How to Check up on your Cat’s health

The aim of this section is to give you some simple ways to check the health of your cat. Vets use these techniques as part of their clinical examination.

Weight

Keeping a close eye on your cat’s weight or body condition can help you to pick up problems at an early stage.

  • Gaining too much weight can be bad for your cat’s health. Most commonly, weight gain is caused by too much food or not enough exercise.
  • Losing weight or failing to grow normally can be a sign of health problems or incorrect diet. Certain conditions such as an overactive thyroid or intestinal problems can cause weight loss.
  • Weighing your cat frequently is a good way to spot any problems early. Most vets have specially developed scales, which they will be happy for you to use.
  • Condition scoring is a good way to check your cat is the correct weight. Ask your vet or nurse to do this for you to get an accurate score. You can look for the main points yourself:
    • Ribs: You should be able to feel them with light pressure. There should not be a fat layer over the ribs.
    • Hip bones, shoulder blades: You should only be able to feel these if you apply moderate pressure.
    • Waist: You should be able to feel an obvious waist between the chest and abdomen.
    • Belly: In overweight cats this can hang down and become ‘pendulous’.

Coat condition

Different breed of cats have very different coats but in general they should look clean, and the skin should look healthy underneath. Here are some general points you can look out for:

  • Black particles: You may be able to see black particles of ‘flea dirt’, droppings formed by the adult fleas. To differentiate these from sand or dirt perform the wet paper test:

    Wet Paper Test

    1. Comb your cat’s coat vigorously
    2. Collect any debris from the comb onto a piece of white, wet paper.
    3. Leave aside for a few minutes.
    4. If flea dirt is present you will see black particles surrounded by a rusty red pigment.
    5. The red pigment is your cat’s blood which has been swallowed by the flea. If you see this it means that your cat has fleas.
  • Greasy coat: This can be a sign of a skin infection, you should visit your vet.
  • Matts of fur: Longhaired cats are prone to their fur tangling which can develop into matts. Matts can cause the underlying skin to become sore. Groom longhaired cats daily to prevent this happening. If matts form they can be carefully trimmed or clipped off. Contact your vet for help if the coat is matted close to the skin or if your cat will not tolerate you removing them. Many long haired cats with very matted hair require sedation to remove the matts fully.
  • If your cat is short haired and has developed matts you should contact your vet, this can be a symptom of an overactive thyroid gland or dental problems.
  • Areas of baldness: This can arise in different ways.
  • If the skin is itchy for example, due to fleas, mites or allergy, cats can scratch and bite at themselves pulling fur out.
  • In certain conditions eg. ringworm the fur falls out by itself.
  • Some hormone problems prevent the hair growing normally. Old hairs that fall out naturally are not replaced.

Skin tenting

This is used to assess hydration levels.

In a normal cat if you gently pull up the skin around the neck it will instantly fall back to normal. If the skin stays in the ‘tented’ position it is a sign of dehydration. If your cat is ill and the skin is tenting you need to visit the vets as soon as possible.

Lymph nodes

These are the ‘glands’ that as humans we may notice become raised or swollen when we are ill. In cats there are glands behind the angle of the lower jaw, in front of the shoulder joint and in the back of the knee.

Familiarise yourself with the normal size of these glands for your cat. If your cat is well, they will be very hard to identify as they will be small. If they are bigger than usual it is a sign that your cat is fighting infection or of other health problems and you need to seek prompt veterinary attention.

Teeth

The teeth should be clean, smooth and white in colour. There should not be any swelling or redness of the gums.

  • Calculus is a hard, yellow-brown deposit that can cover the teeth. Calculus is formed by bacteria and can quickly build up on cats’ teeth if the teeth are not brushed regularly. Calculus can cause other tooth problems, if you see it you should seek veterinary advice.
  • Gingivitis is inflammation of the gums in cats. It is usually caused by bacteria on the teeth. It gives a red and swollen appearance to the gums. It is usually worse on the margin of the gums near the tooth. Gingivitis is uncomfortable for your cat and you should seek veterinary advice.
  • Root lesions are holes in the teeth usually around the base of the tooth. They look like red patches on the tooth; in some areas it may look like the gum has grown over the tooth in one area. The lesions can expose the sensitive nerves inside the tooth and are very painful for your cat. If you see them it is essential you take your cat to the vets.

If you notice any of the above problems with your cat’s teeth you need to see your vet for advice. Dental work, usually under general anaesthetic, may be required.

Ears

  • The ears should look clean. There should not be any pain when you gently feel around the base of the ear.
  • Ear cleaner can be used to remove wax from the surface of the ear. It is advisable to get your cat’s ears checked by a vet before putting any drops down the ear.
  • If you suspect that your cat has problems with its ears do not put off visiting the vet. Long term ear infections can cause damage to the eardrum and middle ear disease.

Eyes

The eyes should be:

  • Clear
  • Wide open
  • There should be no swelling
  • No discharge
  • The pupils should be the same size

Mucous membranes

When humans go ‘pale’ you can tell just by looking at their skin, cats only show this on their mucous membranes for example the gums:

  • Normally the gums are pink and slightly moist.
  • When cats are shocked the gums go paler and drier or brick red.
  • If the cat isn’t getting enough oxygen they develop a blue tinge
  • If the liver is not working properly, or red blood cells are damaged, the membranes can turn yellow.
  • In the rare case of carbon monoxide poisoning gums can turn cherry red.

If you notice any of these changes in your cats gums you need to take your cat the vets URGENTLY.

Important point: Familiarise yourself with the normal appearance of your cats gums, that way you’ll be able to notice if there is any abnormal change.

Capillary Refill Time

Capillary refill time is the time taken for the capillaries, small blood vessels, to refill with blood after pressure is applied.
Capillary refill time is increased if the cat’s circulation is not very good. Poor circulation can be caused in several ways including shock, dehydration and heart failure.

Capillary Refill Time:

1. Gently push your fingertip on to the gum (take care to avoid nails).

2. The gum should turn white in that area.

3. Count how long it takes for the colour to go back to normal.

4. It should take less than two seconds.

5. If your cat is ill and it takes longer than two seconds you need to take your cat to the vets URGENTLY.

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