Is your cat sick? Don't overlook these subtle clues.
We love our cats for their mysterious ways -- until that mystery hides serious health problems.
It's a lesson that Dawn Hoffmann learned the hard way. One minute, everything in her two-cat household seemed perfectly normal. The next, she realized her 7-year-old black and white cat, Champ, seemed a little too quiet. Then he threw up. She decided to keep a close eye on him until the next day, but it soon became apparent that he had lost weight, wouldn't eat and just wanted to hide. She rushed him to the veterinarian, where lab tests revealed bad news.
"They said he was jaundiced, that his liver wasn't functioning correctly," Hoffmann said. "He was dehydrated, and he'd lost a lot of weight since his last visit to the vet."
The diagnosis was something she'd never heard of before: hepatic lipidosis. Also known as "fatty liver disease," it strikes cats when they stop eating for several days or more. As the body tries to metabolize its stored fat for energy, fat cells become lodged in the liver instead. Liver inflammation and failure result, and many cats die.
The exact cause of hepatic lipidosis isn't clear. Sometimes there's an underlying condition, such as cancer or heart disease, which can lead to the loss of appetite that results in the disease, but often, no cause is ever identified.
The fact is, anything that stops a cat from eating, even a mild digestive upset, can end up triggering hepatic lipidosis. And, because the disease causes nausea and vomiting, affected cats continue not to eat -- even though eating is the only thing that can reverse the disease. Untreated, almost all cats with hepatic lipidosis will die.
Champ ended up being hospitalized for two days before being sent home with a bag full of medications, along with instructions for his owner to feed him with a syringe every two hours to prevent his condition from getting worse.
Unfortunately, he didn't respond to home care, and has so far been hospitalized three times. He's now being fed through a stomach tube that had to be surgically implanted, and his vet bill is in the four-figure range and climbing.
And despite all the effort and expense, Champ's still not out of the woods, although his veterinarian expects him to recover.
Hoffmann says that the only thing worse than seeing her cat suffer from hepatic lipidosis is facing her feelings of guilt for not noticing his condition sooner. The vet told her that Champ had probably not eaten for as long as two weeks by the time she brought him in.
"How could I have missed it?" she wondered. "He sleeps on my bed. I don't ignore him. I couldn't understand how this could have happened without my seeing it."
Dr. Vicki Thayer, a board certified feline specialist and president-elect of the Winn Feline Foundation, a non-profit organization that is one of the leading funders of veterinary research into cat health, said such feelings are common, but owners like Hoffmann who miss signs of serious illness in their cats shouldn't feel guilty.
"Cats are masters at disguising illness," she said. "This ability kept them from appearing vulnerable to other predators in the wild."
Cat owners, she cautions, must try to see through pets' attempts to hide illness or injury, and stay vigilant for "subtle signs of sickness."
Many vets jokingly say that the first symptom cat owners can spot is something they've dubbed "ADR": Ain't doin' right.
It's an easy-to-miss and hard-to-measure lack of interest, energy and appetite -- and often the only early warning sign that cat owners will get of impending heart or kidney disease, cancer, a urinary tract infection, as well as the liver disease that struck Champ.
"In our busy lifestyles, it can happen to even the best of us where we don't pick up the clues our cats are trying to tell us," Thayer said.
And, however subtle they are, there are plenty of clues if you know what to look for:
Eyes and facial expressions. "Cats are very alert creatures, and their eyes are bright and they are always aware of their environment," Thayer said. In contrast, cats that are becoming ill may have a dull look to their eyes, or an expression that resembles a frown on their faces.
Food and water consumption. If you notice a cat eating or drinking more or less than usual, it's time to pay attention. One of the reasons Hoffmann missed Champ's lack of appetite is that she leaves food for her cats in their bowls at all times, instead of feeding them only at meal times. It wasn't obvious that he'd stopped eating. "Owners should monitor food and water intake," Thayer pointed out. "Measuring out food amounts daily and seeing how much the amount is eaten over a 24 hour time period can be useful."
Weight changes. Keep an eye on your cat's weight. Hepatic lipidosis is particularly dangerous to obese cats, but even if you're glad to see an overweight kitty shed a few ounces it's still cause for concern if it's the result of an unexplained loss of appetite.
Litter box patrol. Pay attention to the litter box, and make sure your cat isn't urinating or defecating more or less frequently than usual. A change in either direction can signify illness.
Behavior changes. The first thing that got Hoffmann's attention was when Champ started sleeping in a hiding place instead of out in the open or on her bed or lap. Thayer said that a change in where and how the cat sleeps is a red flag, as is a decline in activity levels or a failure to keep himself groomed. And while some cats hide, like Champ, others become clingy and follow their owners from room to room.
Other signs to notice include dried or wet spots of kitty vomit around the house, a cat who is eating more slowly than usual and one who backs away from the food bowl without eating anything. Some sick cats may also paw at the bowl as if they wanted to bury the food.
"I've always told clients that if they are concerned about any behavior or sign or change, check with their veterinarian," Thayer said. "We do not like to see cats go any length of time without eating or eating less than normal."
It's a mistake that Hoffmann says she'll never make again, not with Champ or her other cat, Charger. "I'll be watching my cats much more closely now," she said. "In fact, I'm probably being too obsessive at the moment, watching every little thing Charger does."
She also cautions cat owners against blaming behavior problems for what could be medical ones. "It's so easy to say that the cat's not sleeping with me because he's mad that I worked too many hours that day, or because I was cooking dinner and didn't pay attention to him," she said. "Because now I know that something a lot more serious might be going on."