Signs of a Sick Cat

What Are the Warning Signs Your Cat is Sick?

Don’t miss the warning signs your cat is sick and may be in pain. Research shows that cats feel pain just like we do. But they tend to hide their pain—so just because they don’t show you obvious signs of pain, doesn’t mean they aren’t suffering or in distress. It’s up to you to know the signs that something is wrong and advocate for them by getting them the help they need.

When cats aren’t feeling well they give us clues. The clues may be physical or behavioral, or both. Some signs require immediate veterinary attention like respiratory problems or changes in breathing; straining to urinate, defecate or crying in the litter box; dilated pupils, or having any dramatic changes in behavior from normal. Some signs may increase over time with illness and won’t go away until your cat is diagnosed and treated by your veterinarian.

If you have adopted a new cat or kitten, it’s important to get a wellness exam by your veterinarian to establish a baseline of health and identify any health concerns they may have. Then watch for any of the following changes in your cat’s physical appearance, habits, behavior or health condition.

Remember, you are your cat’s advocate and voice, so be on the lookout for your cat’s signals that something is wrong. Here are the warning signs:

Physical Signs

Dilated Pupils

Cats with dilated pupils (other than short-term dilation with darkness or stress) and remaining dilated can be a symptom of a serious health problem—and should be immediately seen by a vet. Dilated pupils can signify serious infection, head or brain trauma or tumor, poisoning, or disease and will need diagnostic tests to determine the cause.

Respiratory Problems

Normal breathing for cats is even and smooth. Any changes in your cat’s breathing is serious and needs immediate attention by your vet,  including rapid breathing at rest, panting, shallow breathing, a very slow rate of breathing, labored breathing, wheezing, noisy breathing—or crying in pain or distress. All breathing changes need veterinary attention immediately.

Pale or White Gums

Check your cat’s gums for signs of illness periodically. Healthy gums are pink (or if your cat is black, gums may be black). If your cat has very pale gums that aren’t pink or are white, time to take your cat to the vet. This can signify a loss of blood flow or circulation, shock, or anemia. White or pale gums need immediate attention by your vet.

Sitting Hunched with Back Arched

If you see your cat sitting in a crouched position with his back arched, nose to the floor, front paws folded under body—this is a sign that he’s in pain and suffering.

Not Eating, Loss of Appetite, Vomiting

If your cat suddenly loses his appetite or stops eating, or refuses food for up to 2-3 days, heads up he’s not feeling well and needs to see a vet. A cat that stops eating can cause liver damage (hepatic lipidosis or fatty liver disease), which can lead to liver failure and death, so this sign requires immediate attention by your vet. Loss of appetite can indicate infection, kidney failure, intestinal problems, cancer, pancreatitis, or even dental problems.

Changes in Appetite

Changes in appetite usually signify some underlying illness. If your cat is eating and drinking more than usual, it may be a sign of diabetes (also loss of appetite in later stage) or hyperthyroidism—both are serious diseases that need to be treated.

Increased Water Consumption

If your cat is drinking way more water than normal and always seems to be at the water bowl, this can be a sign of illness like diabetes, hyperthyroidism, and kidney disease. These are treatable diseases.

Weight Loss – Sudden or Gradual

Has your cat lost weight suddenly or been losing weight gradually over the past few months? It’s good to know your cat’s weight and to weigh them periodically, so you know if they have lost weight. Weight loss can be a sign of many illnesses including cancer, diabetes, FIP, gastrointestinal issues, parasites, dental issues, and can happen in old age.

Changes in Coat/Fur

When your cat’s coat changes in appearance from being shiny to having a dull/matte finish, or it becomes oily and clumpy, or he’s suddenly losing hair—these are signs that something’s not right with your kitty.

Coughing, Sneezing, Runny Nose

These are signs of upper respiratory or bronchial infection and can quickly become serious.  Cats can lose their appetite and become dehydrated quickly with an upper respiratory infection, since they lose their sense of smell and are congested. So to avoid further infection and health problems, see your vet.

Bad Breath

Bad breath can signal dental or gum disease, which can trigger more serious health problems—or it can be a sign of an underlying health issue. In either case, time to have it diagnosed.

Behavioral Signs

Hiding or Isolating, Lethargic

Does your cat suddenly want to be left alone? Is he less social or hiding lately, seeking isolation? Is he more lethargic? This can be a definite sign something is wrong.

Vocalization – Growling, Hissing

Is your cat hissing or growling when you touch him, pick him up or move him? Or has he become more aggressive, more irritable and short-tempered lately? Is he avoiding your touch? If you notice any significant change in vocalization—your cat could be in pain.

Litter Box Changes

If your cat is straining to urinate and not peeing—this is an emergency and your cat should be rushed to the vet. He could have a urinary tract blockage, kidney stone, crystals, or cystitis and all are extremely painful and dangerous. If your cat is suddenly not using the litter box, going outside the box, or hiding in the litter box—all are signs something’s wrong.

Grooming Changes

Cats groom themselves daily, so if your cat has stopped grooming or his fur has become suddenly matted—there’s an underlying reason. If your cat’s grooming is focused on a specific area and they are constantly grooming in that one place—this can be a sign of pain in that particular place.

If your cat exhibits one or more of these signs, it’s time to make an appointment for a veterinary examination as soon as possible. Don’t let your cat suffer in pain. Remember, he’s counting on you and you’re all he has.

If you don’t already have a good veterinarian, or are looking for a new one, here’s information about how to find a great vet.

Know the Warning Signs Your Cat is Sick
Warning signs your cat is sick

11 thoughts on “What Are the Warning Signs Your Cat is Sick?”

  1. Cats are one of the best animals when it comes to showing signs of sickness, they usually don’t hide away and will let you know if they are not well! When a cat stops using the litter tray, this is one of the tell-tall signs that she is sick. There is always a reason for this behavior and it is best to get her checked out.

  2. I have an 11 year old cat that my mom and i co-own and he stays with her. I just arrived at my parent’s house not even a weak or two since I’ve seen him. Hes lost a lot of weight, i can accurately feel hia spine and hop bones under his fur. He has a runny nose and sneezes every few minutes and my mother says that hes been vomiting a lot lately. Does anyone know what could be wrong with my kitty? I dont have money at the moment to take him to the vet!

    1. He needs to see a vet. See if you can borrow the money, put the bill on your VISA, or get a loan, but your cat sounds sick and needs a veterinarian for a proper diagnosis. Two weeks is a short period of time to lose significant weight and suddenly be sick. Something is wrong. Good luck.

  3. This is a very helpful list, thank you. I really appreciate that you mentioned all of the signs that my cat might be sick. Especially the less obvious ones, at least to me, of him drinking more than normal. I also didn’t know that white gums could signify a problem. I don’t normally check my cat’s gums and doubt he would like it. How often do you recommend that I check?

    1. Hi James, checking your cat’s gums is pretty easy to do and can tell you if there are signs of illness as well as gingivitis and dental disease. You can check them regularly or have your vet check them, just by pulling up on their outer skin with your thumb to reveal their teeth — on each side. Very pale or white gums can mean illness, poor circulation and disease. Also, this gives you a chance to check their breath. If your cat has bad smelling breath (outside of eating) this can be a sign of dental disease or something more serious, and you should take your cat to your vet. Healthy gums are pink. Good luck.

    1. Hi Rosemary – Yes, your cat has all the signs that he is physically not well. Only a veterinarian can get to the heart of the cause through running diagnostic tests. That will likely include a full blood panel, urine test, possibly two x-rays of the abdomen — for starters. But your cat is young, and for him to not eat for 2-3 days, drink water or eliminate is very serious. Don’t wait in taking him to the vet. I hope he recovers quickly!

  4. I appreciate this information about the warning signs that your cat is sick. It is good to know that dilated pupils can be a symptom of a serious health problem. It would be good to keep an eye on your cat daily to find these problems as they arise. Something to consider would be to consult with your local veterinarian about what can be done to enhance your cats health.

  5. My cat just 2 days ago had to get put down because of stage 4 kidney failure. He was only 10 1/2. It started with picking away at his food and never finishing a bowl like he used to. He also would lick his lips and act like he had something in his mouth. By this point he had drool on his chin all the time and his breath smelled like death. We brought him to the vets after he went a few days not eating like he used to. The vets said he had 2 rotten teeth in the back and that’s why we thought he was drooling/having bad breath/not eating. So he got an antibiotic and gave him 1 week and if there was no change to take him back to the vets. So a week went by and he lost a whole 1 lbs in that week (which is like 10 human lbs). By this point all he did was lay in my moms bedroom and he hasn’t eaten ANYTHING in 4 days. He drank a lot of water and he only peed in the litter (cause he wasn’t eating) so when we took him back to the vets he was skin and bone, and he wouldn’t look anyone in the eye. He even turned his back on the vet which isn’t normal. She did bloodwork on him to check whatever underlying condition he had, and she came back out and told us that he had extreme kidney failure and that the numbers were right off the charts. That day he was put down as I held his head in my hands as he took his last breath. He wouldn’t even look in our eyes while we were at the vets. So PLEASE please please if your cat does as little as not eat as much as usual, take him to the vets. Even tho there was nothing we could do to save him, I still feel bad and don’t know how long he was suffering for. I’m only 17 and I’m still depressed about this. 🙁

    1. Brooke, I’m so sorry to hear about losing your cat. You’re right, it’s very important to pay attention to your cat’s appetite and signs they are not eating, or interested in food. Like when people stop eating, when our pets stop eating it’s a sign that something is wrong, and they are not feeling well. There is a deeper issue. Taking a cat to a good veterinarian immediately is always the best action, and not wait, even a day. A good vet will do a full blood panel and urine test — minimum — to determine any chronic diseases, plus give them a head-to-toe physical. Kidney disease can be acute, but it is often chronic – if they are diagnosed with CKF, and cat’s can live with CKF for a long time, even years, given a proper diet for kidneys (a special wet food made for kidney disease from your vet) and extra sub-Q fluids 1-3 times a week. To prevent CKF, a wet food-based diet is best, with some added warm water, little dry food (as there is no hydration in dry food), and lots of available water bowls, is key. Dehydration is the enemy for kidneys, so keeping cats well hydrated is very important. Again, I’m sorry for your loss, and thanks for sharing what happened to your kitty to help others. Best wishes.

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