How to Treat Common Cat Diseases

By: Dr. H. Ellen Whiteley
cat diseases
Learning how to spot and treat a disease in your cat can help ensure a long, happy life. See more cat pictures. GK Hart/Vikki Hart / Getty Images

Some people have the idea that animals carry all kinds of dangerous diseases. Some of those fears are well founded, especially among wild or exotic animals. But the truth is, there aren't very many serious diseases you can catch from a domestic animal -- and especially not from a pet. Otherwise, it wouldn't make very good pets, would they? There are, however, some diseases that can be very serious for your cat. In this article, we will review and provide treatment for various cat diseases over the following sections:

  • Cat Disease BasicsBefore you can understand how to diagnose a cat with a disease or go about curing one, there are a few fundamental facts you should know. First, we will dispel the myth that you can catch diseases from your cat. Most diseases like cancer or diabetes are not contagious anyway. There are, however, a few conditions that you can catch from your cat, and we will review these for you. Fleas or ticks, for example, can attach themselves to you just as easily as your cat.
  • Early Signs of Cat IllnessThere are many different types of diseases you cat can suffer from, but there are some general indications that your might not be feeling well. We will describe these telltale signs for you in this section. Changes in your cat's behavior, though hard to detect, can be a sign of a serious problem. Changes in appetite or elimination are also a strong sing that your cat is coming down with something. Finally, changes in your cat's appearance are also a sign to look for.
  • When to Call the VeterinarianWhile we want to give you the information you need to recognize a potentially dangerous disease in your cat, there are some problems that should only be handled by your veterinarian. Proper cat care is part or being a pet owner, but you should also know your limitations. In this section, we will tell you the situations that you should definitely not try to take care of yourself. Even if your cat already has an illness, we will tell you the signs you need to look for that your cat's symptoms have taken a turn for the worse.
  • How to Treat Cats With AsthmaA cat can be predisposed to asthma in the same way that humans are -- from allergies. And just like people with asthma, cats can also suffer asthma attacks. During an attack you cat will have trouble breathing and will be clearly struggling to catch her breath. If an attack is serious enough, it could be fatal for your cat. In this section, we will show you the steps you can take to ease your cat's asthma. Much like a human with asthma, you might have to asthma-proof your home for your cat.
  • How to Treat Cats With CystitisIf your cat has frequent urinary or bladder problems, they might develop a highly problematic disease named cystitis. Symptoms of this condition include blood in the urine, frequent urination, or difficulty urinating. Your cat can even form something similar to kidney stones, which can be very painful. In this section, we will show how you can reduce your cat's risk for cystitis. First of all, what you feed your cat can have an enormous affect on whether or not your cat contracts cystitis. Also, stress can play a role in affecting your cat's health.
  • How to Treat Cats With DiabetesMuch like in humans, an overweight cat has a significantly higher risk of contracting diabetes. Diabetes in cats works in the exact same way that it does in people -- the body's ability to produce insulin and process sugar is hampered. Diabetes is rare among cats, especially younger cats. However, a cat with diabetes can have very dire complications. In this section, we will show you how to diagnose cat diabetes and how to reduce your cat's chances of contracting the disease. We will also alert you to the signs that your cat could be falling into hypoglycemia.
  • How to Treat Cats With Feline Immunodeficiency VirusFeline Immunodeficiency Virus is sometimes referred to as feline AIDS, however, this is not entirely correct. There are some strong similarities between the two diseases, but the important distinction to make is that humans cannot, under any circumstances, catch the AIDS virus from a cat. This was a common misconception among pet owners that has lead to a lot of anxiety in the past. We will tell you how to get your cat tested for this virus and what to do if your cat has a positive reading. We will also show you how to treat your cat symptoms and how to work with your veterinarian.
  • How to Treat Cats With Kidney DiseaseKidney disease can be a silent killer of cats. The major problem is that a cat with kidney disease will probably not show any outward signs of illness until the disease has progressed to a dangerous point. Kidney disease can eventually result in kidney failure, which is often fatal for cats. We will tell you what the signs of kidney disease are and how to spot them.
  • How to Treat Cats With Liver DiseaseUnlike kidney disease, liver disease will have outward symptoms that you will notice. The only problem is, the signs of liver disease are easily mistaken for other common illnesses. We will describe the warning signs of liver disease and show you how to tell them apart from other disorders. We will also show you how to work with your vet to treat your cat.
  • How to Treat Cats With Tooth and Gum DiseaseIf plaque builds up on cat's teeth, your cat can develop gum disease. If left untreated, your cat's gum disease could result in pain and the loss of appetite. In this section, we will show you how to administer proper dental care to your cat. We will show you the proper ways to brush your cat's teeth and what foods with produce healthy teeth for your cat.
  • How to Treat Cats With Upper Respiratory DiseaseIf you come down with a cold, you can probably assume that you have been exposed to a germ or virus. If your cat catches a cold, there are a small number of feline viruses that you can attribute the illness to. There are vaccines for theses viruses, but they do not guarantee that your cat will never catch a cold again. In this section, we will show how to prevent upper respiratory diseases and how to stop your cat from spreading them around the neighborhood.


Cat Disease Basics

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Though they can be quite serious for your cat, humans cannot catch feline diseases.

Before we go any further, there are a few myths to put to rest. There are a couple of cat diseases that have names that sound a little too close for comfort to some very serious human diseases. Feline leukemia virus (FeLV) does cause cats and in cats only. FeLV does not cause leukemia in people, and it can't even live in the human body. There's no danger that an FeLV-positive cat is going to make her owner sick.

Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) sounds a lot like the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus associated with AIDS. That's no coincidence: FIV and HIV belong to the same class of viruses, but that's where the similarities end. FIV does not infect people and can not cause human AIDS. Some folks -- and even some vets -- call FIV "feline AIDS" as a quick way of describing what the virus does. Unfortunately, the name just adds to the confusion. AIDS is a human disease, and FIV is a cat disease.


There's also virtually no chance that your cat's cold will get passed to you -- or, for that matter, that your cold will get passed to her. The viruses that usually cause sneezing, coughing, and runny nose and eyes in cats don't infect people.

Cats can get some of the same diseases that people also get: diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, and cancer, to mention a few. But since none of these diseases are contagious, there's no way you can catch them from your cat.

Generally, cats are thought of as being less dangerous than dogs (you don't see any front-page stories about a vicious Siamese that bit the arm off some poor delivery person), and their reputation for cleanliness gives the impression that they carry no diseases at all. But in fact, most vets would rather face an angry dog than an angry cat. (Cats can bite you and slash you with all four feet.) And there are a few things you can catch from your cat. Here are some of the human-cat diseases you should know about:

Fleas. These hardy little insects bite warm-blooded animals and use their blood for food. Fleas are so tiny that a single bite is barely noticeable (unless you or your cat are allergic, in which case it itches like crazy). A full-blown flea infestation, however, can take so much blood from an animal that it becomes anemic.

Fortunately for us, fleas prefer the warmer body temperature of cats and dogs to our 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. But a hungry flea will take any port in a storm, and a flea will jump from an infected cat to carpets, drapes, furniture, and later onto you for a quick snack.

There's some concern that diseases carried in the blood could be passed through fleas but that would mean the flea that bites you would have to have bitten another person with a blood-borne disease, which is possible but highly unlikely. The largest dangers of fleas are the annoyance and itching of the bites.

Ticks. These are also blood-sucking insects. Ticks are somewhat larger than fleas, especially once they've attached themselves to a host and swell up. Like fleas, ticks aren't as likely to abandon your cat for you, but it can happen. Also, if your cat has been somewhere that ticks hang out, the odds are either you've been there, too, or your cat has brought them home. Again, the most common problem is annoyance. However, ticks can carry two serious diseases: Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Lyme disease.

The best protection against both of these diseases is prompt and complete removal of ticks. A few generations of Boy Scouts were taught that the best way to remove a tick is to burn its fanny with a cigarette or a smoldering match head. Well, besides the fact that Boy Scouts shouldn't be smoking, the evict-a-tick-by-fire strategy is not the best choice.

The best way to remove a tick is to use a pair of tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin line as possible. Pull it straight out, firmly but gently, with slow, even pressure. This should remove the entire tick -- including the head. Ticks are very hardy, so drop it in a small bottle of rubbing alcohol to make sure it's dead (and to preserve it for your vet, if your cat shows any signs of illness). Then, once you have removed the tick, dab the area with a topical antiseptic or antibiotic ointment.

Worms. These little fellows can live in your digestive tract without you realizing they've taken up residence. Worms can be picked up by careless handling of litter boxes and soil that cats have used as a litter box. Children are at particular risk for picking up worms this way.

Worms are often hard to detect, since they live inside the body. The tip-off is usually some sort of digestive problem that doesn't go away and has no other explanation. It's also a good idea to take a sample of your pet's stool to the vet for microscopic examination of worms and worm eggs. Worms can be treated quickly and safely as soon as they are diagnosed.

Ringworm. This isn't really a worm at all. It's a fungus that takes up residence on the skin, causing bald, scaly patches that are usually edged by a red ring. Cats are notorious for being asymptomatic carriers of ringworm, which simply means they can carry the fungus into your home (and onto you) without ever showing any signs themselves. Of course, many cats do show the signs, too.

Whether your cat shows the signs or you do (or both of you do), you'll most likely have to treat the whole house, as well as all the cats in the home. Ringworm spores can survive in the nooks and crannies of your home for months. Treatments might include disinfecting your home, topical ointments or lotions for the scaly patches, dips or baths for your cat, and oral medication.

Rabies. This is serious business. Rabies is a fatal disease. What's more, once the disease has taken hold, there's not much that can be done to stop it. The best defense against rabies is a strong offense. An indoor cat has nearly no chance of being exposed to rabies, but the safest bet is to give your cat a rabies vaccine and keep it current. Rabies is passed in the bite or scratch of an infected animal, so every time an outdoor cat gets in a scrape with another cat or tangles with local wildlife, there's a chance she'll contract it.

Rabies infects all warm-blooded animals, including people. Any bite or scratch from an animal -- even one that you know and that's up-to-date with its rabies shots -- should be treated as potentially dangerous. It's never an overreaction to seek medical care for a cat bite or serious cat scratch.

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Cat scratch fever is a fancy name for a wound inflicted by a cat that becomes infected.

Cat scratch disease (also referred to as cat scratch fever). Some folks insist that cat scratch fever is a myth, but it really is a medically proven disease. Cat scratches and bites can turn into serious infections literally overnight. Cat bites, in particular, need careful attention. Wash bites or serious scratches thoroughly and call your doctor for advice. You may need a tetanus booster or an antibiotic shot to prevent infection.

Toxoplasmosis. Toxoplasma gondii is a protozoan parasite (one-celled organism) that can cause a neurological disease in humans. This protozoa is passed in the stools of infected cats, who in turn catch it from infected animals they've killed and eaten. Cats are what's called the primary vector for the toxoplasma organism, which means the life cycle of the parasite depends on spending at least a little time in the body of a cat.

Cats don't usually show much in the way of symptoms when they're infected with toxoplasmosis -- and a person who picks it up usually doesn't either. There may be some mild symptoms that are passed off as a cold or the flu but that's usually about it. The two major exceptions are people whose immune systems are weakened (such as someone on chemotherapy or a person with AIDS) and pregnant women.

Perhaps as many as 70 percent of adults have already been infected by toxoplasmosis and are now immune. Although cats are the primary vector for this parasite--and it is theoretically possible to pick up toxoplasmosis from careless handling of litter boxes or inhaling toxoplasma spores when cleaning the litter box--most people get toxoplasmosis from digging in dirt contaminated by cat feces or handling or eating raw or undercooked meat.

These are the basic diseases that you have to worry about. In the next section, we will show you the early warning signs that you cat has contracted a dangerous disease.

Early Signs of Cat Illness

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Unfortunately, your cat can't tell you what's wrong with her.

"Forewarned is forearmed," goes a fine old folk saying. In a little less flowery terms that simply means if you know what to expect -- or what to look for -- you're going to be better prepared to handle whatever comes your way.

We can tell if a person is feeling poorly by his facial expression...or because he's one of those folks who loves to tell you about every little ache and pain. Well, a cat's skin is completely covered in fur, she only has a few facial expressions, and she can't talk, so it's up to you to know the subtle -- and not-so-subtle -- signs that something could be wrong.


Early Warnings

Whenever something isn't quite right with your cat, there are usually early warning signs. Unfortunately, the signs may be so slight when they first show up, you can easily miss them. Other times, you might notice something a little different about your cat, but it appears harmless -- and even cute. Keep in mind, the early warning signs may build up so slowly over such a long time that by the time you notice them they aren't early warnings anymore.

When you have a sick cat, nothing is worse than 20/20 hindsight -- that terrible feeling of not seeing something coming when all the signals were there. To help spare you from all of that, here are some important things to look out for:

Changes in behavior. Has your usually friendly cat become more moody, shy, or touchy about being petted lately? Or has your usually moody or shy cat become noticeably more friendly? Any kind of personality change in a cat could be a signal of a developing cat health problem.

New behaviors or increased frequency of behaviors may also be an early warning, such as a cat that never drank from the faucet suddenly learning the trick or an "itchy" cat scratching or rubbing her ears more often. Likewise, if your cat seems thirstier (drinks more often or for longer periods of time), she could be telling you she's got a kidney problem, early diabetes, or simply that it's a little too dry in the house.

You see, it's important to stress here that these behavioral early warnings are just that: warnings. They don't necessarily mean there's a serious problem with your cat, that she has something that could develop into a serious problem, or even that there's anything wrong with her at all. If you catch an early warning sign, just keep a closer eye on your cat to see if the warning sign continues or worsens.

Make a call to your veterinarian at your earliest convenience and discuss what you've seen. Your vet may suggest making an appointment for an exam or just ask some questions and give you some other clues to keep watch for.

Remember, any sort of behavior change may be significant, no matter how slight or unimportant it might seem. Being a good cat watcher not only helps you catch emerging health problems early -- when they have the best chance of being successfully treated -- it can give you a deeper appreciation for the beautiful and complex behavior of cats.

Change in appearance. Does there seem to be a little less of your cat around these days? Or perhaps a little more? Assuming her diet and appetite are the same, a gain or loss of weight could be telling you something potentially more serious is happening inside your cat's body. Does her hair seem thinner? Coarser? Has it lost its healthy shine? A dull coat, excessive hair loss, or fur that feels dry, coarse, or brittle are important signs of possible health problems, too.

Of course, changes in appearance are natural with advancing age, including some loss of body bulk or somewhat scruffier-looking fur. But even these normal changes are important signals; they're saying you now have a senior citizen cat whose needs will be changing along with her body.

Changes in appetite and elimination. Cats are notorious for being picky eaters. But, in fact, finickiness isn't really a normal part of cat behavior. In general, cats will turn up their nose at food for the same three reasons kids will: It doesn't taste good; they're holding out for something better (and know they'll get it if they refuse what they've been given); or they don't feel good.

If your cat has been steadily eating the same diet, then suddenly loses enthusiasm, don't assume she's just gotten tired of the same old food. If we can eat the same breakfast cereal or have the same coffee and Danish pastry every morning, there's no reason why your cat can't be satisfied with the same menu every day. Going off her food (or, for that matter, becoming ravenously hungry) is another way your cat lets you know she's not feeling well.

Since cats use the litter box, you may not notice a change in elimination habits right away. As unpleasant as it may seem, it's a good idea to at least be aware of what you're scooping or dumping from the cat's litter. A marked increase or decrease in urine or stool, the presence of blood or mucous, or a particularly pungent smell (when the box has been recently cleaned) are all warnings of possible trouble ahead.

Likewise, a cat who is litter-box trained but suddenly seems to forget is sending you a message. It could be a behavioral, stress, or environmental thing, but it could also be triggered by worms, a bladder infection, or other potentially serious problems.

It's often hard to pinpoint if a change is strictly in behavior, appearance, or appetite and elimination. For example, pacing the floor might be considered either a behavioral change or an indication of a hyperactive thyroid gland, and a cat who has scratched off patches of hair has a change in appearance that could come from a change in behavior. What's more, changes can happen over a period of days, weeks, or months--or they can just pop up from one moment to the next.

Sudden or abrupt changes are easier to notice. Long-range changes add up over time, usually so slowly we don't catch them until they've made some significant progress.

Let's go back to diabetes as an example. A cat developing diabetes will drink more and will make more frequent trips to the litter box, producing larger volumes of urine. It would be almost impossible to notice your cat making just one extra trip to the water bowl or litter box in the course of a week, and it would still be fairly difficult even when increased to an extra trip every day. And even several extra trips per day can slip past your notice, too, especially since cats are nocturnal and most of the additional water or litter-box breaks could be coming while you're asleep.

By the time you're thinking, "Gee, that cat seems to be spending a lot of time at the water bowl or litter box," she's probably at the several-extra-trips-a-day level. You must work at training yourself to notice your pet's daily habits so you can detect and report any subtle and gradual changes to your vet.

Now that you've noticed a problem with your cat, you now have to decide if this is a problem you can solve at home or if you need the help of your vet. We will offer you some tips to make this decision in the next section.

When to Call the Veterinarian

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Some incidents should not be handled at home and you should take your cat to the vet immediately.

Of course, early warnings don't do you any good if you don't do something about them. You should check out any indicators of potential health problems with your vet as soon as possible, just to be sure. But there are other times when a call to the vet -- or a trip straight to the animal hospital -- is a right-this-minute priority.

Any emergency situation. The common sense definition of a veterinary emergency is when you would call the doctor for yourself if it happened to you. Emergencies where you should take a cat to the vet would therefore include:


  • Profuse bleeding, including any open wound or bleeding from the nose, mouth, ears, or any other body opening.
  • Fractures or dislocations. If you suspect a broken bone, don't try to find the break or set it yourself. Let a professional handle it.
  • Loss of consciousness.
  • Fever of more than 102 degrees Fahrenheit. Cats have a normal body temperature that's a few degrees warmer than ours, but a persistent fever over 102 needs medical attention.
  • Difficulty breathing, swallowing, standing, or walking, including prolonged or frequent panting (cats will sometimes pant in extremely hot or humid conditions, or when they have over-exerted in play), staggering, or an uncoordinated or clumsy gait. (Kittens are always a little clumsy, of course.)
  • Straining or crying in the litter box, especially during urination. Some cats naturally make a big production out of using the box or even make sounds while digging, eliminating, or burying. You'll have to determine what's normal for your cat, but if you have any doubts, call the vet anyway.
  • Convulsion, electrocution, or drowning.
  • Blunt trauma, including high falls, being hit by a car, or getting caught in doors or machinery, even if there is no apparent serious injury. These kinds of accidents may cause internal bleeding or injuries only a veterinary exam can detect.

Any symptom that persists more than 48 hours or worsens (even a relatively mild one). Let's say you notice your cat has started sneezing a lot. It could be that she just crawled into a dusty nook somewhere, or it could be the start of a feline cold. If the sneezing doesn't go away after several hours, the cold begins to look like the more likely choice. If your cat is still sneezing a lot by the second day, it's pretty clear it's not going away by itself any time soon and it's time to call the vet.Of course, if any symptom worsens suddenly or interferes with your cat's breathing, eating, drinking, walking, or elimination, don't wait 48 hours. Call the vet immediately.Now that you know the fundamentals of cat disease, we will start to get into the particulars. We will begin in the next section with discussion of cats with asthma.

How to Treat Cats With Asthma

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Asthma in your cat stems from the same triggers that affect humans -- allergies.

Asthma is a chronic breathing problem. Both cats and people suffer from it, but it isn't contagious. An asthmatic cat (or person) has bouts of extremely difficult breathing called asthma attacks. An asthma attack is fairly easy to spot; you'll notice rapid, open-mouthed breathing accompanied by wheezing and often by forced exhalations.

Because breathing is so severely restricted during an asthma attack, the cat's gums and tongue may take on a bluish color. (Do not try to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation or CPR to a cat having an asthma attack.)


Asthma often develops from another breathing problem called allergic bronchitis. This is pretty much what it sounds like: The airways in the cat's lungs get inflamed as the result of an allergic reaction to inhaled germs, dust (including dust from litter), wood smoke, and other irritants.

Usually the cat has no other major signs of illness, a normal temperature, and continues to eat well. The only telltale sign is that she just has fits of deep, moist-sounding coughing. If the allergic bronchitis goes untreated or the source of the allergy isn't removed, the lungs can be permanently damaged, resulting in emphysema and asthma. Once the damage is done, even removing the original cause or causes of the allergic bronchitis won't make asthma go away.

Recently, some studies have been done on the effects of secondhand smoke on pets. The news is about what you'd expect: Secondhand smoke isn't particularly good for your cat. Cats with asthma or other breathing problems suffer more from secondhand smoke. Remember, asthma is related to allergies, so anything that irritates the air passages of the lungs -- including cigarette smoke -- can trigger an asthma attack.

What to Do

Reduce stress. Stress makes allergies and asthma worse. Right about now you're saying to yourself, "Stress? What the heck kind of stress does a cat have?" That's a fair question. They certainly don't have to worry about paying bills or where their next meal is coming from. (Those are your stresses, actually.) They don't have job pressures or deadlines to meet. Heck, they don't even have to think about what they're going to wear every day.

Cats have stress that we like to call "domestication stress" or "family stress." You see, cats weren't originally designed and built to live among humans. They've done a superb job of adapting, but no matter how independent and primal your cat seems, she's still having to deal with the human world and human civilization every single day. And that gets tough. Giving her plenty of options to do cat things such as run, climb, stalk (preferably another cat), bat things around, hide, and nap in secluded spots helps her cope.

If the stress level goes up in your life or in your household, it goes up in your cat's life, too. She can't understand why things are getting tense -- she just knows people are moving and sounding anxious. Remember, "stress" doesn't just mean negative things; positive events carry stress, too. In fact, probably the worst kind of stress for a cat is change.

A new baby, for instance, is not only a time for great joy but also for great change -- and the stresses that go with that. For you, those stresses mean less sleep (or none at all), a change in lifestyle, and an extra mouth to feed. For your cat, it means some strange new animal, who makes odd noises, smells funny, and doesn't do much, suddenly takes all the human attention away from her!

Clear the air. Secondhand smoke isn't the only thing that can make asthma worse. Even things that we think make our home more pleasant can be a no-no for a cat with bronchitis or asthma. Perfumes, room fresheners, deodorizers, and even scented litters or litter additives can trigger allergy and asthma attacks.

Likewise, the fumes from paints, cleaners, varnishes, and new carpeting are actually chemical irritants that create problems for the asthmatic cat. Use natural objects, such as flowers, eucalyptus sprigs, and fresh floral potpourri, to provide a fresh scent to a room instead of sprays or solids that contain chemicals. Use strong-smelling paints, stains, cleaners, and solvents in well-ventilated rooms, and keep the cat out until the smell goes away. And put out those smokes.

It's a good idea to use plain, natural, unscented litter and to stay away from deodorizers you add to the litter. Also the dust from the litter itself irritates the lungs and can cause attacks in asthmatic cats. Some natural litters -- like the ones made of recycled paper -- have virtually no dust at all. To cut down on dust from clay litters, pour them slowly, keeping the opening of the bag just a few inches from the litter box.

Wetter is better. Dry air dries out the lining of your cat's air passages, encouraging coughing and making your cat more vulnerable to infection and allergic reactions. Be sure to have a good humidifier going, especially in winter, during heating season, and in arid areas of the country. There's an added bonus to this remedy: You will also be less likely to have as many coughs, stuffy noses, and colds in the air if your home is kept properly moist.

Moderation in all things. A sedentary cat is more prone to health problems, but a cat who already has asthma can have a severe attack if she exerts herself too much. On the other hand, if she barely exerts at all, her breathing will be more labored because her heart and lungs aren't fit. Plus, she'll probably gain weight, and the heavier the cat, the more trouble she'll have with her asthma.

Stick to the right amount of a high-quality, healthy diet; cut out the snacks and treats; and make sure your cat stays active. Get her a feline playmate and a good supply of toys. Be certain to play with her yourself, but keep the play sessions short and low-impact.

When to Call the Vet

Any full-blown asthma attack is a medical emergency, which means your cat needs immediate veterinary medical care. Likewise, if your cat gasps for air, collapses, or turns blue in the gums and tongue, don't wait to take her to the animal hospital. Milder signs (such as noisy breath, occasional and intermittent wheezing or moist coughs, or slightly labored breathing after exertion) aren't emergencies, but you should get your cat to the vet as soon as possible. They could be caused by something other than allergies. And if it is bronchitis or the start of asthma, your vet may be able to give your cat medication that can prevent the danger and fright of a full-blown attack.

DANGER LEVEL: Dangerous; a severe asthma attack can be fatal.

In the next section, we will examine how to treat your cat if she has urinary tract disease.

How to Treat Cats With Cystitis

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Cats can form bladder stones, similar to kidney stones in people and just as painful.

A cat's bladder can become inflamed because of infection or irritation. Cystitis most often happens as part of a collection of bladder and urinary problems commonly called feline urological syndrome (FUS) or feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD).

Attacks of cystitis or FUS (which includes cystitis, along with inflammation of the urinary tract and the formation of stones or sand in the bladder) are announced by bloody urine, frequent urination of small amounts, litter box accidents, spraying, excessive licking of the urinary opening, straining in the litter box, and possibly tenderness of the lower abdomen.


The pH of a cat's urine -- how acidic or alkaline it is -- has a lot to do with cystitis and FUS. If the cat's urine is alkaline, it's much easier for urinary crystals to form. These crystals in turn form gritty "sand" or small stones that irritate the lining of the bladder and can plug up the urinary opening in male cats, which is an extremely serious problem.

What to Do

Serious complications of cystitis and FUS show up most often in adult male cats. The first flare-up usually occurs when the cat is fairly young, and repeat bouts can pop up for the rest of his life. That having been said, don't think that just because you have an older or female cat that you're in the clear: Urinary tract problems can strike any cat.

Food for thought. Most experts agree that many factors, including diet, contribute to a cat's susceptibility to developing FUS. Plant-based cat foods tend to make a cat's urine more alkaline (higher pH), which encourages the formation of crystals and stones and is a more hospitable environment for bacteria. Some commercial dry cat foods seem to have the same effect on urinary pH. As a result, cats who develop cystitis or FUS should only eat dry foods recommended by a veterinarian or stick to prescription dry food specially formulated for cats with bladder problems.

Your vet may also suggest a urinary acidifier to add to your cat's diet, making sure the pH of his urine stays low enough to prevent bladder stones, or may recommend a special diet formulated to dissolve crystals or stones in the bladder.

Magnesium is an important trace nutrient that every cat needs. Unfortunately, some commercial cat foods provide it in a form that also encourages crystals to form in the cat's urine, which can lead to bladder stones and, which, in turn, can cause a urinary obstruction. A quality commercial canned food is usually relatively low in magnesium, easy to digest, produces more acidic urine, and provides more fluid intake.

Water, water everywhere. The body is an amazing thing: If it doesn't have enough of something it needs, it finds a way to get it. If a cat isn't drinking enough, his body will find a way to conserve and reclaim water. One way is by reabsorbing water from the urine, making it more concentrated. The urinary tract lining in cats that have already had a bout of cystitis or FUS is particularly sensitive, and concentrated urine can trigger additional attacks.

Make sure your cat has constant access to plenty of clean, fresh water. Watch for your cat's drinking preferences -- some favor a water faucet or even the toilet over a water bowl on the floor. It might seem odd or even a little bit disgusting, but it's probably a good idea to cater to his water-drinking whims, especially if the option is a flare-up of bladder disease.

Cats also get water from their food. The higher the moisture content in his diet, the more water he's getting -- even without drinking. A cat who eats canned food gets a lot of water with the meal and more as a result of breaking down the higher fat, higher energy ingredients that are in most wet foods.

Less stress. The "body-mind connection" works for cats just as well as it does for people. Country folks know that a healthy attitude toward life makes for a healthy body. Unfortunately, you can't explain that to your cat. Instead, it's up to you to minimize his stress and maximize his health.

Try to anticipate problems. Do you know a major change is coming up in your household? Whether it's a new baby, someone going off to college for the first time, a family vacation, or remodeling the kitchen, if you know it's coming it's best to either ease the cat into it slowly or expect an attack of urinary problems and take the necessary precautions.

You should have realistic expectations for your cat. Sure, cats are clever and agile and maybe even a little sneaky, but they're still cats. It's entirely possible that your cat understands everything you say and is just playing dumb or being obstinate.

However, it's equally possible that he's only learned how to get along in human society just well enough to find himself a comfortable situation and doesn't have a clue why you're so bent out of shape that he's been urinating in your beautiful potted plants instead of the convenient litter box you bought him.

Also, if a cat doesn't understand why he's being reprimanded, he stresses out. A stressed cat will announce his unhappiness with a change in behavior, often by elimination. And, to a cat, leaving it where you're sure to notice it -- where your personal smell is strongest -- is a great way to guarantee you'll get the message.

Finally, to lessen your cat's stress, try to stay cool yourself. Have you ever tried to enjoy a favorite activity and then had someone who was really, really intense about it right next to you? To cats, life in your home is basically one long stay at a resort hotel: The weather is always fine, everything is already paid for, you don't have to work, and you can eat, sleep, and play whenever you like.

If the humans in this little paradise are under stress, though, the vacation is suddenly over. Some of this may be cats' fabled sensitivity to people's emotions, but some of it certainly is a reaction to the changes in the way we humans move and speak when we're agitated.

Check the box. A clean litter box filled with the appropriate kind of litter must be available to the cat at all times. Using the litter box is not an instinctive behavior in cats; the instinct part is the action of digging in loose materials to bury their urine and feces (especially if there is a habit of using that spot or the very faint residual smell of elimination there). If something turns them off to the box (like it's too dirty, too perfumey, or too much trouble to get to), they'll either hold it too long (increasing bladder irritation and the risk of infection) or find another "toilet." Check your cat's litter box regularly, making sure it is clean and free of irritants.

When to Call the Vet

Cats with urinary tract problems will often deliberately urinate outside of the litter box, even if they've been 100 percent accurate all their lives. If your cat suddenly starts having "accidents," spraying urine, or squatting and straining outside of the box, don't punish him. He's probably telling you he's got a problem. Call the vet as soon as you notice one of these signals and schedule an appointment for an exam. If it's a physical problem, the sooner your catch it, the easier it will be to treat. If it's a purely behavioral thing, you can start correcting it before it becomes an ingrained habit.

If your cat is straining in the litter box (or elsewhere) and not producing any urine, produces small amounts of bloody urine, or cries during urination, call the vet immediately. These are the signs of a urinary blockage, an extremely serious -- and potentially fatal -- problem.

DANGER LEVEL: Most bladder problems by themselves are not dangerous; they're mostly inconvenient and a nuisance for the owner. However, urinary blockage is extremely dangerous and should be treated as a life-threatening situation.

Next we will deal with a disease that is just as serious for cats as it is for humans -- diabetes.

How to Treat Cats With Diabetes

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Overweight cats are at a high risk for developing feline diabetes.

The pancreas is a long gland that lies directly beneath the stomach. A cluster of specialized cells in the pancreas produce insulin, which regulates the body's uptake and breakdown of sugar. Diabetes mellitus (usually just called diabetes or sugar diabetes) is the result of a shortage of insulin. Diabetics have intense thirst, produce large amounts of urine, and have abnormally high levels of sugar in their blood and urine. Other signs of diabetes are increased appetite and slow healing.

Left untreated, the diabetic cat will lose weight (despite eating more) and become lethargic. Later signs of untreated diabetes include vomiting, diarrhea, rapid breathing, weakness, and finally collapse and death.


Your vet's diagnosis of diabetes is based on the cat's clinical signs, physical exam findings, and laboratory test results, primarily a persistent presence of abnormally high levels of sugar in the blood and urine.

Diabetes is a disease of older cats, rarely occurring before the age of seven years. It can be managed through diet and, when necessary, supplementary insulin. With treatment, diabetic cats can live ordinary lives, and a few may return to normal function for reasons that are not well understood.

What to Do

Watch that weight. Obese cats are more likely to develop diabetes. In fact, cats who weigh in at 15 pounds or more have double the risk of diabetes than the under-15-pound crowd. Keeping your cat's weight under control is a simple formula: Feed only the recommended amounts, limit (or eliminate) snacks and treats, and make sure Tabby stays active.

You are what you eat. A high-fiber diet helps control diabetes by regulating the rate at which nutrients are taken into body cells. This, in turn, keeps blood sugar levels more consistent. Feeding several small meals during the day has a similar effect on blood sugar. A couple of large meals spread several hours apart cause a post-meal blood sugar surge, followed by a below-normal level by the time the next meal comes around. A normal cat's body smooths out these peaks and valleys, but it's a problem for diabetics. Many diabetic cats can have their blood sugar levels returned to normal through diet and weight loss alone.

Be prepared. One of the most important aspects of managing the health of a diabetic cat is consistency. Food and medication must come at regular times, so be sure you always have an adequate supply of both and never skip or substitute.

Occasionally, a diabetic cat on insulin will have her blood sugar level suddenly swing dangerously to the low side -- a condition known as hypoglycemia. Signs of hypoglycemia include shaking, disorientation, salivating, staggering and falling, and seizures. Keep an emergency sugar source on hand at all times (honey or Karo syrup are the usual recommendations). At the first sign of hypoglycemia, rub some on the cat's gums -- and call the vet immediately.

When to Call the Vet

If your cat shows signs of diabetes, schedule a veterinary exam as soon as possible. The longer a diabetic cat goes untreated, the more serious her condition gets. The earlier you can catch and control her diabetes, the more likely she is to have a normal life.

A cat who's already being treated for diabetes needs to go to the vet immediately if she shows signs of hypoglycemia or any kind of reaction to her medication.

DANGER LEVEL: Untreated diabetes and hypoglycemia are extremely dangerous; however, both can be treated and controlled.

While diabetes is a serious problem for cats, we will discuss an even more dire condition in our next section -- FIV, or what is commonly referred to as "feline AIDS."

How to Treat Cats With Feline Immunodeficiency Virus

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. The most common mode of transference of FIV is from one affected cat to another.

FIV, FIP, and FeLV are three extremely serious, incurable, and usually fatal cat diseases caused by viruses. Each is caused by a different kind of virus. However, they are all contagious only between cats, and have the interesting quirk that not all cats exposed to them will get sick.

Unlike the viruses that cause upper respiratory diseases or distemper in cats and can be carried in the air, these three require the physical presence of an infected cat in the same place (although not necessarily at the same time) as the cat who catches it. FIP and FeLV are spread most often by prolonged close contact with an infected cat.


Close contact can include mutual grooming or sharing food, water, elimination areas, or sleeping quarters. This means a cat who goes outdoors and urinates or defecates where a cat carrying FIP or FeLV goes can catch the virus without ever having had physical contact with the carrier. FIP and FeLV can also be spread to kittens by a mother with the virus.

The main route of infection for FIV appears to be a bite from an infected cat. Cats who go outdoors -- particularly if they fight -- are therefore at risk. The most common profile of an FIV-positive cat is an unneutered male who goes outdoors and has sustained bites and scratches from other cats.

Cats who appear otherwise healthy may be carrying these viruses. Reliable blood tests exist for FeLV and FIV. There is a test for FIP; however, a positive FIP test alone -- without other symptoms or risk factors -- is not absolute proof the cat has the virus.

FIV is sometimes also called feline AIDS (or FAIDS). FIV does have a few general similarities to HIV, the virus associated with AIDS: It belongs to the same class of viruses, can stay in the body for years without causing illness, and when it becomes active, slowly breaks down the disease-fighting immune system. However, AIDS is a human disease, and FIV cannot infect humans.

What to Do

Take the test. Since a cat can appear healthy and still carry one of these viruses, a new arrival -- even your first cat -- should be tested for FeLV. Kittens probably don't need FIV tests unless they were strays, but it's probably a good idea to test adult cats from any source. Your veterinarian may recommend a retest in a few months. This isn't a scam; if your cat was very recently infected, it may not show up on the first test.

Stop the spread. There's only one surefire way to prevent your cat from contracting FeLV, FIP, or FIV: Keep her away from the sources of the viruses. In other words, keep her away from other cats and the places they frequent. This usually means keeping cats indoors at all times. It definitely means testing any new cat added to your household for FeLV and FIV before she's allowed to meet the resident cat or have run of any of the same areas. Preventative vaccines are available for FeLV and FIP. Schedule an appointment with your vet to talk about the advisability of vaccinating your cats for these diseases.

Be positive about positives. If your cat tests positive for FeLV or FIV and a retest confirms it, don't give up hope. With good care, FeLV- and FIV-positive cats can live for years, even after signs of disease appear. New treatments are coming all the time, and there may be a breakthrough that will help your cat long before she gets seriously ill.

Be responsible about the news. Keep your cat away from uninfected cats, and don't add any FeLV- or FIV-negative cats to your household. It may be tempting to start taking in other FeLV- and FIV-positive cats who are facing euthanasia, but think it over carefully. Eventually, the disease will catch up with them, and they'll demand a lot of time and resources. It may be best to focus on the special status of your own cat and give her the best possible quality of life.

Treat the symptoms. Most of what you can do for cats who are sick with FeLV, FIP, or FIV is just make them feel better. This might be as simple as indulging them with their favorite foods when their appetites are poor or coaxing them to eat with petting and hand-feeding. However, each virus has its signature complications that may also need attention, usually from the vet and with follow-up or nursing care at home. FeLV causes lymphosarcoma, a kind of cancerous tumor that may need to be removed.

The "wet" (effusive) form of FIP causes fluid to build up in the chest, making breathing difficult, or in the abdomen, giving the cat a bloated appearance. This buildup is a problem your vet can sometimes relieve by suctioning out the fluid with a needle and syringe. Since FIV attacks the immune system, you'll have to stay on top of secondary infections with prevention and medication.

When to Call the Vet

These three viral diseases are a strong case for annual veterinary checkups. The early signs of any of the diseases are often too subtle for the average cat owner to notice, but a veterinarian knows what to look for. In between checkups, notify your vet of any sudden abdominal bloating or swelling, low-grade signs of illness that never quite go away (sneezing or diarrhea, for example), any lumps on your cat's body, or bites or scratches from cats not known to be FeLV- and FIV-negative.

Cats who have been diagnosed with FeLV, FIP, or FIV should see the vet regularly.

DANGER LEVEL: All three of these diseases (FeLV, FIP, and FIV) are extremely dangerous. Although surprisingly few cats exposed to these viruses will get sick from them, once the illness begins it is almost always fatal.

Kidney disease in cats is not nearly as fatal as FIV, but it can still be quite serious. Learn more in the next section.

How to Treat Cats With Kidney Disease

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. At first, a cat with kidney disease will show no outward signs.

The kidneys' major job is filtering out wastes. Age, injury, or disease can damage and destroy the function of kidney tissue. The body can adjust to minor kidney damage or the early stages of kidney failure, so there may be no noticeable signs at first.

As damage or failure worsens, a cat produces more urine and drinks more to compensate. In the later stages of failure, the kidneys can't keep up the pace, and wastes back up in the body, poisoning the cat and causing vomiting, loss of appetite, weight loss, and often telltale "ammonia breath."


Unfortunately, once kidney failure reaches this point, it's usually irreversible. The best way to detect a kidney problem is by a blood test. Mature cats and cats that show any signs of early kidney disease should be screened for kidney function.

What to Do

Kidney failure is sneaky. Many times, the symptoms are masked or completely invisible until the damage is critical. The typical cat in kidney failure has already lost about 70 percent of her kidney function by the time she's diagnosed.

Veterinarians sometimes talk about what is called "end-stage" kidney disease when things start getting that bad. This diagnosis is just what it sounds like. Treatment for end-stage kidney disease can prolong the cat's life and make her feel better, but the end is inevitable.

This doesn't mean that every cat showing signs of kidney trouble is doomed. Sometimes, an infection can set in and the kidneys will shut down. Quick treatment can stop the infection and get the cat back on her feet with very little long-term damage.

Watch for the signs. Do you notice your cat drinking more? Has she suddenly quit eating? Is she listless or depressed? Does she seem to be urinating a lot more or barely at all? Does she seem sore over the lower part of her back or sit in a hunched-up "pain crouch"? All of these -- along with vomiting and diarrhea -- are signs of a possible kidney problem or infection.

Get to the vet. Home care for cats with kidney problems is only follow-up care. You need a vet to diagnose the problem, start treatment, and possibly even hospitalize your cat until she's stable.

Do the right thing. You'll probably be given a very strict diet for your cat and possibly some medications. Follow your vet's instructions as if your cat's life depends on it -- because it does.

When to Call the Vet

You should call the vet immediately if any of the warning signs of kidney failure show up in your cat. Other problems have similar symptoms, and only a thorough exam and blood test can determine for sure that it's a kidney problem. The sooner you can catch it, the better the odds will be.

DANGER LEVEL: Kidney failure is extremely dangerous.

Another urinary tract problem that can significantly affect your cat's health is liver disease. We'll learn about the warning signs and symptoms in the next section.

How to Treat Cats With Liver Disease

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Liver problems have similar symptoms to other cat sicknesses, so it will take a discerning eye to read the signs.

The liver plays an important role in metabolism and taking toxins and other unneeded compounds out of the blood. Liver damage or disease can be the result of a birth defect, infections, poisoning, or other conditions such as heart disease.

Because liver problems are often part of other illnesses, they usually don't have unique symptoms of their own. The notable exception is jaundice, which is a yellowish cast to the white of the cat's eye and possibly even her skin and under her tongue. Usually, abnormal liver function is only discovered or verified through blood tests.


What to Do

Keep a sharp eye out. Liver problems due to infection and poisoning can often be stopped and much of the damage reversed if caught early enough. Watch for symptoms, and don't wait too long to call the vet if your cat is sick (especially if she's not getting better). Never assume any illness will get better by itself.

Since the clinical signs of a cat with liver problems are the same as several other illnesses it can be difficult to determine what's wrong with your cat. These signs include loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, weight loss, dehydration, seizures, and increased urination (thus increased water consumption). Once you notice these symptoms, check for any signs of jaundice to determine if the problem is liver-related.

Follow directions. Once a cat has been diagnosed with liver disease, her recovery depends on you. Carefully follow all diet and medication instructions your vet gives you. Resist the temptation to cheat in order to make your cat "feel better"; in the long run, you may be shortening her life.

When to Call the Vet

Jaundice is a sure sign that something is not normal in the liver, so call the vet immediately.

DANGER LEVEL: Liver disease is usually fatal if not treated, and some forms are fatal no matter what. Therefore, liver disease is extremely dangerous.

Your cat does not brush her teeth every night before bed, and, as a result, tooth and gum disease can be a problem. We'll cover how to care for your cat's choppers in the next section.

How to Treat Cats With Tooth and Gum Disease

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Dental hygiene can be just as important for your as it is for you.

Just like people, cats have a set of baby (deciduous) teeth when young, which are replaced by permanent teeth. Similarly, keeping the teeth and gums healthy requires regular preventative care. Food and saliva form plaque, which can mineralize into hard deposits of tartar.

Gingivitis (inflammation of the gums) and loss of permanent teeth can result. Actual cavities are relatively rare, but pitting and other tooth damage can result from neglecting oral hygiene. Mouth pain and tooth loss may reduce a cat's interest or ability to eat, causing weight loss and making the cat more prone to illness.


What to Do

Brush regularly. You don't need to have an actual toothbrush and paste, but giving your cat's teeth a good going-over a few times a week is the best way to fight plaque. There are pet toothbrushes available, but you can also just use a piece of gauze or rough cloth that is moistened and wrapped around your index finger. Rub the cloth vigorously over the outside surfaces of the teeth (you don't usually need to get the inner or biting surfaces). This will help keep your cat's teeth clean and gums healthy.

Give Tabby the crunchies. Hard, dry cat food is the best bet to prevent plaque and tartar. There are now some chew-toy products on the market made especially for cats, which can also help.

Look out for tartar. Plaque is a mushy whitish material that you can easily scrape off the teeth with your fingernail. Tartar, on the other hand, is greyish, white, or brown and does not come off with brushing. Tartar buildup needs to be removed by your vet.

Gums the word. Giving your cat a weekly gum massage helps keep gums healthy and prevents tooth loss. Using a cotton swab, rub the area where the teeth and gums meet. If the gums are red or there's any bleeding, it could be gingivitis, and your cat may need veterinary treatment.

Broken teeth and abscesses. A cracked canine tooth isn't rare in cats, especially outdoor cats and former strays. Broken teeth are usually only a problem if the pulp (the capsule of blood vessels and nerves in the middle of the tooth) is exposed. This can be quite painful, and the tooth may die.

In either case, there's a risk of infection in the tooth root -- an abscess. Abscesses can also form from bad oral hygiene. Symptoms include swelling around the mouth that may come and go and tenderness. Broken teeth that have exposed pulp, die, or abscess need to be removed by your veterinarian.

When to Call the Vet

Make an appointment with your vet if your cat has tartar buildup, shows signs of gingivitis (red or bleeding gums), has a broken tooth with exposed pulp or that has died (it will usually become discolored), has any swelling or tenderness around the mouth, or has any loose permanent teeth. Adult cats often lose teeth as they get older -- especially the small front incisors -- and veterinary care usually isn't necessary for this.

DANGER LEVEL: Tooth and gum problems can cause discomfort, make the cat touchy, and give her bad breath -- annoying but not particularly dangerous. However, as the problems worsen, the cat can stop eating altogether and infections can set in. These infections could be considered dangerous if not treated.

Moving down from the mouth a little bit, we will discuss upper respiratory diseases in our last section.

How to Treat Cats With Upper Respiratory Disease

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. If your cat has an upper respiratory infection, it's best to keep her away from other cats.

Coughing, sneezing, runny eyes and nose, and possibly a fever are all the familiar symptoms of a cold. Unlike in humans, however, most feline "colds" have known (and preventable) causes, usually one of three kinds of viruses. Safe and reliable vaccines are available to prevent them all.

Even vaccinated cats may have upper respiratory infections, though, and most will resolve within a few days to two weeks. Severe infections or those in cats with weakened immune systems may last several weeks. Although antibiotics won't kill the viruses, they are often prescribed to treat or prevent secondary infections that take hold when the virus damages tissue in the nose, eyes, sinuses, mouth, and possibly even the lungs of an affected cat.


Early signs of upper respiratory disease include sneezing, watery eyes, and a clear discharge from the nose. The cat usually runs a fever and may salivate. As the infection advances, the lining of the eyes may get inflamed (conjunctivitis), giving the eyes a "meaty" appearance; the nasal discharge contains pus; the tearing from the eyes turns white; and ulcers may appear in the mouth or on the tongue.

Advanced symptoms -- most commonly seen if the disease is left untreated -- include the eyelid being glued shut by pus and discharge with ulceration and destruction of the eyeball, loss of appetite due to obstruction of the nose by mucous and pus, and pneumonia. Viral pneumonia can be fatal and about one in five cats that develop it will die.

What to Do

Be sure she has her shots. Current vaccinations are the best protection against upper respiratory viruses. Even indoor cats who never have contact with another cat need their shots since the viruses are carried through the air.

Don't wait for it to go away. Even though many upper respiratory infections clear up on their own, don't assume this one will. Notify your vet. The virus can attack the eyeball, causing permanent damage or blindness. Also, a cat with an untreated cold will stop eating or may develop a fatal case of pneumonia.

Don't spread it around. Upper respiratory viruses are highly contagious. A cat with an active case must be kept away from other cats. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and hot water after petting, medicating, or otherwise working with the sick cat.

When to Call the Vet

If you call the vet when you see the early symptoms of a cold, the odds are you can prevent the worst-case scenario. Veterinarians can recommend a vaccine that can prevent feline "colds." This vaccination may not always work, but it can improve your cat's chances for a healthy recovery. At any rate, once any of the later symptoms appear (pus in the discharge from nose or eyes, ulcers in the mouth or on the tongue, loss of appetite), get the cat to the vet immediately.

DANGER LEVEL: Upper respiratory infections are fairly common and mild ones are only moderately dangerous. However, if left untreated or found in very young or elderly cats or cats with weakened immune systems, complications from what started out as a simple cold can be fatal.

Cats are just as susceptible to diseases as their owners. Just as there are steps you take in your life to prevent disease, there are steps you can take to keep your cat healthy. But, as with any serious disease, you should immediately see a medical professional if you suspect a serious problem.

©Publications International, Ltd.