Symptoms of a sick cat – is yours OK?

by Ric

A sick cat hides it’s weaknesses well, and that can be one of the worst things about them for us when it comes to monitoring their health.

It can be all too easy to overlook early signs of potential illness in your cat and dismiss it as general ‘oddball cat behavior’. By the time you do realise you have a sick cat, it’s likely been so for longer than you think.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

We know that cats can be difficult enough to read as it is. Add a natural instinct to hide their illnesses into the mix, however, and you’re going to find it tough being able to discern any health concerns before they become a problem.

Why is it so difficult to tell?

There are a couple of reasons that actually make a lot of sense when you think about it.


In the wild, an injured animal is another animal’s dinner. Pure and simple.

Cats will try to hide any sign of illness or weakness to deter predators or other cats that might be a threat.

Sure, you may be thinking “What predators?”. Remember that this, like many of their other behaviors, are based on instincts spanning generations.

Those instincts are going nowhere in a hurry.

Relationship with pain

Animals also have a completely different emotional relationship to pain than humans. They don’t become attached to pain the way we do, and often won’t exhibit any outward signs of it.

This is because in the wild, they don’t have the luxury of being able to rest whenever they feel like it. Out of necessity, most animals accept the pain or illness and keep moving. Instinct kicking in once again.

Some useful insights courtesy of Helpful Vancouver Vet


Here is a checklist of possible symptoms to look out for.

Some are more obvious than others, but any of the following changes in your cat could be potential indicators of illness. The bottom line is that if it doesn’t seem right to you, get them to the vet.

Cat peeking around corner
Hiding can be an indicator of fear, stress or even injury.


Changes in personality and behavior over the years are completely normal, particularly as your cat gets older. A sudden change in behavior or routine, however, may indicate a sign of stress.

Common triggers can include environmental disruptions such as unfamiliar guests, loud noises or a new pet.


One of the most well-recognized signs of fear, discomfort, pain or illness in most animals is hiding in a quiet, secluded place. This is instinctual; hiding from predators while they regain their strength.


Though usually associated with contentment, cats also purr to heal or soothe themselves when they are sick or in pain. This could be a sign of injury.


Head-tilting or dizziness may indicate an ear infection, or even a neurological disorder. If you see your cat pushing their heads against furniture or walls, this also can be a red flag for a neurological disorder.


Cats are some of the most graceful, agile creatures around. For most cats, continuing signs of clumsiness like mis-steps, tripping up or slipping is an alert. Get them to the vet immediately.


If your cat is skipping the odd meal, it’s not generally a big deal. If you start to notice a pattern in this that wasn’t apparent before, check in with the vet. Cats don’t usually want to eat when they aren’t feeling well.

A sudden, drastic change in appetite can be a sign of several health problems such as dental issues, kidney disease, diabetes, hyperthyroidism or even cancer.

Don’t ignore the signs though; extended periods of decreased appetite need to be addressed as they can lead to serious problems like hepatic lipidosis and fatty liver.

Increased appetite

You’re going to always want to ensure your cat isn’t overeating. Obesity is just as much of a serious health issue for cats as it is for humans.

But a persistent increase in your cat’s appetite can be a symptom of illnesses such as inflammatory bowel disease or, especially for older cats, hypothyroidism.

Increased thirst

More drinking and urinating than usual may indicate issues like urinary tract infections, which will require immediate treatment. Worse scenarios can include kidney disease, diabetes or hyperthyroidism.

Otherwise, your cat may be dehydrated. Apparently, a simple way to check is to gently grab the skin between their shoulderblades and lift it. If it doesn’t snap back in place immediately once you let go, this may be an indicator.

Decreased thirst

Again, any change in this that is going on for too long may be a sign of problems.

However, also keep in mind that many owners never even see their cats drink water. This is often because a wet food-inclusive diet may provide a significant amount of their water intake.

Refusal to eat or drink

This is an obvious one. Continued refusal of food or water is a sure sign that your cat is in pain or ill. If this continues for longer than 24 hours, head to the vet.

Litter box

Keep an eye on your cat’s litter box habits as well as changes in your cat’s waste, such as color, consistency, smell, amount and frequency.

Eliminating outside of the litter box

If your cat suddenly starts making messes outside the box despite a great track record, something’s up. While this may indicate illness, it may also be a behavioral issue.

Get them checked out for any urinary infections or blockages before investigating any behavioral courses of action.


Your cat may appear to be straining to urinate or defecate with no results. If this continues or blood is present, get them to the vet immediately.

Short, sharp attempts to urinate accompanied by signs of pain (including ‘crying out’ or straining), may indicate a blockage or a lower urinary tract infection.


Be mindful of a change in frequency or quantity. Any blood in the urine can be indicative of urinary tract issue, particularly with signs of straining and increased frequency. Increased urination may even indicate diabetes.

Male cats in particular are unfortunately more prone to urinary problems.

Untreated urinary issues can be potentially life-threatening, so don’t hesitate if you suspect a problem.


Ideally, you want to see formed, sausage-like feces from a healthy cat. Hard, nugget-like feces can be a sign of constipation. Blood in the stool can indicate a variety of illnesses, including parasitic infections.


A drastic weight fluctuation can also be a concern.

Some illnesses such as stomach cancer or heart disease mean the cat’s overall weight stays the same but they lose body condition. If you can feel their ribs and backbone more easily than you could before, or if their belly looks swollen, get it checked out.

Weight loss

It is natural for most cats to lose some muscle mass with age due to less activity.

If they really start looking emaciated, it may be an indicator of diabetes, hyperthyroidism or something more serious, like cancer.

Weigh your cat once a week at home and if the cat keeps losing weight seek veterinary advice.

Weight gain

As I mentioned earlier, weight gain from overeating can lead to obesity.

Disproportionate weight gain, or a noticeable growth or swelling belly can be related to various conditions such as pyometra, heart disease or cancer.


Cat grooming itself
Changes in grooming habits can be something to keep an eye on.

Eyes & Nose

Large amounts discharge from eyes or nose can be a sign of allergy, sinus or upper respiratory infection. This can be infectious to other cats, so get it checked out a.s.a.p.

Discharge presence with increased drinking/urination, lethargy, and a lackluster coat can be a sign of kidney failure.

If you notice your cat’s pupils are dilated and staying that way, take them to the vet.


Keep an eye out for excessive pawing or scratching at the ears. If you notice ear discharge, this might indicate an ear infection or even ear mites.

Besides how irritating this can be for the cat, putting off treatment this may cause the eardrum to become affected and potential hearing loss.


If your cat has an oral infection, it exposes the whole body to the bacteria in the mouth.

Bad breath

This could lead to problems with the heart and other organs.

  • Bad breath can indicate dental disease or kidney problems.
  • Breath that smells like ammonia can be a sign of kidney disease.
  • Sweet-smelling breath can be a sign of diabetes.

Severe bad breath especially should be addressed sooner.

Gum discoloration

Have a look at your cat’s gums, they should be a deep pink color. Any of the following variations may be a red flag.

  • Pale gums may be a sign of anemia or poor circulation.
  • Bright red gums are very likely related to dental issues such as gingivitis.
  • Yellow gums could show signs of jaundice.
  • Small red splotches can indicate blood clotting issues.
  • Bluish gums/tongue could mean a lack of oxygen – get them to the vet immediately.

Also, watch for ​any excessive drooling or bleeding from the mouth.


Skin irritation or hair loss may be a sign of allergies, external parasites, or a skin condition.


Swelling, especially in localized areas, can be the result of an abscess or tumor. Keep an eye on it; if it looks painful or actually feels hot to touch, get to the vet.


Shedding or changes in grooming habits can be an indicator of stress. A neglected appearance or excessive shedding can be symptoms of allergies or hyperthyroidism.


Changes in grooming habits can mean a number of things. If you notice your cat’s once well-kept coat becoming dull, greasy or matted can be a sign of skin disease or other issues.

  • A sick cat usually doesn’t have the energy to groom himself, so neglect of grooming is a sure sign that something’s not right.
  • Changes in grooming habits may also be a result of arthritis. Grooming may be painful if your cat is stiff and sore.
  • Excessive grooming can indicate pain or a skin condition like fleas or mange as well as bald patches in extreme cases.


Never ignore any respiratory changes. Signs like your cat is keeping it’s head elevated or not wanting to lay on its side. Look out for:

  • wheezing
  • shortness of breath
  • rapid breathing
  • raspy breathing
  • heaving stomach muscles (when breathing).

Head directly to the emergency clinic in extreme cases.


A cat who is usually talkative suddenly goes quiet, or a normally timid cat becoming an instant chatterbox could show that your cat is stressed, ill or in pain.


A normal temperature range for cats is usually in between 100 to 103 degrees Fahrenheit (usually around 101). Over 102.5 is considered raised, and over 103 shows signs of fever.


Sings of fever can include:

  • Sleeping heavily
  • Refusal of food
  • Dull coat
  • Dry or warm nose and ears

A fever is no joke, if you suspect this may be the case, get to the vet immediately.


Cat sleeping
Lethargy or excessive sleeping may be a sign of pain or fever, among other things.

Cats, like humans, begin to slow down with age. Conversely, middle-aged to older cats who experience a sudden increase in activity level can indicate an overactive thyroid.


Mobility issues such as stiffness, limping and difficulty jumping indicate problems, especially in kittens. In older cats, this may be an indicator of arthritis.

Never assume your cat is not in pain because he is eating and acting normal otherwise.


If your cat seems sluggish, slower or quieter than usual, this indicate pain, fever and breathing difficulty. It can also indicate arthritis in older cats.

Sleep Patterns

A noticable increase in sleep is often a sign that something is off. If there are no other symptoms (loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea), keep an eye on them over the next 24 hours.

Also take note of any visible ailments such as:


Occasional vomiting or hairballs is normal.

If they are vomiting food up after it’s been in the cat’s stomach, this can be a sign of blockage or poisoning.

If they are vomiting for more than a day and it is accompanied by lethargy or diarrhea, or if the vomit looks something like coffee grounds (partially digested blood) get to the vet immediately. These symptoms can be very serious.


Coughing can be the result of foreign bodies in the airways, hairballs or allergies. It can also be caused by a variety of serious conditions including: asthma, tumors, heart or lung disease or several contagious illnesses.

If coughing continues for more than 24 hours, you notice bluish gums or respiratory difficulty, see your vet urgently.


Diarrhea may be a result of nervousness, dietary changes or food sensitivities through to intestinal parasites, infections or even poisoning. Untreated, it can result in dehydration and intestinal inflammation.

Give it 24 hours to see if the cat recovers. If your cat is vomiting, not eating, lethargic, or you notice has blood or mucus in her stools, head to the vet and bring a stool sample.


Typically, a cat will defecate once or twice a day. A constipated cat, however, will produce occasional small, hard stools.

Constipation is caused most commonly by hairballs, and can lead to weight loss and anorexia if left untreated.


This is not an exhaustive list, by any means, but I’m hoping this illustrates a few points to look out for.

I know some of these symptoms may seem scary, but the important thing is not to panic or jump to conclusions before consulting your vet.

As you may have noticed, there is a common thread among most of these examples: Keep an eye on them, and if the symptoms persist for extended periods of time (24 hours in most cases), then get them to your vet.

You know your cat better than anyone else. Be observant, and trust your instincts. If it doesn’t sit right with you, take action immediately.