Recognising Signs of Disease in Cats and When to Seek Advice
Cat carers cannot be expected to have a full veterinary knowledge but it is helpful if they can recognize symptoms which are signs of potentially serious diseases. Symptoms are signs of disease and are the clues that cat carers need to recognise so that they can ensure that the cat receives veterinary attention. Some symptoms can appear relatively trivial but may actually indicate potentially life-threatening diseases.
Large wounds, discharging abscesses, lameness, tightly closed eyes and distorted limbs are obvious symptoms that something is seriously wrong with a cat, but what we are exploring here are symptoms that an average cat carer may consider trivial but which could indicate serious disease. While they may not justify an emergency visit to your vet they should at least prompt a telephone call.
1. Panting or Difficulty breathing
- Panting or Difficulty breathing
- Persistent straining or Bloody diarrhoea
- Pale gums or Weakness
- Persistent vomiting or Dehydration
– Cats are pretty cool customers and very rarely pant unless they have recently been exercising hard. You often see juvenile cats that have been trying to catch the “fish on a rod” being flicked by their owner panting after a minute or so of concerted effort but that’s understandable. What is not normal is to see cats panting when they have not been exercising. In these situations panting could indicate that the cat has a fever or that the cat is having difficulty breathing.
Cats’ breathing should almost be imperceptible to their carers. In the past I have asked carers to count the number of breaths per minute that their cat does and many owners struggle with this. So symptoms like breathing with an open mouth, noisy breathing and large and rapid chest movements indicate a potentially serious problem. Some carers are able to determine if their cat is struggling to breathe in or to breathe out and this information can be helpful for the vet. Noisy expiration, or breathing out, is an indication that a cat may have asthma.
Coughing can be another indication of asthma in cats but some carers struggle to tell the difference between a cough and a wretch.
Difficulty breathing can be an indication of many diseases from a wasp sting in the mouth to chest damage following a road traffic accident. Panting can indicate fever or even anaemia because the body is struggling to get sufficient oxygen to its organs. Whatever the cause, it requires veterinary investigation.
2. Persistent straining & bloody diarrhoea – Straining refers to the effort associated with trying to pass a motion or urine. Again, it is difficult for carers to tell what the cat is actually trying to pass as they probably just see the cat straining in the litter tray. The cat may cry out in discomfort and there may be some bloody diarrhoea or jelly in the litter tray or stuck to the fur near the cats back end. The cat may turn and attempt to lick or clean its rear end but again carers will struggle to see exactly where the cat is licking.
If the cat is straining to pass urine it could be because it has cystitis, which is a common problem of cats and which often has more to do with emotional stress rather than infections, which is the case with humans. Alternatively the cat’s bladder could be blocked with a plug of sludgy crystals. This most often occurs in male cats and requires urgent attention because back pressure on the kidneys can cause them to fail.
Bloody diarrhoea indicates damage and inflammation of the lower bowel which can result in anaemia and fluid imbalances. An inflamed bowel gives the cat the impression that there is something there that needs to be expelled even when there isn’t. This causes the cat to strain to pass nothing, but in doing so it may pass small blobs of bloody mucus.
If a carer notices their cat straining it is important to report it to a vet because to miss a blocked bladder could have disastrous consequences.
3. Pale gums or Weakness – Anaemia and shock both reduce the red blood cells circulating in superficial tissues. This causes the gums to become pale. The reduced oxygenation of muscles and organs causes weakness, drowsiness and delayed responses.
In cats anaemia can have many causes varying from infections such as Feline Leukaemia Virus to blood loss from flea infestations or trauma.
4. Persistent vomiting or Dehydration – Cats are good at vomiting, it’s probably perfectly acceptable for an average cat to vomit once a fortnight. However persistent vomiting, especially if the cat cannot hold down water, can rapidly result in dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. This can be a very difficult situation for a carer to manage and veterinary intervention is likely to be required.
One simple way of determining whether your cat is dehydrated is to check it’s ”skin tenting time”. To do this the carer lifts a tent of skin over the scruff and it should collapse back down within a few seconds. If it takes longer than 5 seconds it indicates that the cat is dehydrated. Some older cats gradually become dehydrated and appear to cope with it; however this is not an ideal state. Dehydration in any middle aged or young cats always requires veterinary advice.
5. Seizures – Epileptic seizures are less common in cats than in dogs and have many possible causes. If a carer observes their cat have a seizure they should remain calm, note how it affects the cats body, time the duration of the fit, draw curtains and turn anything off that is creating any noise. The carer should not attempt to handle the cat and should phone the vet once the fit has stopped.
Any or all of the symptoms described above could indicate serious illness but there could also be other causes, and while carers are advised to contact their vets if their cats are displaying such symptoms, they should not panic. When cats feel unwell they may hide or wander off, so carers should confine their cat to a room where it can be caught, put in a basket and taken to the vets if necessary.
Care should be taken to avoid stressing the cat if possible. Some cats, particularly those having difficulty breathing, are on the edge of coping and if pushed could move into a crisis. These cats need careful handling as though they are an unexploded bomb.
David Chamberlain BVetMed., MRCVS.
Veterinary Consultant to PetSafe®