Woman doctor holding a cat in her arms.

Signs of Cat Illness

Cats instinctively hide signs of pain or illness because in the wild signs of weakness attract the attention of predators. With domestic cats, however, this behavior can make it hard for owners to recognize problems until they are severe.

Regularly monitor your cat for changes in appearance or behavior so that you can spot health issues early on.

Common Health Problems

Every cat will experience health problems during his lifetime. Some complaints, such as a one-time incident of vomiting or diarrhea, are not a major cause for concern and do not require treatment by a vet.

Other problems, such as intestinal worms or fleas, can be treated easily enough at home, following instructions from your vet.

More serious disorders requiring urgent veterinary attention include: repeated vomiting or diarrhea—often a sign of an underlying disorder; urinary tract infections or obstructions, which can cause painful urination; eye problems, such as conjunctivitis or a visible third eyelid; abscesses from fights with other cats; and dental problems that prevent eating.

Warning Signs

Cats tend to suffer in silence and do not draw attention to themselves when they are feeling vulnerable. One of your responsibilities as an owner is to be vigilant, keeping an eye out for any changes in your cat’s routines and behavior that might suggest he needs veterinary attention.

Lethargy is difficult to spot because cats generally spend much of their time sleeping or resting, but decreased levels of activity, including a reluctance to jump, and reduced alertness are often signs that your cat is sick or in pain. Lethargy is also often linked to obesity, so it may disappear when a cat loses his excess weight.

Changes in appetite are usually a sign of an underlying condition. Loss of appetite may be due to mouth pain, such as toothache, or a more serious illness, such as kidney failure. Weight loss despite an increased appetite, together with increased urination and increased thirst, may be the result of an overactive thyroid or diabetes mellitus.

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.

Dehydration is life-threatening and has various causes, including vomiting, diarrhea, increased urination, and heatstroke. You can perform a simple test to check if your cat is dehydrated.

Gently lift up the skin on the back of his neck. If the skin springs back into position, your cat is healthy, but if it returns slowly this is a sign of dehydration. Feel the gums with a finger—dry, tacky gums also indicate dehydration. Emergency rehydration involves a vet injecting fluids under the skin or directly into a vein.

The color of a cat’s gums can indicate good health or one of several serious disorders. A healthy cat has pink gums. Pale or white gums indicate shock, anemia, or blood loss; yellow gums are a sign of jaundice; red gums are caused by carbon- monoxide poisoning, fever, or bleeding in the mouth; blue gums suggest poor oxygenation of the blood.

Other indicators of poor health include lumps on the skin, which you can check for regularly during grooming sessions. Neglect of self-grooming, changes in coat texture, fur loss, and a refusal to use the litter box can also be signs that all is not well with your cat.

Recognizing an Emergency

If you suspect your cat has a serious health problem, acting quickly can mean the difference between life and death. Keep the telephone numbers for your vet and the emergency vet service where you can easily find them. Call a vet immediately if your cat has any of the following signs:

Loss of consciousness (always check to make sure the airway is not obstructed)

  • Seizures
  • Rapid breathing, panting, or struggling for breath
  • Fast or weak pulse—feel the inner side of a back leg, near the groin area (a normal pulse is 110–180 beats per minute)
  • Hot or cold temperature—feel the ears and pads of the paws
  • Pale gums
  • Limping, difficulty in walking, or paralysis
  • Difficulty in standing, or collapse
  • Serious injuries—a cat that has had an accident should be seen by a vet even if there are no visible injuries, since there could be internal bleeding

Recognizing Health Problems

  • Lethargy, hiding away
  • Unusually fast, slow, or difficult breathing
  • Sneezing or coughing
  • Open wound, swelling, bleeding
  • Blood in feces, urine, or vomit
  • Limping, stiffness, inability to jump on to furniture
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Unexpected weight gain, especially with a bloated abdomen
  • Coat changes, excessive loss of fur
  • Change in appetite—eating less, walking away from food, voraciously hungry, or having difficulty eating
  • Vomiting, or unexplained regurgitation of undigested food shortly after eating
  • Increased thirst
  • Diarrhea, or difficulty passing a motion
  • Difficulty passing urine, crying
  • Itchiness
  • Abnormal discharge from any orifice