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Cat Symptoms: How To Tell If Your Cat Is Sick

Feline owners have many questions when it comes to their pet's health. It can be hard to tell if a feline is sick. Cats often experience different behaviors that can be signs or symptoms of illness, injury, or other medical issues. Learn about the common signs and symptoms that indicate a cat may be sick.

Danielle DeGroot

Last Updated: August 13, 2022 | 17 min read

Cat with thermometer

Cats are known for their odd, unpredictable behavior. Sometimes this strange behavior is more than just a quirky kitty. It can be a sign something is wrong. Every pet owner knows the stress and worry that comes with having a cat that is not feeling well. Sometimes it can be hard to tell if a cat’s behavior means they are sick or is just part of their eccentric behavior.

Felines are very good at keeping their sickness hidden, which can sometimes lead to a serious medical emergency. It is essential owners pay attention to their kitty’s behavior, especially when it seems off. Even minimal changes in a cat’s daily habits can indicate something is amiss.

Feline owners often ask how to tell if a cat is sick. This is not always a simple answer. There are some obvious things owners can look for. Just like you, our goal is to keep your fur babies happy and healthy throughout their lives. We cover obvious signs a cat may be sick and talk about some not-so-obvious symptoms.

Why Cats Hide Sickness

Cats are exceptionally good at hiding injury and sickness. They will mask symptoms by acting normal or can remove themselves to a quiet spot to hide. This behavior is something all felines do, even big wildcats. In the wild, they do this because they know weakness and sickness make them more vulnerable to predators. This behavior is in their genetics to hide symptoms of illness, pain, and injury. It is important to have felines checked out by a veterinarian at least two times a year for a wellness check. If owners suspect their kitty may be sick, the best thing to do is to get care immediately rather than wait until a regular checkup. Kitties can hide symptoms until they are close to needing heroic measures and waiting to get veterinary care can be the difference between life and death.

Signs A Cat Is Sick

Signs that a cat might be sick are not always huge or apparent behaviors. There can be some very subtle signs as well as some big red flags. Owners should familiarize themselves with the signs and symptoms of feline sickness. Developing this understanding can help them make the right choices when they think a kitty might be sick or hurt. We cover several signs and symptoms feline owners should look for.

Aggression

Aggression in cats, especially those usually more docile, is a significant indicator that something is wrong. Feline aggression can be a result or reaction to something simple like a change in routine or a new person or pet in the home. Sudden aggression towards a specific human or animal is a cause for concern. Anytime a pet exhibits intense levels of aggression, it is crucial that owners consult their veterinarians. This might be a medical issue or may need behavioral training. Aggression in felines should never be left unchecked.

Changes In Appetite

Skinny cat next to bowl of food
If your cat is underweight that could be a sign they are sick.

Changes in appetite that happen suddenly can be an indication of illness, digestive issues, or injury. Owers should always monitor cats when they eat and not free-feed them so that they can monitor how much a kitty eats in a day.

Loss Of Appetite

Sometimes cats may simply not be hungry or may not like the variety and flavor of the food they have been offered. But, cats who start regularly skipping meals or eat very little may have an underlying health issue. Sudden changes like refusing to eat are warning signs. It may be worth a call to the vet to discuss your fur kiddo’s behavior and diet. Cats who do not eat for several days can become weak, compromise their immune system, and are at risk for serious conditions like hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver).

Increase in Appetite

Felines that suddenly have an increase in appetite may have something else going on besides just wanting an additional snack. Suppose a kitty exhibits a sudden change in appetite, especially those that suddenly start wanting more food all the time. In that case, owners should begin observing them more closely and may want to consult a veterinarian. Hypothyroidism can be a concern of overeating, especially in older cats. Additionally, overeating can lead to a kitty being overweight or obese, which leads to a long list of serious health conditions, including cardiac concerns and diabetes.

Changes In Thirst & Water Consumption

Hydration changes can indicate a serious, even life-threatening, issue. Always pay attention to changes in a cat’s water consumption as well as urination.

Excessive Thirst

Excessive or increased thirst is absolutely something feline owners want to pay attention to. Cats who are constantly wanting to drink water may have underlying kidney disease. Some feline breeds like water and continuously want to play in it, which is not a concern. Kitties who are continually seen drinking at the water bowl may need a checkup, especially if this is not normal behavior.

Dehydration

Dehydration is a severe and sometimes even life-threatening condition for cats. While some felines may be seen drinking excessively, it is more common for them not to drink enough water. Feline dehydration can quickly take its toll on an animal’s health. They may lose the ability to control their body temperature, have irregular heartbeat, lose neurological function, experience decreased circulation, and start to experience multi-organ dysfunction.

Symptoms of dehydration can include weakness, diarrhea, vomiting, decreased appetite, dry noses, sunken eyes, and lethargy. Some very serious diseases can cause feline dehydration, including diabetes, hypothyroidism, and kidney disease. It can also be caused by some medications. Dehydration needs immediate medical attention.

Changes In Urination

Anytime a kitty experiences a change in urination, it’s always best to consult with a veterinarian. This may not always be an emergency, but it is not something owners want to ignore. Changes in a feline’s urinary habits are one of the most prominent indicators of an underlying kidney issue or urinary tract concern. Changes in the number of times a kitty urinates, the quantity of urine, presence of blood in urine, extreme change in color, urination in inappropriate places, or refusal to urinate are all strong indicators something is wrong.

A feline attempting to urinate and not being able to urinate is a concern that requires immediate medical attention. In male kitties, this indicates a serious kidney issue, and owners should seek immediate veterinary care. Any time blood is present in urine, this is indicative of something going on, and owners should call their veterinarians to discuss and come up with a treatment plan.

Changes in Poop

While all cats experience occasional digestive tract issues, sudden or prolonged changes in their bowel movements may indicate underlying disease. Constipation is difficult for owners to notice right away and may cause pain and extreme discomfort for a kitty. Felines should not have dry stools, owners who see this will want to schedule a checkup soon as this can be an indication of early-stage kidney malfunction. Diarrhea can indicate more severe concerns like parasites, infection, or ingesting something unsafe. If a kitty has diarrhea for more than a day or two or blood is present, owners should consult their veterinarians immediately to rule out any serious disease.

Eating Feces

Cats that start eating their own poop are not exhibiting normal behavior. This behavior is referred to as coprophagia. Kitties that start doing this could be suffering from anemia, some sort of vitamin or mineral deficiency, or a neurological issue. While eating feces might be something kittens do here and there, adult cats rarely do this. Felines can pick up diseases like e Coli and salmonella from eating feces, so owners should always contact the vet if their kitty starts eating out of the litterbox.

Eye, Nose & Ear Discharge

Discharge is often a sign of disease, injury, or irritation. Cats can have discharge from their ears, eyes, and nose.

Eye Discharge

Discharge from a feline’s eyes can be an indicator of an upper respiratory infection or a virus. These conditions are sometimes contagious, and owners will want to keep a close eye On their animals to monitor changes. Occasional eye discharge may not be a concern. Kitties with heavy eye discharge or continuous discharge may need medication. A common indicator that a cat could be sick is an elevated third eyelid covering part of their eyeball. Droopy eyelids, squinting, or colored discharge are all signs that a kitty is experiencing a health situation. It is imperative to pay attention to any eye abnormality as these can quickly become a serious condition with long-lasting damage, including blindness.

Nasal Discharge

Nasal discharge in felines is another indicator of an upper respiratory tract concern. Cats may have an infection or virus which can impact them in different ways, including lack of energy and lessened appetite. Always consult with your veterinarian should you notice a discharge from your kitty’s nose. Cat’s noses should generally feel moist and cool, without discharge.

Ear Discharge

Discharge from a cat’s ear is an indicator of debris, infection, or parasites. Owners who suspect their kitty may have an infection, especially those who notice discharge, should consult with a veterinarian. Ear infections can be excruciating for cats and become quite severe if left untreated. Often there may not be an indicator of an ear infection other than ear discharge, so this is always something to pay attention to.

Change in Appearance & Weight

Sudden changes in your kitty’s appearance, including weight gain or loss, can sometimes indicate an underlying medical issue. Excessive weight loss in a short time is more concerning than a slight weight gain. Excessive weight gain quickly is also a concern. Owners concerned about their cat’s weight gain or loss should consult with their veterinarian for a weight check to see where their kitty should be and come up with a nutrition and exercise plan if need be.

Changes In Skin & Coat

Changes in a cat’s skin and coat health are a definite sign that they may not feel well. A cat that starts excessively over-grooming might be in pain. They may have a skin concern or might be in pain internally and be licking excessively in one area. Kitties with sores on their skin may have infections or parasites like fleas or mites. Hair loss can also indicate an underlying medical condition like dehydration, disease, or infection. Cats do regularly shed hair and will have increased shedding cycles during seasonal temperature changes. Excess shedding at different times or losing a lot of hair suddenly is something owners will want to monitor and consult with their veterinarians about.

Stinky Breath

A healthy kitty should not have foul-smelling breath. While it may not smell minty and clean, it should not smell like a garbage can. Cats who have bad breath may have an underlying medical condition like halitosis, kidney disease, respiratory illness, liver malfunction, skin issues, periodontal disease, injury to their mouths, diabetes, or infection. Cats with bad breath commonly have periodontal disease, which, if not treated, can lead to severe concerns in the future. Periodontal disease is preventable by brushing a kitty’s teeth, using dental cleaning treats, and regular checkups with the vet.

Lethargy & Weakness

Felines who are lethargic or experiencing muscle weakness, especially those who refuse to eat or drink, need veterinary care as soon as possible. Lethargy is always an indicator that something is wrong, and cats with sudden, extremely low energy levels should be seen by the vet. Felines who are limping or having trouble walking may suffer from injury, overworked joints, or arthritis. Kitties are very good at covering pain and may not give any indication that they are hurt other than a slight limp.

Swollen Body

Cats who are experiencing swelling anywhere in the body should have medical attention. It may not be an emergency, but this is a good indicator that something is wrong. Infected wounds, tumors, skin injury, or allergies can all cause swelling in a feline’s body.

Breathing Changes

Cats who are experiencing changes in breathing, including shortness of breath, raspy breath, wheezing, rapid breathing, heavy panting, or who seem like they were unable to breathe need medical attention right away. This is an indicator that something is wrong, and kitties should always be checked out by a veterinarian as soon as possible.

Drooling

Healthy felines are not big droolers, so a drooling kitty is certainly something owners will want to pay attention to. Drooling can indicate tooth decay, injury to the mouth or teeth, ulcers, gum disease, infection, lesions, and other underlying diseases. This can also signify that they have ingested something toxic or poisonous and may be in distress. This often happens when felines eat plants that they should not. Sometimes drooling indicates that a kitty is nauseous, needs to vomit, or suffers anxiety. It is always best to consult a vet whenever an owner notices drooling in a cat. While it may not be anything to worry about, this is not normal behavior, and it is always best to have it investigated.

Nausea & Vomiting

Cat throwing up vomit
Occasional vomiting is not something to rush to the ER about.

Cats will experience occasional bouts of nausea and vomiting along with hairballs. However, cats who are vomiting every day, or more than that, need a consultation with a veterinarian. Kitties who cannot keep food down, are suddenly vomiting everywhere, or have excessive hairballs will need medical attention. They may have ingested something toxic, have an intestinal blockage, or even an allergy that is causing them this issue, or it may be even more serious.

Sick Cat Body Language

Cats may communicate that they are sick through body language. This is often very subtle and may take owners some time to notice. Sometimes it can be something as simple as not being interested in playing or eating. Other times a feline may not want interaction with humans and will hide underneath furniture or in some other area where they feel safe. An ordinarily friendly cat who is suddenly aggressive or experiences other personality changes may be experiencing a medical issue. Older kitties tend to be more standoffish than younger ones. A sudden, unexplained change from friendly to aggressive is always something to pay attention to.

A cat may try to communicate that something is wrong by rubbing up on humans aggressively or vocalizing more than usual might be trying to share something with their owners. Cats may keep their eyes shut or heavily squinted when they do not feel well, and their ears may start to droop and sit very low. Sick kitties will curl themselves into small balls, tucking all their limbs and tails inside. Kitties who are not feeling well, are in pain, or experiencing discomfort may not want to be touched, simply go limp, and will not seem interested in any physical activity.

Medical Emergencies

Just like humans, felines can experience sudden and dire medical emergencies. There are some situations owners may find themselves in that are always an emergency. Some conditions can wait for a veterinary appointment or phone call. Some will need immediate medical attention from the nearest vet. If your regular vet is unavailable, find the nearest one that can get you in as soon as possible.

Emergency medical situations for cats include:

  1. Injury or trauma
  2. Seizures
  3. Collapsing and inability to move
  4. Lethargy and unresponsiveness
  5. Unconsciousness
  6. Great difficulty walking
  7. Dizziness and disorientation
  8. Pain or discomfort that seems severe and is causing aggression
  9. Lack of urination despite straining
  10. Pale, white, or blue gums
  11. Refusal to eat or drink
  12. Extreme aggressiveness
  13. Bright red blood in stool or urine
  14. Fever or very low body temp

Anytime a kitty is in great distress or acting extremely out of the ordinary, it is a good idea to consult your veterinarian. If you feel that your kitty has an urgent medical concern, take them to the nearest available veterinarian. It is always a good idea to have a primary veterinarian and a backup, as well as know what veterinary hospitals are in your area. Some veterinary hospitals will be open 24 hours, and others will have reduced hours. Owners should be prepared to know where to take a pet when they are experiencing a medical emergency. It only adds to the severity and discomfort of an emergency if an owner does not know where they can get care.

Illness Prevention

Not all medical issues can be prevented, but there are some steps feline owners can take to keep their pets in the best of health and prevent serious medical issues.

Tips To Prevent Feline Illness

  • Keeping up with a cat’s regular yearly veterinary exams, immunizations, and preventative care is one of the most significant steps an owner can take to keep them healthy. It is very common for felines who have not been to the vet in a very long time to have some sort of medical condition. Often, these can be preventable or easily treatable if caught early but can become very serious if left without treatment. It is the worst possible scenario to wait to get the care and then find out that a beloved pet has a severe or untreatable medical condition.
  • Proper nutrition is vital to a cat’s health daily and throughout their lifetime. Getting the proper nutrition when they are kittens, active adults, and seniors will help keep their bodies healthy and ensure proper development. Owners should steer clear of bargain brands and foods high in artificial ingredients, fillers, additives, and those that do not contain real meat products. Cats are obligate carnivores and need diets high in good quality animal proteins throughout their lives. Improper nutrition can cause poor development, poor body function, lowered immune system, and poor dental health, which can put cats at a higher risk of injury and disease.
  • Preventative care like heartworm, parasite prevention, and flea and tick treatment can prevent cats from acquiring these pesky parasites. These can be incredibly painful and cause kitties a great deal of stress and discomfort. Preventative treatment goes a long way in avoiding some of these common and very uncomfortable health situations for your kitty.
  • A comfortable and safe home environment is incredibly pivotal to a feline’s overall health. A home free of choking hazards, toxins, and potential injury will protect a cat from getting hurt. Cats need environments that are low in stress, comfortable, and where they feel safe. Additionally, they like to be clean, and clean litter boxes, feeding areas, and sleeping areas help keep cats healthy and prevent them from getting parasites and spreading disease.
  • Owners should always pay attention to their cat’s behavior and investigate any activities or behaviors that seem out of the norm for their purr baby. While cats are known to have eccentric behavior and sometimes do unpredictable things, owners know their animals. If it feels like something is off, it is always worth the effort to get it checked out. Because they are so good at hiding discomfort, illness, and injury, far too often, owners will not know something is wrong until things reach a dire emergency, which is very expensive and may not be treatable.

By paying attention to and monitoring a cat’s habits, from grooming, eating, sleeping, and using the litter box, owners can ensure their kitties are doing okay. If a cat is refusing to eat, check the litter box to make sure things are normal. If it seems like a kitty is not drinking enough, check the litter box to see if they are using it. Kitties who are excessively licking may have a skin infection or injury. Kitties who are hiding and acting lethargic may be experiencing something beyond just having a quiet day. Observant owners who pay attention can catch serious medical concerns before they become life-threatening and require heroic care.

How To Comfort A Sick Cat

Sick cat under a blanket
They prefer to curl up alone, in a safe spot where they feel safe.

Just like humans, when cats are sick, comfort is one of the things that will help them start to feel better. It may seem instinctual to purr parents to cuddle up, croon, and coddle their purr baby when they feel ill. Unlike humans, felines do not want to be cuddled and touched when they do not feel good.

If your purr baby prefers a warm corner, make sure they have lots of comfortable pillows, blankets, and privacy to rest. Make sure they have plenty of fresh water and different food offerings. Taking care to ensure they can easily access the litter box as well as placing out extra newspapers in case of an accident can be a good idea.

Make sure that a sick kitty has the space and quiet they need to rest and recover. Always follow all instructions from your veterinarian, and administer and finish all medications your fur kiddo may be prescribed. Even if they perk up and start feeling better after receiving the first few doses of medication, they will still need to finish all of it. If other pets are in the home, it is probably a good idea to keep them separated from a sick kitty.

The cat will want their solitude to rest and recover, and it is not a good idea to expose other animals to a sick pet. This increases the risk that other pets may get sick, as well as may cause aggression in the animal that is not feeling well. Avoid handling a sick pet a lot until they feel better. Some conditions can spread to humans, and sick felines often prefer not to be picked up and passed about.

Cat Insurance

Cat at vet
Pet insurance can make a huge difference when paying a considerable expense to treat a pet or having to euthanize them because an owner cannot afford treatment.

Cat insurance is something that feline owners may want to consider. While it may not seem necessary or seem like an extra expense while a pet is healthy, pet insurance can be beneficial when covering the unexpected cost of accidents and illnesses.

Cat insurance is something feline owners will want to investigate, especially if they own a rare or very expensive purebred cat. Cat insurance comes in various coverage plans, including accident-only coverage, accident and illness coverage, wellness coverage, or a combination.

Pet insurance does not always help cover preventative care and wellness appointments, but it can be a literal lifesaver when it comes to an emergency.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do cats want to be alone when they are sick?

Cats like to hide or be alone when they are sick because it helps them feel safe. They know that feeling unwell makes them vulnerable and try to find somewhere where they feel comfortable and safe so they can rest until they feel better. This is simply part of their natural instinct to retreat and recuperate and is not something owners should take personally.

How to tell if a cat is getting better?

It can be tricky to know how to tell if a cat is feeling better or simply masking illness symptoms better. Owners should continually monitor a sick cat to see if there is an improvement in symptoms. Keep in mind that improvement will not always be rapid or happen overnight. It may take cats several days or even weeks to recover from an illness or injury. Owners should always pace themselves out and make sure not to rush a kitty into eating more food or being more active than they are ready for. Always give cats their time and space when they are recovering. Pets who do not seem to be improving may need additional medical evaluation.

What should I do if my cat is sick and I do not have a vet?

Cat owners who have a sick pet and do not have a regular vet can reach out to their local animal humane societies and find low-cost clinics through pet stores. Most veterinarians will offer payment plans and are willing to make arrangements with pet owners in order to provide their cats with the care they need. Never hesitate to get pets medical care when they are in distress or ill, even if cost is a concern. Part of being a responsible owner is knowing that cats will sometimes get sick and have emergencies. Owners should always have a plan for emergencies, keep money set aside, or invest in cat insurance to help offset the costs of medical care.

Final Thoughts

Cats can often have unpredictable behavior. Sometimes this behavior is a sign something else is going on. A kitty who does not feel well may try and mask severe symptoms. Felines are very good at this because it is a natural defense mechanism against predators. Often, this can lead to a medical emergency when owners realize something is wrong.

As soon as owners suspect something is wrong, they should contact their veterinarian for guidance. It is never going overboard when it comes to ensuring a cat’s health. Because so many feline conditions can quickly become very serious, owners should not hesitate to seek help. There are some signs to look out for, so owners should familiarize themselves with these. Regular veterinary care can help keep a kitty healthy and help veterinarians identify health concerns before things become so serious that they need heroic measures. Our article discusses several signs cats give that they are sick. This information is not meant to be a substitute for advice or care from a licensed veterinarian.

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