10 Subtle Signs You Have a Sick Cat.

Cats are notoriously sneaky.  Which is why when they’re sick they keep it hidden.  It’s up to you, the cat owner to decipher their subtle body language.  Here’s how to recognize if your cat is sick.

Traditional siamese and dilute calico rescue cat laying on antique bed with white linen sheets.


There’s a reason why the phrase is “sick as a dog” not  “sick as a cat”.  When a dog is sick he’ll do everything in his power to let any and all people within 50 km know he isn’t feeling tip top.  That dog will limp around and lick its wounds and cry and try to hump the telephone until he successfully dials 911.

A cat?

A cat would still have the strength to kill you 7.5 minutes after it has already died.

Because of that, anyone who owns a cat has to get reallyyyyy good at reading them.  You need to learn to read their body language because they let you know they’re sick in a much more subtle way than a dog.

Since my cat Cleo was diagnosed with Renal Disease I got a lot of experience observing a sick cat. Some days she felt good, some days she didn’t,  but she always just looked like … a cat.  Sitting, sleeping, staring.

When she was diagnosed I my weekly routine included giving her B12 shots and fluids. 

Read these posts if your cat has renal disease:

How to give your cat a B12 shot

How to give your cat subcutaneous fluids.

I did a lot of searching on the Internet for information on the body language of sick cats and had a really hard time finding much information.  There’s a lot of information on the body language of a cat when they’re about to launch off of the ground and eat your face by the way.   Lots.

Just not so much on when they feel sick. I wanted to know if I had a sick cat. Soooo …. I figured you might be interested in decoding the body language of a cat to tell if isn’t feeling well too. 

I’ve compiled a list of subtle signs that your cat might be sick or in pain.  

But first, a few things that let you know your cat is relaxed and happy.

Signs Your Cat is Feeling Pretty Darn Good

  • Laying long and stretched out on the ground is a sign they’re feeling pretty darn good and relaxed.
  • Eyes are bright and quick.
  • Whiskers are sticking straight out from their muzzle.
  • Their tail is up in the air as they walk around.

Line drawing of a Siamese cat.

Signs Your Cat is Sick or in Pain.

  • The tail is down, like they don’t have the energy to hold it up. The tail of happy, healthy cat is often standing straight up.
  • Lays with back hunched. Not rounded.  Hunched.
  • Tail twitching can coincide with pain.
  • No desire to chase or play.
  • Stays in one laying position and doesn’t move around.
  • If a cat is normally vocal, and stops greeting you when either one of you walks into a room that can be a sign the cat isn’t feeling well.
  • Whiskers drawn back and purring (purring can be a sign of sickness and pain NOT a content and happy cat. Purring while in pain is a type of self soothing for them.)

Line drawing depicting the whisker and ear placement of a happy cat and a possibly sick cat.

  • Fur that isn’t smooth and instead looks like it’s sticking up and separated means it’s possibly dehydrated and/or not grooming.
  • Check the breath.  Sick cats have badddd breath.  Cleo had this for years and one vet I took her to just said she was a cat.  Cats have bad breath.  This was the stupidest thing a vet has ever uttered to anyone.  Cats don’t have delicious smelling breath but it shouldn’t smell so strong it makes you turn your head.  This is a sign of severe dental disease and/or kidney failure.  They two go hand in hand oftentimes.  Sweet smelling breath can signal diabetes.
  • Third eyelid showing when they are awake.

Coloured drawing of cat eyes, showing the third eyelid that comes out from the inside corner of the eyes.

  • Eyes are constantly half closed. Even when they aren’t about to go to sleep.

There are other obvious signs of sickness, like not eating or drinking. Weight loss is another sign. If your cat hasn’t eaten for a couple of days bring your cat to a vet immediately because it can be life threatening.  Technically a cat can go without eating for over a week but not eating for 3 days can do serious irreversible damage to a cat’s organs. 

Also an EXTREMELY sick cat will hide.  This is a sad sign that it’s close to death.

People also think cats are just prone to throwing up but that’s not true. The odd hairball is fine and even throwing up once every couple of months or so is normal.  But if a cat is throwing up several times a month it’s a sign the cat has severe nausea.  Foamy white vomit is a sign of renal disease (kidney disease).

As far as the knowing whether a cat is thinking about chewing your face off – just assume that it is.


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10 Subtle Signs You Have a Sick Cat.


  1. Beth F says:

    Such an excellent post! Thank you.

    There is an old adage that states “If you put a [purring] cat and a sack of broken bones in the same room the bones will heal”.

    Btw – if flies start gathering at what is otherwise a generally well-kept litter box, that can indicate diabetes. Flies are attracted by the excess sugar being excreted in the urine.

    Also, excessive drinking is definitely a reason for a visit to the vet. There are many potential medical causes for that (diabetes, renal issues, etc). One of my cats drank copious amount of water trying to drench what the vet subsequently diagnosed as heartburn.

  2. Nora Lee says:

    Hi, Karen, I don’t have a cat right now but I know this will be helpful to many. By coincidence, there was a story on Quirks and Quarks, CBC radio, about recent research on signs that a cat is in pain and how much pain.


  3. Tina says:

    You said that one sign can be not wanting to play. My Stormy was not young but still ate well, loved his food but still lost weight, then he began to play a lot with the dogs and other cats. He got SO playful! I took him to the vet (he’d had a clean bill of health 2 months before but was losing weight so I worried about a worm or something) and 3 days later he was dead from a fast growing cancer around his intestine. Any change can be an indicator.

    Also, bad breath can be indicative of an ear infection or allergy.

  4. Deborah Burns says:

    Thank you Karen from my elderly cat Oliver Bear and me.

    I have been watching closely to make sure that he is able to take pleasure in things daily, that he eats and drink, plus enjoys his treats, but he has slowly been declining. Your list is very helpful, and your republishing of it is perfect timing for us, thank you.

    I remember reading about your beautiful Cleo and when you helped to end her pain, which was in turn was very painful for you. It is always heartbreaking, the only good thing is that they continue to live in our hearts and memories forever….

  5. Mary W says:

    Excellent post today – as always nut just fun to read and helpful BUT so helpful.

  6. Connie B says:

    Great post as always, Karen – thank you – I have two ragdolls that we just adore. I found that a water fountain encourages them to drink more water as well. I have one in my home office that they enjoy.

    • Karen says:

      My mother has a ragdoll and I bought her one of those fountains because her cat refused to drink from anything other than the running tap! She loves the fountain. ~ karen!

  7. Jay says:

    Ok so my cat is white and gray with a hint of black. He lost his white became gray and black then he vomited he was fine until he vomited then he had a few episodes and the following day a few more episodes I didn’t worry much becaise he was drinking water and moving spots huddled bit holding his body and head up. Then the following morning he wanted my attention and got hos normal colers back still a lol fluffy but getting hos body to normal wanted to be near me but not to close not to far then all of a sudden hid and layed to his side good news hes been drinking water all tho I didn’t see him my self but his cat box told me so I knpw I need to see the get but do I really need to worry BTW he does respond to me talking to him by wagging his tail

  8. Henry Killingsworth says:

    It would never have occurred to me that if a cat is sick, they won’t have any energy to keep their tail up. My cat has been acting kind of depressed in the past couple of days, and the only thing I can get him to do is eating a little bit of food. I should probably take him to a veterinarian before he gets worse.

    • Karen says:

      Really? That seems incredibly strange for someone who has linked that their website is a veterinary hospital. Alarming even! So the Florence Vet animal hospital in Kentucky doesn’t know the signs of a cat being sick?? That’s terrifying. I would say it sounds like the Florence Vet Animal hospital is a terrible place to take your sick cat. ~ karen

  9. I really appreciate how you mentioned that if your cat has no desire to chase or play, it could actually be a sign that they are sick or otherwise in pain. My husband and I are noticing that our kitten that once loved to play with our dog now spends all her time in her bed and doesn’t eat much of her food. We’ll have to take her to an animal hospital in the community so we can be sure that any potential illness or injury she has is treated as soon as possible.

  10. Aleshire Mueller says:

    It was really informative when you said that one of the signs that the cat is not feeling well is if they are laying around motionlessly and not interested in playing. My pet cat is not exactly the one to like to interact with me, but recently, I noticed that she is a lot less responsive than usual. She does not even try to stand up and move around. It might be best to take her to the vet right away. Thank you!

  11. Oana says:

    So sad when fur babies are sick! I don’t have a cat at the moment because I have crazy possessive killer yorkies (but they’re more cuddly and don’t leave my house covered in fluff—although they do get hair balls, and one likes to scoff at me now and again, so KIND of like cats.) And I did have a number of cats growing up so hopefully this advice isn’t cool implement disregarded: have you tried feeding them raw food? If you already do this and still have all the issues, nevermind. But if you don’t, please look into it ASAP! The bad breath thing was happening to my pups and all the vets said that she just dog breath-um, no, that’s weaponized vapor. Either it’s trying to kill me or it’s a sign something is dying. And one of them started losing so much fur it was going bald. The more I researched the more things led to diet. Even high quality kibble and canned dog/cat food is absolute Crap. I switched to raw food and within a few weeks the fur stopped falling out, and their teeth go SO CLEAN. they are still in the detox period but everyone I know whose done this says the bad breath went away within 6 months and took thyroid issues, heart problems, and random other organ problems along with it. Plus it was he easiest switch ever. I mean it makes sense too-how could feeding them species appropriate food not improve their health. You can literally buy meat at the store and give them portions, or there are a few premade brands. We use both Primal raw patties and give the dogs pieces of raw chicken, beef, fish,etc. bones and all. Would love to know if you try it and if your cat gets better!

    • Karen says:

      Hi Oana! No, I’m afraid raw food wouldn’t cure renal disease. I’ve discussed raw food with my vet and he doesn’t recommend it for my cat. ~ karen!

  12. Stephbo says:

    I’ve had two cats with renal problems, and I’ve never heard of the foamy white vomit being a sign. Good to know. My vet always opens their mouths wide to get a good sniff to test for problems. Not only do I trust him implicitly with their lives, I’d trust him with mine as well.

  13. Caroline says:

    Referring to what Jacqui said about the placement of the water bowl; my cat had her bowl and the dog had his. She ALWAYS drank from the dog’s bowl…dominance? Hoarding? Greed? Jealousy? Who can say. After Buddy died we removed all his stuff. Ivy’s water bowl remained. No longer 2 bowls of water. I put Buddy’s water back….she hardly ever drinks from her bowl. Amazing thing, that. Strange, too.

  14. Andrea says:

    My cat just about ripped my face off while I was examining her after reading each symptom.

  15. Carol says:

    This is such a great post Karen. Cats are fully dependant on their humans to pay attention to this. My eldest had many of these signs when he was diagnosed with diabetes at age 12 and near death. I hadn’t acted soon enough to the signs. I opted to treat him (most don’t) and 6 months later he fully recovered physically and remained healthy and happy on 2 insulin needles a day for the next 3.5 yrs. when one day I returned from a trip and noticed he was breathing heavy and took him immediately to an emerg clinic. 2 weeks later he passed away. He had fluid in his chest cavity, heart related, and nothing could be done. We did everything to keep him comfortable at home but he deteriorated rapidly. Less than 2 months earlier he had passed his annual checkup with flying colours. It all happened so fast, and was unrelated to diabetes. So here is one more sign to be aware of – open mouth breathing, rapid or heavy breathing (pronounced chest heaving) is usually a sign of a serious condition, or pain. BF had not even noticed the change in breathing but I did. I”m so sorry to hear about Cleo’s condition, she is one lucky girl to have you. ~ C

  16. Great post. Thanks for doing this round up of signs and symptoms Karen.

  17. Agnes says:

    Karen thank you for this! Your tips will be a great help. My cat is 14, has FIV, and had a lot of teeth removed last year. I know we have to keep a close eye on him. Now he is getting elderly my vet says we should make a routine of weighing him, as sudden weight loss can be an indicator of trouble. That also works for chickens!

  18. Renee Ryz says:

    Good info about the whiskers. I have had a registered feral colony for over 6 years, and it is sad when one does not return, or sadly I found one that had been hit & I buried her. It is a little easier because I know I have given them a great life with food, warm spots to sleep & a scritch to those couple that are inclined to enjoy that. I had 13 but now only 5 are left.
    My 4 inside have various health issues as they are getting older – my eldest will be 13. I look at them and my heart hurts just knowing I will have to deal with it 4 times. I had such a tough time with my dog, that I couldn’t even get another pooch. But I wouldn’t trade a moment though I love them so much.

  19. Another Jody says:

    Knowing there is a fatal disease but doing everything you can to give them a good/great quality life is both heart rendering and peaceful all at the same time. I know our dog’s cancer will return but for now we have fun and enjoy life chasing squirrels and waiting for the mail lady with the doggie treats.

  20. Tew says:

    As usual, a good informative post on necessary info for cat owners.

    Thank you for posting.

  21. Gillian Merrifield says:

    I have observed all the signs that you have described & thanks to your article about subcutaneous fluids, I took my 20..going on 21.. year old cat to the vet to see if she needed hydration besides the copious amounts of water that she was drinking! After a week of lactated ringers solution injected subcutaneously daily, I can see a huge difference already.

    I also wonder if anybody has experience with cannabid oil (CBD)? I have been giving my cat a few drops twice a day as she has seizures & I think it has been helping her. Although she still gets seizures they are not as bad as they once were.

    • Karen says:

      That makes me very happy Gillian. I’m really, really glad to hear my post helped someone. And some cat. :) ~ karen!

  22. Jody says:

    Check the litterbox too. No poo or liquid poo is another sign things aren’t working properly. I had a wonderful cat only vet, his recommendation keep your cat slightly plump so if they get sick and stop eating then won’t get dangerously thin.

  23. Lainey says:

    Dogs hide their pain too – you were describing men, not dogs ;)

  24. Quentin says:

    Thanks for the helpful and informative article. I hope Cleo is feeling better. I have a friend who loves her cat to death. I will definitely share this article with her.

  25. Alena says:

    Your assessment of dogs is completely wrong. Having lived with the dogs for more than half of my life (most of time I had multiple dogs) I feel entitled to say that.

    • Karen says:

      LOL. Well it’s not really an assessment so much as fact. Dogs will let it show that they are sick. Cats won’t. They hide it. As do chickens. It’s bred into them to hide it for survival. ~ karen!

      • Lizzie says:

        Dogs have the same desire to hide symptoms. As pack animals, they don’t want to show signs of weakness. I believe that cats are sneakier at it (they pretty much always beat dogs in that category) but it is a natural response for dogs as well. Google it! Our dog hid pneumonia from us for months!

    • ellen says:

      Depends on the dog, I think. My feral dog would hide any sign of weakness, but my Dane came to me with every problem.

  26. Laura Kanai says:

    Ha! “Just assume that it is.” My husband would heartily agree😏

  27. Ev Wilcox says:

    Keeping a good thought, Karen. I have two outdoor cats (my allergies and my son’s preclude indoor cats), and they are well loved. They love us back, too. Their special cat house was designed for two access holes with a baffle to lessen drafts, and they have a removable see-thru top for easy access to the inside food bowl. There is an inside automatic warming mat for when it gets below 35F, and their water bowl works the same way so they always have water. Dehydration is a killer in northeast Ohio! Their house is on a fenced in deck, so no ILLEGAL running dogs (stupid owners!) can get to them. Can’t wait till the weather breaks (is it ever going to?) so we can sit on the deck and visit. They always are right there to say hi and get pets when we hook our dog out for potty breaks. And they will be 10 years old this summer, which is getting up there for outside cats. I know what is coming and try to prepare. We love our critters, including the cardinals and squirrels we feed. Our box turtles (in house) are doing well after many years. They were rescues, obtained from a pet shop in California which seemed content to let their ill animals waste away, but that is another story. Anyway, us animal caretakers are members of a huge club, and aren’t we lucky, even when we cry! You are a good critter mama, Karen. We are with you in spirit, always.

  28. Sabina says:

    Cleo has a wonderful Mama, enjoy each day ❤️

  29. Jacquie says:

    My cat had kidney failure but still lived to be 16 years old. I recently read an article stating that cats drink less water if their water bowl is next to their food bowl, as in most of the twin bowl set ups. I wonder if water was kept away from the food, kidney failure would be less of a problem; maybe cats just don’t drink enough?

    • Katie says:

      Many vets are now suggesting that you feed wet food – dry kibble-type doesn’t have enough moisture – most (wild) cats get enough water from their food…We have almost always had food and water separate and still had one with kidney disease, and he loved to drink from the tap :) It was when he could no longer drink from that tap “correctly” (ie: the way he had for the first 17.9 years of his life) that we knew it was time. It is one of the hardest things we have ever done to euthanize our cats – I depended/depend on my sister (a vet-tech) to walk me through the decision-making process.

      Quality of life is the most important for me and our family. Karen, thank you for making Cleo’s life a good one. Peace

  30. Marna says:

    Sad! I have had close to 10 cats in total (now have a true pet, that only stays inside, per every vet I have been to in 45 years, say not to let them outside, so that’s what I do after I lost my cats to an evil person who sold them to a university for science lab, too late to save them!) I think all but one cat died of some sort of kidney disease. I have had a zoo full of different pets, and it is sad for any of them, to watch them knowing that it could be any time. I hate that, wish they could live as long as me. Now that I am old, there won’t be any more new additions, the pets I have now are all about 3-4 years old and my sons don’t want them. I hate not having a new pet of the same type of species when one goes (not as a replacement, never that, I just like a variety), I just love animals so much. I feel your pain! My vet said he wishes most of his pet owners did half the things I do for my pets, I guess I really care. I know you do too by the way you talk about them. All we can do is love them and try to figure it out as you have done. Learning about the signs of health and illness is a blessing, and a sure way to make their life a good one til the end. Take care!

  31. Thandi says:

    Birds are the same (with the rending of faces too). I have to watch Birdbird really closely and she gets daily poo examinations (charming), because often that’s the only sign you’ll get that something is wrong. We’re waiting endlessly for blood tests right now to find out if she has a really REALLY bad disease. She seems fine (doing her bird purrs when she’s happy, trying to tear my husband’s face off just because she can, demanding snacks in the kitchen, being a diva, crapping on everything I love), but animals that are usually something else’s meal are very good at hiding any sign of disease so that they don’t get picked off and eaten for being the weakest member of the flock. Maybe we should stop referring to her as the world’s tiniest chicken sandwich…

    • Arlene Stopps says:

      I have a bird …a blue fronted Amazon. Rod doesn’t feel well…but my vet says there is nothing they can do to help him…she doesn’t “do” birds.
      How do you tell your bird isn’t well?

      • Sally says:

        Umm – perhaps search out a vet who does ‘do’ birds?…

      • Kristina says:

        Find a vet that treats birds. Our regular vet recommended our bird vet, so start there. A lot of times, the only way they can detect illness is by testing the blood and feces. My Green Cheek Conure, The Professor, goes in once per year for a whole range of tests, pedicure, and beak trimming.

  32. Elaine says:

    I’m very sorry to read that you are going through this, Karen. I still dream about my last cat and it’s been years he’s been gone (heart failure). I hope Cleo is with you a good while yet! This is the only bad part of owning a pet.

  33. I’ve never lived with a cat, but except for the third eye part and tail twitching, that’s exactly how I act when I’m sick!

  34. Susan says:

    I hope you have a good long time with Cleo yet. We had a beloved cat with advanced kidney disease and after the diagnosis kept him going for nearly three years with IV fluids and a homemade kidney diet (he hated the canned stuff). And he used to feel so much better after the IV fluids. For the last 18 months he was also diabetic and on insulin. He was great about all the treatments, totally relaxed about the fluids and shots and blood sugar testing. I think they can tell that we’re helping them.

  35. Suzanne Herbruck says:

    Been there. It’s heart rending. People say you know when it’s time…
    Bull $@&. You actually do but, how do you deal with that? Not well.
    It’s the eyes. You will actually know, it’s accepting that this is where you are, that sends you screaming out in the street.

    You are in my heart.

    • Karen says:

      Thanks Suzanne! Cleo is doing perfectly fine right now. (for a cat with a fatal disease) She’s eating and drinking and meowing and stretching. All the things I love to see her do. Next week? It could be totally different. But for now … we’re great. :) ~ karen!

    • Tina says:

      It’s heart wrenching. I’m sorry you’ve been through this and I’m going to hate it when my time comes around again. And no matter how long you’ve anticipated this, no matter how sick they may be, it never gets any easier.

      And Karen, I’m sorry you know this. I’m sorry your cat is sick.

    • Annie says:

      Yes. So, yes.

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