiting or diarrhea (loose stool) can be signs of a gastrointestinal issue
  • Anything Else Unusual – If your cat is acting weird, not themselves, or showing unusual behaviors, there may be something wrong. Get them check out at the vet to make sure they’re okay

Signs a Cat is Dying

Because it is common for cats to hide an illness, you may not be fully aware when they are dying. Cats can be sick from illnesses that lead to a slow death (e.g. cancer, kidney disease) or sudden death (e.g. eating poisonous plants, urinary tract blockage). Below are some signs that your cat is extremely sick and needs immediate veterinary care or intervention:

  • Not Responding to You – Lying in one place not responsive to touch or sounds can be a scary sign that something serious is going on with your kitty
  • Not Used the Bathroom for More than 24 Hours – If your cat has been unable to use the bathroom in more than 24 hours, this could mean they’re either unable to go (such as with a urinary tract blockage) or they are not taking in enough nutrients. Both situations warrant immediate veterinary attention
  • No Food or Water for More Than 48 Hours – Not eating or drinking anything for more than two days is not normal and should be addressed by a veterinarian ASAP
  • Extreme Weight Loss – Losing a huge amount of weight in a short period of time is often an indicator that a cat is dealing with a life-threatening condition. Some issues can be managed, so it is important to get your kitty to the vet before the weight loss worsens
  • Large Tumors – Large masses or tumors on a cat are often an indicator of serious cancer
  • Struggling to Breathe – If it looks like your cat is struggling to breathe, go to the veterinarian immediately

If your cat shows any signs or symptoms of illness, whether mild or life-threatening, call your veterinarian. Some issues can be fixed or managed (e.g. urinary tract disease, infections). Other issues (e.g. cancer) may lead to a discussion of humane euthanasia or hospice-type care to prevent your cat from suffering. Don’t be afraid to discuss your concerns with your veterinarian. End-of-life care and solving health issues are just as important to vets as they are to you and your pet.

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