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If you feel like something is wrong — say, your stomach or your leg is hurting — you can typically explain to others what’s going on. Maybe you tell a doctor what your symptoms are and what your pain level is, while adding other information to aid the practitioner’s understanding.
But cats can’t tell us how they’re feeling.
Whatever their ailment, what are some signs that might help us understand our feline friends better and to know if something is wrong? Read on to learn what to look for when something is wrong with your cat — and what to do about it.
Not only do our feline friends communicate differently than us humans, but “cats are both predator and prey, and so they do a lot of hiding their injuries in their illness behaviors,” says M. Leanne Lilly, a clinical assistant professor at the Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center.
Compared to dogs, cats also tend to be more independent and misunderstood by caretakers. Jason Tarricone, a board-certified small animal surgeon, says he thinks “it’s easier for people to notice that there’s something wrong with their dog than their cat.”
Compounding the problem, we seem to take dogs to the veterinarian more in general. According to a 2020 study published in the journal Animals, about 90 percent of dog owners have taken their canines to the veterinarian — compared to just 40 percent of cat owners.
(Credit: Shutterstock/Roman Chekhovskoi)
Tarricone has three cats. For some reason, one of his cats, Addy, tends to vomit about once a week. After doing many tests and assessments, Tarricone says this is simply normal for Addy. Simply put, something that might seem abnormal isn’t necessarily abnormal.
“It can really [vary] from cat to cat,” he says, adding that it’s important to know what is typical for your cat personally. “If you are petting your cat the way that you normally would, and it’s otherwise a nice cat, and then all of a sudden it hisses at you — that very well could be evidence of pain.”
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Typically, Tarricone says, a cat isn’t going to hiss unless they’re taunted by another cat, scared or uncomfortable. And most cats purr when they are content — but not always.
Bruce Kornreich, the director of the Cornell Feline Health Center says in some cases they “may purr when they’re experiencing discomfort.” While not proven, he says, some studies even propose purring might be associated with bone healing.
Either way, monitoring whether your cat’s becoming more or less vocal over time can be a helpful tool.
Just as you know what is normal for yourself, which may differ from your sibling or friend, understanding your cat is key. There are some signs that might be easier to pinpoint if something is wrong, though.
For example, a cat that is eliminating outside of the litter box could indicate stress or another ongoing health issue and can warrant an evaluation.
If your furry friend isn’t moving around or playing as much, or is more lethargic than normal, these might also be signs that something is amiss. Likewise, if your cat doesn’t normally hide but is suddenly hiding often, keep a closer eye on them.
Perhaps their appetite or weight suddenly increases or decreases drastically, they’re urinating more often or they’re grooming more or less than usual. Kornreich says all these changes could prompt you to obtain an evaluation.
Kornreich also explains that a normal respiratory rate for cats is around 35 beats per minute (BPM). This is different from, say, an adult human’s respiratory rate, which is typically between 12 and 20 BPM.
If you calculate your cat’s respiratory rate — by counting the rise and fall of their chest over one minute while they’re sleeping or still — and it’s elevated, this can also signal an abnormality.
Their eyes can give us insight too. Specifically, the little membrane, or third eyelid, that sits on the inside corner of the cat’s eye.
“It’s usually not visible, but when they get sick, oftentimes it will come up and you’ll start to see that line come over the inside corner of their eyes,” Lilly says. “Elevation of the third eyelid can be a sign of illness.”
The problem, Tarricone says, is most people won’t pick up on some of the subtle signs and variations from normal — which is why yearly visits to the veterinarian are important. Like humans, “there are some things that can be discovered during a routine exam, even if the cat is not showing outward signs of disease that would want early intervention,” Kornreich says.
Also, making sure your cat is eating a well-balanced diet with proper nutrients can help their overall health. “You can know that your food is nutritionally complete and balanced by looking for what’s called the American Association of Feed Control Officials, AAFCO, label seal of approval on the packaging,” Kornreich explains.
Tarricone says to stay away from home-cooked meals or vegetarian diets, which can lack essential nutrients. “People who don’t realize that, can actually do significant harm to their cats,” he says, adding that he’s seen cats consequently become paralyzed, along with other issues in relation to these diets.
Keeping your cat inside can also help increase longevity, Kornreich says: “We know that cats that are kept indoors are less likely to suffer injuries, to get infectious diseases, to be preyed upon or to be hit by vehicles.”
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In terms of deciphering your cat’s pain level, there’s a science-backed grimace scale for cats that can be downloaded and used by cat owners, Lilly says. While the application known as the Feline Grimace Scale isn’t diagnostic, it can act as a guide.
Admittedly, understanding if your feline friend is hurt or sick can be a complex task. But according to some experts, certain conditions are more common in different breeds — so becoming educated on the type of cat you have and what to look out for can be beneficial too.
At the end of the day, is something wrong with your cat? Should you take your furry friend for an evaluation?
Lilly says, “if you are concerned enough to ask a friend or look on Google, you’re concerned enough to take your cat [to a veterinarian].” Especially when you consider that your furry companion can’t tell you just how they’re feeling.
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