Cats are known for their independent and mysterious nature, which can make identifying when they’re under the weather a challenging task for even the most observant owner. Despite their stoic facade, cats do exhibit behavioral changes when dealing with common health issues. This article aims to shed light on those subtle yet telling signs that may indicate your feline friend is unwell.

From Upper Respiratory Infections to Feline Diabetes, Kidney Disease, and even the misunderstood Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP), we’ll explore the most prevalent illnesses in cats, their behavioral symptoms, and what you should watch out for. Armed with this knowledge, you’ll be better prepared to spot potential health issues early and seek timely veterinary care, ensuring your cat remains as healthy as possible.

As a responsible cat owner, you’re undoubtedly keen to ensure your pet’s well-being. But sometimes, it’s hard to discern if a change in behavior is a temporary mood swing or a sign of something more serious. Or, like me, maybe you’re taking care of stray cats, and you cannot oversee them all the time.

To help you navigate this complex terrain, I’ve compiled a comprehensive list detailing the behavioral changes associated with 10 common cat illnesses. From subtle shifts in eating habits to more overt symptoms like coughing and lethargy, this guide aims to equip you with the knowledge you need to identify warning signs early. Because when it comes to your cat’s health, being informed is half the battle.

10 Common Cat Illnesses: Behavioral Signs, Notes, What to Do, and Prevention Methods

1. Upper Respiratory Infections (URI)

Behavioral Signs

  • Sneezing: One of the most noticeable signs, frequent sneezing can indicate that your cat’s respiratory system is affected.
  • Coughing: Less common than sneezing but equally concerning, coughing is another clear sign of respiratory distress.
  • Nasal Discharge: A runny or stuffy nose can accompany other respiratory symptoms.
  • Lethargy: Your cat may become less playful and active, preferring to rest more than usual.
  • Loss of Appetite: Reduced or complete loss of appetite is a common symptom and can result in weight loss if not addressed promptly.

Notes

Cats suffering from URI often exhibit multiple symptoms simultaneously, making it relatively easier to identify. They may also seek out warm, secluded spots and become less interested in social interactions, even with familiar humans or fellow pets. If you notice a combination of these signs, especially if they persist for more than a day or two, it’s crucial to consult a veterinarian for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.

What to Do

Consult your veterinarian for a comprehensive evaluation, which may include tests such as a nasal swab or blood work to determine the cause. Treatment usually involves antibiotics, hydration, and sometimes, supportive care like supplemental oxygen for severe cases.

Prevention

The best way to prevent URI in cats is through regular vaccination and by minimizing stress, which can weaken the immune system. Keep your cat away from other infected animals and maintain a clean living environment.

Common cat illnesses: A kitten with upper respiratory infection
A kitten with an upper respiratory infection

2. Feline Diabetes

Behavioral Signs

  • Increased Thirst and Urination: One of the first signs you might notice is that your cat starts drinking more water than usual and consequently uses the litter box more frequently.
  • Sudden Weight Loss or Gain: A drastic change in weight, despite no significant alteration in diet, can be indicative.
  • Lethargy: Cats with diabetes often lack energy and may spend more time sleeping or resting, showing reduced interest in play or exercise.

Notes

Feline Diabetes is often accompanied by a change in appetite. Some cats may eat more without gaining weight, while others may eat less but still gain weight. Additionally, some cats may show signs of being more anxious or irritable than usual. These are complex symptoms that can easily be mistaken for other issues, making diabetes a tricky illness to diagnose solely based on behavior.

What to Do

If you notice these signs, it’s essential to consult your veterinarian as soon as possible. Diagnosis typically involves blood tests and urine analysis. Treatment usually includes insulin injections and dietary changes, and regular monitoring is crucial for managing the disease effectively.

Prevention

While you can’t entirely prevent diabetes, you can lower the risks by maintaining a healthy weight for your cat through a balanced diet and regular exercise. Avoid sugary foods and treats high in carbohydrates, as these can contribute to insulin resistance.

3. Kidney Disease

Behavioral Signs

  • Decreased Appetite: A noticeable reduction in food intake is often one of the first signs of kidney disease.
  • Vomiting: Frequent vomiting or regurgitation could be a cause for concern.
  • Lethargy: Lack of energy and increased periods of rest may be noticeable.
  • Increased Thirst and Urination: Cats may drink more water and urinate more frequently, although the urine may appear dilute.

Notes

In addition to the behavioral signs, kidney disease in cats may result in less urine production than usual, despite increased water intake. Their coat may also lose its luster, becoming dull and unkempt. These signs can be subtle and gradually worsen over time, making early detection vital for better management of the disease.

What to Do

Immediate veterinary attention is essential for diagnosis, which usually involves blood tests, urine analysis, and sometimes, ultrasound imaging. Treatment may include intravenous fluids, medications to control symptoms, and dietary modifications to manage the condition.

Prevention

While kidney disease is often age-related and not entirely preventable, maintaining a well-balanced diet, ensuring your cat always has access to clean water, and regular veterinary check-ups can help in early detection and management.

4. Hyperthyroidism

Behavioral Signs

  • Weight Loss Despite a Good Appetite: One of the hallmark signs is a noticeable weight loss despite an increased or unchanging appetite.
  • Hyperactivity: You may notice that your cat becomes more active or agitated, often racing around the house.
  • Increased Thirst and Urination: Similar to other diseases, hyperthyroidism can lead to increased water consumption and more frequent urination.

Notes

Cats with hyperthyroidism often exhibit restlessness and may vocalize more than usual. They might meow excessively, especially at odd hours, which can be disruptive. Given the increase in both appetite and activity, these symptoms can easily be misconstrued as positive behavioral changes, which makes hyperthyroidism somewhat tricky to diagnose initially.

What to Do

If you observe these signs, consult your veterinarian promptly. Diagnosis generally involves blood tests that measure thyroid hormone levels. Treatment options may include medication, radioactive iodine therapy, or surgery, depending on the severity and specific circumstances.

Prevention

Hyperthyroidism is often age-related and challenging to prevent. However, regular veterinary check-ups, including thyroid function tests for older cats, can lead to early detection and more effective management.

5. Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)

Behavioral Signs

  • Frequent Attempts to Urinate: One of the primary symptoms is frequent visits to the litter box with little to no urine being produced.
  • Crying Out While Urinating: If your cat vocalizes or appears to be in pain while urinating, this is a strong indication of a UTI or other urinary issue.
  • Urinating Outside the Litter Box: Changes in litter box habits, especially urinating in unusual places, can be a sign of discomfort or distress.

Notes

In addition to these behavioral changes, some cats with UTIs may also excessively lick their genital area, signaling that something is amiss. Cats may also seem more irritable or restless due to the discomfort associated with UTIs.

What to Do

Immediate veterinary consultation is essential for diagnosis, typically involving a urinalysis and possibly other tests like ultrasound or X-rays. Treatment commonly includes antibiotics to clear the infection, and sometimes pain relief medication to ease discomfort.

Prevention

Preventive measures for UTIs include providing fresh, clean water at all times and maintaining a clean litter box to reduce the risk of bacterial infection. For cats prone to UTIs, specialized diets may be recommended by a veterinarian.

6. Dental Disease

Behavioral Signs

  • Decreased Appetite: A marked reduction in food intake could indicate dental discomfort.
  • Pawing at the Mouth: If you observe your cat frequently pawing at its mouth, it could be trying to alleviate pain or remove something causing discomfort.
  • Bad Breath: Foul-smelling breath is often a tell-tale sign of dental disease.
  • Drooling: Excessive salivation can indicate oral pain or problems with the teeth or gums.

Notes

In cases of dental disease, cats may be reluctant to chew or eat hard food. You may also notice a change in chewing behavior, such as favoring one side of the mouth. Dental issues can lead to significant discomfort, making it important for owners to take notice and take action.

What to Do

Consult your veterinarian if you suspect dental issues. Diagnosis typically involves a thorough oral examination and may include X-rays. Treatment can range from dental cleaning under anesthesia to tooth extractions, depending on the severity of the disease.

Prevention

Good dental hygiene practices, like regular teeth brushing and dental chews, can help prevent dental disease. Some specialized dental diets are also available to help reduce plaque and tartar build-up.

7. Heartworm Disease

Behavioral Signs

  • Coughing: A persistent cough is often an early sign and should not be ignored.
  • Difficulty Breathing: Labored or rapid breathing may indicate respiratory distress related to heartworms.
  • Lethargy: Decreased activity levels, reluctance to exercise, or general listlessness can be symptoms.
  • Sudden Death: In severe, undiagnosed cases, heartworm disease can unfortunately lead to sudden death.

Notes

Although heartworm disease is relatively rare in cats compared to dogs, the symptoms can be very severe when it does occur. Often, signs may be subtle and easily mistaken for other, less serious conditions, which makes early detection crucial but challenging.

What to Do

Immediate veterinary evaluation is crucial if you suspect heartworm disease. Diagnosis typically involves blood tests, X-rays, and sometimes echocardiography. Treatment options are limited and can be risky, often involving medications to manage symptoms rather than eliminate the heartworms.

Prevention

Preventative medication is key to avoiding heartworm disease and is usually administered monthly. Indoor cats are also at risk and should receive preventive treatment.

8. Gastrointestinal Issues

Behavioral Signs

  • Vomiting: Frequent or persistent vomiting is a clear indicator of gastrointestinal upset.
  • Diarrhea: Loose, watery stools should prompt immediate attention.
  • Lethargy: Decreased energy levels can accompany digestive issues and should not be ignored.
  • Loss of Appetite: A reduced or complete lack of interest in food is often a sign of gastrointestinal problems.

Notes

Along with these behavioral signs, cats may also show signs of abdominal discomfort, such as hunched posture or sensitivity to touch in the abdominal area. Changes in bowel habits, like constipation or more frequent bowel movements, can also indicate gastrointestinal issues.

What to Do

Consult your veterinarian as soon as you notice these signs. Diagnosis often involves a physical examination, fecal tests, blood tests, and sometimes more advanced imaging like X-rays or ultrasound. Treatment varies depending on the underlying cause but may include medications, dietary changes, and sometimes surgical intervention.

Prevention

Proper preventive measures include a balanced diet, access to clean water, and regular veterinary check-ups. Avoid giving your cat food that is not intended for feline consumption, as this can upset their digestive system.

9. Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) and Feline Leukemia (FeLV)

Behavioral Signs

  • Persistent Fever: A constant or recurring fever is often a sign of viral infection.
  • Weight Loss: Unexplained weight loss can be a symptom of an underlying disease like FIV or FeLV.
  • Poor Coat Condition: A dull, thinning, or unkempt coat may indicate poor health and could be symptomatic of these viruses.
  • Lethargy: Reduced activity, reluctance to play, or seeming generally uninterested can be indicative of these conditions.

Notes

Both FIV and FeLV can lead to other secondary infections due to the compromised immune system. Cats infected with these viruses may also be more susceptible to respiratory issues, gastrointestinal problems, and other systemic conditions.

What to Do

If you suspect your cat has FIV or FeLV, consult a veterinarian immediately for diagnostic testing, which usually involves a blood test. While there is no cure for either FIV or FeLV, symptom management and preventive care for secondary infections are crucial.

Prevention

Vaccination is available for FeLV, and while it’s not 100% effective, it provides a significant level of protection. For FIV, preventing exposure to infected cats is the best line of defense. Regular veterinary check-ups for early detection are strongly advised.

10. Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP)

Behavioral Signs

  • Lethargy: General tiredness and lack of interest in activities are common early symptoms.
  • Loss of Appetite: A decreased or complete lack of interest in eating should be a warning sign.
  • Weight Loss: Drastic or sustained weight loss is often associated with FIP.
  • Fever: Persistent fever can be an early symptom and shouldn’t be ignored.
  • Fluid Accumulation or Respiratory Symptoms: Depending on the form of FIP -wet or dry- you may see fluid accumulation in the abdomen or symptoms like coughing and difficulty breathing (in the wet form).
  • Loss of Balance: Specific to the dry form of FIP, a noticeable loss of balance or coordination can occur.

Notes

FIP is a complex and generally fatal disease caused by a mutation of the feline coronavirus. The wet form is usually easier to diagnose due to the noticeable fluid accumulation in the abdomen. The dry form can manifest with a range of symptoms that resemble other diseases, making diagnosis particularly challenging. Both forms are generally considered fatal, although there is ongoing research into new treatments.

What to Do

If you suspect FIP, consult your veterinarian immediately for a thorough evaluation. Diagnosis is often complicated and may involve multiple tests, including blood tests, ultrasound, and sometimes even surgical biopsy. Unfortunately, there is currently no definitive cure, but symptom management and supportive care can sometimes improve quality of life.

Prevention

Currently, there is no vaccine for FIP. Preventive measures focus on reducing exposure to the feline coronavirus, typically by keeping cats indoors and minimizing contact with unknown or sick cats. Keeping your cat’s living area clean is also essential.

Common Cat Illnesses - Sarman the cat, FIP, September 13, 2017
FIP is a fatal disease that affects cats. It is caused by a mutation of feline enteric coronavirus (FECV) or simply Feline coronavirus (FCoV). Coronavirus is highly contagious and common but in fact not harmful itself. Most infected cats do not develop FIP. But, in some rare cases, the Feline Coronavirus mutates into Feline Infectious Peritonitis virus (FIPV). There is no known cure for FIP and very, very few survivors of the disease. I lost my beloved “Sarman” to FIP. This photo was taken on September 13, 2017, nine days before his death.

Sources

M. Özgür Nevres

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