Diagnosing Common Feline Ailments

Before They Become Medical Emergencies

by Joelle Steele

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It's better to be safe than sorry when dealing with your cat's health. Knowing how to spot the symptoms of the most common feline medical problems will enable you to seek the right veterinary attention before you have a medical emergency on your hands. Also, knowing which symptoms are not serious, can allow you to try non-medical remedies first before investing in premature or unnecessary office visits.


Veterinarians treat more skin disorders than anything else. Symptoms include dry skin, flakes, redness, inflammation, irritation, oily hair, pimples, blisters, scabs and crusts, hair loss, foul skin odor, and itching. You may only notice your cat's responses of biting, chewing, or scratching.

The most common causes are food allergies and chemical toxicities. Symptoms of food allergies usually appear around the eyes and ears, chest and abdomen, on the feet, and at the base of the tail. Your cat can become allergic to food he has been eating for years. Among the common food allergies for cats are beef, tuna, milk, yeast, corn, wheat, and artificial ingredients such as colorings and preservatives, all components of most commercial foods. Gradually put your cat on a bland diet of lamb or chicken, with brown rice.

Make sure his bed and favorite hang-outs are hypo-allergenic and free of chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides, waxes, paints, and detergents, which may be contacted or inhaled. Many common household items and their chemical components can be potential sources of toxicities which manifest themselves as skin disorders of "unknown origin."

Abscesses are usually infected bites found on the head, legs, or tail base. The area swells and the top crusts over. There may be a generalized fever. Feline acne is a collection of pimples and swellings on the chin. Clean abscesses and pimples thoroughly with hydrogen peroxide every day until the symptoms subside. A natural remedy such as a tincture of goldenseal, may be used instead. It takes a little longer to work but has antibiotic properties.

If you have done everything you can and there is no improvement, or if the symptoms worsen, contact your veterinarian.


The kidney and liver purify bodily wastes and they can become weak, overworked, or diseased, due to diet or advanced age. The kidneys in particular are easily stressed by food chemicals to which they are especially sensitive.

Symptoms of kidney problems include excessive thirst, frequent urination, pale urine, prolonged lethargy, nausea, and lack of appetite. With severe kidney disease or degeneration, there may be a total loss of appetite, bad breath, dehydration, frequent vomiting, complete inactivity, and inflammation of the mouth or mouth ulcers.

Do not mistake a bladder disorder for a kidney problem. Both are characterized by an increased frequency of urination, however, bladder problems also include discomfort, straining, blood in the urine, urination in places other than the litter box, and sometimes partial or complete blockage with no urine passing at all. The latter may require emergency medical treatment. Diabetes is also characterized by excessive thirst and large volumes of urine, but the cat also becomes progressively thinner as well.

Symptoms of liver disease or disorders include, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal swelling, jaundice, and a light-colored stool. These diseases, like those of the kidneys (and bladder), can be improved by changes in diet, as can diabetes. But, see your veterinarian first and switch your cat to a bland diet, either one you make yourself or a baby food made without preservatives.

Constipation is caused by a combination of inactivity and lack of bulk in the diet. Another cause is the chronic voluntary retention of feces which occurs when the cat box is dirty or your cat can't get outside when he needs to. Change to a bulkier food or add some bran to his diet. Keep the box clean and install a pet door if necessary so he can get out when he needs to.

Diarrhea or soft stool, is not usually anything to be alarmed about. Most often it is a one-time instance due to a minor irritation of the digestive tract caused by bacteria or spoiled food, worms, or the ingestion of an indigestible item. Fast your cat for 24 to 48 hours and give him only liquids during that time. He will not starve. If diarrhea or soft stool are chronic, or if they are accompanied by vomiting, tremors, or convulsions, an immediate trip to the vet is in order.


The most common ear problem is mites, those brownish-black deposits in the ear canal. Your cat may shake his head and scratch his ears until they become red and inflamed. Try mixing some olive oil with Vitamin E (from a capsule) and warm it to your cat's body temperature. Insert a dropper or two into each ear and massage it in. Then swab the ear out to remove the excess. Do this daily for three or four days. If you see no improvement, see your veterinarian.

Eye problems in which the cornea or eyelids are torn require immediate veterinarian intervention. Cataracts, the condition in which the lens becomes white or milky, is rare, even in older cats, and surgical removal is usually not necessary. Do not confuse cataracts with nuclear sclerosis, the bluish haze inside the pupil. This is a natural aging of the lens and is no cause for alarm. Melanosis, the brown freckling of the iris, can turn into melanoma — which can be fatal. Your cat should be seen by a veterinarian ophthalmologist and monitored regularly if they appear to have melanosis.


Periodontal disease is a serious, slowly progressing disease in which there is a brownish-yellow build-up of food, bacterial, and calcium salts on the teeth which in turn causes the gums to inflame, swell, recede, or bleed. The discomfort to the cat results in excess salivation, foul breath, and a loss of appetite or weight. In severe cases, the gum infection may enter the bloodstream.

Have your cat's teeth professionally cleaned and keep them clean by brushing them. Add hard, chewy foods to your cat's diet. If his gums are pale to white, this could be a symptom of anemia or feline leukemia and necessitates a trip to the vet.


Cats are often plagued by fleas and worms. Tapeworms are a parasite of the flea and get inside your cat when he ingests a flea while grooming himself. Tapeworm segments that look like moving white rice in the stool and around the cat's anus are the primary symptom. Roundworms are acquired by kittens from their mother and symptoms include bouts of coughing and gagging. Heavy infestations result in enlarged abdomens, poor weight gain, and diarrhea or vomiting. Symptoms of hookworms in kittens include anemia and diarrhea or black stool. In adults, there is also weight loss and progressive weakness.

You can minimize the problems of parasites by keeping your cat indoors. You can virtually eliminate fleas by applying non-toxic substances such as diatom dust combined with baking soda and cornstarch to your carpets and upholstery. Once your cat has worms, you can have him "de-wormed" by your vet, or you can try herbal remedies such as Gentle Dragon.


Some disorders and diseases come on suddenly and can even be fatal within a short period of time if untreated. "Distemper" (correctly called feline panleukopenia or feline infectious enteritis), is the leading cause of disease-related deaths in kittens but can affect some older cats as well. It is very contagious and death can occur quickly. Symptoms include high fever and dehydration, loss of appetite, depression, and vomiting of a yellowish liquid (bile). If you even suspect that this disease is present, consult your veterinarian at once.

Upper respiratory infections are symptomized by discharge from the eyes and nose causing the eyes to stick together and the nose to block up, sore throat, coughing, sneezing, inflammation of mouth with ulcers and drooling of thick saliva, fever, and loss of appetite. These diseases are highly contagious and while some cats are only mildly affected, others may die. The first symptoms are fever and sneezing and since cats don't get "colds," a visit to the veterinarian is in order.

Rabies is a fatal disease often found in unvaccinated country cats, though not every bite from a rabid animal results in the development of the disease. Symptoms appear from two weeks to two months following a bite. Cats exhibit personality changes, becoming irritable or aggressive or overly affectionate, eventually withdraw and resist contact, stare into space and avoid light. Diarrhea, fever, and vomiting are also present. Separate bite victims from other pets and do not attempt to handle the cat. Call your vet at once.

Heart problems may occur in a cat's later years, but heart attacks are rare. Usually the heart muscle becomes progressively weaker and there is dilation of one or both sides. Upon exercise, a cat may become easily tired and his tongue and gums may become bluish. He may collapse suddenly or have difficulty breathing, and he may wheeze or have a persistent, dry cough accompanied by fluid in the legs or abdomen. See your vet at the first sign of heart problems. Digitalis is the usual treatment along with a low sodium diet.


Knowing what symptoms to look for and then keeping a watchful eye on your cat, can help you prevent most serious problems before they become medical emergencies, or worse yet, fatalities.

This article last updated: 11/17/2011.

The articles on this Web site are informational only and are not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice or treatment. Cats are not "one size fits all." They are different in terms of breed, age, health, lifestyle, and tolerance for different foods and other substances.