Cat owners can play a big role in cat health. An observant and helpful cat owner can sometimes mean the difference between life and death.
After hearing your cat’s complaint, cat vets try to get objective and subjective information when gathering the history. The objective data include the signalment, the environment, diet, and medical history; the subjective data includes behavior.
1. Get the Cat Stats: Signalment
The signalment includes the cat’s age, breed and gender, including whether the cat is neutered or spayed. This is basic, important information. Some illnesses strike cats at certain age ranges. For example, hyperthyroidism is a glandular condition that causes cats to lose weight, despite a ravenous appetite. It’s an old-age disease, rarely striking cats under the age of 8. A 13-year-old cat with weight loss and excellent appetite should get a blood test to evaluate thyroid function. A 4-year old cat with the same signs would be more likely to have something else, such as inflammatory bowel disease or pancreatic insufficiency. Even if you’re not sure of the exact age, a good approximation will help a cat veterinarian.
Certain cat breeds get certain conditions, and knowing the breed helps veterinarians choose proper diagnostic tests. Persian cats can get polycystic kidney disease; Maine Coon cats and Ragdoll cats are susceptible to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Don’t say your cat is a Maine Coon when it’s really a domestic longhair that “looks just like the Maine Coon in the magazine.” If your cat is not really purebred, say so.
Gender provides important information as well. A female cat straining to urinate is likely to have cystitis or a urinary tract infection. A male cat straining to urinate could have a urinary obstruction, something that can be life-threatening if not treated promptly. Fortunately, there’s very little guesswork when it comes to determining gender. I just lift the tail and take a look.
2. Cat Houses: Environment History
Gathering environmental history is routine for cat exams. Free-roaming cats or cats who go outdoors are at much higher risk of fighting with other cats, and that increases their risk of getting cat bite abscesses or acquiring feline leukemia or FIV. Free-roaming or recently escaped cats may have had access to toxins or have been subject to trauma, which is unlikely in an indoor pet.
Sometimes, a cat travel history is important. A travel history can help if the cat has been exposed to diseases endemic to certain regions but not prevalent in the current environment.
3. Cats Are What They Eat: Dietary History
A dietary history goes beyond which type and brand of food you feed your cat. Of course, share the type of diet (dry, moist, raw, table food), the brand name, any types of snacks, the method of feeding (free-choice or individual meals) and the amount of cat food, but veterinarians also want to know about your cat’s appetite and whether you cat lost weight or gained weight. Watch your cat eat. A cat owner who notices that their cat only chews on one side of his mouth, or has stopped eating dry food and now will only eat canned food, is telling the veterinarian that oral pain or discomfort might cause the problem, and a thorough oral exam may be the only diagnostic test necessary to obtain the diagnosis.
4. A Stitch in Time Saves Nine Lives: Prevention
A medical record can give your cat’s veterinarian valuable information. On your first visit to a cat vet, it helps to have your cat’s vaccination history and your cat’s feline leukemia virus and feline immunodeficiency virus status. Medical records detailing the diagnosis or treatment of any prior or ongoing health problems are invaluable, as the primary complaint may be a consequence of a prior medical condition.
5. What’s New, Pussycat? Observation
After cat owners provide points 1-5, a cat veterinarian can begin to discover the problem. The above information given by observant, conscientious owners can be a tremendous asset. Veterinarians need cat owners to describe the cat’s problem from the beginning, to get an orderly timeframe. Cat veterinarians want to know things like when the cat was last normal, whether the cat illness signs began suddenly (acute) or if they developed slowly over time (chronic) and whether the cat’s illness has responded to previous treatment. For example, an itchy cat treated with steroids without getting better would more likely have a cat food allergy (poorly responsive to steroids) than flea allergic dermatitis (responds dramatically to steroids).
Depending on the complaint, a veterinarian can delve even deeper, to further determine the problem and formulate a diagnostic plan. If a client reports that their cat has diarrhea, the veterinarian may then ask whether there’s any blood or mucus in the stool, whether the cat has been straining in the litterbox or whether the cat has had any accidents in the house. The more the client answers yes, the more likely that the diarrhea has originated from the large intestine. This narrows down the list of possible causes for diarrhea, and helps the veterinarian formulate a diagnostic and therapeutic plan.
Most clients are unable or unwilling to take their cat’s temperature at home. Information like this can be a big help to a cat veterinarian. In the exam room, a cat may have a borderline fever, and this can be difficult for a veterinarian to interpret, as cats will have elevated body temperatures when they’re nervous. If a client tells me that their cat had a fever at home, in their comfortable surroundings, then I know that the fever I’m seeing in the exam room is likely to be genuine, and not due to the stress of the examination.
At-Home Cat Exams
As a cat vet, I tell clients to perform their own brief physical exam on their cats regularly. Follow these steps:
- Examine the eyes to see that they’re bright and clear and free of any discharge.
- Ears should be a healthy pink color inside with no signs of discharge or accumulation of dark-colored wax.
- The nose should be damp and velvety to the touch and have no discharge or crusting on the surface.
- A cat’s mouth should be examined regularly, to make sure the gums are pale pink, the teeth aren’t yellowed or covered with tartar, and that there’s no foul odor present.
- Cat owners should also stroke and pat their cat often, not just because the cat enjoys it, but to also feel for any lumps or bumps that might be present. Feeling along the abdomen for any masses or swellings associated with the mammary glands is also advisable, as mammary tumors, while not as common in cats as in dogs, are much more worrisome in cats.
Behavioral changes can be difficult for veterinarians to interpret. I’ve had many clients bring in their cat because the cat was acting different, although on further questioning, it became apparent that the cat wasn’t actually ill, despite the difference in behavior. Cats who suddenly stop sleeping on the bed even though it’s been their favorite sleeping spot for years, or normally vocal cats who lately have become more quiet may indeed be acting differently, but these may simply be benign behavioral changes. Lethargy, hyperactivity, aggression, growling, and urinating or defecating in inappropriate places, however, are behavioral changes that may indicate an underlying medical problem. When in doubt as to whether any apparently new behaviors are medically significant or not, it’s best to err on the cautious side and report everything to your veterinarian.
Veterinarians meet diagnostic challenges every day. A detailed and complete cat health history is our most important diagnostic tool. This information lays the groundwork for a sound diagnostic and therapeutic plan, and could prevent unnecessary diagnostic testing and discomfort to cats and cost to the owner.