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Become a Health Detective for Your Cat

By Karen Asp

Become a Health Detective for Your Cat

Cats are sneaky creatures, masters at hiding anything from pens to hair clips and illnesses. Numerous reasons are to blame, but one theory involves their genetic makeup. "Like wild animals, cats may feel the need to cover their illness so they're not viewed as being vulnerable," says Marie S. McCabe, DVM, vice president of the Human Animal Bond Division with the American Humane Association.

Knowing your cat by sight and touch can help you understand what "normal" is. Here are six clues that your cat could be under the weather. 

Clue No. 1: Weight Change
For most cats, weight loss isn't normal and can signal illness, says India Lane, DVM, associate professor of medicine at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine in Knoxville, Tenn. Weight gain in cats is usually associated with excess food.

While your veterinarian can help you to determine what is normal for your particular cat’s breed and age, you can also observe your pet’s body. First, look at your cat from above. You should see a waistline. Now view your cat from the side and see if the belly hangs. In a normal-weight cat, there should be no hang. Next, put your hands on your cat's back and make sure you can feel the ribs. 

Clue No. 2: Unkempt Coat
When cats are nervous, they often raise the fur of their coats and shed excessively. If that's the case, a change in the environment -- such as a big move -- could be stressing your cat, says McCabe. If your cat has stopped grooming and the coat looks clumpy or flaky, that may be cause for concern, as cats are normally fastidious groomers.

Clue No. 3: Pale Gums and Bad Breath
Checking your cat’s gums and teeth regularly can help you spot changes more easily. Pale gums, or paleness in the ears or around the eyeballs -- for cats with black gums -- can signify illness. This subtle color change can indicate poor circulation and disease. In addition, check the teeth and make sure there is no plaque or tartar. Another illness tip-off? Unpleasant-smelling breath that doesn’t come from something you’ve put in the food bowl.   

Clue No. 4: Dilated Eyes
Gaze into your cat's eyes. You should see similar-sized pupils that aren't dilated. With some illnesses, the pupils can dilate and remain dilated, says Lane. One pupil may even appear to be slightly larger than the other.

Clue No. 5: Shallow, Quick Breathing
Respiratory problems can be another red flag for health woes, but you often have to watch cats closely to know they're having problems. In retrospect, you may realize that your cat has been hiding or hunched up, with its breathing shallow but quick.

Clue No. 6: Behavioral Changes
While the above clues deal with bodily changes, behavioral changes may also alert you to problems. For instance, something could be awry if your cat is urinating or defecating outside the litter box, straining in the litter box, hiding in odd places, not interacting with family members, becoming aggressive or irritable, or bouncing off the walls.

Even with these clues at your fingertips, how do you know when you need to call for expert medical help? Lane says three of the aforementioned things should drive you to the veterinarian’s office immediately: breathing difficulties, changes in the pupils, and straining to urinate or defecate. Otherwise, watch your cat for a few days. If you still suspect a problem, call your veterinarian without delay.

Karen Asp covers health, fitness, nutrition and pets for numerous publications, including Prevention, Woman's Day, Shape, Self, Fitness, Health, Real Simple, Good Housekeeping and Natural Health. She shares her office with two cats.

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Posted on June 2, 2011

Paul says: My cat is 13 years old, and for about 2 years now, has been rather thin. She is a Bombay cat and has been neutered. She has never been particularly fat or heavy; but now she's a bit boney. I took her to the vet when I first noticed her drop in weight and was told she had a clean bill health. No thyroid problems, no masses anywhere, blood indicated perfect health. He gave me an Omega 3 liquid to squirt on her food which she immediately rejected. She got a normal appetite and eats frequently. Her teeth are clean, and otherwise appears alert, healthy and acting normally. I am still concerned about her weight-loss. Can anyone suggest possible reasons for it?

Posted on June 25, 2010

jennifer says: shallow quick breating, vomiting, loss of appitite, no energy only lays rarred up. whines when moved as if in pain

Posted on July 25, 2010

tom says: my cat lost 4lbs in 6 months and now wobbles , blood test is ok, her hair did not loose her winter coat, and looks funny

Posted on May 10, 2010

Raleigh says: i love kittys they are so cute

Posted on March 4, 2010

Ellen says: My 20 yr. old cat has very bad breath. This just happened recently. His gums and teeth look fine. He also has not been eating much and has lost weight. What could the problem be?

Posted on November 20, 2009

sholie says: why does my cat who is 13 years (in human years) Vomiting about every other day?

Posted on November 21, 2009

ashley says: my cat is 12 should i be prepared for death any time soon?

Posted on December 13, 2009

sharon says: My 10 month old kitten has a poor quality to his coat. He is always getting knotted up and his fur is very dull. We keep brushing him and he still manages to get his hair mangled and matted. Any suggestions would be a blessing.

Posted on January 8, 2010

Donna says: We have 10 adopted cats. The only problem is several throw up right after drinking or eating, they won't eat meds. for hairballs.

Posted on October 8, 2009

Marilyn says: What would cause my cat to drool

Posted on October 12, 2009

Diane says: What would make her cat lose weight?

Posted on October 20, 2009

Cindi says: My 13 year old cat was just diagnosed with an overactive thyroid and put on medication. This was diagnosed with a blood test.

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