On the whole, cats are healthy animals. If they receive proper preventive health care and are protected from accidents and disease, they usually live long, happy lives. If your cat does become unwell though, you need to be able to recognize symptoms. Pets—and perhaps especially cats—can be difficult to read, and distinguishing symptoms from behavioral problems is the first step in remedying any illness or health issue. Regular visits to the vet and a general attentiveness towards the physical well-being of your cat can make all the difference—and your cat will thank you for it! The following list outlines some of the most common cat health concerns.
Cats lick themselves constantly, and therefore end up swallowing a lot of hair. Hair is difficult to digest and sometimes remains in the stomach, forming what are known as hairballs. If your cat is throwing up, coughing, or spitting up hair, this might be the cause. There are several hairball remedies, which most cats will readily eat. If he won’t eat the remedy, place a dab in the cat’s food or on his nose and he will lick it off. Hairball remedies work by dissolving hair, allowing it to pass through the digestive system. There are also treats that can help with hairballs. If vomiting or hacking is persistent, you should visit your vet.
Ear mites—or tiny parasites than cannot be seen with the naked eye—cause a coffee-colored crud or wax to form inside the ear, and will cause a lot of itching for your cat. The key to combating ear mites is persistence. First, you should administer a pet ear cleaner to clean out the waxy substance. Then you can treat the ear mites with a topical medication, which you should continue for at least four weeks (the lifespan of one ear mite). If this doesn’t seem to work, you should visit your vet. Make sure to check other pets, too, as ear mites are contagious to other animals.
Cat owners are very aware of their cat’s “bathroom” problems, as sick cats often stop using their litter boxes. While kidney disease appears mostly in older cats, it can occur at any age. Symptoms include excessive urination or drinking, and, as the disease progresses, weight loss and vomiting. Another common urological problem is feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD). In the most mild cases, the bladder becomes irritated and causes frequent urination. In the worst cases, FLUTD can cause urinary obstruction, which constitutes a veterinary emergency. Blockage is more common in male cats, and symptoms include frequent or strained urination, small amounts of urine, cloudy or bloody urine, and accidents outside of the litter box. Note: You can gauge urine volume by the wetness of litter and how often you need to change it.
Feline Leukemia (FeLV)
The two most common cat viruses are feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). Both are transmitted from cat to cat. FeLV weakens the immune system and is the leading cause of cancer in cats. Symptoms can vary widely, from mild to severe—they include persistent fever, poor coat condition, diarrhea, weight loss, eye conditions, pale gums, seizures and/or behavioral changes, and frequent infections. Very old, young, or weak cats have a higher risk of acquiring the disease, although 2-3% of all cats carry FeLV. There is a vaccine available, but it’s not 100% effective (you should discuss the pros and cons of the vaccine with your vet). Since the disease spreads between cats, the best way to protect your pet is to keep him away from infected cats (either inside alone or with other FeLV-negative cats). You should also never take home a cat or kitten before knowing its FeLV status. Unlike FIV, many cats can purge FeLV from their bodies—so retesting positive cats is important. If your cat does indeed carry FeLV, you’ll need to prevent him from spreading the virus and work with your vet to diagnose and treat any diseases that may develop.
Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV)
FIV is the feline version of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Cats infected with FIV are susceptible to diseases ranging from viral infections to cancer, and it can make treating other diseases more difficult. Since there is no vaccine or cure, keeping your cat from infected felines is the only way to protect him. Kitten testing is not reliable, so vets recommend testing all cats more than six months old. FIV has a better prognosis than FeLV, and a positive FIV test will not change how you treat your cat except that you will need to keep him indoors and not introduce any new cats. You will also need to work with your vet to catch health problems early.
Tumors are common in cats. Some are deadly (and can be traced to FeLV), while others are completely harmless and mysterious in origin. You should carefully monitor your cat for lumps and bumps, which can be easily performed by daily rubbing and petting (which your cat will love, anyway!). You should also be aware of weight loss or other signs of general distemper. If you do notice a strange bump or any symptoms, head to the vet. If the tumor is suspicious, a biopsy will be conducted.
Cats can suffer from different respiratory problems, including feline asthma. The signs of asthma in cats are similar to those in humans: difficulty breathing, wheezing, and possible coughing or gagging. Chronic coughing is usually a sign of a lower respiratory infection. You can tell your cat is having trouble breathing if he sticks his neck out and rapidly inhales. The signs can appear suddenly and be very serious. If this is the first time he has had difficultly breathing, take him immediately to the vet or emergency clinic. If your cat is already on medication, you should still inform your vet of such symptoms.