Cats are fabulous creatures and usually lead long and healthy lives. Though sturdy little beasts, however, they are still prone to certain syndromes and diseases. Luckily, felines respond well to medical intervention if we can figure out the root cause of what’s bugging them and how best to treat it.
A typical week full of cat appointments might look something like this:
- Leo, 5-year-old DSH, vomiting for 2 days.
- Oscar, 7-year-old DSH, check runny eyes.
- Annabelle, 2-year-old Persian, not using the litter box for 1 month.
- BamBam, 5-year-old DSH, scratching himself, just like last year.
- Pumpkin, 4-year-old DLH, sneeze/cough.
- Juno, 14-year-old DSH, possibly losing weight and drinking more water.
Young. Old. Healthy. Debilitated. Vomiting is not picky when it wants to bother a kitty.
Everyone is familiar with that full-body undulation giving way to a projectile spewing of recycled cat food in various stages of digestion. Cats often pick your dinnertime or when guests arrive to grace the carpet or your favorite piece of upholstery with vomitus, often accompanied by a war-cry vocalization. Then, some might go back to the food bowl and see if there’s more to eat.
While occasional vomit deposits are normal for many cats, vomiting is a symptom of many feline diseases. The differential list (causes) for vomiting is longer than this page.
Cats like to eat or chew on stupid stuff, often causing an intestinal blockage. Swallowing foreign objects that lodge in the GI tract is a common cause for vomiting. Cat toys, a needle and thread, 35 pieces of self-adhesive strips from envelopes, chipmunk heads, Christmas decorations – I never know what I’ll find when I cut into that intestine.
When you bring your kitty into the vet because they’ve been vomiting for a week to a month and you think there’s a simple answer, there’s not. In 1 week alone, I saw cats vomiting from inflammatory GI disease, kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, constipation, eating a rodent, eating house plants and a few cases still undiagnosed.
Diagnostics for vomiting include radiographs and blood work, advanced imaging, diet trials and possibly GI biopsies, to name a few. Treatment depends on the cause. Although there are palliative medications to perhaps make a vomiting kitty feel better, don’t take the Band-Aid approach if your cat continues to vomit. We need to find out why.
Veterinary pearl of wisdom: Although hairballs are considered a cause of vomiting in the cat, a normal cat develops hairballs and passes them without excessive vomiting. A cat vomiting frequently, even if that cat appears healthy, has an underlying condition. Have it checked out.
2. Lower Urinary Tract Problems
Many cats are affected by lower urinary tract disease, sometimes referred to as cystitis. If cats are mildly affected, they exhibit occasional straining to urinate in the litter box or they stop using the box.
The urine is often blood-tinged (hematuria), and the cat is passing small amounts of urine frequently (stranguria). In the worst case, the cat cannot pass urine (urinary blockage), which is an extreme medical emergency. This is a multi-factorial disease, meaning diet, dehydration, viral and bacterial infections, genetic predisposition, metabolism, stress and more may play a role.
Basic diagnostics include blood work and urinalysis, a urine culture, radiographs and sometimes ultrasound. Treatment may include dietary changes, pain and anti-spasmodic medications and antibiotics. A kitty with a urinary blockage must be unobstructed and catheterized. Bladder stones may have to be removed surgically.
Veterinary pearl of wisdom: Change to an all-canned or mostly canned diet if your kitty has experienced any symptoms of lower urinary tract disease. Offer multiple sources of clean, fresh water. Keeping your cat as hydrated as possible may prevent recurrence of problems.
3. Respiratory Diseases
Cats are frequently plagued by diseases that cause anything from a mild sneeze to respiratory distress. Symptoms include runny nose and sneezing, tearing eyes, ocular discharge, conjunctivitis, cough, fever or difficulty breathing.
Upper respiratory disease is often caused by viruses. Bacterial infections can come secondarily. Theses infections can be mild and self-limiting, chronic or sporadic, or serious. Kittens, geriatric and immunocompromised kitties are at greater risk of developing serious respiratory infections.
Feline asthma (also known as bronchitis or allergic bronchitis) is another common respiratory disease. Asthmatic cats can cough, wheeze, gag, stretch their necks out as if to gasp or draw in a breath and/or exhibit true respiratory distress. Cats experiencing a severe asthmatic attack require emergency intervention, medications and an oxygen cage.
Treatment for respiratory disease can include antibiotics, antivirals, steroids, bronchodilators, inhalers, decongestants and eye medications.
Veterinary pearl of wisdom: Never ignore difficult breathing in a cat. Early intervention can truly be life-saving. Your veterinarian will have to differentiate upper airway disease from lower airway disease, rule out a heart condition and treat appropriately.
4. Dermatologic Disease
Cats are very prone to allergies that cause itchy skin, particularly flea allergic dermatitis.
Indoor cats can get fleas. Most veterinary dermatologists believe flea allergy is behind a great deal of cat scratching until proven otherwise. Cats can also be allergic to inside and outside environmental allergens and be food allergic. When a cat is itchy, they will over-groom, bite, scratch and give themselves serious skin lesions.
There are many other dermatologic diseases in cats including parasitic, neoplastic, bacterial, fungal, autoimmune and inflammatory.
Diagnosis starts with a good history from the cat’s human and a thorough exam. If fleas are found or suspected, for example, treat these first. Skin scrapes, fungal culture for ringworm, food elimination diet trials and possible biopsy are all diagnostic tools in getting to the heart of the itch.
Treatment depends on the diagnosis. This can include a change in diet, steroids, non-steroidal drugs, antibiotics and anti-parasitics.
Veterinary pearl of wisdom: If a cat starts scratching and incurring lesions, this itch will not stop until you discover the cause and treat it. Waiting means worse trauma to the skin, a longer recovery time, more medications and bigger vet bills.
Here are more signs to watch out for if you think your cat is ill:
5. Kidney Failure
Many house cats develop kidney disease and failure, particularly as they age. Kidney disease is more prevalent in our felines than in our other pets.
The most common cause of kidney disease and failure in cats is age. Not every older cat has kidney disease, however, and younger cats can be affected. Exposure to toxins that damage the kidneys, infections, dehydration, poor diet and stress on the body caused by other illnesses can all affect the kidneys. Congenital kidney disease and cancer also occur.
Advances in veterinary care, particularly how we care for our aging population of felines, have made kidney disease much more rewarding to treat. Diagnosis is largely through blood work. A full workup including radiographs and/or ultrasound, culture of the urine and blood pressure monitoring.
Modifications in diet, multiple medications and additional sources of hydration help the kitty in kidney failure.
Veterinary pearl of wisdom: Don’t ignore subtle weight loss, mild lack of appetite or increased thirst in your kitty. Kidney disease can behave like a cat burglar, sneaking up on your cat, so don’t disregard the early warning signs.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was last reviewed Aug. 30, 2017.