Cats are very stoic and will commonly hide or downplay symptoms of illness until signs have progressed. This trait is present to some extent in all of the animal species, and is probably an evolutionary trick that developed in the wild to help them avoid detection by predators. As a pet owner, it is important to learn what is normal for your cat, and on a daily basis to perform a quick check to keep tabs on your cat.
Unfortunately, if one doesn't know what to check for, it is easy to miss things. A cat that has not had a urination for 2 or 3 days is a perfect example of a cat in a crisis. Another common example is a cat that stopped eating days ago, or has not had a bowel movement for days. These are all situations that with owner observations at home, can be identified early on. Prompt intervention can mean the difference between a good resolution, and a difficult situation. Five important areas of observation include:
- Appetite and Thirst
- Attitude, Activity and Behavior
Appetite and Thirst
Much of the difficulty in monitoring food intake relates to the way we feed many cats. If a cat is fed moist food, appetite changes are easily monitored because at least once a day, the plate will be taken up and washed. This provides a direct observation of the portion remaining (or not), and the source can is usually one to two meals in size, which makes for accurate serving size measurement. Many cats are fed kibble though, and since the portion comes out of a large bag, if the meal that's poured into the dish is not measured it will be tough to know how much is eaten.
As for water, offer it fresh at all times, and note the average amount consumed. If the cat receives a moist diet, water intake may be very low and still be normal. Of particular concern is a sudden massive increase in thirst. This can indicate internal health problems. Your veterinary team can advise you how to monitor water intake over 72 hours in order to confirm whether the water consumption is truly excessive, or just a response to hot weather etc. Both appetite and thirst can be very difficult to monitor in outdoor kitties.
Attitude, Activity, and Behavior
This is a very important aspect of the cat to monitor each and every day. A cat experiencing problems may have pretty normal attitude, but often very subtle signs will be expressed if you look closely. If there is any personality change, such as a cat that is normally very shy becoming attention seeking, or a cat that is normally gregarious found hiding, or a friendly cat that becomes irritable or even aggressive, this can be significant. Though behavior changes do not necessarily reflect physical problems, they can also sometimes be the only sign of them. Severe abnormalities like seizures, sleepiness, and problems with balance are obvious, but subtle changes like bumping into furniture can be missed. Reduced activity can also be related to injuries, fevers, internal health problems, and weakness.
Cats are prone to constipation because of the volume of hair that they normally ingest when grooming. This is particularly true of senior cats. Diarrhea is also important to note. If it is ongoing or occurs chronically in bouts, this is not normal. If diarrhea occurs, check under the tail around the anus and bathe if necessary. In longhaired cats especially, serious haircoat soiling can occur, and retained stool can cause skin irritation and infection (dermatitis).
A cat should pass a bowel movement about every day or so. If more than three days has passed and no stool is noted, or if diarrhea persists, a visit to your veterinary health care team is in order. If constipation occurs over a long term, stretching of the lower bowel (colon) can occur, leading to a state of obstipation, which means that the cat is blocked up with dry, hard stools. Obstipation can also occur if foreign material builds up in the lower gut. Monitoring bowels can be a real challenge in cats that go outdoors.
Cats are at risk for a number of afflictions of the urinary tract, and your ability to monitor urine output is very important. Lack of urine production can indicate a life-threatening blockage, particularly common in males, or low production of small volumes may reflect partial blockage, irritation or infection of the bladder. The only sign you may note around the house is that a cat suddenly urinates in sinks, or other such places; it may be their way of drawing attention to discomfort in this department. Check for a change in color also. If pinkish tinge occurs, this means blood is entering the urine. A cat should pass at least one puddle daily. Usually, a few puddles, a few inches in diameter will enter the litter in 24 hours. If a very large volume of urine is noted to occur over time, this can indicate internal health problems such as diabetes, hyperthyroidism and kidney disease. If you note the cat suddenly spending long periods in the box, either scratching, or just sitting and straining, this is also a red flag for difficulties.
Weight and body condition can be difficult to keep tabs on especially in the longhaired breeds. A thick-coated Persian can make body condition assessment tough. Weigh your cat once to twice per month and make a page up that can be placed on the fridge or other convenient place. When petting the cat, regularly run your hands over the backbone and ribs area to check for changes in the fat covering of the body prominences. In really thick-coated long haired cats, you may need to run your fingers under the hairs. Weight should not vary more than a 1/4 of a kilogram in a mature neutered house cat that is on a normal maintenance feeding regimen.