Sometimes it's obvious when your cat needs medical attention. If, for example, a passing vehicle or stray dog causes trauma to your cat, you wouldn't hesitate to rush her to the veterinarian. The same goes for a seizure, eye injury or severe allergic reaction.
Sometimes, however, the need for medical attention isn't as apparent -- but it may be just as important. If your cat just doesn't seem to be herself, it could signal a more serious problem. This is why being tuned in to subtle changes in your cat's body or behavior is crucial -- such knowledge could save your cat's life.
What should you watch for? Everything from missing fur to refusing the litter box could be cause for alarm -- or not. We'll help you sort out the differences beginning on the next page.
5: Upping the Decibels
Some cats are more talkative than others. The Siamese cat, for example, is not a shrinking violet -- when it comes to unleashing meow after meow, that is.
If your cat isn't normally much of a talker, excessive vocalizations could signal pain or a medical problem. Get to the root of the issue by making sure all of her needs are met, especially those for food and attention. If your cat is female and unspayed, she may be going through a fertile heat cycle and calling for male companionship.
If your cat has been fed, stroked and entertained yet continues to meow loudly and often, give her a visual examination. If there are no signs of apparent trauma, use your hands to feel along her back, legs and tail, and then gently cup her face. Even if you don't see a wound or feel swelling, consult the veterinarian for a thorough medical exam.
4: Catching a Cold
If your cat has a runny nose, frequently sneezes or coughs or has crust-rimmed eyes, it could be a cold -- or something much more serious. Make sure your cat receives routine immunizations because they help prevent feline viruses. However, this protection isn't infallible; your cat could still contract feline herpes or feline calicivirus -- the symptoms of both mimic the common cold.
Closely monitor your cat when she isn't feeling well. Use a warm, damp cloth to clear mucous from her eyes or nose (be sure to wash your hands afterward). If your cat's symptoms last longer than the duration of a normal cold (seven to 10 days), if the symptoms begin to worsen or if new symptoms appear, take your cat to the veterinarian for a complete medical exam.
3: Skipping Meals or Snoozing 24/7
Cats sleep about 16 hours a day. But if your cat would rather sleep than eat, drink or play, it's cause for alarm. All this snoozing is a response to illness. And even if this illness is a temporary condition (like the common cold), failure to eat and drink can have disastrous effects.
Cats that go more than two days without eating are likely to develop one of the most common -- and deadly -- metabolic diseases of their species: hepatic lipidosis, also known as fatty liver disease. When a cat won't eat, her body taps into its fat supply for energy. It's then up to the liver to metabolize all that fat, and it simply can't handle the influx. As a result, the liver becomes overwhelmed by fat; some of it stays behind and inhibits the liver's function. If your cat is excessively tired or refuses to eat for more than a day, contact your veterinarian.
2: Missing the Mark
If an otherwise compliant cat refuses to use a litter box, it may be in protest to its (lack of) cleanliness. If you provide scoopable litter, remove waste as soon as possible after its occurrence. If you use another type of litter, such as clay or recycled newspaper, change it daily. Whatever the type of litter you use, wash the litter box at least once a week. Make sure you have one litter box for each cat, plus one extra, and place them in quiet, low-traffic areas.
If your cat still misses the mark, it's probably a medical issue that needs veterinary attention. Your cat could have a virus, bacterial infection or parasite that is causing him pain (which your cat may associate with the box itself and thus avoid it) or hampering his ability to get to the facilities on time. If your cat has other symptoms, such as drinking excess water or straining to urinate, contact your veterinarian immediately.
1: Losing Fur
Cats are fastidious groomers and some fur loss is normal, but if yours grooms to excess or begins to lose fur in patches, it's time to see the veterinarian. Loss of fur in circular patches that reveal scaly skin could be a symptom of ringworm, a fungal skin infection that can be passed to humans but is easily treated with antifungal cream. If your cat has been exposed to fleas, the fur loss could be an allergic reaction -- after an application of flea-preventative medication, your cat should stop scratching and the hair should grow back. Sometimes hair loss signals an internal problem, such as thyroid disease or Cushing's disease, so if you don't see an obvious external cause for your cat's hair loss, consult your veterinarian.
Whatever the cause of fur loss, your cat may end up swallowing the extra hair during grooming. This hair normally passes through the digestive system -- or makes a return appearance as a hairball. But if your cat swallows too much hair, it could cause an intestinal obstruction -- a painful and potentially fatal condition. Its primary symptom is vomiting -- any cat may be sick occasionally, but call your vet if your cat can't seem to keep food down.
Understanding your cat's normal behavior is key to knowing when to seek medical advice -- so you can feel good about all the hours you while away watching her endearing antics. Get to know her, and you'll know when she needs help.