Something tells you that one of your cats just…isn’t the same as she was yesterday, or a few days ago, or you can’t remember when, but something isn’t right. You look at her, she looks up at you, and she looks normal, but you know:
- she hasn’t been eating as much as usual, or
- she’s been lying around more, she’s just not as active, or
- she hasn’t been sleeping with you, or…
The list can go on. Whatever it is, she’s just a little off, and you know something is wrong. But how do you narrow it down? If you call your veterinarian, what do you say? Maybe you should wait until you see something “real”.
You may feel foolish having nothing definite to say, but then you aren’t a diagnostician, that’s your veterinarian’s job, and you should leave diagnoses up to them. As your cat’s caretaker, your responsibility is observation, and you should do that as well as your veterinarian diagnoses.
Remember that cats are masters at hiding pain and illness. As both predator and prey, it’s been in their biological interest for as long as they’ve been a species and they don’t change because they live in a house with people and all they need to do is meow that something hurts and they’ll get care. They still hide symptoms, sometimes until it’s too late to do anything about whatever it is they have. But even the slightest change in personality can indicate something is seriously wrong.
An example: when the formerly feral cat suddenly doesn’t mind sitting on your lap
Years ago I was preparing to travel for a few days to be in a friend’s wedding. That was before the days of pet sitters or having people look in on your cats when you went away for a few days and most people just left a big bowl of food and water for cats. Though I had six cats, and I didn’t like doing it, I didn’t seem to have any alternatives but to just leave out a lot of food and water for four days. I was feeding my cats canned food twice daily, and I knew bowls of dry food would be a change for them, though they’d probably think they’d hit the jackpot, I decided to ease into the feeding a few days before I left to get them accustomed to it. I knew they were thrilled but I didn’t like it one bit. With the fluctuating work hours I had, feeding them was an important point of contact for me. I couldn’t tell who’d been eating and who was not.
Moses was about two years old, and while she’d developed some trust in me she was still a formerly feral kitty and I always let her approach me. Though she spent time near me and with the other cats, especially Stanley, I didn’t always see her between meals except for bedtime. Now with food out and no set meals, I didn’t remember having seen her at all. I looked all over the house and finally found her lying on the concrete basement floor. She was alert and looked up at me and didn’t appear any different than usual, but normally she’d be a little wary and would only glance up at me and then look back down at her paws and be alert. She actually seemed really relaxed, and it was hot weather, the basement was cool. Maybe she was happy with the dry food and she felt more secure having food around all the time. But something just wasn’t right. I walked away. I came back. I picked her up. I carried her upstairs and sat down on a chair in the kitchen with Moses on my lap. Moses, the feral kitten, was on my lap, which had never before happened, and she wasn’t fighting me at all. She felt a little limp and warm. I called my vet.
It turned out Moses had a temperature of 105 degrees, and she remained in the veterinary hospital the entire time I was away. In the days before cell phones I stopped at every rest stop I could and called from pay phones, hearing her fever had gone up, and up again to 107 as they treated her with antibiotics and tried to reduce her fever, then came down, and she was okay, but the fever would take a while to come all the way down as her infection cleared. I went to get her when I got back, they showed me how to take her temperature and gave me antibiotics for her for the next few weeks. Moses was submissive about being handled and I managed to take temperature and give her liquid antibiotics, and she slowly returned to normal. A potentially deadly bacterial infection, and the only symptom I’d had was that she wasn’t acting like a frightened formerly feral cat.
That’s why your observational skills are so important, because you know your cat better than anyone. By observing, you can determine if you need to call the vet, if the appointment can be sometime next week, or if you need to pack up the kitty and run to the emergency veterinary hospital.
One thing that helps in this effort to determine if your cat needs veterinary care is to keep notes on a regular basis. Trying to remember when they stopped completely finishing their dinner, or you found them coughing, or litterbox habits changed, is easier to remember if you actually write it down. Whether this is on paper or electronic, whatever your method, note your cat’s or cats’ general habits, how much they eat, how much they play, what they play with, daily habits and so on. Note when they don’t do these things. In a short period of time, you are going to notice things about your cat you’ve never noticed before and have a fuller understanding of them, and then when you stand there and look at your cat, knowing but not knowing, take a look at your notes and you may see a pattern, or some clues.
WHEN TO MAKE AN APPOINTMENT WITH YOUR VETERINARIAN
When she has her regular appointment or a prescheduled checkup, of course, but also look for changes in your cat’s usual personality and daily habits as well as physical appearance and if you notice even a gradual change, don’t wait for the next yearly appointment. This is often your only clue to an illness in your cat, and your veterinarian needs your observations to help diagnose. Your regular appointment schedule will not necessarily be the same for every cat; cats with chronic illnesses, recovering from surgery or cancer treatment, or cats considered senior can all have more frequent appointments.
- Lethargy, just kind of lying around, not feeling too energetic, not looking entirely alert, not reacting to circumstances as usual. This one is vague and fits in both categories depending on other symptoms you may observe, but if it’s been a slow build toward inactivity you are probably safe to call your veterinarian and discuss, and make an appointment.
- Changes in eating habits are very important and may indicate an underlying health issue such as dental or digestive discomfort, not a suddenly finicky cat.
- Increased or decreased water consumption can indicate various metabolic diseases or organ disorders.
- Weight loss or gain is one of the most important indicators of several diseases and medical conditions.
- Changes in litterbox habits, both what they put in it and how they use it, may indicate an underlying health issue, not only in elimination but also respiratory health, physical ability or mental condition.
- Either increased or decreased activity levels or a change in sleeping habits can indicate a progressive illness, increasing age or a reaction to stressors in the environment.
- Likewise changes in personality can indicate changes in physical or mental health.
WHEN TO RUN WITH YOUR CAT TO THE EMERGENCY CLINIC
At 3:00 a.m., first thing in the morning getting ready for work, considering the cost of services, it’s difficult to decide when to just observe, wait until office hours to call your regular veterinarian or call the emergency clinic and tell them you’re on your way. It may be that there was nothing wrong an hour before, but critical conditions can arise quickly and even chronic conditions they’ve been hiding can suddenly reach a critical point when they can no longer compensate for the discomfort. Sometimes you can get away with observing and waiting, but here are a few instances when you should not hesitate:
Physical symptoms, especially with sudden onset:
- Lethargy, just kind of lying around, not feeling too energetic, not looking entirely alert, not reacting to circumstances as usual. Again, this one is vague and fits in both categories depending on other symptoms you may observe, but if the lethargy comes on quickly, within hours or a day, even if it’s not accompanied by other symptoms listed below, you should get your cat to a vet as soon as possible. In the story above about Moses, lethargy was the only clue I had.
- Difficulty breathing, open-mouthed breathing or panting
- Excessive drooling
- Continuous vomiting, especially with little or no output
- Continuous coughing
- Continuous diarrhea
- Straining in the litterbox or making multiple trips to the box, with no output
- Seizuring or uncontrolled movements, including continuous pacing
- Any kind of string hanging out of any orifice—do not pull it out!
- Any type of physical trauma, especially with bleeding
- Loss of consciousness
Behavioral symptoms, especially with sudden onset:
- Not moving
- Not responding to your voice or actions
- Sitting over water bowl and not moving
- Continuously wandering or pacing
- Crying out in pain or continuously vocalizing
- Hiding in an unusual place, especially dark, quiet and protected, acting fearful
- Any combination of all of the above symptoms.
And you can learn a few diagnostics to help make the decision, like taking temperatures, determining respiration and heart rate and recording your cats’ “normal” settings, but even if you don’t you can still make a good solid decision if you’ve been regularly observing. If you’re wrong and there’s nothing the matter, just smack yourself and be happy your kitty is okay. Chances are, though, you will be right, and something is wrong. Just follow your intuition. Leave the diagnostics to your veterinarian.
Read more articles about Health and Safety.
This information was first published in Great Rescues Day Book
In addition to featuring the portraits and stories of rescued cats and their families in Great Rescues Day Book, I also wanted to provide basic care and welfare information that was easy to find and reference. The “Resources” section includes basic wellness covering food, water, litterboxes and toys, plus specific information on kittens and seniors including spay and neuter and eldercare, household toxins, life stages and human equivalents, strays and ferals and pet loss.
Great Rescues Day Book an undated monthly journal to record the dates of birthdays, anniversaries and events featuring sixteen of my commissioned portraits of rescued cats along with their rescue stories. Click here or on the image of the book at left, or either of the links above to read more.
Also, read about Great Rescues families, those who appear in each of the two volumes so far. I’ll be featuring one story each month corresponding with the portrait that appears in the book for that month. That means there are four extra, and I’ll slip those in when the story itself feels appropriate.
Browse some rescued cats and kittens!
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Weekly schedule of features:
Sunday: Essays, Pet Loss, Poetry, The Artist’s Life
Monday: Adoptable Cats, TNR & Shelters
Tuesday: Rescue Stories
Wednesday: Commissioned Portrait or Featured Artwork
Thursday: New Merchandise
Friday: Book Review, Health and Welfare, Advocacy
Saturday: Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat, Living Green With Pets, Creating With Cats
And sometimes, I just throw my hands in the air and have fun!