A Cat Clinic

Is My Cat Sick? When is it an emergency? Part I

Posted on September 29, 2017 by Dr. Dale Rubenstein.

Natural disasters have been happening all around the world recently.  We wrote about preparing your cat for disaster in a recent post.  But what about plain old emergencies with your cat?  “Is my cat sick?” is a question we get all the time.  When should you take action?  What would make you get out that carrier, interrupt your schedule, and seek veterinary care?

We know “When is it an emergency?” is not always an easy call. In fact, there’s so much that goes into the answer that we’ve divided this subject into two parts.  We know just the thought of putting Tiger in his carrier and driving him to a veterinary office is not like asking Fido the dog, who can’t think of anything better than a ride in the car. So, when should you watch and wait, and when should you come in? How do you answer the question, “is my cat sick?”

Most common signs your cat may be sick

The two most common indicators of problems in cats are lethargy and decreased appetite.  Lethargy means your cat is sleeping more, has low energy, or is acting different.  If your cat has a decreased appetite, it might be just eating less or not eating at all. Drinking helps and is important, but doesn’t replace eating.

What questions will the vet ask?

When we’re trying to figure out what is wrong with a cat, the first questions we ask are, “Is Fluffy eating, urinating and defecating normally?  Any vomiting?” I know even this bit of information is not always straightforward in a multi-cat household, but it is a start. Can you separate your cats so we can pinpoint some information?  If you think Fluffy is acting a bit off, separating her from the other cats will allow you to see what she is actually eating and eliminating, or if she’s actually the one who’s been vomiting.

The second and somewhat more subjective question is whether Tiger is acting differently. If he usually greets you at the door or sleeps with you and isn’t doing those things, if he normally sleeps in the living room and is now spending his days in the basement – unless there is a very specific reason (house guests, home remodel or noisy repairs with strangers in and out, even road construction nearby), this is not normal.

Why DO cat owners seek veterinary care?

A recent survey by Merck-Unfenced Pet Owner Paths and Kynetec asked 761 cat owners questions about when they would consult or take their cat to a veterinarian, rather than “watch and wait”.  Seeking veterinary care included both the cat’s regular veterinarian and an emergency facility.  “Watch and wait” included talking to someone other than a veterinarian, or searching online for advice. The scenarios they presented to the cat owners were: skin lesions or scratching; sneezeing or coughing; a “gut feeling that something is wrong”; vomiting or diarrhea; decreased activity/lethargy; change in appetite; and limping.

In the survey, the #1 reason people brought their cats to the vet was for limping; the least often were for vomiting more than twice in 24 hours or gut feeling something is wrong. Go back to the questions above: Has Tiger been limping for a day, but is otherwise acting and eating normally? Did Fluffy vomit twice but is now eating fine, normal eliminations and acting perfectly normally? Again, if appetite/eliminations and attitude are back to normal, watching is reasonable. But, if your cat is less active and sleeping more, eating less (or more) and particularly if you have a gut feeling that something is wrong, please don’t wait.

You know your cat better than anyone, and if your intuition says something is wrong, many more times than not, it may be something serious. It is much better to get your cat checked than to research and possibly wait too long.  And anytime signs persist for more than a few days, you need to have your cat examined.

What concerns me about the survey is that cat owners routinely wait to seek veterinary care. Of course, it’s never wrong to seek care, but I do understand that because of the stress of the carrier and car ride, plus the cost, waiting often seems like a reasonable option.  Certainly in the modern world, we all look things up on line. But, the amount of internet misinformation regarding cat care is somewhat staggering, so you have to be careful. Sites we do recommend are:

So is my cat sick?

If the answer to the question “Is my cat sick?” is “yes”, or even “I’m still not sure”, you should get your cat checked.  For cats in Montgomery County – Germantown, Boyds, Gaithersburg, Rockville, Clarksburg and other surrounding areas — please call us during normal hours.  Earlier in the day is always better. That way we can get test results and start treatment sooner. If your cat is an established patient, we will get you in that day, unless in the doctor’s judgement it is better for you to take your cat to a 24-hour emergency hospital.  If you notice problems enough to worry you outside our normal hours (nights/weekends/holidays), we urge you to seek care at one of the local 24-hour emergency facilities.

Fluffy and Tiger won’t say thank you at the time you make the decision to take them for veterinary care, but you may literally be saving their life!