If you think about it, being a cat veterinarian is not very different from being a pediatrician. We can’t ask our patients what’s wrong — we just have to figure it out.
Nowhere is the role of a cat owner more important than at the veterinarian’s office, where a good history can sometimes mean the difference between life and death.
Veterinarians are faced with a variety of diagnostic challenges on a daily basis.
A detailed and complete history is our most important diagnostic tool. When accurately interpreted, this information lays the groundwork for a logical diagnostic and therapeutic plan, which may prevent unnecessary (and often expensive) diagnostic testing and needless discomfort to the patient.
After briefly discussing the primary complaint, veterinarians try to obtain both objective and subjective information when gathering the history. Examples of objective data include signalment, the environment, diet and medical history.
Basic but vital information
The signalment consists of the cat’s age, breed and gender, including the reproductive status (i.e. whether the cat is spayed or neutered). This is basic and important information. Certain illnesses tend to strike cats at certain age ranges. For example, hyperthyroidism is a glandular condition that causes cats to lose weight despite a ravenous appetite. It’s an old age disease, rarely striking cats under the age of eight. A 13-year old cat with weight loss and excellent appetite warrants a blood test to evaluate thyroid function.
A four-year-old cat with the same signs would be more likely to have something else, such as inflammatory bowel disease or pancreatic insufficiency. Even if you’re not sure of the exact age, an accurate approximation can be very useful for a veterinarian.
Certain breeds are predisposed to certain conditions and knowing the breed can help veterinarians choose proper diagnostic tests. Persians are prone to polycystic kidney disease; Ragdolls and Maine Coons are susceptible to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Veterinarians must not be misled by clients who tell their veterinarian that their cat is a Maine Coon, only to discover that it’s a domestic longhair that, “looks just like the Maine Coon in the magazine.”
Gender provides important information as well. A female cat straining to urinate is likely to have cystitis. A male cat straining to urinate could have a urinary obstruction — something that can be life-threatening if not treated promptly.
Gathering environmental history is a routine yet important part of a cat’s history. Free-roaming cats, or cats that stay outdoors, are at a much higher risk of getting into fights with other cats, which increases their risk of getting cat bite abscesses or acquiring feline leukemia or FIV. Free-roaming or recently escaped cats may have had access to toxins or have been subject to trauma, which is unlikely to occur with an indoor pet.
Sometimes a travel history is important, although this is true more so with dogs than cats, because when cats travel with the owner to another part of the country, they are not usually let outdoors where they are at risk of running away or getting lost. Still, a travel history can be important, especially if the patient has been exposed to diseases endemic to certain regions but not prevalent in their normal environment.
Any changes in eating
A dietary history is more than merely determining which type and brand of food you’re feeding your cat. Granted, knowing the type of diet (dry, moist, table food), the brand name, any types of snacks, the method of feeding (free-choice or individual meals) and the amount is important; but veterinarians also want to know about your cat’s appetite and whether there has been any weight gain or loss. It’s helpful if you watch your cat eat.
Complete or partial anorexia is a common reason that clients take their cat to the veterinarian. A client that notices that their cat only chews on one side of its mouth, or has stopped eating dry food and now will only eat canned food, is telling the veterinarian that oral pain or discomfort may be the source of the problem and that a thorough oral exam may be the only diagnostic test necessary to obtain the diagnosis.
Reviewing the patient’s prior medical record can give valuable information to the veterinarian. If this is your first visit to this particular veterinarian, it is very helpful if you know your cat’s vaccination history as well as feline leukemia virus and feline immunodeficiency virus status. Medical records detailing the diagnosis or treatment of any prior or ongoing health problems are helpful, as the primary complaint may be a consequence of a prior medical condition. Once the above information is obtained, the veterinarian is ready to delve deeper into the primary complaint.
The history surrounding the primary complaint tends to be more subjective and this information, obtained from observant, conscientious owners, can be a huge asset.
Veterinarians know that some owners aren’t as observant as others. Our job is to encourage clients to describe the cat’s problem from its onset so that an orderly chronology is obtained. Some of the things we’ll want to know are when the cat last seemed normal, whether the onset of the clinical signs was sudden (acute) or if it developed slowly over time (chronic) and whether or not the illness has responded to previous treatment.
For example, an itchy cat that was treated with steroids and did not respond in the past is more likely to have food allergy (poorly responsive to steroids) rather then flea-allergic dermatitis (responds rapidly to steroids).
Depending on what the primary complaint is, a veterinarian may delve even deeper to further help characterize the problem and better formulate a diagnostic plan. As an example, if a client reports that their cat has diarrhea, the veterinarian may then ask whether there’s any blood or mucus in the stool, whether the cat has been straining in the litter box or whether the cat has had any accidents in the house.
The more the client answers “yes,” the more likely that the diarrhea has originated from the large intestine. This narrows down the list of possible causes for diarrhea and helps the veterinarian formulate a diagnostic and therapeutic plan.
Behavioral changes can be difficult for veterinarians to interpret. I’ve had many clients bring in their cat because he or she was acting differently, although upon further questioning, it became apparent that the cat wasn’t actually ill despite the difference in behavior. Cats who suddenly stop sleeping on the bed, even though it’s been their favorite sleeping spot for years, or normally vocal cats that have lately become more quiet, may indeed be acting differently, but these are more likely to be benign behavioral changes.
Lethargy, hyperactivity, aggression, growling and urinating or defecating in inappropriate places, however, are behavioral changes that may indicate an underlying medical problem.
Taking a photo or video
When in doubt as to whether any apparently new behaviors are medically significant or not, it’s always best to be on the cautious side and report everything to your veterinarian. With the advent of cell phones and the ability to quickly take a photo or a video, clients are encouraged to photograph or videotape any unusual behaviors or symptoms, as a video of a seizure, for example, or other odd behaviors can often serve as a valuable supplement to the client’s verbal description.
Because our patients cannot talk, veterinarians must rely on you, the client, to speak for them. The more observant you are, the more information you can give us. This information can go a long way toward obtaining the proper diagnosis, allowing us to tailor a treatment plan to put your companion quickly on the road to recovery.