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.
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 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.
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.)
- 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.
- 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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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.
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!
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.
Yes. So, yes.
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.
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!
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.
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...
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?
Umm - perhaps search out a vet who does 'do' birds?...
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.
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!
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?
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
Cleo has a wonderful Mama, enjoy each day ❤️
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.
Ha! “Just assume that it is.” My husband would heartily agree😏
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.
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!
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!
Depends on the dog, I think. My feral dog would hide any sign of weakness, but my Dane came to me with every problem.
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.
Dogs hide their pain too - you were describing men, not dogs ;)
LOL!!! Absolutely true about sick men!
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.
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.
That makes me very happy Gillian. I'm really, really glad to hear my post helped someone. And some cat. :) ~ karen!
As usual, a good informative post on necessary info for cat owners.
Thank you for posting.
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.
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.
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!
Great post. Thanks for doing this round up of signs and symptoms Karen.