1. Parasites and Diseases
2. Disorders and Injuries
3. Check-ups and Tests
4. Handling an Injured Cat
5. First Aid
6. Minor Wounds
8. Stings and Bites
9. Venomous Animals
10. Choking and Poisoning
11. Injuries and Shock
12. Normal Vital Signs
13. Creating a Sick Room
14. Handling Your Cat
15. Administering Medicine
16. Food and Care
17. After an Operation
Your greatest responsibility as a cat owner is the health of your pet. It is up to you to ensure that your pet has regular vaccinations and check-ups with a vet and recognize any changes in his body or behavior that may require a trip to the vet.
Educate yourself about common disorders and learn how to care for your cat when he is ill, recovering from surgery, or in the case of an emergency.
Every cat will experience health problems during his lifetime. However, cats tend to suffer in silence and do not draw attention to themselves when feeling vulnerable. Keep an eye out for any changes in your cat’s routines and behavior, such as lethargy or changes in appetite, which might suggest he needs veterinary attention.
Regular home checks will help you spot common signs of illness or discomfort, but your cat will also need annual check-ups from a vet, and some conditions will require additional tests.
Parasites and Diseases
Some health issues—such as external and internal parasites, infectious diseases, and tooth and gum disorders—are easily dealt with if caught early.
External parasites, also called ectoparasites, are tiny creatures—such as fleas, ticks, and a variety of mites— that infest a cat’s skin. Saliva from their bites can irritate the skin, and some parasites, such as tapeworm, can also transmit infections. Ticks are sometimes carriers of Lyme disease.
Some parasites live in a cat’s internal body tissues, usually in the intestines, but also in other areas, such as the lungs. Your vet will prescribe medicine or suggest a treatment for external or internal parasites, and may also advise on preventative medication.
Your cat may catch infectious diseases from the environment or from other cats. Although these diseases can be serious, especially in older cats or kittens, vaccinations will help to protect your pet.
Cats kept in large groups or those that come into contact with other cats can pick up infections from fighting, mutual grooming, or from sharing litter boxes and food bowls.
Cats use their mouths for eating and for grooming themselves. The mouth usually keeps itself healthy by producing saliva, but regular checks and even brushing the teeth will prevent problems such as a buildup of plaque.
Disorders and Injuries
If you notice any signs of injury or illness, contact your vet. Only give your cat medicine prescribed by a vet and follow instructions carefully.
Serious disorders that require urgent veterinary attention include repeated vomiting or diarrhea; urinary tract infections; eye problems, such as conjunctivitis or a visible third eyelid; skin abscesses; and dental problems that prevent your cat from eating.
Disorders and injuries may affect the structures of the eye or the eyelids, or both. All eye problems in a cat need prompt investigation by a vet, since even minor disorders can become sight threatening if left untreated.
A wide range of ear problems can affect cats, from external injuries to disorders of the inner ear that can cause issues with balance. Cats can also suffer from deafness due to genetic disorders.
Cats by nature keep their coat and skin healthy by grooming themselves. However, skin disorders can still affect them. Symptoms such as flaky skin or greasy coat are usually easy to spot, and will need prompt attention from a vet.
The digestive system of a cat breaks down food, releasing nutrients to be converted into energy by the body’s cells. Any problem with the cat’s eating, digestion, or waste elimination can have an overall impact on his health.
Abnormal or labored breathing may occur after a chest injury or as a result of an obstruction in the airway, an upper respiratory tract infection, or shock. Wheezing may be due to asthma or bronchitis. Breathing difficulties always require an emergency trip to the vet.
If your cat is injured, you may need to administer first aid as an emergency measure before seeing the vet.
Check-ups and Tests
It is good practice to ensure that your cat has routine check-ups, possibly twice a year in his old age. The vet will assess his condition by checking his ears, eyes, teeth, gums, heartbeat, breathing, and weight, and feel all over for abnormalities.
The vet may recommend additional tests to diagnose some disorders. Inherited disorders may be associated with certain breeds. Screening tests may be available for some genetic disorders.
Disorders of the musculoskeletal system include injuries such as fractures and torn ligaments, but cats may also develop arthritis. If your vet suspects the presence of a musculoskeletal problem, your cat may be sent for a scan or an X-ray.
Problems with a cat’s heart, blood vessels, or red blood cells can cause weakness or even make the cat collapse.
Hormones are body chemicals that control particular functions. They are produced by glands and carried in the bloodstream. Any over-or underproduction of hormones may cause disorders, such as diabetes mellitus and hyperthyroidism.
Handling an Injured Cat
Check the cat for broken bones and open wounds or bleeding, but try not to move him. Take care—even the most loving pet may bite or lash out if it is in severe pain.
If the cat has a fracture or severe wound, lay him on a blanket with the injury uppermost and wrap the wound up gently. Do not try to splint broken bones yourself.
If your cat has a hemorrhage (severe bleeding), raise the bleeding area above the level of the cat’s heart, if possible, and apply direct pressure with a pad of cloth to stem the blood flow.
Lift the cat carefully, with one hand under the shoulders and the other under the hips, and place him in a carrier.
If your cat is injured, you may need to administer first aid before he has a chance to be seen by a vet. Wounds that are bleeding profusely need prompt veterinary attention, as do bites and scratches from other animals (since these could become infected). Remember to call the vet before leaving.
To stop bleeding, apply pressure on the wound with a gauze pad or clean cloth soaked in clean, cold water. Do not use tissue because it will stick to the wound. If the bleeding does not stop after two minutes, cover the wound with a clean, dry pad (or cloth) and bandage in place.
For very heavy bleeding or a severe wound, keep the material in place, even if it becomes soaked with blood, until you see the vet. Removing an object embedded in a wound could cause more bleeding—leave it in place for your vet to treat. For an eye wound, cover the eye with a gauze pad and tape in place.
If you find your cat unconscious, make sure his airway is not obstructed, listen and look for breathing, and feel for a pulse with a finger on one of the femoral arteries, which can be found on the inner side of his hind legs, where they meet the groin.
If there is no breathing, attempt artificial respiration by gently blowing air into your cat’s lungs down the nostrils. If there is no heartbeat, alternate two breaths of artificial respiration with 30 chest compressions at two compressions per second.
Keep this up for 10 minutes, after which time it is unlikely to be successful.
Small cuts and grazes can be treated at home. Look for bleeding, moist fur, or a scab, or the cat licking an area intensely.
Gently wipe away blood and dirt using a cotton ball moistened in saline solution— a teaspoon of salt stirred into 2 cups (500 ml) of clean, warm water. Cut away hair around the wound using blunt-ended scissors.
Small skin wounds can sometimes occur with more extensive internal damage. Check for heat, swelling, or discolored skin around the wound, and watch for signs of pain or shock. Small wounds can also become infected, so look for signs of abscess formation, such as swelling and pus.
Cats may suffer burns from fires, hot surfaces, scalding liquids, electrical appliances, or chemicals. These injuries can be very serious, with damage to deep tissues, and they require urgent veterinary attention.
For a burn or scald, remove the cat from the heat source without endangering yourself. Flood the affected area with clean, cold water for at least 10 minutes, then cover it with a moist sterile dressing. Keep the cat warm during the journey to the vet.
If your cat has been electrocuted (for example, by chewing through a power cord), turn off the power first, or use a wooden broom handle to move the power source away from the cat. Perform first aid and take the cat to the vet immediately.
For chemical burns, call the vet at once and say which chemical is responsible. If the vet advises rinsing, put on rubber gloves to avoid contaminating yourself, and flush the area carefully with water.
Stings and Bites
If your cat has been stung, move him away from any other bees or wasps to avoid further stings. Call the vet for advice, and take the cat in if he develops breathing difficulties or becomes unsteady on his feet. If your cat goes into shock, take him to the vet immediately.
For a bee sting, bathe the area in baking soda mixed in warm water. A wasp sting should be bathed with vinegar diluted in water.
Most cats will suffer only minor irritation from small biting insects, such as mosquitoes and gnats. However, some cats may suffer a severe allergic reaction to mosquitoes. If your cat is hypersensitive to mosquito bites, prevent exposure to these flying insects by keeping the cat indoors at dawn and dusk.
Cats may be bitten by other cats, but bites from venomous animals can be more serious. Dangers from snakes, toads, scorpions, and spiders vary between countries.
Venomous snakes found in the US include rattlesnakes, copperheads, water moccasins, and coral snakes. Captive exotic reptiles can also be a hazard.
Snake bites can cause serious swelling, nausea, vomiting, and dizziness, and are potentially fatal; your cat may lick the area, and you may see two puncture wounds in the skin. Some snake vaccines are available, although even if your cat has been vaccinated a snake bite is an emergency.
Some toad species secrete toxins on to their skin, which can cause inflammation in a cat’s mouth and perhaps retching.
If your cat has been affected, call the vet immediately and report what kind of animal was involved (or take a photo if you can) so that the vet can obtain the correct antivenom. The cat should be taken to the vet as soon as possible.
Choking and Poisoning
Cats can choke on a variety of objects. Some objects, such as bird bones, may get wedged in the mouth; others, such as pebbles, may block the throat (airway). Items such as ribbon, string, or thread can get tangled around the tongue or, if swallowed, cause problems in the intestines.
A choking cat will cough, drool, and gag, and paw frantically at its mouth. If the airway is blocked, the cat will struggle to breathe and may pass out.
Call the vet and take the cat in. Wrap the cat in a towel. Holding the top of the head with one hand, open the lower jaw with the other. Look inside the mouth. If the object is easy to dislodge, try to remove it with tweezers.
Cats may ingest poisons from prey animals, toxic plants, household chemicals, medicines, or even some human foods. If you think your cat has been poisoned, even if he is showing no signs, contact your vet.
If you see any signs of poisoning, take the cat to the vet, together with a sample of what he has swallowed.
Injuries and Shock
A cat that has had an accident, such as being hit by a car, should be seen by a vet even if he has no visible injuries, since there could be internal bleeding, which can lead to shock.
Shock is a life-threatening condition in which there is reduced blood flow, and tissues become starved of nutrients. Symptoms of shock include irregular breathing, anxiety, pale or blue gums, and a lowered body temperature.
A cat in shock should be kept warm and the hindquarters elevated to increase blood flow to the brain while you take him to a vet.
Normal Vital Signs
Temperature: 100.5–102.5°F (38–39°C)
Pulse: 110–180 beats per minute
Respirations: 20–30 per minute
Capillary refill time*: Less than two seconds
*Time for gum to regain pink color after being blanched by gentle pressure with finger
Creating a Sick Room
You will need to keep a sick or injured cat indoors so that you can easily monitor him. Keep your cat confined in a warm, quiet room or even in a wire crate. Provide food and water, and a litter box in an area away from the food.
Make up a warm bed on the floor for easy access; you can use a cardboard box, which can easily be replaced if soiled. Cut one side away, line the bottom with newspaper, and add cozy blankets and perhaps a hot-water bottle.
Check on your cat regularly and change the bedding if it becomes soiled. If you have an outdoor cat, make sure he is kept indoors during his recovery and has easy access to bowls of water and a litter box.
Handling Your Cat
A sick or injured cat may want to hide himself away and try to avoid the extra stress of having medicine or other treatment. Handle your cat gently and in a calm, unhurried, and confident way—any anxiety on your part could make him stressed and uncooperative.
Your cat may feel comforted if you spend time just talking quietly to him and petting him (if he will accept this), so that he does not associate you solely with receiving medicine.
If your cat is ill or recovering from surgery or an accident, you must resist the temptation to stroke and cuddle him. He will most likely not enjoy being handled in the early stages of convalescence.
Stroke or pet your cat only if he clearly wants the attention. Provide him with a warm bed, where he can be left in peace to recuperate.
Only give your cat medicine that has been prescribed by a vet. It is also essential both to follow your vet’s directions on giving medication and to complete the full course, especially with antibiotics. If you are unsure, ask your vet to demonstrate how to administer eye or ear drops or dose the cat with a syringe.
You can try hiding a pill in a ball of meat or mold a sticky treat around it, but only if your cat is allowed to take food with his medicine. If not, or if he rejects or coughs up the pill, you will need to place it in his mouth.
This is best done with a helper to hold your cat while you insert the pill. If you are on your own, immobilize your cat by wrapping him in a towel, leaving his head exposed.
Liquid medicines are also widely available and should be instilled into the mouth, between the back teeth and cheek, using a plastic medicine dropper or a plastic syringe without a needle.
Drops for the eyes or ears can be administered while gently immobilizing your cat’s head. Make sure that the dropper does not ever come into contact with his eyes or ears.
If your cat is completely resistant to being given any kind of medicine at home, take him to your veterinarian each day or have him kept at the practice until the course of treatment is over.
Food and Care
A cat may lose interest in food when sick or if his sense of smell is impaired. Call a vet if your cat has gone for more than a day without eating, especially if he is overweight, since lack of food can harm the liver. Let food come to room temperature, or warm it slightly in the oven, to increase its smell and make it more appetizing.
In addition, offer small pieces of strong- smelling, tasty foods. If your cat is struggling to eat properly, you may need to feed him by hand.
If your cat is vomiting or has diarrhea, call your vet. To prevent your cat from becoming dehydrated, offer a teaspoon every hour of bland food such as poached skinned chicken or an appropriate prescription diet.
Once the gastric upset ceases, you can gradually increase portion size and keep your cat on this diet for three or four days, before weaning back to normal meals. Provide your cat with cooled, boiled drinking water at all times.
Your cat may need help with grooming. In particular, wipe away discharge from the eyes, keep the nose and mouth clean to help the cat breathe and smell food, and clean under the tail if the cat has diarrhea.
Use a cotton wool ball moistened in clean, warm water. For itchy skin or minor wounds, bathe the area with saline solution—a teaspoon of salt dissolved in 2 cups (500 ml) of warm water. If the cat resists, wrap him in a towel, leaving the sore part exposed.
After an Operation
A cat that has had a general anesthetic may be groggy for a while. Stay with him until he is fully alert. Keep him indoors until any surgical wound has healed and dressings or stitches have been removed.
Your vet may fit a cone to prevent your cat from worrying at a wound, and you may have to remove this to let the cat eat. For small wounds on the limbs, the vet may cover the area with “anti-lick” strips impregnated with a taste that cats dislike.
Check a dressing or a plaster cast several times a day to ensure it is clean and dry. If the cat seems in pain, or if the wound looks sore or has a discharge when you change the dressing, contact your vet.