10 Subtle Signs Your Cat May Be Sick

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A somber-looking cat with droopy eyes and a lethargic posture, showing signs of illness or discomfort.

While most pet parents can recognize the obvious signs of sickness in cats, including vomiting, diarrhea, or runny eyes, you may not know the more subtle signs that cats express when they aren’t feeling well.

This is because, in nature, cats are a predator of small animals, but they are also prey to animals like coyotes. Therefore, to keep themselves safe, they tend to hide any signs of sickness. This can make it harder to know when your cat needs help.

All cat parents need to know the subtle signs that their cat might be sick and needs to see the vet. Here are the top ten subtle signs of sickness in cats.

1. Your Cat Is Hiding More Than Usual

Remember when I said that cats in the wild are both predator and prey? It follows that if a cat is sick, they don’t want anybody to know that, and they have the instinct to hide and protect themselves.

One of the signs that your cat may be sick is just that you see less of your cat than usual, or you find your cat suddenly hiding under your bed or in the closet or being less social than normal.

2. Your Cat Has a Prolapsed Third Eyelid

Did you know that your cat has three eyelids? It’s true! Cats have two eyelids just like humans, and then they have a third protective eyelid called the nictitans or nictitating membrane that is pink in color and normally hangs out in the lower inner corner of the eye socket.

You might be able to see it when your cat is sleeping heavily. The third eyelid also creeps up when a cat is feeling sick, and will hang out halfway, covering half the eye.

If you notice that you are seeing your cat’s third eyelid more often or when the cat is awake, or if the third eyelid is red or swollen, it is a sign your cat is sick.

3. Your Cat Is Not Jumping or Climbing Stairs

Cats are natural athletes and love to jump and climb and be in high spaces. When a cat stops jumping that is a sign that something is going on. The most common reason cats stop jumping is joint pain due to arthritis.

Arthritis is very common in older cats, we just don’t tend to recognize the signs. Cats don’t tend to limp or cry when they are experiencing joint pain, they just stop jumping and climbing, and they sleep more.

If you are noticing that your previously active cat who loved running, jumping, and playing has stopped engaging in those activities and instead is just walking around, or if you notice your cat is hesitant to go up or down stairs, your cat could be experiencing pain from arthritis.

4. Your Cat Has a Picky Appetite

We all know cats can be picky about what they eat. If your cat has been a picky eater their whole life and you’ve had it checked out by a vet, it’s probably not a sign of sickness in your cat. However, if your cat previously had a good appetite and has suddenly turned up their nose at their food, there is likely a problem either with the food or your cat.

It is VERY important to get your vet involved if your cat hasn’t eaten for 48 hours because when cats don’t eat for several days they will develop a life-threatening liver problem called hepatic lipidosis. If your cat stops eating for more than a day, or if your cat decreases the amount they are eating over several days, call your vet and have your cat seen.

5. Your Cat Suddenly Develops a Voracious Appetite

So I know I just said that if a cat stops eating it is a sign of sickness, but the opposite is true as well! Several conditions in cats, including diabetes mellitus, hyperthyroidism, and Cushing’s syndrome can cause an increase in a cat’s appetite.

If your cat suddenly is eating more and is thin or losing weight this is definitely a sign that your cat needs veterinary attention.

6. Your Cat Is Losing Weight

A thin and emaciated cat with visible ribs and a gaunt appearance, indicating possible malnutrition or health issues.

A cat who’s suddenly losing a lot of weight is most likely dealing with some kind of health problem.

Unexpected weight loss in a cat is caused by not eating enough calories or burning calories too fast. Cats may not eat enough if they are stressed, in pain for any reason including dental disease, or if they are nauseous.

This can happen with many conditions, including kidney disease, urinary tract inflammation, or pancreatitis. Alternatively, cats may be eating enough, but they may be losing calories to diseases such as intestinal parasites, cancer, or diarrhea. Don’t know if your cat is too thin?

You can use the hand test to find out or try our healthy weight calculator.

Concerned that your cat’s weight loss might be related to kidney disease? Kidney-Chek, a simple saliva test, can help you assess your cat’s kidney function in just two minutes. Learn more about Kidney-Chek here.

7. Your Cat Is Drinking a Lot and Peeing a Lot

Several conditions, including kidney disease, diabetes mellitus, and Cushing’s syndrome will cause a cat to drink a lot and pee a lot.

If your cat is suddenly hanging out at the water bowl a lot, draining the bowl more quickly, making more frequent trips to the litterbox, or making lakes in the litterbox, then that is likely a sign that your cat is sick.

Try to bring a urine sample with you to the veterinary hospital so the staff can test the urine for disease conditions.

8. Your Cat Is Peeing And/or Pooping Outside the Litterbox

Time to dispel a myth! Cats are not being spiteful when they urinate or defecate on your bed/laundry/throw rug/insert whatever else they might be using as their personal toilet. When cats do this it is a sign that they need HELP.

Also Read: 6 Common Reasons Why Cats Pee Outside The Litter Box

Going outside the litterbox is called inappropriate elimination, and it is a sign that there is something not right with your cat. Stress from any cause, including pain and gastrointestinal and urinary disorders, are often a cause of inappropriate elimination.

9. Your Cat Has a Greasy or Matted Haircoat

How to Bathe a Cat Reasons to Give a Cat a Bath

Most cats only need to be bathed when they’ve come into contact with substances they can’t safely lick off of their bodies.

Healthy cats are typically fastidious groomers. If your cat stops grooming, that is a sign that something is causing your cat to stop their daily hygiene routine, such as pain, nausea, or stress. Even obesity can interfere with a cat’s ability to groom properly and can lead to matting or other haircoat issues.

In addition, if your cat has greasy fur with excessive dandruff that could be a sign that your cat isn’t grooming properly or it could be a sign of a skin condition called seborrhea, which can be treated.

10. Your Cat Makes Funny Faces When Eating

You’ve likely seen the videos on social media where a cat is fed something, often cold, and after taking a lick or two makes the most hilarious face.

While we humans laugh at this, the cat doesn’t think it is very funny because the funny face is due to a painful or sensitive tooth.

Feline odontoclastic resorptive lesions, FORLs for short, are dental issues in cats that are similar to cavities in humans, except they aren’t caused by bacteria. We don’t know the exact cause of FORLs, but we do know that the condition eats away at teeth, exposing the pulp cavity and causing pain and inflammation.

So when you see a cat make a funny face after eating something (usually cold) it is because that cat is in PAIN and needs to see a vet.

So there you go! Now you know the most common subtle signs of sickness in cats, and hopefully, this information will help you care for your cat better and help your cat live longer and healthier.

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About Dr. Sarah Wooten, DVM, CVJ

A 2002 graduate of UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Sarah Wooten is a well known international speaker in the veterinary and animal health care spaces. She has 10 years experience in public speaking and media work, and writes for a large number of online and print animal health publications. Dr. Wooten is also a certified veterinary journalist, a member of the AVMA, and has 16 years experience in small animal veterinary practice. To learn more, visit drsarahwooten.com.

14 thoughts on “10 Subtle Signs Your Cat May Be Sick”

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    1. small mallory photoMallory Crusta

      Hi Michelle, it sounds like you’re describing a cat who is severely itchy and scratching to the point of drawing blood. This is absolutely a sign of discomfort, and potentially, illness. If your cat is doing this, I’d recommend seeing a vet. Thanks!

    2. Cherry ann

      My female kitten cat sometimes throws up her undigested kibble. Plus she Also vomits a green color foam. Sometimes brown in color or yellow. Is she sick.? I don’t have money to take her to vet as i am a poor student. Please help! Ty

    3. small mallory photoMallory Crusta

      Hi Cherry, occasional vomiting any of those colors (and consistencies) is not necessarily indicative of illness. If she isn’t showing any other signs that she’s sick, and the vomiting is not happening on a consistent basis every few weeks or less, I wouldn’t worry about it. I would recommend, though, that you switch to wet food for your kitten. A lower-cost wet food will be better for her long-term than the kibble, and you may even find that she vomits less on it.

    1. small mallory photoMallory Crusta

      Hey Mona, black poop is generally indicative of some bleeding higher in the GI tract, and a vet trip is justified. You can learn more about it in our stool chart here.

  1. Carol macaluso

    My daughter took her cat to a vet due to an abscess under ear area. Vet adv abscess , drained it & put in tube. Drain, they also adv ears dirty, need cleaning which they did. Brought cat home, now it keeps falling over. Never did this before. Took cat to another vet, of course they did not see cat walk, adv my daughter cat needs to see a neurologist. What could have caused this?. Flushed ears out with liquid (1st vet) could possibly the ear flushing liquid somehow went into the abscess & down into inner ear? Cat has never fallen over until she took it to the 1st vet. Very strange. What do you think? Carol

    1. small mallory photoMallory Crusta

      Hey Carol, thanks for the comment. That is very curious, and I’m afraid I can’t give any insights as to what happened. You may be able to get more help if you post about this in the All About Cats Community, where we have veterinary moderators who may give more expert advice.

  2. Christine

    Great list of tips! Just a note, too – if your kitty is struggling to pee (which -could- look like constipation), it could very well be an emergency. Male cats especially can develop urinary obstructions that are life-threatening (and incredibly painful) if not addressed by a veterinarian immediately!

  3. Josephine

    My cat is walking slow now not sitting on my lap or bed, plus moves away from me why is this. He had been to the vets as he had a sore on his tail, in which he had 2pain killers and antibiotics but not his normal self