Recognize Signs of Illness in Cats | VCA Animal Hospitals (2023)

My cat looks fine. Could there be a problem?

Although cats are predators, in the wild larger predators prey on them. Since sick or old animals are easy targets, any obvious sign of illness will alert other predators that the animal is ill. Therefore, cats have evolved to hide signs of illness and pain. This means that in the early stages of the disease, often all the cat owner can notice is that the cat has become quiet and withdrawn. Unfortunately, this also means that a cat can become seriously ill before the owner realizes something is wrong.

Through training and experience, vets can detect subtle signs that a cat is developing a health problem, which is one of the main reasons the American Veterinary Medical Association and other veterinary experts recommend wellness checks two times per week per year for the average adult cat. Delaying your cat's vet visit until there are obvious signs of illness could mean heroic measures will be needed to deal with the problem. With some understanding of how cats display symptoms of illness, you'll be able to recognize early warning signs and know what information you need to give your vet.

What things should I look for?

Cats that are sick often show changes in general appearance, energy level, sociability, coat appearance and/or amount of fur, appetite, litter box use, respiration, or discharge of the eyes or nose. In general, any sudden changes should alert you that your cat needs veterinary attention.

What changes would you see in the overall appearance?

Cats that aren't feeling well can seem a bit "down." The cat may sit in a hunched position, may not move as gracefully as before, may not raise its head correctly, may have its head tilted, or may carry its tail in a different way than normal. Sometimes there is nothing that stands out, but rather a variety of subtle changes.

Dehydration is a common problem in unwell cats. To see if your cat is dehydrated, gently grasp the skin near the shoulder blades, pull it up and away from the body, then release it. Skin needs to snap right back: Skin that doesn't snap back but is "cared for" usually indicates dehydration, a condition that needs to be treated right away.

Cats that have some sort of chronic illness may develop slow, subtle weight loss that is only apparent when you run your hands over their ribs and spine. Cats that lose weight suddenly, especially if they were already overweight, often suffer from some form of metabolic disease, such as diabetes or hyperthyroidism.

What changes in sociability or energy level indicate that my cat might be sick?

Sick cats are usually withdrawn and can hide, although this depends on the personality of each cat. Some cats become more clingy or demanding of attention, while others are just irritable.

As a general rule, sick cats will have lower energy levels. The only thing you might notice is that your cat sleeps more, doesn't play as much, or gets restless. With some conditions, especially hyperthyroidism, your cat's energy level may seem to rise to the point of hyperactivity. Cats with hyperthyroidism are often restless at night and may suddenly start howling or waking up family members.

"As a general rule, sick cats will have lower energy levels."

Cats with arthritis or other joint problems may have difficulty moving and can no longer jump on furniture or counters, or may change the way they jump on higher surfaces. If your cat is suddenly unable to use its hind legs, your vet should see it immediately.

What changes would you see in the appearance of the coat and the amount of shedding?Recognize Signs of Illness in Cats | VCA Animal Hospitals (1)

Cats that are not feeling well tend not to groom themselves very well. Therefore, you will usually see a messy or oily coat, matted fur, or loose clumps of hair. In some cases, you will notice a difference in the shine of the coat or an increase in the amount of dander.

Cats that groom themselves excessively can also have problems. Excessive brushing can be a reaction to a skin condition like allergies, a parasite like fleas, mites, or ringworm, pain like arthritis or a bladder problem, or a response to stress. These cats may overgroom all parts of their body, or they may groom so much in one area that they develop bald spots and the skin underneath may turn red and raw, or they may develop a rash.

What changes should I look for in appetite or thirst?

Because sick cats may eat less or eat more, or may be more or less thirsty than normal, any change in appetite or thirst may be cause for concern. Cats with dental disease may seem picky about food. Cats that have some metabolic diseases, such as hyperthyroidism or diabetes mellitus, may be very hungry and thirsty. Cats with liver or kidney problems often lose their appetite, but are often more thirsty.

"If your cat has not eaten properly for 24 hours, seek veterinary attention immediately."

If your cat has not eaten adequately for 24 hours, seek veterinary attention immediately. Cats that do not eat (anorexic cats) are prone to developing a condition called hepatic lipidosis or fatty liver disease (see the brochure “Hepatic Lipidosis in Cats [Fatty Liver Syndrome in Cats]” for more information), in which the cat's appetite is completely suppressed for weeks. If fatty liver syndrome develops, your cat will need extensive medical treatment for several weeks to months before things return to normal.

What changes should I look for in the sandbox?Recognize Signs of Illness in Cats | VCA Animal Hospitals (2)

Both diarrhea and constipation are indicators of illness in cats. Diarrhea is usually easy to recognize in the litter box, but constipation can be more annoying to notice. Small, hard, and dry stools are never normal and are often an early indication of kidney disease.

An increased amount of urine in the box indicates an inability to conserve water properly and could mean that your cat is developing kidney or liver problems or diabetes mellitus.

A decrease in the amount of urine in the litter box, especially if accompanied by a cat who spends more time going in and out of the box, or straining when in the box, indicates some type of kidney or urinary problem. Cats with urinary tract problems tend to lick their genitals excessively. If you notice that your cat doesn't seem to be producing as much urine as usual, or that the urine clumps are small, you should seek veterinary attention immediately. Lack of urine is a life-threatening emergency.

What changes should I look for in the breath?

Breathing difficulties, such as shallow breathing, mouth breathing, or wheezing, may indicate a problem with the airways or lungs. Cats with respiratory problems often have their heads and necks stretched out or are unable to sleep in a normal position. Repeated episodes of sneezing or coughing are signs of health problems.

What eye changes may be present in a sick cat?

Droopy eyelids, green, yellow or white discharge, squint, dilated or constricted pupils, or anisocoria (one dilated pupil and the other constricted are signs that something is wrong. Sick cats often have a raised third eyelid; the third eyelid lies under the lower eyelid and in a sick cat it will cover part of the eyeball Any abnormality in the eyes can result in blindness - if in doubt DO NOT DELAY - consult your vet.

Are there other abnormal symptoms?

It is not normal for a healthy cat to have a runny nose, dirt in the ears, excessive salivation, bad breath, or an unusual odor on other parts of the body.

Vomiting, particularly vomiting clear frothy fluid or bile-tinged material, is cause for alarm.

Pale gums, skin, or eyes may indicate anemia, while a yellow tinge may indicate jaundice, and a bluish tinge may indicate a lack of oxygen. Delaying treatment of these disorders, even for a few hours, can be fatal.

"If you have any concerns or concerns about your cat's health, please visit or call your vet's office."

Since signs of illness can be very subtle, if your cat doesn't seem well to you, tread carefully and make an appointment with the vet as soon as possible. By making it a habit to check on your cat regularly, you'll have an idea of ​​what's normal and you'll be more likely to catch small problems before they become major health problems. If your cat has not eaten for more than 24 hours, or if you notice any respiratory problems, litter box strain, or eye abnormalities, seek veterinary attention immediately. If you have any questions or concerns about your cat's health, visit or call your veterinarian's office; they are your best and most trusted resource to ensure the well-being and health of your pet.

Contributors: Tammy Hunter, DVM; Cheryl Yuill, DVM, Master of Science, CVH

Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Chrissy Homenick

Last Updated: 07/02/2023

Views: 6103

Rating: 4.3 / 5 (54 voted)

Reviews: 85% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Chrissy Homenick

Birthday: 2001-10-22

Address: 611 Kuhn Oval, Feltonbury, NY 02783-3818

Phone: +96619177651654

Job: Mining Representative

Hobby: amateur radio, Sculling, Knife making, Gardening, Watching movies, Gunsmithing, Video gaming

Introduction: My name is Chrissy Homenick, I am a tender, funny, determined, tender, glorious, fancy, enthusiastic person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.