Our domestic felines are amazing creatures; they are one of the most highly evolved predators in nature, yet are small enough to potentially become prey as well. Like most prey species, they are very adept at hiding signs of illness until they are so sick they can't put up a brave front anymore. As cat owners, it's important for us to be tuned in to their subtler signals and become aware if something may be amiss.
Please consider a veterinary consultation if you notice any of the following:
1. Changes in Weight or Body Conformation
Just like their human counterparts, when felines gain excess weight they become more prone to developing arthritis, diabetes, and respiratory difficulties such as asthma. Excess body fat is generally easy to observe and weight-loss strategies can be discussed with your veterinarian. Weight loss, however, can be more subtle since cats tend to lose lean body mass first, so they may keep their prominent bellies and lose the musculature around their spine and hips instead.
If you notice that your cat's spine or hips are feeling more boney or you notice its flanks are looking skinny, don't assume he's fine just because he still has some belly bulge. Please bring this change to your veterinarian's attention as soon as possible.
2. Changes in Appetite
Loss of appetite may seem like an obvious problem, but many cat owners are unaware of how quickly anorexia can impact their pet's health. Unlike dogs (and humans), cats have an absolute requirement for protein for healthy metabolism and if their body has to mobilize fat stores for nutrition, their livers may not be able to cope. As little as 72 hours of anorexia may result in severe liver disease for some felines. Conversely, an increased appetite may be an indicator of intestinal disease, such as mal-absorption or parasites, or a glandular disorder such as hyperthyroidism or diabetes.
3. Altered Food Preferences
Your cat's appetite may stay the same, but what it wants to eat or how it eats might change. A sudden preference for softer food, dropping food out of the mouth or turning the head to chew on one side might suggest pain in the oral cavity. If you have an older feline and the bowls are up on the counter or low on the floor, watch your cat eat to make sure that arthritic hips, elbows or neck vertebrae aren't impacting its ability to get at its food. Consider elevating floor bowls to your cat's upper-leg height (4-6”) if your pet seems to have any difficulty bending over.
4. Alterations in Water Intake
Cats are desert animals with very efficient kidneys, so they can generally get by with little water. However, nausea, severe constipation or severe kidney disease can render them unable to drink. A litter box that's suddenly dry should prompt an assessment of your cat's drinking habits. If the box is dry and your male cat is exhibiting any urinary discomfort, don't delay! Urinary blockages can be life threatening emergencies in male cats, requiring immediate treatment. More time at the water bowl may be a sign your cat is experiencing increased thirst, which can be a sign of a number of issues, including diabetes, kidney disease or urinary tract infections, just as it is in humans.
5. Changes in the Litter Box (or out of it)
If your cat's litter box habits have changed it may signal that something is amiss with the box or with your pet's environment. A box with high sides or one located down a set of stairs may be too daunting for an older, arthritic cat to get into every time. In multiple cat households, missing the box may be a sign of anxiety or bullying. Blood in the box or in urine puddles is a fairly obvious indicator that your cat should have a medical assessment.
6. Bad Breath
"Cat breath" may be secondary to dietary factors or gastric reflux, but may also indicate periodontal disease or other oral issues such as chronic inflammation or masses. Similarly, blood in the water bowl may indicate dental disease or an oral lesion and should prompt a call to the veterinarian's office.
7. Changes in Play or Grooming Habits
Cats use their mouths to engage in play and also as grooming tools. A feline that no longer play-bites at strings or toys may need an oral exam to evaluate for dental pain. Similarly a cat that is feeling painful, or just plain sick, may not be able to groom itself as effectively, so an owner might notice its coat becoming more unkempt. Obese or arthritic cats may find it harder to reach their backsides and may require some help in the grooming department. Conversely, excessive licking of the abdomen or hind end region can signal bladder, urethral or anal gland discomfort, or possibly the presence of parasites.
8. Becoming More Talkative
Owners of older cats sometimes comment that their geriatric feline is suddenly acting "like a kitten again." Although this may reflect a feeling of well-being, it also could be a signal that the cat's thyroid gland is over-active. Hyperthyroid felines have metabolisms that are in over-drive so they are more active, are yowling or "talking" more and will demonstrate weight loss in spite of an increased appetite. A blood check and some medication may be required to calm your cat and to protect its heart from potentially cardio-toxic thyroid hormones.
9. Gait Alterations or Changes in Resting Places
A young, healthy cat should have no difficulty jumping 5-7 times its own height. Older cats are likely to slow down a bit, but should still be able to manage stairs easily and access their favorite resting places. Diabetic felines can develop weakness in their lower hind legs that affect not only their ability to jump, but even their ability to walk normally. Elbow arthritis can make landing on the front legs very uncomfortable. Spinal or hind end pain can prevent a cat from accessing its favorite window perch or your warm bed. Anemia, dietary deficiencies or simply feeling sick can cause lethargy and a reluctance to move.
10. Hiding or Being More Clingy
True to their "prey species" instincts, cats will often hide themselves or simply withdraw when they aren't feeling well. A normally social cat that is suddenly more introverted may be suffering from physiological or environmental stress, or may simply be in pain. An assessment of its physical health or social situation is definitely in order. A normally independent cat becoming more clingy is a less common scenario, but should also prompt a conversation with your veterinarian. Many families enjoy close relationships with their feline companions and sense immediately when something is amiss, but cats are notorious for their inscrutability and can be very difficult to assess. If you have any concerns about the health or comfort of your cat, please don't hesitate to give the veterinary team at Muddy Creek Animal Care Center a call.
Dr. Sylvia Reiser is an associate veterinarian at Muddy Creek Animal Care Center in Rowley, MA. Dr. Reiser is also a member of the American Association of Feline Practitioners.