It's not always easy to detect when your cat is unwell. Cats are very good at hiding illnesses as a protective instinct and tend to shy away from contact if they're feeling under the weather. They differ from dogs who are more likely to seek comfort, whine or cry if unwell or in pain. It's important to keep an eye open for the telltale signs of common conditions, and a good idea to complete a monthly health checklist at home. Older cats should have regular veterinary check-ups as a routine (e.g. every 3-6 months). If you do notice anything out of the ordinary, don't rely on books or websites for a diagnosis. Contact your vet immediately.
An example of some problems to look out for (list not exhaustive; contact your vet if you have any concerns):
General lethargy, depression, listlessness and sleeping more
If for any reason your cat isn't his or her normal, healthy, active self, it's worth taking a closer look. Generally looking unwell, without any specific complaints, is a common sign of illness in cats and warrants a trip to the vets.
Reduction in appetite or complete refusal to eat
Although there can be innocent reasons for not eating as much, including hunting or very hot weather, it can also indicate underlying disease. It is particularly important to consult your vet if your senior or geriatric cat eats less than usual, or if a reduced appetite is accompanied by lethargy, vomiting, diarrhoea, weight loss or any other signs of illness.
Increase in appetite
An increase in appetite can indicate conditions such as an over-active thyroid, diabetes or intestinal disease.
If your cat loses weight then this can indicate an underlying disease and your cat should be checked over by a vet. This is particularly important if other signs of disease are noted such as decrease or increase in appetite, vomiting, diarrhoea, depression or lethargy.
Vomiting fur-balls or grass can be normal if it something your cat does habitually but very occasionally. However, if the frequency increases, the sickness is persistent, your cat vomits food or blood or has trouble swallowing, is gagging or retching, this is a concern and you should arrange an appointment with your vet. Vomiting can be a sign of many different illnesses including intestinal problems, kidney and liver disease. Vomiting accompanied by lethargy, depression, diarrhoea or loss of appetite indicates an underlying problem and veterinary attention should be sought.
If your cat has persistent diarrhoea , or the diarrhoea is accompanied by vomiting, lethargy, loss of appetite, weight loss or the faeces are black in colour or contain fresh blood or mucus, visit your vet. If possible, take a stool sample with you.
Changes in urination
If you notice your cat going in and out of the litter tray frequently, or squatting to urinate and remaining in this position without producing urine (or producing only a small amount), crying when in the litter tray, or producing blood-tinged urine, then contact your vet. This can be a sign of lower urinary tract disease. It is particularly important to contact your vet immediately on noticing these signs if you own a male cat, as being unable to urinate is a veterinary emergency and can be life-threatening.
As well as problems with urination, if you notice your cat straining in a posture to pass faeces, their faeces are very hard or full of hair, or your cat has not passed faeces for several days, then organise a check-up.
Progressive weight gain
Watch out for signs of excessive weight gain and obesity, which can lead to diabetes, mobility problems and other diseases. You should be able to just feel your cat’s ribs. Click here for further information on how to check your cat's body condition. Do not attempt to diet your cat without veterinary advice and never suddenly restrict their food intake as this can result in severe liver problems. If you feel your cat’s tummy has enlarged, contact you vet as this may indicate fluid within the abdomen rather than fat gain.
Excessive thirst or urination
An increase in drinking or urinating can be a sign of a disease such as diabetes or kidney problems. If you normally never see your cat drink, but now notice them at the water bowl frequently, or the litter tray is unusually sodden, then arrange a check-up at your vets.
Change in behaviour
If your cat’s behaviour changes and they become withdrawn and less interactive with the family, this could indicate a problem. Equally, if your normally friendly cat starts to resent being picked up or shows any other odd behaviour (e.g. twitching, aggression) then consult your vet. Seizures are a veterinary emergency so go to the vets as soon as possible (pick up a cat having a seizure carefully in a thick towel to avoid injury). If any odd behaviour is intermittent, try to video an episode to show your vet.
Skin complaints - hair loss, itching, redness
Skin condition is a good general indicator of health. Skin should be smooth and pink or black and the coat should be smooth and shiny. Scratching or over-grooming, scabs on the skin and pulling out fur can indicate skin disease. Scratching accompanied by small black dots in the coat could suggest fleas. A poor hair coat with scurf or dullness may indicate an underlying illness. Any brownish discharge or redness in the ears should be investigated by your vet.
Red or swollen gums
Reddened or swollen gums, or redness of the corners of the mouth, particularly when associated with bad breath, are an indication of oral disease. This can be very painful and cats may also suffer a reduction in appetite or weight loss, eat on only one side of their mouth or drop food while eating.
Rapid or difficult breathing
If you notice your cat panting, gasping, breathing very quickly, coughing or making noise when they breathe in or out, then contact your vet, as this may indicate a problem within the chest.
Runny eyes or nose
Sneezing and runny eyes and nose can indicate a virus or other condition affecting the upper respiratory tract. Equally, a persistent mucoid discharge, bleeding from the nose as well as blinking excessively or redness around the eyes should prompt a call to the vet's.
If your cat is limping or slow getting up or lying down, shows reluctance to jump onto higher objects or has trouble going up and down the stairs, this may indicate a bone or joint problem so let your vet know.
If you notice any other signs of illness please contact your vet for advice.