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Is my cat sick? 11 signs that it’s time to take your cat to the vet

Is my cat sick?
Kitten being examined by vet (Image credit: Image by 272447 from Pixabay )

If you are asking yourself, ‘Is my cat sick?’, you’ve come to the right place. Cats are usually very secretive about when they feel ill, so it’s not always easy to tell. They are a lot more stoic than humans when they are poorly – they quickly accept illness as the new normal, and just adapt to it and get on with it.

As veterinary specialist Dr Joanna Woodnutt MRCVS explains, “The signs of cat illness are often subtle, and cats are masters at hiding signs of pain and disease. The first thing to look out for is a change in appetite. This could be being greedy, eating less, or preferring a different sort of food to usual. Another common sign is an increase in drinking. This can signify any of the main diseases that affect older cats, so is a very common symptom.”

Below we explore these and other signs to watch out for if you are getting the feeling your beloved kitty is under the weather:

1. Vomiting: My cat keeps being sick – what does it mean?

It’s likely you have seen (or more likely found evidence of!) your cat vomiting now and again. Although it’s not ideal, infrequent vomiting is not uncommon and can be due to something simple like them wolfing down their food too quickly or trying to bring up a hairball – a relatively natural process if infrequent (see more below). Vomiting is only a concern if your cat starts doing it in a way that it hasn’t before, for example, more often than once or twice a month, repeatedly straight after eating, or if they keep vomiting constantly.

Frequent vomiting is a sign of potential problems such as allergies, an inflamed or blocked intestine, stomach ulcers, pancreatitis or inflammatory bowel disease, and means it’s time to get them to the vet to be checked out. Also watch out for blood or bile in their vomit, as this is a likely sign that something is up.

2. Unkempt coat: Is your cat’s coat dull, oily, or matted?

Cats are usually fastidious creatures, and if they aren’t taking care of their fur this may be a sign that something is wrong. A tangled and dirty coat usually means they are too tired or uncomfortable to tend it. For example, arthritic or injured cats may lack the mobility to groom themselves, or an internal issue may mean they choose to avoid positions which cause them pain, meaning cleaning themselves becomes less of a priority. It can be a sign of dental disease or oral infections too (as it hurts to groom to their normal high standards).

If your cat has stopped grooming itself, this is a definite sign that something may be wrong with your kitty, and you need to seek professional advice.

3. Hot spots on cats: Is your cat excessively licking or biting at a spot on their body?

If your cat is constantly rubbing, licking or biting a certain area, particularly on their tail, thigh, head or neck, it may be a sign your cat is developing a hot spot (also known as acute moist dermatitis). It begins as a tender area on the body, but as your cat worries at it the area will become a round lesion – red, inflamed and moist. This allows bacteria to infect it and it will develop into a painful sore.

If you notice these on your cat it’s time to book a visit to the veterinarian. Hot spots can also be a sign that your cat has a weakened immune system, an allergy (to food or in reaction to an insect bite), an injury, that they are developing arthritis that is causing them pain, or a sign of a ringworm infection.

4. Patchy fur: Is your cat losing hair in certain areas?

Typical in feral cats, the most common cause of patchy fur is a diet lacking in an essential component. Scraggly or patchy coats are a common sign of malnutrition, so if your moggy starts losing its fur, ensure you are providing them with a healthy diet rich in protein and fish oils (a source of omega-3 fatty acids).

If you are confident it isn’t diet, then another cause of bald patches is due to a reaction to the bite of a flea, mite or other parasite. Particularly common on your cat’s tail or lower back, it’s caused by your moggy overgrooming due to an irritation caused by an allergic reaction to the saliva of the flea or other insect.

It can also be a sign of other issues like a hormone imbalance, fungal infections like ringworm, or anxiety, so if providing them with a better diet combined with a parasite treatment doesn’t fix it, then it’s time to look for medical advice.

5. Changes in urination habits: Is your cat urinating more, less or not at all?

If your cat suddenly starts urinating a lot more than usual, alarm bells should be ringing, especially if they keep leaving little puddles around the house. This is a sign they are under the weather or are unable to control their bladder as much as usual. As Dr Joanna Woodnutt tells us, “Your cat’s urine is an important marker of health. Cystitis and kidney disease are common in cats, so allowing your cat a litter tray so you can monitor their wee is ideal.”

She adds, “If you notice your cat struggling to toilet, or that their urine quantity changes or it changes colour, it’s time to book a visit with the vet. If your cat can’t pass urine at all, this is an emergency so you should call the nearest open vet as soon as you notice this symptom.”

Is my cat sick? Cat sat in a litter tray

(Image credit: Getty)

6. Excess thirst: Is you cat drinking more than usual?

A sudden change in drinking habits is one of the most common worries that vets hear from cat owners. If you’ve been experiencing a bout of hot weather then your cat making constant trips to the water bowl will be less of a worry, but if it persists it may be related to anxiety or a manifestation of an underlying metabolic disease. It is likely they need to drink more because they are urinating more, an indicator of the problems mentioned above, or diabetes, hyperthyroidism or a urinary tract infection.

7. Hairballs: Is your cat coughing hairballs up more or having trouble expelling them?

Every cat coughs up the occasional hairball caused by them grooming their fur and ingesting loose hairs. However, if you notice your furry friend coughing them up more frequently, or repeatedly hacking, gagging, and retching without producing one, that can be a sign of illness. Sometimes excess hairballs are caused by overgrooming due to a skin allergy, injury, flea infestation or allergy, or it may be a sign of problems with the digestive tract such as inflammatory bowel disease or stomach or intestinal cancer.

Obviously, longer haired cats will produce more hairballs than short-haired cats, especially when the weather gets warmer and they start shedding. Also, cats produce more hairballs than kittens as they get better at grooming themselves, so this may just be a sign that they are growing up. If you are seeing more than one a week, or they seem to have a lot of trouble coughing them up, this can be an indicator that your cat is ill.

If you aren’t sure there is a real increase in hairballs from your cat, but want to make sure there isn’t a problem, you can take away the usual cause by grooming your cat’s hair to get rid of excess fur twice a day and see if that solves it. If it doesn’t then it’s time to go to the vet.

8. Bad breath: Is your cat’s breath particularly foul?

The smell of your cat’s breath is rarely that pleasant, but if it is smelling severely bad this is a common sign that something is wrong. It’s usually a sign of dental problems like gingivitis or tooth decay, which if left untreated can lead to an infection which could cause heart issues. To prevent this, it’s important to regularly get your cat’s teeth cleaned, and it’s a great idea to learn how to brush your kitty’s teeth yourself.

If it persists after a good teeth clean then it’s time to seek advice – it can be a sign of various ailments including kidney disease (where there breath smells like urine), diabetes (smells sweet), liver disease (smells foul) or even oral trauma – such as that caused by them biting through an electric cable.

9. Lethargy: is your cat less active than usual?

Obesity is common in cats, in fact 60% of cats within the United States are overweight or obese. Much as in humans, this isn’t a good thing and can cause health complications, so it’s well worth dealing with before it becomes a problem. The most common causes of cat obesity are excessive food intake or inadequate exercise – basically because they are eating more calories than they expend. Try putting them on a diet or encouraging them to exercise more by investing in an interactive cat toy, or slow down their feeding with an automatic pet feeder or cat puzzle toy.

That said, it’s sudden weight gains that are a bigger sign that something may be up with your four-legged friend. It may be that next door is feeding them as well as you, but it may be something more serious. Especially if it’s coupled with a change in your kitty’s behavior like becoming lethargic and having a duller coat than usual. This can be a sign of hypothyroidism, where your cat has a hormone imbalance slowing their metabolism due to an impairment of the thyroid gland. It can also be caused by intestinal disease or diabetes.

Another common cause of sudden weight is pregnancy! If you cat isn’t spayed, then there may be a happier reason to take them to the vet – the imminent arrival of the patter of tiny paws.

10. Weight loss: Has your cat suddenly got skinny?

As Dr Joanna Woodnutt tells us, “Weight loss is often easy to miss at first, but keeping a close eye on your cat’s weight and body shape, especially as they age, is the best way to spot this symptom early.” Despite what you may have been told, cats do not naturally lose weight as they get older and any sudden drops in weight can indicate a variety of health issues. These include everything from common ones like dental problems, intestinal parasites or anxiety, all the way through to diabetes, cancer or organ failure. If you notice a sudden unintentional weight loss in your kitty it’s worth booking a visit to the vet to identify the problem.

11. Obesity: Has your cat suddenly put on weight?

Obesity is common in cats, in fact 60% of cats within the United States are overweight or obese. Much as in humans, this isn’t a good thing and can cause health complications, so it’s well worth dealing with before it becomes a problem. The most common causes of cat obesity are excessive food intake or inadequate exercise – basically because they are eating more calories than they expend. Try putting them on a diet or encouraging them to exercise more by investing in an interactive cat toy, or slow down their feeding with an automatic pet feeder or cat puzzle toy.

That said, it’s sudden weight gains that are a bigger sign that something may be up with your four-legged friend. It may be that next door is feeding them as well as you, but it may be something more serious. Especially if it’s coupled in a change in your kitty’s behavior like becoming lethargic and having a duller coat than usual. This can be a sign of hypothyroidism, where your cat has a hormone imbalance slowing their metabolism due to an impairment of the thyroid gland. It can also be caused by intestinal disease or diabetes.

Another common cause of sudden weight is pregnancy. If you cat isn’t spayed, then there may be a happier reason to take them to the vet – the imminent arrival of the patter of tiny paws!