What's Wrong With My Cat? 4 Common Health Questions

Photo: itsmejust/Shutterstock.

Even though cats outnumber dogs in U.S. households, they get far less veterinary care. Based on the recent influx of emails from cat owners seeking advice on Pets@mnn.com, it’s obvious that many cat owners have questions — and they’ll do just about anything to avoid packing up the cat and heading to the nearest clinic. While some cats simply hate the vet, avoiding veterinary care can lead to costly vet bills down the line.

“Educating people on the importance of care for their cats is at the forefront of veterinary medicine,” says Dr. Annie Price, owner of Ormewood Animal Hospital in Atlanta. “Even our vet language needs to improve. We’ll say, ‘[cats are] easier than dogs.’ They’re not. They just don’t have to be walked outside. They need the same care, same routine check-ups, same vaccination plan.”

With that in mind, Price took time to answer a few pressing cat health questions from our readers:

cat at the vet

I have an 18 1⁄2-year-old female cat. She seems to still be healthy as can be and her appetite is normal, but lately she has been clingy. I had to move recently. Do you think her clinginess is caused by a health problem or is it just a reaction to environmental changes?

Price: Cats are very good about maintaining a normal façade on the outside, and can have quite a bit of disease going on. By the time you actually see a cat showing clinical signs of a disease, they’ve been sick for a while. That’s why it’s so important to be very proactive. In many cases, we can slow the progression of a disease or cure an illness before they ever show clinical signs.

If a cat is clingy and there is a noticeable difference to the owner, it’s either behavioral or medical. Cats are so good at hiding disease and compensating, but if they undergo anything that is stressful, it can cause them to show chronic signs. They may have had kidney disease and the water in your new home tastes funny so they stop drinking it and become dehydrated.

Another common condition in cats is interstitial cystitis, which causes an issue with the bladder. Its symptoms include clinginess.

Navigating a new floor plan, stairs or even a new food bowl and litter box location can be challenging. If the cat is 18, I guarantee it has arthritis. Cat owners don’t typically see these symptoms because — unlike with dogs — cats don’t go for a walk. Arthritis in cats is the most underdiagnosed condition. Always have a physical exam and see the vet to rule out medical causes before saying it’s only behavioral. Cats can have behavioral changes that are actually subtle clinical signs that there is something serious going on.

cat grooming itself

My cat Buster has developed matted fur and flakes of skin that seem like dandruff over the last few weeks. I tried brushing him, but it isn't helping much. He is eating well, hasn’t lost weight, and there has been no change to his routine. He can go outside and rarely leaves the yard. What could be the cause?

It would help to know the age of the cat. A young cat with matted hair and dandruff isn’t grooming itself well. That may be caused by a painful mouth, making it uncomfortable to groom. Kidney disease or a urinary tract infection also may lead to a low-level state of nausea and less grooming.

If the cat is older, arthritis may be the cause. Cats have to do some fantastic yoga poses, especially when reaching their backs and hips. Those areas are most commonly affected by arthritis. The other possible culprit would be fleas.

I live with four cats and two dogs. The two male cats are perfectly behaved, but the two females have issues. The older one, Gretchen, has always been aggressive towards the younger Rosemary. Gretchen has some medical issues that have led to some litter box problems, but Rosemary has become the real issue. We've taken her to the vet and physically she is fine. Rosemary started by defecating outside of the litter box, usually in the same two places. But it has escalated to her also urinating outside the litter box, in many places with no rhyme or reason. Last night, Rosemary urinated on my mother’s bed while she was sleeping in it. We're at a breaking point. Any insight or advice you provide would be greatly appreciated.

cats, litterbox, health issues

That’s a behavioral problem. Always have kitties checked out to make sure there is no underlying cause such as arthritis or bladder cystitis. Then look at the setup. Where is the litter box? Is it in a quiet place or next to the washer and dryer that make a lot of noise? You need a litter box on every floor of the house and one, if not two, per cat. Of course, nobody actually does that unless they have an issue.

Other issues to consider include whether the litter box is covered. Rosemary may particular about these factors, including the substrate used inside the litter box. You may want to try pine.

Also, look closely at how the cats interact. Cats that are picked on by more dominant cats tend to be on the defense, and the litter box is a very vulnerable position. How would you like to have a cat staring at you or waiting to bully you? When there’s a confrontation between two cats, the more submissive cat may show elimination signs because they don’t want to be in the vulnerable position in the litter box.

Start by adding more litter boxes. You also can consult a board-certified veterinary behaviorist — not a trainer. Most of the time, when you use a really good board-certified behaviorist, you can address the problem without removing the cat. That’s if you do what they tell you.

cat, fleas

I have a 9-year-old female Russian blue. She has always been an indoor cat. She has these bumps on her rump and up into the tail. I took a good look at them and they look like acne. There is dandruff in the area and she is touchy about the bumps. Even though we have an air-conditioned apartment, the bumps only seem to show up during the summertime. I feed her Iams for indoor/elder cats, and 9Lives tuna in the can. She likes to lick at coconut oil also. What is the reason she has dry skin in one area only?

Because of the location as the base of the tail, my guess is fleas. Even an indoor cat who never goes outside is susceptible to flea infestation. They jump on clothes, they come under the door, and they can come through the floor joists. Hardwood floors are actually harder to rid of flea eggs than carpet. Ridding the home of fleas means hiring a company to do a treatment. We sell a spray that can be used on hardwood or carpet.

In addition to tackling fleas in the home, the cat needs to be treated with a good topical flea control from the vet. Over-the-counter flea control — even though it says "safe for cats" or has a picture of a cat — actually can be dangerous. It’s frustrating that so many topical treatments have pyrethrins, which are perfectly safe for dogs but can be very dangerous to place on a cat.