The signs of illness in cats can be particularly subtle, so much so that owners often don't realize their cats are sick until they're REALLY sick -- and sometimes that's too late.
To keep your cat healthy, you must be able to recognize what is normal for your pet so you can tell when something isn't right. Changes in appetite, drinking habits, litter-box routines, grooming, and even a change in the sound of your cat's voice can all mean trouble -- and should mean a trip to the veterinarian.
Physical changes are important, too. A monthly hands-on examination will help you become aware of changes that could signify something serious.
Before starting a hands-on exam, though, stand back and study your pet for a few minutes. Consider his posture, activity level, gait, coat and overall appearance for an impression of good health. Trouble signs include exposed skin, thin or dry coat, ribs showing, sluggishness, limping, or just lack of "spring" in his step.
Pick up your cat and head for the bathroom scale. Note your weight with your cat, then yours alone. The difference is your cat's weight, and it should be between 8 and 10 pounds. Your cat is normal if a comfortable pad of fat lies over his ribs but you can still feel the ribs if you press your hands in gently. A difference of a pound up or down is fine over the course of a few months; anything more or rapid weight loss is reason for concern.
Now for the hands-on part. Here's what to look for:
-- Nose. Your cat's nose should be moist and clean, not dry, scabbed or cracked. There should be no discharge or bleeding.
-- Eyes. Probably the most beautiful part of any cat, eyes should bright, moist and clear, centered between the eyelids, with the pupils of equal size. Eyes that are dull or sunken, that appear dry or have thick discharge are not right. Take your cat into a darkened room, then quickly turn on a light. The pupils should contract quickly, with no difference between them.
-- Ears. The skin should be clean, dry, smooth and without wounds. The ear canal should be clean and almost odor-free. Crust, moisture, discharge or strong odor in the ear canal is bad news, as is pain at the touch or an unusual way of holding the head or ears.
-- The mouth. Your cat's teeth should be clean and white, with gums that are uniformly pink. Press on your pet's gum with your finger or thumb and release quickly. The color will be white but should return to the same color as the surrounding tissue within one or two seconds, a sign your cat's circulatory system is working well. Problem signs here include loose or missing teeth, tartar, or gums that are red, pale, inflamed or sore in appearance.
-- Breathing. It should be hard to hear your cat breathe, and his chest wall should move easily in and out as he does. Most of the act of breathing should be performed by the chest wall; the stomach should barely move. "Crackles" or wheezes indicate a problem, as does labored or rapid breathing.
-- The abdomen. Start just behind the ribs and gently press your hands into the abdomen. Proceed toward the rear of your pet, passing your hands gently over the abdomen. Some bumps should be there -- they're internal organs, such as the kidneys. You should find no other lumps, bumps or masses, though, and your pet should feel no discomfort as you press gently into him.
-- Hydration. Check to ensure your cat has enough fluids by pulling the skin just behind his shoulder blades into a tent and then releasing quickly. Your pet's skin should snap immediately back into position. Another good sign of hydration is that the gums just above the teeth are moist when touched.
Chances are your cat will check out fine, in which case your exam should turn into a long, loving petting session. If anything came up that worries you, see your veterinarian to ensure your cat's good health.
Pets on the Web: The incomparable Cat Fanciers Web site (www.fanciers.com) should be the first stop for any cat-lover in cyberspace. You could explore their medical page for days and still not take in all of it. Great articles, great links.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies" and "Cats for Dummies," and is the editorial director of the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or e-mail to Giori(at)aol.com.
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