Can Mean Death Within Days so Please Don't Ignore

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

cat warning signs

Story at-a-glance -

  • Since our animal companions can’t speak to us, it’s important as a dedicated cat parent to remain observant for signs of potential health problems
  • There are several signs that should prompt a call to your veterinarian, including changes in appetite, dramatic weight loss, or withdrawal or hiding
  • Other signs include increased thirst and urination, eliminating outside the litterbox, and struggling to urinate (which is always an emergency)

Even if you follow my recommendation to schedule twice-yearly veterinary wellness exams for your feline family member, it’s still really important to be an observant pet parent in between visits. You know your cat better than anyone and you’re his first line of defense in spotting a brewing health problem.

9 Common Health Warning Signs in Cats

The Morris Animal Foundation lists common signs to watch for in kitties that should always prompt a call to your veterinarian.1

1. Changes in chewing, eating and drinking habits — If your cat is having difficulty chewing, there’s something painful going on in her mouth that needs investigating. Possibilities include dental or gum disease, a broken tooth, feline stomatitis or tooth resorption.

Changes in your cat’s appetite or eating habits can signal any number of underlying problems, from oral disease to a gastrointestinal (GI) disorder to cancer. If your cat is suddenly drinking her water bowl dry, it’s also cause for concern. Excessive thirst (along with excessive urination) are symptoms of several feline disorders, including urinary tract problems and kidney disease.

2. Dramatic weight gain or loss — If your cat seems to be gaining a lot of weight, it’s most likely a result of what she’s eating (e.g., a dry diet), how much she’s eating (free-feeding is a leading cause of obesity in kitties) and a lack of physical activity (most indoor cats don’t get nearly the exercise they need).

On the flip side, often a loss of appetite is the very first sign of an underlying illness in cats. There can be many reasons she isn't hungry or refuses to eat, but not eating can begin to negatively affect her health within 24 hours. For kittens 6 months or younger, the issue is even more serious.

3. Withdrawal from social interaction or touching — The first sign most pet parents notice in a cat who is ill or hurting is a change in behavior. Cats instinctively look for places to hide when they're injured or ill. They're trying to hide their pain, because in the wild, a cat in pain is seen as weak and vulnerable by other cats and predators.

If your cat's social interaction or hiding habits change, or if you find her hiding or resting in an unusual place (e.g., the litterbox), it's cause for concern. This is especially true if she's also showing other signs of discomfort. Stress can also cause cats to withdraw, so it’s important to consider whether there’s something happening in kitty’s environment or daily routine that might be stressing him out.

4. Changes in activity level, including increased sleeping or hyperactivity — Cats sleep much of the time, even young, healthy ones, so it’s often difficult to tell if kitty’s hours spent sleeping have increased. If you suspect your cat is sleeping more than normal, especially if you’ve noticed other symptoms as well, give your veterinarian a call.

"Hyperactivity" or sudden unexpected bursts of energy, particularly in an older cat, is a sign she may have an overactive thyroid, especially if her appetite has also increased, yet she's losing weight. Frequent vomiting is another sign of hyperthyroidism, so if this describes your cat, be sure to make an appointment with your veterinarian as soon as possible.

5. An excessively wet litter box — a sign of increased urination — Increased urination usually coincides with increased thirst and water intake, and in cats these are very often signs of kidney disease, which can be acute (sudden) or chronic. Another less common disorder that causes increased urination is diabetes insipidus, a metabolic disorder in which the kidneys aren’t able to reabsorb normal amounts of water, so the cat eliminates large quantities of very dilute urine.

6. Sudden onset of urinary or fecal accidents — If nothing has changed in your cat’s environment and you’re keeping his litterbox scrupulously clean, yet he’s suddenly peeing or pooping outside the box, it might be a sign of a medical problem such as feline lower urinary tract disease, diabetes, cognitive dysfunction or hyperthyroidism. Other reasons cats “miss” the litterbox include urine marking and litterbox aversion.

7. Struggling to urinate — this is an emergency! — This includes discomfort while urinating, straining to urinate and frequent attempts to urinate with little success.

If your cat cries out while relieving himself, isn't leaving his normal amount of urine in the litterbox, seems preoccupied with that area of his body or is excessively licking the area, you should make an appointment with your veterinarian right away. There are several underlying causes of urinary difficulties, some of which can result in death within just a few days.

8. Lack of grooming, or excessive grooming of certain areas — Cats are fastidious creatures and self-grooming is a natural feline behavior, so when a kitty starts looking unkempt, it’s important to understand why. Some overweight cats can’t reach certain areas of their bodies — typically toward the backend — and need an assist (as well as a weight loss plan).

Oral disease, particularly feline stomatitis, can make it too painful for kitties to groom. Older cats with cognitive decline can let their grooming slide, which usually accompanies more classic signs such as excessive vocalization (especially at night), appearing confused as to where they are and why (staring off into space), eliminating outside the litterbox and loss of interest in interacting with human family members.

9. Increases or changes in vocalization — You know better than anyone what "normal" is for your cat when it comes to the sounds she makes. For example, some kitties almost never vocalize, while others "talk" nonstop to their humans. Depending on her personality, you may also know the difference between kitty's happy sounds and her vocalizations when she's annoyed.

The sounds you don't want to ignore are yowls that come out of nowhere and for no apparent reason, or continuous loud crying, especially if she's also pacing or seems unable or unwilling to settle down. These are signs she's in significant pain and needs to see a veterinarian right away.

Some signs of illness in cats can be handled by simply allowing them to run their course, for example, a single refused meal or the very occasional hairball. Other signs can be so sudden, severe and frightening that you know immediately you need to get your pet to the vet or an emergency animal hospital. Most of the above symptoms fall in between those two extremes and should be addressed by your veterinarian at the earliest opportunity.

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