What Is Wrong With My Cat?

Mychelle Blake
Veterinarian examining kitten

If your kitty isn't eating, seems lethargic, or just isn't acting like herself, it's natural to wonder what is wrong. With cats, the symptoms of illness can be subtle, but they often offer a clue about the underlying problem. As always, if you're concerned, you should take your cat to the vet.

Is Your Cat Acting Sick?

Many pet owners are highly attuned to their cat's behavior, hence even subtle changes can be a cause for worry. When you're combing the Internet for answers about possible cat ailments, the first step is to list your cat's major symptoms. Not every disease or medical condition will present with all known symptoms with a cat, and just because your cat has a serious symptom doesn't necessarily mean they have a specific disease.

Common Symptoms of Medical Problems with Cats

Make an inventory of everything your cat is doing that seems "off" or concerning and bring this with you to your veterinarian. Some of the most typical symptoms of a sick cat are:

  • Activity increase - A cat suddenly becomes much more active could be suffering from a thyroid condition.
  • Appetite changes - A cat that stops eating could be suffering from a gastrointestinal disorder, diabetes, hypothyroidism, liver disease or dental disease. In contrast, a cat that begins eating more than usual may be hypothyroid.
  • Bad breath - This is usually a sign of dental disease although it can also be found with cats with kidney disease or a gastrointestinal disorder.
  • Behavior changes - If your cat's behavior takes a sudden, unexplainable turn, this could indicate that any number of medical problems are happening.
  • Blood in urine - This can be a sign of a urinary tract infection.
  • Blood in stool - Bloody stools can indicate more than one condition including parasites, tumors, cancer, constipation, anal sac disease and poisoning.
  • Bowel movements - If your cat's normal bowel movements have changed and the stool size is larger, comes more often or has other changes such as color and consistency, this can mean a gastrointestinal disorder.
Vet examining pet cat with stethoscope
  • Breathing rapidly - A cat that is breathing faster and heavier than usual may be suffering from a fever and a respiratory infection.
  • Coughing - Many conditions cause coughing including hairballs, allergies, a swallowed foreign body, heart and lung disease and respiratory infections.
  • Dehydration - A cat can become dehydrated from becoming too hot or having excessive diarrhea and vomiting.
  • Diarrhea - Just as with humans, diarrhea can be a symptom of several diseases in cats. Common ones include poisoning, gastrointestinal disorders, distemper, pancreatic disease, hypothyroidism, parasites, allergies, cancer, and liver disease.
  • Drooling - A drooling kitty is likely suffering from dental disease or a cracked or abscessed tooth. It might also indicate they swallowed something by accident and have an obstruction in their stomach. Cats with heatstroke, nausea and anxiety will also drool.
  • Ears changes - If the cat's ear are red, irritated and you notice a brownish discharge and bad smell, your cat has ear mites. They may also have an ear infection.
  • Excessive vocalization - If your cat is howling and crying much more than usual, this could be a sign of physical pain, anxiety or diseases such as hypertension and hyperthyroidism. It could also mean your cat is in heat.
  • Eye changes - If your cat's eyes are watery, red, cloudy or have a discharge, your cat could have a number of conditions such as glaucoma, cataracts, retinal disease, a corneal ulcer or conjunctivitis.
  • Fever - Fever is a common symptom when a cat has an infection such as a bacterial infection or a viral infection like feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), feline AIDS, feline leukemia, and other series infections.
  • Grooming change - A cat that stops keeping himself as clean as he used to, or stops grooming altogether, could have several underlying medical illnesses. He could also be in physical pain from arthritis or an injury, or suffering from anxiety. On the other hand, a cat that begins to groom itself excessively may have fleas, parasites, allergies or an anxiety disorder.
  • Gum color changes - A cat's gums should normally be pink so if you see them turn a pale pink color, this means they could be in shock or have anemia. If their gums turn blue they are in need of oxygen. If they are a dark red color, they may have heatstroke or CO2 poisoning while yellow-tinged gums are a sign of jaundice and liver disease.
  • Hair loss - A cat that's losing its hair could have an allergy, alopecia, mange or a parasite like ringworm.
  • Hiding - Cats that are sick or anxious and fearful will hide much more often. If you notice an unusual increase in your cat's hiding behavior, get to a vet as this can be a sign of many conditions both medical and behavioral.
  • Irritated skin - Red, bumpy, scaly skin can be a sign of allergies, parasites or a skin infection.
  • Lack of sleep - If your cat has stopped sleeping through the night, they could be in pain from an injury or arthritis or it could be age-related dementia if they're a senior.
  • Lethargy and low energy - This is a sign that your cat could be in pain, such as suffering from arthritis or have feline leukemia.
  • Litter box use - If your cat stops using the litter box, this can be due to a urinary tract infection, constipation or anxiety. A cat with a urinary tract infection may continue to use the box but you'll observe him straining and in pain when trying to urinate. If the cat defecates outside the litter box this could be an anal gland infection, worms or constipation.
  • Scratching - Excessive scratching to the point of having irritated skin and hair loss is often due to fleas as well as other parasites and allergies.
Beautiful white cat in a plastic collar
  • Sneezing - Sneezing is not unusual with cats but if you notice your cat sneezing excessively for more than a day accompanied by runny eyes and nose and other symptoms, they may have a respiratory infection.
  • Vomiting - Excessive vomiting of food and/or hairballs can be a sign of a gastrointestinal condition, heartworm, tapeworm, urinary tract infection, or poisoning.
  • Water intake - A cat that begins drinking more, or less, than usual could be suffering from kidney disease or diabetes.
  • Weight gain - Unusual weight gain can be as simple as obesity from too much food and not enough exercise or it can be a sign of pyometra.
  • Weight loss - Losing weight despite eating a normal diet could mean your cat has thyroid disease, diabetes, tapeworms or stomach cancer.

Don't Self Diagnose

Doctors warn patients against self-diagnosis, and the same wisdom can be applied to diagnosing your pet's condition. Although hunting down the diseases that correspond most to your pet's symptoms can help, it's not the same as an accurate diagnosis from your vet. Feel free to share your research with your vet because it may provide ideas for your vet, but leave the actual diagnosis and treatment plan to your vet.

You and Your Vet Are Partners

In the long run, you and your vet should work together to keep your cat as healthy as possible. Don't be afraid to ask pertinent questions about your cat's symptoms and diagnosis, but keep in mind that your vet has spent many years acquiring the education and practical experience to diagnose what is actually wrong with your cat. Between the two of you, your cat should be in good hands.

What Is Wrong With My Cat?