Last Updated on January 6, 2021 by Julia Wilson
At a glance
Emergencies that can’t wait
Non-emergencies but need treatment (the next day)
Cats are exceptional at masking illness or pain, which can make it difficult for carers to determine if a cat needs medical attention. There are often small but subtle signs that your cat is not well. It is up to us to keep a close eye on our cats and look for any clues that our cat may not be well.
We need to be aware of eating habits, toileting, behaviour, sleeping, weight and general wellbeing. If you notice any changes, no matter how subtle it should be checked out with the vet. The earlier problems are caught, the better the chance of recovery.
If you are in any doubt about taking your cat to the vet it is ALWAYS better to err on the side of caution and seek help. Never wait and see because delaying medical attention may prolong suffering and mean that a sickness or injury is all the harder to treat.
This means the cat should be seen by a veterinarian immediately, it can’t wait until the next day.
Anorexia (loss of appetite)
It may not seem a big deal if your cat refuses food, after all, he will eat if he becomes hungry enough, right? No, this is not the case. When a cat loses his appetite it can lead to a serious condition known as hepatic lipidosis (or fatty liver disease) which is life-threatening. Loss of appetite can also just be a vague sign that your cat is not well. Some medical conditions which may cause your cat to lose his appetite include:
- Tick paralysis
- Addison’s disease
- Bacterial infection (Bordetella)
- Certain medications
- Dental or mouth pain (gingivitis, tooth abscess, stomatitis)
- Feline diabetes
- Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP)
- Gastrointestinal disease
- Hemobartonellosis (Feline Infectious Anemia)
- Injury or trauma
- Intestinal obstruction
- Kidney failure
- Neoplasia (abnormal cell growth)
- New or unpalatable diet
- Portosystemic shunt
Loss of appetite is one of the most common signs of sickness in cats, while the above list is long, it is by no means complete.
Unsteady, wobbly gait, walking in circles. This can have many possible causes including:
- Tick paralysis
- Middle ear problems
- Spinal injury
- Nervous system disorders
- Muscular-skeletal damage
- Weakness and anemia
- Head trauma
- Thiamine deficiency
Bleeding of any sort should be checked out.
Seek veterinary care if you notice panting, wheezing, coughing, suffering shortness of breath. There are many causes of breathing difficulty including heart and lung disorders which are life-threatening.
No matter how mild, any burns should be checked.
Change in toileting habits
Changes such as urinating more or less often, straining to go to the toilet, toileting in inappropriate places. There are many reasons why your cat’s toileting habits may have changed, all warranting investigation by your veterinarian. Some causes are fairly benign such as dirty litter tray, others have more serious causes, some reasons include;
- Urinary tract infection
- Kidney disease
Coughing isn’t seen as often in cats as it is in dogs but it always warrants further investigation. Possible causes include:
- Roundworm migration
- Lung tumours
- Nasopharyngeal polyps
- Fungal infection
- Feline Bordetella
Which lasts more than 12 hours or if it is blood or mucous tinged or accompanied by other signs of sickness.
Diarrhea in kittens is especially dangerous as they can become dehydrated so quickly. Urgent veterinary attention is necessary.
Even if your cat appears to be well after the incident, you should still seek veterinary attention.
Ingestion of toxic substance (including plants, medications, poisons)
Your cat may look okay, but the toxin could be causing irreversible damage, so veterinary attention is urgent.
If you notice or suspect your cat has ingested something toxic medical attention should be sought immediately.
Fortunately, these are relatively uncommon in cats but if you suspect your cat has had a seizure veterinary attention is vital.
Straining to go to the toilet
This common symptom can be mistaken for constipation, but a far more serious cause is FLUTD (feline lower urinary tract disease), which can lead to the cat becoming completely blocked and unable to urinate. Straining in the litter tray is always cause for concern and urgent veterinary attention necessary.
Any discharge from the vagina is abnormal and must be attended to immediately, possible causes include;
- Acute metritis
- Foreign body
Birth and postnatal problems
- Prolonged labour
- Difficulty delivering
- Fever after the birth
- Suddenly neglecting the kittens
- Vaginal discharge
Non-emergencies, but needs veterinary attention (the next day)
Bad breath is a sign there is a dental problem. Any dental problems need veterinary attention before they progress to something worse. Possible causes include:
- Kidney disease
- Diabetes mellitus
- Liver disease
- Tooth abscess
- Periodontal disease
- Intestinal problems
- Cancers of the mouth
This is something else you may notice from time to time, and the occasional sneeze is relatively harmless, but if your cat is sneezing frequently, it is accompanied by mucus or your cat displays other signs of sickness, seek veterinary care immediately.
Possible causes include:
Upper respiratory infection (either caused by a virus or bacteria). This is the most common cause of sneezing in cats.
- Irritants (cigarette smoke, dust etc)
- Foreign object (grass seed etc)
- Dental abscess
- Nasal polyps
- Nasal cancer
- Fungal infection
If the cat appears otherwise well and has not consumed a known toxin or medication and is eating and drinking as normal.
All cats vomit from time to time and generally, this is normal. You should seek medical attention if your cat vomits several times within an hour, the vomit contains blood, mucus or if your cat is also displaying other signs of sickness.
Vomiting in kittens should be investigated immediately.
Scratching may not appear to be a serious problem but it needs to be seen to. Possible causes of scratching include;
Another indicator that there is a potential problem is if your cat begins to drink more. There are many possible causes for this including;
- Kidney problems
- Bleeding from the nose
- Any discharge from the nose
May not appear to be serious but there are many causes of lameness and limping in cats, including:
- Back injuries
- Broken bone (fracture)
- Calicivirus (limping syndrome)
- Cancer or benign tumour
- Declawing pain
- Dislocation (bone popped out of joint)
- Foreign body in the foot (shard of glass, splinter, thorn etc)
- Insect bite
- Joint injury (torn cartilage)
- Lyme disease
- Nail injuries (pulled claw, over trimmed claw)
- Overgrown claws
- Spinal cord or nerve injury
- Sprains or strains (joints, tendons, muscles)
Sudden weight loss or gain
There are too many possible causes of weight loss and gain to list fully. Some more common causes include;
- Pregnancy and lactation
Any eye changes need to be seen by a veterinarian. These include minor or serious injury, change in eye colour, discharge, weeping, redness. Any eye problems are serious and could lead to blindness if not treated promptly.