HOW TO IDENTIFY WHEN YOUR CAT IS SICK
Updated: Jan 18
At the beginning of November, my cat Ali became sick. She had fallen off my first floor balcony, for the 2nd time. Except, this time she was limping. I didn't realize she was hurt until a week later. A few days later my husband and I took her to see her vet. She was given an anti-inflammatory injection and was x-rayed. Days later we learned her limp just needed to heal with rest and time. The next day her body had the worst reaction to the injection. So back to the vet, we went.
A new pain reliever was injected, and nausea medication was prescribed. I had to administer it by mouth for a week. They also found an infection under her tail so that was another injection. This medication would stay in her system for 2 weeks. I was also in charge of wiping every time she used the litter box (not so fun for Ali). There began the hardest 3 weeks. Ali wasn't eating or drinking water, and she was constipated.
There wasn't much I could do but help her stay hydrated. I also read all I could about sick cat behavior so I could keep a close eye on her.
This experience, despite how difficult it was for us, taught me how to care for a sick cat. So here I am sharing what I've learned. I hope this article can help you notice if your cat is sick.
Between the day Ali fell and the day we noticed she was hurt, Ali wasn't showing any signs of pain or discomfort. So I wondered, was it I who hadn't noticed the signs? Because in my head I pictured her trying to tell me she was in pain, the same way a baby, or a dog, would. Non-stop crying, yelping, and whining. Anything that would resemble her screaming in my face that she needed help.
Why don't cats vocalize their pain?
Maybe it's because Ali is my first cat or because I'm much more familiar with dogs. Dogs are pack animals so they make it known when they're sick. They cry and whine so their pack can step in and help them heal. Cats, however, are independent. They live socially but would prefer to hunt and take care of things on their own. As you know, cats are also not at the top of the food chain. If they were to let on that they're weak, hurt, or sick a predator may try to take advantage of the situation. So cats have evolved to hide when they're sick. They go into hiding, waiting until they feel better or until they die. These traits have been passed on from the big cat ancestors to our feline companions. So it's rare for your cat to be vocal when they're in pain. It's most common when they're bored, hungry, or just want their human's attention.
The only tip you need to identify if your cat is sick
Now that we both know that our cats will not be telling us they're sick, let's talk about how they do try to tell us.
RULE OF THUMB: IF YOUR CAT IS DISPLAYING ABNORMAL BEHAVIOR, TAKE A TRIP TO YOUR VET.
If your cat is sick it will become apparent in their behavior. For instance, anxiety can cause behavior issues such as marking. Could your cat be anxious? In "A QUICK GUIDE TO UNDERSTANDING YOUR PET'S ANXIETY" you will learn what can be causing your cat's behavior and what you can do about it. Treating it early on can save you and your cat a whole lot of trouble.
It's up to you as the cat parent to understand their behavior.
Subtle Signs of a Sick Cat
Litter Box Issues
For the 3 weeks, Ali was having trouble with the litter box. I don't mean urinating or defecating outside, or simply not using it. I mean she was trying to do both often. She would go to the litter box waiting for something to come out, leave, and come back 2 minutes later.
She was straining too, which was painful even for me to watch. You can tell your cat is straining in the litter box when their back is uncomfortably arched, they have a hunched posture and their head is inclined downwards.
If your cat is constipated they may even yowl. Ali would lay, legs up in the air, and roll on her back yowling. This lasted a few minutes and it took a bit longer to be able to defecate.
Unlike constipation, diarrhea can be a lot easier to recognize. Which is another reason for concern.
Ali would normally urinate 3-4 times a day, this was normal for her. For your cat, their usual urinating schedule may be different. If your cat is sick they may urinate more or less than their usual amount per day. For instance, Ali was going once and sometimes twice if she was lucky.
An increase in urination can be caused by a failure to conserve water. This means your cat may be developing kidney or liver problems, or diabetes. As for decreased amounts of urine and straining can be caused by kidney or bladder problems. Another sign of a urinary tract problem is excessive licking of their genitals.
Fortunately, with Ali, this was the first thing our vet ruled out.
Inappropriate elimination can also be a sign to look out for. If your cat is defecating and urinating around your home, they're trying to tell you something. This can be the most straight-up sign your cat can give you.
If your cat is anything like mine you know that breakfast and dinner are their favorite times of the day. So when Ali stopped getting excited about mealtimes, it concerned me. However, eating more than usual is as concerning as not getting excited.
Ali would know it was dinner time but when I would set her food down she nibbled, licked and that was it. Her food would be moved around, but there wouldn't be less of it.
A few common reasons for appetite change include:
Hiding or visiting the food bowl often are signs of anorexia.
Pickiness over their food can be a sign of dental disease.
Hearty appetite and increase thirst can be a sign of metabolic disease.
Loss of appetite and increased thirst can be liver or kidney problems.
These are a few signs mentioned by the VCA. They recommend visiting your vet if your cat is not eating properly for 24 hrs.
My first thought when Ali was unable to urinate was that she was dehydrated. I watched over her water bowls for signs that she was drinking, but she wasn't. I felt comfortable using a syringe to force feed her water and it seemed to help. Before you decide to force-feed your consult with your vet to assure it's the best approach for your cat. This is how I was able to help her urinate and eventually defecate. By day 4, she was sipping at her water on her own. I presume it was to avoid the syringe (haha).
The VCA has a quick tip to tell if your cat is dehydrated --
"Gently grasp their skin near the shoulder blades, pull it up and away from the body, and then let it go. The skin should "snap" back into place but if it stays 'tented-up' it indicates dehydration."
I have to admit Ali is a chunky cat. Before I started her diet she weighed 21lbs, she currently weighs about 19lbs. Our goal is to get her back to 16lbs to see how she feels. When we hit her ideal weight I will be uploading a post on how I determined her weight plan and everything I learned throughout the process.
Your cat's ideal weight depends on their breed and size, plus you know your cat well enough to notice when they're too chunky or too skinny. In the span of the 3 weeks, Ali lost 1lb. I know this doesn't seem like much, but for a cat it is. Losing weight too quickly is not good for your cat, or anyone for that matter. Ali's lack of appetite had me worried about her weight.
Along with the loss of appetite, weight loss can be a sign of concern for your cat. It can be a simple tummy ache to a serious illness. It's possible for cats to have a big appetite and lose weight too. This can be a sign of hyperthyroidism.
As for rapid weight gain, it can signal:
And other common illnesses in cats. This is where regular vet visits play a great role in your cat's life. Veterinarians normally keep track of your cat's weight and can let you know about any abnormal changes or concerns they may have.
Our cats groom themselves to keep clean and many other reasons. This trait is taught by their mothers as kittens. When your cat is sick they may over-groom or under-groom.
Over-grooming can be a response to skin allergies, pain, or anxiety (learn more about your cat's anxious behavior here). You will notice bald spots, irritated skin, or a rash if your cat is over-grooming.
As you may have already guessed, under-grooming isn't caused by a lazy cat. Trust me, I would know. Although Ali is a bit chunky she grooms herself often, but she can't reach right behind her so I have to step in to help. Your cat may be under-grooming because of a few reasons:
They may not have the energy to clean themselves.
They may be in pain or discomfort.
They may haven't had the chance to be taught self-grooming.
Sick cats have a harder time cleaning themselves because of how they're feeling. Sometimes, kittens are taken away from their mothers too early. Moms are normally the ones to teach kittens grooming and eventually they groom themselves and their fellow litter siblings.
Excessive shedding can also be unusual. A sick cat may have increased shedding due to hyperthyroidism and other common diseases. You will notice your cat's fur flying more than usual.
If I'm being honest, all of these signs I have mentioned are behavior changes. However, I felt it necessary to create a section to specify behavior change. As I mentioned before, your cat will not scream in your face to tell you they're sick (as I'd hope). They will tell you in the most subtle ways and it's up to you to notice them.
Ali is a sweet girl, she loves tummy rubs and being stretched. In the 3 weeks, I couldn't even touch her. It might have been because I was the one wiping after bathroom time, but tummy rubs were a no go. She also resorted to hiding, especially when she was constipated.
You may notice your cat will:
Become grumpy & irritated
Their sassiness will peak
During this time Ali didn't have time for her favorite toy either. She had moments of playtime, but they were only short spurts. Even when we play with her favorite shoelace she wouldn't move around much. I also noticed she spent most of her time sleeping or laying in bed. Ali enjoys taking turns in hanging out with everyone in our home. It was unusual.
Additional common signs include:
They don't seek attention
May only get up for food or to the litter box
I know Ali did fall off our balcony, but limping is also common in sick cats. I noticed Ali was in pain because she would only lay on her bad leg. Whenever she spent time in bed she would lay in the same position. In this case, she felt comfortable putting pressure on her bad leg.
Every cat is different. When I talk about behavior changes I mean unusual behavior for your cat.
a few examples would be:
a sweet cat who enjoys the company becomes anxious
a cat whos loves playtime suddenly would rather be alone
Depending on the personality of the cat, they may seek more or attention or just become cranky. Whichever the case if your cat suddenly changes, it's time for a vet visit.
There are also visible signs that your cat may be sick. These instances include weird discharge from the ears or nose, bad breath or a bad odor, or unusual breathing. If any of this becomes apparent seek your vet immediately.
Although Ali was a bit off and unusual because of all the medication and pain, the signs of a sick cat were apparent. Whether your home often or not as much, spend some time with your cat. Notice their most common traits. What they enjoy and what they don't. This way when something is off, you will notice it right away. Understanding your cat's behavior can help determine a disease with enough time to treat it.
I hope you learned something from my experience. Until next time!
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