How Do You Know If Your Cat Is Trying To Tell You Something Is Wrong?

Changes in Behavior

Cats are creatures of habit, so any marked changes in behavior could potentially indicate an underlying illness. Some common behavioral changes to watch out for include:

Lethargy or decreased activity level – Healthy cats are typically very active and playful, so noticing a lack of interest in playtime or your cat sleeping much more than usual could signal a problem 1.

Hiding – If your normally social kitty starts hiding away under beds or in closets, it likely means they are not feeling well 1.

Decreased appetite – A disinterest in food, especially a cat’s favorite treats or meals, is a major red flag. Make sure your cat is eating and drinking normally.

Decreased grooming – Cats are fastidious groomers by nature. A lack of interest in grooming could indicate illness, pain, or distress 1.

Changes in litter box habits – Urinary issues, both medical and behavioral, are common in cats. Soiling outside of the litter box, straining to urinate, or increased frequency can indicate a problem.

Increased aggression or irritability – While some grouchiness can happen with age, a marked increase in aggressive behavior like biting, scratching, or swatting could suggest pain or illness.

Increased clinginess – A suddenly clingy cat that demands more attention could be distressed or unwell.

Changes in Appearance

There are several changes in your cat’s appearance that can signal an underlying illness. Matted fur or a dull, fluffy coat can indicate your cat is not grooming properly due to pain or illness. Significant weight loss or weight gain can also be a red flag, especially if appetite changes accompany it. Cloudy eyes, nasal or eye discharge, skin conditions, and bad breath are other symptoms to watch out for.

Cats are meticulous groomers, so matted, unkempt fur is a clear sign something is wrong. Matted fur occurs when loose undercoat gets tangled and is not groomed out. Your cat may stop grooming due to arthritis pain, dental issues, skin conditions, or other illness. A dull, flaky coat can also signal poor health. Normal grooming distributes skin oils to keep the coat shiny, so dull fur points to inadequate grooming. Get acquainted with your cat’s normal coat to easily identify any unhealthy changes.

Sudden weight loss in cats can result from hyperthyroidism, cancer, diabetes, dental disease, or gastrointestinal issues. Rapid weight gain can indicate hypothyroidism, Cushing’s disease, or a liver disorder. Track your cat’s weight regularly to catch meaningful gains or losses. Combine weight changes with other symptoms like appetite or activity level changes to determine if your cat requires veterinary attention.

Cloudy eyes signal inflammation or corneal injury. Eye discharge of any kind requires evaluation, especially if thick, green, or yellow. These can indicate feline herpesvirus, conjunctivitis, or other eye infection. Nasal discharge may point to an upper respiratory infection. Bad breath warrants dental examination, as painful gum disease prevents cats from grooming properly.

Skin conditions like patchy hair loss, scabs, or itching can make grooming uncomfortable. Underlying allergies, parasites, fungal or bacterial infections require veterinary diagnosis and treatment. Observe your cat’s skin and coat daily to detect problems early.

Cats hide illness well, so noticing changes in appearance requires vigilance. Contact your veterinarian promptly if you observe any of these signs to get your cat feeling better as soon as possible.


Cats have a wide range of vocalizations that convey different meanings. Understanding what your cat is trying to “say” with their sounds can provide insight into their health and emotional state.

Meowing is one of the most common cat vocalizations. Frequent meowing or meowing that has changed pitch or intensity can indicate distress, pain, or an urgent need from your cat. For example, a low-pitched or drawn out meow can signal pain or discomfort. An incessant meowing can mean your cat is stressed or anxious. [1]

Yowling is an exaggerated meow, often with an urgent or demanding tone. It is typically used for mating calls but can also express discontent, anxiety, or get your attention for something your cat needs. If yowling is new or excessive, it may point to an underlying issue.

Growling and hissing demonstrate aggression, fear, or warning. These sounds are your cat’s way of establishing boundaries and responding to perceived threats. Sudden growling or hissing warrants attention as it could indicate pain that is causing your cat distress when being pet or handled.

Body Language

Your cat’s body language can give you clues that something may not be right. Here are some important things to watch for:

Ears back – Ears folded back or flattened against the head often indicates pain, irritation, aggression, or fear. If your normally friendly cat has their ears back frequently, it could signal discomfort.

Tail down – A tail held lower than usual or tucked between the legs can mean your cat is anxious, afraid, or not feeling well. An extremely puffed up or twitching tail also suggests irritation or illness.

Tense posture – If your cat seems stiff, hunched, or reluctant to stretch or move, they may be hurting or guarding against pain. Look for tense shoulders, tucked limbs, and hesitation to jump up or down.

Dilated pupils – Pupils that appear more dilated than normal are a sign your cat is stressed, frightened, or unwell. Extreme dilation paired with panting and restlessness could indicate a medical emergency.

Taking note of body language changes empowers you to recognize when your cat needs special attention and care. If you’re unsure what your cat is trying to tell you, a veterinarian can help decipher their non-verbal cues.

Common Illnesses

As cats age, they are more susceptible to certain illnesses and diseases. Some of the most common health issues seen in senior cats include:

Kidney disease: Also known as chronic kidney disease (CKD), this is one of the most prevalent diseases in older cats. It occurs when the kidneys become damaged and can no longer effectively filter waste products from the blood. Symptoms include increased thirst, increased urination, weight loss, poor appetite, and vomiting. Kidney disease is managed through dietary changes, medications, and subcutaneous fluids (Coxwell Vet, accessed 2023).

Hyperthyroidism: This condition results from overactivity of the thyroid gland. It typically leads to weight loss despite increased appetite, vomiting, increased thirst/urination, and hyperactivity. Treatment options include medication, dietary changes, surgery, and radioactive iodine therapy (PetMD, accessed 2023).

Diabetes: Similar to humans, cats can develop diabetes in old age, especially if obese. The most common signs are increased thirst, increased urination, increased appetite, and weight loss. It is managed through insulin injections, diet, and exercise when possible (The Wildest, accessed 2023).

Arthritis: Degenerative joint disease causes chronic pain, difficulty moving around, and decreased activity in senior cats. It is managed with medication, supplements, weight control, gentle exercise, and physical therapy.

Dental disease: Older cats are prone to more severe dental issues like periodontal disease, fractured teeth, and tooth resorption. This can lead to mouth pain, difficulty eating, and infections. Regular dental cleanings and extractions are often needed (The Wildest, accessed 2023).

Cancer: Senior cats are at higher risk for many types of cancer. Common forms include lymphoma, mammary tumors, skin cancer, and mouth cancer. Treatment depends on the type and location of the cancer.

When to See the Vet

As a general rule of thumb, you should take your cat to see the vet if symptoms last more than 24 hours or rapidly worsen. Here are some signs that warrant a vet visit:

  • Not eating for over 24 hours
  • Repeated vomiting or diarrhea lasting over 24 hours
  • Lethargy or lack of interest in normal activities for over 24 hours
  • Difficulty urinating or defecating
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Limping or inability to walk
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Seizures
  • Bleeding from the nose or mouth
  • Sudden collapse or unconsciousness

You should take your cat to the emergency vet right away if you notice any of the following emergency warning signs:

  • Not breathing or struggling to breathe
  • Uncontrollable bleeding
  • Severe head tilt or loss of balance
  • Inability to walk or stand
  • Crying or whining in pain
  • Seizures lasting more than a few minutes
  • Unconsciousness or coma

Trust your instincts – if your cat seems very sick, take them to the vet as soon as possible for evaluation. Early treatment greatly improves the chances of recovery.

At the Vet

Bringing your cat to the vet when you suspect something is wrong is very important. The vet will be able to examine your cat, run tests, and provide proper treatment. Here are some things to expect at your cat’s veterinary visit:

The vet will first do a full physical exam of your cat. They will check your cat’s eyes, ears, mouth, skin, coat, heart, lungs, abdomen, and limbs. This allows the vet to look for any abnormalities or signs of illness.

Your vet may ask you questions about when your cat’s symptoms started, how long they have persisted, and any other changes you have noticed in your cat’s behavior or habits. Be prepared to give a full history of your cat’s health.

Diagnostic tests like bloodwork, urinalysis, x-rays, ultrasound, or other imaging may be recommended. These tests allow the vet to check your cat’s organ function and look for issues like infection, inflammation, cancer, etc.

If your cat is diagnosed with an illness, the vet will prescribe appropriate treatment. This may include medications like antibiotics, steroids, or pain relievers. More serious illnesses may require hospitalization, surgery, or referral to a veterinary specialist.

Before leaving your vet visit, be sure to ask any other questions you may have about your cat’s diagnosis, treatment plan, prognosis, and at-home care recommendations. Follow your vet’s instructions closely to help your cat recover.

Caring at Home

When caring for a sick cat at home, it’s important to follow the veterinarian’s instructions for medications, diet, and monitoring the cat’s condition closely. Make sure you understand the medication schedule and dosages prescribed. Give pills and liquids as directed, wrapping pills in a treat if needed. Set reminders to give medications on time.

The diet for a sick cat should be palatable, high-energy, and easy to digest, as illness can cause appetite loss. Warming food to body temperature can make it more appealing. Offer small, frequent meals and different food textures. Supplements like nutritional gels may also stimulate appetite.

Adjust the home environment to help a sick cat feel comfortable and reduce stress. Provide a quiet, warm, dark space away from noise and other pets. Place food, water, litter box, and bedding nearby. Use calming pheromones.

Monitor the cat’s symptoms and alert the veterinarian if they worsen. Track factors like appetite, energy level, bathroom habits, breathing rate, and litter box use. Measure temperature and weigh your cat daily if directed. Watch for vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, or changes in behavior or appearance. Report concerns promptly.

With attentive home care and monitoring under a veterinarian’s supervision, many cats can recover comfortably at home. However, do not hesitate to seek urgent care if the cat’s condition declines or seems life-threatening.

Preventative Care

Having a preventative care plan for your cat is crucial to ensuring they live a long, healthy life. Preventative care involves taking proactive steps to maintain your cat’s wellbeing through regular veterinary checkups, vaccinations, parasite prevention, and at-home care.

One of the most important parts of preventative care is annual veterinary checkups. Your vet will perform a complete physical exam to check your cat’s overall health and look for any abnormalities. Annual exams allow early detection of diseases like kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, and dental disease – which can often be treated more effectively when caught early. Your vet may recommend bloodwork, urinalysis, dental cleaning, and diagnostic imaging as part of the annual visit.

Vaccinations are a key part of preventative care. Core vaccines like rabies, feline viral rhinotracheitis, calicivirus, and panleukopenia help protect your cat from serious infectious diseases. Other non-core vaccines may be recommended based on your cat’s lifestyle and risk factors. Keeping your cat up to date on recommended vaccines can help prevent dangerous illnesses.

Regular dental cleanings and exams by your vet are imperative for cats over 3 years old. Dental disease is extremely common in cats but often underdiagnosed. Tartar buildup leads to gum inflammation, tooth decay, and oral pain. Professional dental cleanings under anesthesia remove tartar and bacteria, allowing a thorough assessment of tooth and gum health.

Daily exercise through interactive playtime and environmental enrichment help keep your cat mentally and physically stimulated. Prevent boredom and obesity by providing toys, scratching posts, cat trees, food puzzles, and playtime. Make sure your cat has access to windows with views of wildlife and birdfeeders.

At home care like grooming, nail trims, monitoring appetite and litter box habits, and weighing your cat monthly can identify health changes between vet visits. Knowing your cat’s normal baseline makes it easier to recognize abnormalities.

Discuss an optimal preventative care plan with your vet. Proper nutrition, exercise, annual exams, vaccines, dental care, and parasite prevention work together to ensure your cat stays happy and healthy for years to come. Consistent wellness visits allow early intervention for medical conditions, improving treatment success.

Quality of Life

Assessing quality of life is crucial when caring for a cat with a terminal illness or who is nearing the end of life. Some key factors to consider are whether your cat is experiencing significant or unmanageable pain, suffering, or distress that cannot be relieved through palliative care. According to the ASPCA, signs that a cat’s quality of life is poor include difficulty breathing, significant vomiting/diarrhea, cancer, kidney failure, and other conditions causing discomfort that cannot be treated successfully.1

If your cat is experiencing poor quality of life, you may need to consider euthanasia to prevent further suffering. This heartbreaking decision is made out of love and care for your cat. Hospice care and palliative medicine can help provide comfort, but there may come a point where prolonging life is no longer kind. Your veterinarian can advise you on gauging your cat’s quality of life and whether euthanasia would be compassionate and appropriate. Quality of life scales, daily journals, and honest conversations with your vet can help inform your decision.2

Euthanasia should be a peaceful, gentle passing at home or at your vet’s office. Focus on making your cat comfortable, avoiding pain and fear, and being present to offer comfort. While a difficult decision, euthanasia can be the final act of loving care we give our cats at the end of their lives.3

Scroll to Top