Our cats can’t tell us when they’re sick, so often we’re left seeking clues from their behavior or from physical signs we can observe. Sudden changes in appetite, mobility, litter pan use, or grooming can all be signs of illness in cats.
Here we’ll look specifically at your cat’s coat and what it can tell you about your animal’s overall health. A little vigilance now can help you spot potentially serious health problems in your pet before they become critical.
Undergrooming—Arthritis and Other Possible Causes
Cats are usually fastidious groomers, sometimes interrupting play or other activities to smooth out an unruly patch of fur. A sudden decrease in this normal grooming behavior can be a sign of a health problem. For example: older, arthritic, or injured cats frequently lack the basic mobility to groom themselves effectively. An animal that’s in pain will tend to undergroom and avoid positions that are uncomfortable. Also, cats with oral or dental pain will tend to both groom less often and to show less interest in food (particularly in dry kibble). It’s best to see your vet to rule out dental decay or oral infections as a cause for undergroomed fur.
Overgrooming—Dermatitis, Fleas, and Parasites
Various forms of parasites and skin infections can cause a cat to overgroom—sometimes to the point that bald patches, thinning fur, or areas of skin irritation (called “hot spots”) can occur. If your cat spends significant time outdoors and you suspect parasites, ask your vet to recommend a good flea shampoo and a long-term treatment to keep the parasites away. Keep in mind, even indoor cats can suffer from fleas and parasites. If none are present, your pet may be suffering from dermatitis. A veterinary exam can help refine the diagnosis and guide treatment choices.
A Patchy or Scraggly Coat—A Possible Sign of Malnutrition
A scraggly or patchy coat can be the sign of malnutrition. Especially common among feral cats, a poor coat often resolves when the animal receives a healthy diet, rich in proteins and omega-3 fatty acids (fish oils). If your animal’s symptoms persist, despite a healthy appetite and a nutritious diet, you will want to see your veterinarian to explore other possible causes.
Lumps, Tumors, or an Oily Coat—Possible Signs of Serious Infections
Various severe infections, like Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV), pneumonia, and feline leukemia (FeLV) can manifest as dermatologic problems. If you notice any lumps or tumors beneath your cat’s coat, or if your cat has oily unkempt fur, check with your vet. A blood test can rule out these life-threatening blood-borne infections.
Sign of Thyroid Disease
Cats can suffer from both underactive (hypo) or overactive (hyper) thyroid conditions, each of which can affect their coats. A greasy or matted coat (when accompanied by symptoms such as weight loss, increased appetite or thirst, restlessness, and rapid heart rate) could signal an overactive thyroid. A matted or unkempt coat in the presence of lethargy, weakness, mental dullness, and weight gain could signal an underactive thyroid. Thyroid conditions in cats are serious but are medically treatable. Early intervention is best, so if you suspect thyroid disease in your cat, see your vet as soon as possible.
Other Signs of Illness
If upon examining your cat’s coat, you notice dryness, flaky skin or excess dander, greasiness, bald or thinning patches, or lumps under the skin, see your veterinarian. Be prepared to talk about any deviations from normal behavior (activity, appetite, mood, etc.) that your cat displays.
A thorough physical exam and blood tests can often help to diagnose hidden illness and point the way to effective treatment, but make sure you're prepared with cat insurance.
Cecily Kellogg is a pet lover who definitely has crazy cat lady leanings. Her pets are all shelter rescues, including the dog, who is scared of the cats. She spent eight years working as a Veterinary Technician before becoming a writer. Today she writes all over the web, including here at Figo.