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Is My Cat Sick? Common Illnesses and Symptoms

8 min read

Updated - Jun 20th, 2022

Cats are pretty self-sufficient animals, and are masters at masking their weaknesses from their pet parents. Part of being a responsible cat owner is knowing when something isn’t right, but if you’re a new pet parent, it can be hard to tell if your cat isn’t feeling well or just being shy. So, it’s important to recognize the warning signs and symptoms of common cat illnesses so you know when you should seek veterinary help. 

While the thought of your furry friend getting sick can be frightening, no cat is immune to common illnesses. Here, we have outlined common illnesses amongst cats, symptoms to look out for, and typical treatment.

1. Vomiting

A vomiting cat can signal different underlying health conditions or subtle signs that your cat didn’t agree with their food. Severe causes for vomiting range from eating something poisonous like a plant, to infection, urinary tract diseases, or even diabetes. Less severe causes include eating too fast, subtle changes in diet, or ingesting a hairball from grooming. 

While symptoms are usually obvious, your cat may also drool excessively. Vomiting can leave your kitty severely dehydrated, so they may also experience abdominal heaving, lethargy, and excessive meowing. If your cat throws up more than once a week, reach out to your veterinarian so they can perform blood work, X-rays, and other tests to determine the cause of their vomiting. 

2. Fleas

Nearly every cat will get fleas in their lifetime, whether they’re indoor or outdoor. Expert hitchhikers, these parasites latch onto your cat to feed from their blood, and reproduce by laying eggs in your cat’s fur. Without a host, fleas only last a few days, but if they live on your cat they can survive up to three weeks, or even longer. Great at hiding in a cat’s fur, one or two small fleas can quickly turn into a whole infestation. 

The most obvious sign of fleas on cats are increased scratching and biting of their fur, as well as small black dots on their skin. Since they feed on your cat’s blood, fleas also cause anemia and weakness, and may even transmit tapeworm infection. You may also notice bald patches and hair loss throughout your cat’s fur as a result of over-grooming and skin irritation. Your veterinarian will be able to determine if your cat has fleas through a visual wellness check of your cat’s neck and back, where fleas tend to nest. Fleas are usually treated with a combination of oral medications, sprays, shampoos, and powders. 

3. Kidney disease

Just like humans, kidneys are a major organ in cats, and kidney disease can be a serious threat to your cat’s health. The main job of a cat’s kidneys is to filter waste and toxins out of the blood and into their urine. The kidney also regulates mineral levels and triggers the production of red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout the rest of the cat’s body. When part of their kidney is damaged, the rest of the organ works harder to keep up with the body’s demands, which eventually wears the kidneys out. If left untreated, harmful substances build up in their blood and eventually get worse over time, causing chronic kidney disease, and even anemia. 

Chronic kidney disease usually occurs in older cats, with early signs of kidney disease (weight loss and thinning fur) often dismissed as normal signs of aging. Common signs of kidney disease in cats are usually obvious, and include:

  • Increased thirst
  • Frequent urination
  • Dull and thinning fur
  • Low energy levels
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Vomiting, lack of appetite, or weight loss

Although the damage done by kidney disease isn’t reversible, there are ways to treat your feline friend and help them feel better. Early detection is important, and your veterinarian is more likely to see early signs of kidney disease through routine appointments. If they determine that your cat has kidney disease, they will recommend an approach that combines dieting, medication, and hormone therapy. 

4. Dental disease

Periodontal disease, or periodontitis, is one of the most common and serious cat health problems, affecting approximately 70% of cats by the time they’re three years old. Periodontitis occurs when food particles and other bacteria accumulate along a cat’s gum line that eventually turns into plaque. When combined with saliva and minerals, it transforms into tartar that leads to the irritation and inflammation of the gum edges, known as gingivitis. If left untreated, this eventually leads to periodontal disease, which can cause serious pain and discomfort for your furry friend. 

Almost always the result of untreated gingivitis, major signs of periodontal disease includes excessive drooling, turning their heads to the side when chewing, or being reluctant or unwilling to eat. Additional symptoms include: 

  • Red or swollen gums 
  • Bleeding along the gingiva at the base of their teeth 
  • Persistent bad breath
  • Tooth discoloration or visible tartar 
  • Pawing at the teeth or mouth 
  • Chewing only on one side of the mouth
  • Difficulty picking up or dropping food 
  • Resistance to tooth brushing 
  • Irritability or moodiness

Teeth and gum diseases in cats are largely preventable or treatable with appropriate preventative dental care and monitoring. Daily tooth brushing with a child-size toothbrush, gauze sponge, dental wipe, or finger brush is the most common way to help keep your cat’s pearly whites protected against gingivitis and periodontal disease. Routine visits to the vet, oral examinations, and dental cleanings are also recommended. 

5. Heart disease

Congestive heart failure is a common health problem seen in older cats. Heart failure starts when the muscle in the left ventricle of the heart becomes so thickened that it can no longer efficiently pump blood throughout the body. Hyperthyroidism, high blood pressure, and heartworm disease can contribute to your cat’s congestive heart failure. Signs of heart failure can be hard to notice, as your cat may be less active or have difficulty breathing, but typically include:

  • Decrease in appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Difficulty sleeping or lying down (shifting frequently)
  • Sudden collapse or fainting
  • Fast breathing

If your feline friend is in distress, such as open-mouth panting, or if their hind limbs appear paralyzed, seek medical attention from an animal hospital as soon as possible. Once your cat has been diagnosed with heart disease, your veterinarian may recommend several medications to ease the work of your feline friend’s heart. These include diuretics to remove the excess fluid, and other medications to help your cat’s heart beat more efficiently. 

6. Obesity

Obesity is a common condition among cats that is often not taken seriously, even though 59% of the cats in the United States are overweight or obese. Obese cats are at risk for developing heart disease, kidney disease, arthritis, diabetes, and many other related conditions. Obesity also limits a cat’s ability for physical activity and can greatly compromise their quality of life. But obesity in cats is much more than just overeating or taking too many cat naps – it can be caused by poor lifestyle, hormonal imbalances, genetics, or bacteria in your cat’s stomach and gut. 

Typically, indoor cats are prone to developing weight related problems, so their diet should be monitored closely. Your veterinarian will develop a plan to help your cat be more active or offer feeding recommendations to curb their weight gain. 

7. Upper respiratory infection 

We all get sick when the seasons change — and just like humans, cats sneeze, sniffle, and cough, too. A cat’s upper respiratory tract (their nose, throat, and sinus area) is prone to infections caused by a variety of bacteria. Kittens and other cats that have been exposed to extra stress in shelters or boarding facilities may catch a virus, but the good news is they’re easy to recognize. The symptoms of upper respiratory infections include:

  • Sneezing
  • Squinting, blinking, or rubbing their eyes
  • Nasal congestion/runny nose
  • Cough
  • Clear to colored nasal discharge 
  • Drooling 
  • Fever
  • Lack of energy 

Your veterinarian may prescribe antibiotics if an infection is present. If your cat is experiencing eye discharge or nasal congestion, they may prescribe eye or nose drops. Broad-spectrum antibiotics will help to protect your kitten’s young immune system from other infections while sick with an upper respiratory infection. 

8. Urinary tract infection 

Cat urinary tract infections (UTIs) can affect cats of all ages and sizes but are harder to spot in kittens who are still litter training. An infection in the urinary bladder that occurs when bacteria travels up the urethra and into your cat’s bladder, UTIs are extremely painful and uncomfortable for cats. Common symptoms of UTIs in cats include:

  • Frequent urination, but only peeing in small amounts at a time
  • Urinating outside of the litter box 
  • Straining or inability to urinate
  • Crying in pain while peeing
  • Increased licking of the urinary opening
  • Cloudy or bloody urine
  • Drinking more water than usual

While not contagious, UTIs are often easily curable with antibiotics. Some vets may also prescribe pain medication, but if your cat has a UTI due to another underlying disorder, such as bladder stones or diabetes, then additional treatments will be prescribed to treat those disorders.

If you’re worried about your kitty’s sudden change in behavior or body language, or unsure if their signs of illness are cause for concern, take them to their veterinarian for a check-up for a proper diagnosis.  

We know getting your kitty the best care possible is top of mind, that’s why Pumpkin Pet Insurance plans pay back 90% of eligible vet bills. Check out how one of Pumpkin Pet Insurance plans can help you cover the cost of unexpected accidents and illnesses throughout the course of your cat’s life. 

Christina is a copywriter and a loving cat mom to an adorable Bombay named Zetta.

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