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Thanks to the nationwide lockdown, we’ll all be spending the next three weeks in the constant company of our furry friends. As the days go by you may start noticing some behaviours or signs in your cat that you haven’t noticed before and may wonder if these are cause for concern. This article will outline the most common signs of illness that you may notice in your cat.

Changes in appetite or drinking habits

You may notice a sudden decrease or increase in your cat’s appetite. Your cat may eat less than usual, take longer to finish her meals or even refuse to eat at all. Conversely, your cat may become ravenously hungry and gobble down anything and everything she can find. You will easily notice any changes if you feed her set meals. However, if she’s used to having food out all the time or if you have more than one pet in your household, it may be trickier. Pay attention to how frequently you have to refill the food bowls – if it suddenly becomes more or less frequent than usual it may mean that something’s up.

If your cat is sick and stops eating, she may deteriorate even more if she’s not eating. Therefore you need to take your cat to the vet sooner rather than later if you notice any changes in her eating habits.

Similarly, your cat may start drinking more or less water than usual. If she starts drinking less than usual, she’s at risk of dehydrating. A vet visit will help to determine why she’s refusing to drink and address any dehydration that may have occurred. If your cat is drinking more water than usual, it may also indicate an underlying issue that needs to be addressed, especially if it’s accompanied by more frequent urination.

Litter box issues

If a cat that is properly litter box trained starts having ‘accidents’ outside the box, it means there is a problem. Also, urinating more frequently than normal is a sign of an underlying issue that needs investigation. Take your cat to the vet if you notice these signs. If you notice your cat straining, but not producing anything, there might be a blockage somewhere which, if left untreated, may be fatal. Take your cat to the vet immediately.

Similarly, changes in your cat’s stools may also be a cause for concern. On average most cats go to the toilet once or twice a day. You should already have an idea of what is normal for your cat. If your cat has diarrhoea the stools will be loose and watery and you may notice accidents around the house. If your cat is constipated it will pass small, hard stools infrequently or even no stools at all. Take your cat to the vet if you notice any changes in the frequency, colour or consistency of your cat’s stools. 

Repeated vomiting

Many cats, especially those with long hair, will vomit up the occasional hairball, which is normal. Take your cat to the vet if you notice your cat vomiting more frequently than usual to or if the vomiting is accompanied by other signs of illness.

Blood in the urine, stools or vomit

Blood in any of your cat’s excretions is never normal and warrants investigation by the vet. Dark brown to black stools or vomit (which resemble coffee grounds) may indicate the presence of partially digested blood.

Unexplained weight gain or loss

If your cat suddenly starts losing weight it may indicate an underlying illness. It is also worth noting that the weight loss may not necessarily be accompanied by a loss of appetite – hyperthyroid cats (suffering from an overactive thyroid gland), for example, lose weight despite a voracious appetite. Remember that cats are a lot smaller than us humans, thus the loss of even a few hundred grams can amount to a significant percentage of your cat’s bodyweight. Take your cat to the vet as soon as you notice she has lost weight.

Conversely, weight gain can lead to obesity, which, in turn, can lead to health problems. The vet can help you determine why your cat is gaining weight and also help you come up with a plan to get her back to a healthy weight.

Changes in energy levels

Cats are generally lazy compared to dogs and you will probably already have an idea of your cat’s normal activity levels. Lethargy can be a very subtle sign, but if it’s noticeable, it can be a cause for concern. Take your cat to the vet if she seems more lethargic and lying around or sleeping more than normal. Conversely, if your cat becomes more active than normal it may also indicate illness. Take your cat to the vet, especially if she seems restless or paces around the house.

Changes in breathing

Although panting is normal for dogs, it’s not normal for cats. Cats sometimes start panting due to stress or excitement, but it can also indicate an underlying problem. Wheezing, shortness of breath and raspy breathing are all abnormal and should be investigated by the vet. If your cat is struggling to breathe – breathing with her mouth open, breathing very fast or taking very deep breaths – it is an emergency and she needs immediate veterinary attention.

Mobility issues

You may notice your cat limping, but also look out for the more subtle signs, such as not being able to jump up onto furniture anymore. This can indicate problems in younger cats while older cats, like humans, are at risk of developing arthritis. Your vet will be able to diagnose the problem and recommend medications or methods to make your cat more comfortable.

Behavioural changes

If your cat with an outgoing personality suddenly starts hiding all the time, or your friendly cat suddenly becomes grumpy it may mean there is a problem.  Also pay attention to how much your cat normally vocalises – if your chatterbox suddenly goes quiet or your quiet cat suddenly starts meowing a lot it may mean something’s up.

Discharges from the eyes and/or nose

These discharges may indicate an upper respiratory tract infection and may be accompanied by sneezing or sniffling. The infection may be contagious and may also make your cat feel sick and stop eating. Your vet can recommend medications to help her feel better and recover quicker.

Ear debris or discharge or changes in the shape or posture of the ears

Look out for a dark brown wax-like substance accumulating in or around the ear canal. Your cat may also shake its ears or scratch at them constantly. If your cat holds down one ear partially instead of having both ears perked as they normally are, it usually indicates a problem. If you notice these signs, your cat may have an ear infection or parasite infestation, which is very uncomfortable and sometimes even painful.

One condition that is more common in South Africa than other countries around the world, is when a cat’s ear tip is bent forward. This is usually a sign that the cat touched an electric fence with its ear. Cats do not honour the boundaries we have for our yards and will often creep through an electric fence to get into the neighbour’s yard. If they get ‘zapped’ on the ear, the tip of the ear will often become somewhat floppy and bend forward. It may take some time for such an ear to recover, if at all. 

Skin irritation, hair loss, coat changes and grooming patterns changing

Cats are susceptible to a variety of skin conditions, some of which may be painful, others itchy, or some others just merely uncomfortable. You may notice redness, scabs, bald patches, crusting or dandruff. Also look out for changes in the coat and grooming behaviour – this may indicate an underlying illness. A cat’s normal coat is smooth and glossy, so take your cat to the vet if her coat suddenly becomes dull and dry. A cat that develops a matted coat from a lack of grooming or a cat that spends more time than usual grooming itself (overgrooming) may also have an underlying issue that needs to be addressed.

Bad breath

Remember that, unlike humans, cats don’t brush their teeth so a mild degree of ‘kitty breath’ is normal for them. Severe bad breath, however, is not normal, especially if it’s accompanied by drooling and bleeding from the mouth. 

Swelling

Swelling anywhere on your cat’s body should not be ignored, especially if it’s hot or painful to the touch. Cats can develop abscesses from wounds, as well as a wide variety of tumours. The vet will be able to determine what the swelling is and treat it.

Emergency situations

  • Some conditions need urgent attention and, if not addressed promptly, can be fatal. It’s always a good idea to keep the contact details of your vet’s after-hours telephone or of a 24-hour facility handy in case you ever need it. If you notice any of the below signs, rush your cat to the nearest open vet immediately.
  • Trauma, such as falling off a balcony, getting hit by a car or being mauled by a dog, even if you cannot see any open wounds on the cat. Cats’ skins are loose and tough, and a cat can sustain severe injuries not visible to the naked eye, which is all hidden under the skin. 
  • Blue, white or very pale gums
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Sudden inability to walk 
  • Moderate to profuse bleeding
  • Seizures or tremors
  • Dizziness, disorientation, circling or imbalance
  • Collapse, unconsciousness or unresponsiveness
  • Severe pain (crying out loudly or excessively or acting aggressive when touched)
  • Straining to urinate, but not producing anything
  • Rectal temperature above 40°C or under 36°C

If you notice anything in your cat’s appearance or behaviour that’s worrying you, it’s always better to rather be safe than sorry. Phone the vet and they will help you decide whether it’s an emergency. Better yet, make an appointment and take your cat to the vet, for your own peace of mind and the wellbeing of your kitty.

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