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How to tell if your cat is sick 

Man cuddling cat

Is Fluffy acting funny? Here are 7 red flags to look for before you call the vet. Plus, what’s okay to monitor yourself — and what’s not. 

Lucy M. Clark

By Lucy M. Clark

Cats have a reputation for being hard to read. Sure, they purr when they’re happy and hiss when they’re not. But their faces don’t give much in the way of how they’re feeling.  

At least that’s what a study out of Canada found. Researchers asked more than 6,000 people to watch 20 videos of cats in positive states (for example, playing) and negative ones (such as having a health problem). Then they were asked to guess how the cats were feeling. On average, they guessed correctly in only 12 of the 20 videos. 

Still, many experts say this stereotype is a bit harsh. “If you know what you’re looking for, cats are fairly easy to read,” says Sarah Wooten, DVM. She’s a Colorado-based veterinarian for Pumpkin Pet Insurance.  

“Cats likely got this ‘hard to read’ label because they don’t advertise when they’re sick,” explains Dr. Wooten. “In nature, they are both a predator to small animals and prey to larger animals. And if they look unwell, then they look like an easy meal to coyotes and other hungry predators.”  

For good reason, cats may not be as forward in letting you know they’re under the weather. But their subtle signs can speak volumes.  

So how exactly do you read “cat”? It’s as simple as taking a few moments to review this list of red flags. And to save money on pet medication, just use our coupon search tool. We may be able to find a pet-friendly discount at a pharmacy near you.  

7 signs that your cat may be sick  

If your cat is in obvious distress or you’re just concerned, don’t hesitate to call the vet. In general, though, most of these symptoms are okay to monitor for a day or 2 before you make the call, notes Dr. Wooten. It may be a fluke. (Are Fluffy’s eyes really swollen, or is she just looking at me funny?) Or the symptoms could go away on their own. Look for Dr. Wooten’s notes on when the problem may need more immediate attention, though. 

Your cat is hiding or acting less social 

“This is a big one,” says Dr. Wooten. “If your normally social cat is nowhere to be found or isn't spending as much time with you, then something is off.” That can be true even if they’re coming out temporarily to eat and use the litter box.  

Your cat is vomiting  

Cats have sensitive stomachs. They can vomit easily if they eat too much, too fast. Or if they get too into their grooming. “But some cats vomit so often that their owners think it’s normal,” says Dr. Wooten. To be clear, it’s never normal. “It means your cat feels sick or stressed,” she adds. If you notice more than 2 bouts of vomiting, call the vet. 

Your cat has red, runny, swollen eyes and is sneezing  

“These are signs of an upper respiratory infection, which is common in cats,” says Dr. Wooten. Don’t wait to alert the vet if your cat’s swollen eyes get squinty or if it has eye discharge that changes from clear or white to yellow or green.   

Your cat has had a change in appetite

“Loss of appetite can be caused by multiple conditions that make your cat feel sick or stressed,” Dr. Wooten says. “Increased appetite can happen with hyperthyroidism and diabetes.” Call the vet if the change lasts for more than 2 meals.  

Your cat is drinking and urinating more than usual 

Is your cat draining the water bowl or making lakes in the litter box? “That could be a sign of kidney problems, which are common in older cats,” says Dr. Wooten.  

Your cat is having litter box problems  

“If your cat starts urinating or defecating anywhere other than the litter box, it’s a concern,” Dr. Wooten says. Maybe they don’t like the new litter you bought, or they’re feeling stressed by a new change in the house. That said, it could be something more serious such as a urinary tract infection or constipation.  

Your cat seems to be slowing down 

Is your feline friend jumping and playing less or avoiding climbing stairs? “These are all signs of osteoarthritis, which is common in overweight cats and older cats and often goes undetected,” says Dr. Wooten. 

Recommended reading: 6 ways to get your cat or dog to take medication. 

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Reasons to call the vet right away 

Unfortunately, you sometimes need to skip the wait-and-see approach altogether. Here are some of the most common cat symptoms that warrant a call to your vet ASAP, says Dr. Wooten.  

  • Seizures or changes in their mental state. 
  • Vomiting that lasts longer than a day. Or many bouts of vomiting in a day. 
  • Not eating for more than 2 days. 
  • Broken bones, lacerations or trauma. Or your cat can’t move its back legs or has swollen, hot areas. 
  • Coughing, difficulty breathing or pale gums. 
  • Yellow eyes or skin. Called jaundice, this could be a sign of liver disease or another serious illness. (Here’s what yellow eyes mean in humans.) 
  • Your cat ate something that you know is toxic. That could be house plants, such as lilies or daffodils, prescription medications or foods such as chocolate or candy.  
  • Your cat is trying to urinate and nothing comes out. “Especially in male cats, don’t wait,” Dr. Wooten says. They likely have a blockage preventing them from peeing. 
  • Your cat is fainting or you’re unable to wake it.  
  • Red, itchy ears with dark brown discharge. This is likely ear mites, says Dr. Wooten. “They’re very itchy and painful.”  
  • Eyes that are swollen shut, or if it seems that your cat has lost its vision. Another sign that cats’ eyes need attention: They keep pawing at them.  
  • Bloody diarrhea. 
  • A broken tooth or excessively red or bleeding gums. 
  • Panting that’s not from activity or a lively play session.  

As your cat’s owner and best friend, you really do know him or her best. And you’ll likely surprise yourself by how readily you can read your own cat. If you suspect something’s off, it likely is. So pay attention and follow the above steps. 

Oh, and we’re sending our best wishes that Fluffy feels better soon. And if your feline friend needs prescription medication, use our coupon search tool today to see how much you could save.  


Additional source 
Study on decoding cats’ emotions: Animal Welfare (2019). “Humans can identify cats’ affective states from subtle facial expressions”