Make an Appointment? Or Get Him to the Vet Immediately?

Common signs of illness - and how seriously to take them.


Your cat is having a bout of vomiting. Do you rush him to the doctor? What if he hasn’t urinated all day, or goes through the day with zero interest in food or water? Here is a look at six common signs of illness in cats, and whether they can wait or signal emergencies that need immediate medical attention.

1| Vomiting. “This is the most common clinical sign that makes people bring their cats to the vet,” says Armelle de Laforcade, DVM, an emergency and critical care veterinarian at Tufts’ Foster Hospital for Small Animals. Is an emergency visit warranted?

“It depends,” she says. “Sometimes what appears to be vomiting can just be coughing up hairballs. You really have to watch the cat’s demeanor. If he throws up a few times but seems like himself, you can probably rest easy. But if he appears lethargic, or if he vomits many times — and especially if he doesn’t seem like himself — get him to the doctor within 24 to 48 hours.

If it’s a young cat (making the chances greater that he swallowed string or something else he shouldn’t have), the veterinarian might take an x-ray to check for an obstruction. If it’s a middle-aged or older cat, diagnostic tests for liver or kidney disease or cancer may be in order.

2| Labored breathing. If your cat is short of breath or has labored breathing, get to the vet’s office — now. The doctor will probably administer oxygen to allow him to breathe more freely and will check for asthma and congestive heart disease — the two most common cases of difficulty breathing in felines. (With congestive heart disease, fluid build-up keeps the heart and lungs from operating properly, thereby leading to shallow breathing.) The good news is that both are treatable — asthma with corticosteroids and congestive heart disease with diuretics to clear fluid in the cat’s lungs, and perhaps other medications.

3| Difficulty urinating. Male cats, more than females, develop obstructions that make it hard to urinate. The problem is usually caused by an accumulation of mucus and grit within the urethra — the tube that carries urine to the exterior — at the tip of the penis. You may see your cat making frequent trips to the litter box but not accomplishing much. He may meow in discomfort. If your pet manages to release some kind of stream, make an appointment to see the vet within 24 hours. If he cannot eliminate at all or is just staining or producing a few drops of urine, his life may be in danger — get right in the car. A cat can die if toxins in urine build up. The vet will pass a catheter to relieve the obstruction and discuss possibilities for avoiding recurrence either with diet or surgery.

4| Increased thirst. “There are three main reasons cats start drinking more,” says Dr. de LaForcade: “kidney disease, overactive thyroid [hyperthyroidism], and diabetes.” Have it checked out. “It doesn’t have to be tomorrow,” the doctor remarks, “but give a call and make an appointment to have some tests done.” All three conditions are eminently treatable — if treated early.

5| Marked change in appetite. A little loss of appetite is no big deal and can reasonably be expected to pass. But if your cat stops eating and drinking altogether, particularly if he is an older cat, get him to the veterinarian’s office within a day or two. Something could be seriously wrong, and the sooner he reaches the doctor’s for treatment, the better.

6| Trauma. Trauma is a more likely occurrence for the cat who is allowed to go outdoors and thereby runs the risk of getting hit by a car, getting into a fight with another animal, or getting caught on something sharp or spiky. You have to take it on a case-by-case basis. If your pet comes home with frayed toenails or superficial scrapes but is breathing and eating okay, something obviously happened but is not cause for alarm. Puncture wounds, on the other hand, can be a sign of things you cannot see: internal bleeding or torn muscles. Take your cat to the vet as soon as possible.

Of course, if your cat comes home with a gaping wound or is having difficulty breathing, you have no time to lose. Get him to the emergency room right away.


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