Does My Cat Have a Behavior Issue or Something More?
By Jessica Remitz
While most cat owners are tuned in to the little details and quirks of their cat’s personality — like their ability to open a door or proclivity for attacking feet at night — it can be difficult to determine when behaviors that seem unusual are signs of a deeper health concern. If you're questioning what is wrong with your cat, here’s a look at some of the ways cats hide their pain, common conditions they suffer from, and how to get your cat the care he needs.
How Cats Hide Discomfort
“Whether or not cats hide their pain all depends on the problem,” says Susan O’Bell, DVM at the Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston, Mass. One common problem that brings cats to the veterinarian or emergency room is signs of a lower urinary tract infection that have gone undiagnosed.
“Cats with this affliction can be impacted in a variety of ways, from mild discomfort to a life threatening inability to pass urine,” Dr. O’Bell says. “This manifests from a few unnoticed extra trips to the litter box, some mild malaise for a day or two or the ever-frustrating urination occurring outside of the litter box.”
More obvious signs of a urinary tract infection include licking at the genital area, vomiting or extreme lethargy. It is possible, however, to see no outward signs of pain or illness in cats until they’ve begun losing weight or have a decreased appetite — something that’s difficult to monitor if you have multiple cats or if your cat doesn’t eat voraciously when healthy.
“I suspect the will to hide weakness originates from their ‘big cat’ ancestors, who would have been last to eat, find a mate, or be left behind if unable to keep up with their pride,” Dr. O’Bell says. “One of my own cats ended up being diagnosed with a serious gastrointestinal ailment having had no initial outward symptoms.”
“In addition to a decreased appetite and inappropriate elimination (of both urine and feces), cats may hide symptoms of an illness with clingy behavior or hiding, increased vocalization, aggression, vomiting and a change in their attitude or demeanor,” Dr. O’Bell says. Whether one, all or a combination of these behaviors is prevalent, your veterinarian will need a thorough history of your cat’s personality and normal behavior, medical records and additional diagnostics like lab work to get a better idea of the problem.
Common Cat Ailments
According to Dr. O’Bell, changes in weight and signs of periodontal disease are the top two health concerns to recognize and look out for when it comes to cats. Brushing your cat’s teeth or even taking a peek in their mouth on a weekly basis will help you spot signs of infection or areas of concern before they become life-threatening. “Unfortunately, obesity has become an epidemic among domestic cats because many owners don’t recognize their cat’s weight being a health concern,” Dr. O’Bell says. Obesity poses a risk for diabetes in your cat, and puts strain on their joints, liver and kidneys. Conversely, drastic weight loss is something to lookout for and will prompt your veterinarian to screen your cat for health concerns with blood work, a biochemistry panel and a urine test.
Additional under-recognized health concerns include arthritis and hyperthyroidism. While it’s easier to recognize arthritis or orthopedic abnormalities in dogs, cats may hide signs of discomfort. If your cat hesitates before making a jump or their coat has lost some of its luster, it may be because they are having difficulty moving or grooming themselves. Cats with arthritis may also eliminate outside of the litter box because they’re unable to jump inside of it.
“Hyperthyroidism is often diagnosed in advanced stages because early symptoms may seem like signs of good health like a good appetite, high energy and slight weight loss,” Dr, O’Bell says. “Kidney disease in cats is also common, and its presence may be masked by hyperthyroidism.”
“Many cats can compensate for their chronic kidney disease by simply increasing their water intake to keep themselves hydrated,” Dr. O’Bell adds. “This could go on for months or even years, and may only have overtly detected symptoms when the disease is already quite advanced.”
How to Help Your Cat Cope
As with most health conditions, early detection is key to achieving better outcomes with your cat. Diagnosing kidney disease in cats early and making the appropriate changes in their diet with specialized food can help manage their condition and lead to a longer survival rate. Understanding your cat’s kidney disease will also help you to recognize signs of dehydration, a common complication, earlier on that if the disease was left undiagnosed.
By either hiding their symptoms completely or refusing medicine, cats are particularly difficult patients to treat. “Fortunately,” says Dr. O’Bell, “there are a variety of diagnostic aids and advanced treatments available to cats that can help their owners keep them healthy.”
Ask your veterinarian about the different forms of medication available to you (liquid, tablet, gel, injection) and find the best fit for your cat. You’ll also want to ask about the different types of food available to help your cat manage their condition, and experiment with different brands until you find one that they like. Changes in helping your cat cope may be quick and easy or take a bit more time, but with patience, you’ll be able to find something that works.
“For some cats, simply the addition of a second litter box is enough to please them,” Dr. O’Bell says. “For others, a short or long-term prescription of mood-stabilizing drugs can be life saving.”
Preventive care that includes annual visits to your veterinarian, feeding your cat a nutritionally balanced diet to maintain their weight, maintaining an easily accessible and clean litter box and providing your cat multiple sources of fresh water are also essential in keeping your cat healthy and will help curb any major behavioral or medical issues.