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How to give your cat a health check

Cat health check

Take the time to give your cat a thorough health check, both at home and at the vets, says Dr Bradley Viner...

"I hesitate to use the analogy of car MOTs to check whether a cat is 'road-worthy', since the last thing we want is for our cats to feel free to dance around on the highways, but the principle of ensuring that your pet gets an annual health check is an important one.

"This may well tie in with the annual vaccinations to boost resistance against diseases such as cat 'flu and feline leukaemia virus, but it's just as important in its own right. Of course, elderly cats, or those with chronic health problems, should be checked by their vet more frequently."

A general health check will usually include the following:

Skin

Cats spend a lot of their time grooming and anything that interferes with that process, such as neck pain or a sore mouth, will indirectly affect coat quality. The coat and skin will be examined to ensure it is healthy and free from parasites such as fleas and ticks. Discussing preventative parasite control should form a part of any general health examination.

Urogenital

Unless a cat is very fat and has urinated recently, a vet should be able to feel a cat's bladder and kidneys by external palpation, as well as having a look under the tail for any signs of soiling or inflammation. The kidneys should be a normal size and shape, and the bladder just partially full with urine.

Body condition

Even if a cat's body condition is normal, he should be weighed in order to pick up any changes and establish a baseline value for possible future reference. Weight loss can be a sign of several significant diseases (see panel) and at the other extreme, obesity is a significant health concern in a worrying number of pet cats.

A discussion of the optimum diet for a particular cat is normally included as part of a general discussion about health.

Heart & lungs

A vet will use a stethoscope to listen to a cat's chest. This may detect heart problems, such as an abnormal rhythm to the heartbeat or a murmur, usually caused by the valves within the heart failing to function properly. It may also be possible to hear abnormal sounds within the chest, perhaps related to a problem such as asthma or chronic bronchitis.

Thyroid gland

An overactive thyroid gland is a very common problem in middle-aged and older cats, and in such cases it is often possible for the vet to feel an enlargement of one or both thyroid glands, which are situated in the neck either side of the windpipe.

Microchip

Finally, although not strictly a health issue, many vets like to scan a cat's microchip to ensure it is functioning properly, which could be a life saver if a cat becomes injured or goes missing.

Eyes

The cornea (surface of the eye) should be clear and bright and the iris a normal colour. The conjunctiva (inner surface of the eyelid) should be a normal light pink colour and the eyes themselves free of discharge. The third eyelid is not normally visible but may protrude when a cat is unwell. The vet may examine the deeper structures of the eye with an instrument called an ophthalmoscope.

Ears

Soreness or a discharge from one or both ears are common indicators of a problem, such as ear mites or a bacterial infection. A vet will often use another instrument called an auriscope to shine a bright light down into the ear canal to examine it further.

Mouth

Dental disease caused by the accumulation of tartar on the teeth is very common, and when it causes inflammation of the gums (gingivitis) it may require removal under anaesthetic. A vet will also look for damage to the teeth or inflammation in the throat.

Increased appetite

Some cats are naturally greedy and will guzzle whatever is put in front of them, but most are much more delicate feeders. A cat that starts eating more than normal could be suffering from a metabolic problem such as diabetes or hyperthyroidism, or might not be absorbing his foods properly. This can be due to parasites such as tapeworm that use up food that the cat is eating, or an inability of the cat to digest his food properly.

Weight loss

This often goes unnoticed but can be an important sign of ill health. Most veterinary practices will weigh a cat when he comes for visits so that changes can be monitored, but it is a very good idea to do this at home as well, obtaining some baseline measurements when the cat is healthy and picking up significant gains or losses in the early stages.

It's easiest to do this by holding your cat on the scales, and then deducting your own weight.

Health checks at home

While your vet is the only person competent to give your cat a proper clinical examination, you will be well aware of your cat's normal behaviour patterns and in a good position to pick up any signs of ill health early on. The history that you are able to pass on to your vet will give vital clues that may help the search for a diagnosis of any ill health. Indications that you may need to seek veterinary attention for your pet include:

Inappetance

While many things can put a cat off his food, as a rule of thumb, I would recommend that a cat should receive veterinary attention if he refuses to eat for a maximum of 48 hours.

Increased thirst

Drinking excessively is a very important clinical sign as it can signify the onset of several diseases that may otherwise go undiagnosed until a much later stage - these include diabetes, kidney disease and an overactive thyroid gland, three of the most common conditions that affect older cats. Seek veterinary attention if you see your cat drinking more than normal, or even if his pattern of drinking changes noticeably. If possible, a fresh urine sample should be collected and taken along.

Lethargy

Admittedly many of our pet cats are pretty lazy at the best of times, but a sudden change in activity levels may be indicative of a health problem. While not a cause for immediate panic, you should look out for any changes in the cat's environment that may be causing a psychological upset, and if normal activity levels are not resumed in a few days, seek veterinary advice.

Laboured breathing

Laboured breathing is very obvious when it is severe as the cat is obviously struggling to breathe, possibly even panting with his mouth open, but in its earlier stages it may just involve a mildly increased rate and depth of breathing when at rest, often combined with an increased use of the abdominal muscles to assist the breathing process. The signs can be subtle, but if picked up early can be life-saving because it can indicate the onset of several serious conditions such as heart disease, lung cancer, and chest problems such as pleurisy or pneumonia.

Vomiting

Most cats vomit from time to time as the digestive system of the cat is adapted to swallowing a lot of indigestible matter such as bones, hair and skin and then vomiting unwanted material back up. If a cat is unwell in himself and vomiting it is obviously signifi cant, particularly if he is off his food.

The timing of vomiting after eating and the nature of the vomitus may help your vet identify the cause. A cat that vomits repeatedly will not be able to take in fluids and dehydration can set in quickly, so veterinary assistance should not be delayed.

Diarrhoea

There's a whole spectrum of diarrhoea from watery faeces through to those that are just softer than normal. If the large bowel is inflamed (colitis), the faeces may be fairly normal but streaked with mucus and blood. With outdoor cats it is sometimes difficult to tell if diarrhoea is present - an owner may notice staining of the hair around the anus, or the cat may mess indoors. While mild cases of diarrhoea are usually self-limiting if the cat is put onto a bland diet, severe diarrhoea, especially if the cat is unwell, requires prompt veterinary attention.

Straining

This may involve either the bowel or the urinary tract and it is important to differentiate between the two, particularly in male cats. Urinary obstruction is not uncommon in males and could quickly turn into an emergency that requires immediate veterinary treatment, whereas constipation is uncomfortable but does not require such urgent attention. If you are in any doubt as to whether your cat is straining because he is unable to pass urine at all, err on the side of caution and obtain immediate veterinary advice.