Top 10 Common Cat Health Problems - Feeding your Cat Right

Knowing the most common health problems that affect cats can help you look out for important signals. Diet also plays an important role for the development of a healthy cat. Therefore, feeding your cat a nutritionally balanced diet will ensure optimal health and possibly help to prevent illnesses. 

Here are the top 10 most common health problems to look out for, listed in no particular order. 

1. Hairballs

2. Ringworm

3. Parasite infection

4. Eye problems

5. Heartworm

6. Upper respiratory infection

7. Urinary tract infection

8. Kidney disease

9. Diabetes

10. Cancer

1. Hairballs 

Every week or two your cat might puke a wad of undigested hair. These are not usually round but shaped like a cigar or sausage. 

Cats get hairballs more frequently during shedding season. Kittens and young cats are less apt to develop hairballs. 

Long-haired breeds may be at greater risk of developing hairballs than short-haired breeds. Older cats are also more susceptible since they spend a good portion of their time licking their coats. 

Dr. Goldstein recommends that owners brush their cats’ coats daily to minimize the development of hairballs and their complications. He points out that excessive self-grooming may be a sign of a food allergy-related skin problem.

Symptoms of hairball-related problems

  • Hairball colour that is totally different from the cat’s coat 
  • Hairball longer than five inches and thicker than an inch
  • Loss of appetite
  • Constipation 
  • Lethargy

When the wad of matted hair grows too large to pass through the narrow passages from the oesophagus to the stomach or from the stomach to the intestinal tract, it can become fatal. 

Bring the cat to a veterinarian immediately if nothing comes out during retching. The frequent hacking motion may be a sign of another gastrointestinal problem or a respiratory ailment.

Treatment

If the cause of the hairball is just due to excessive licking, you can feed your cat high-fibre cat food, treats or gels. The kibbles fed should contain 8 to 10% fibre while wet foods should be 2 to 4%.

Owners should not give laxatives to their cats on their own without the approval and supervision of a veterinarian. 

2. Ringworm

Although the name suggests otherwise, ringworm isn’t caused by a worm at all. Also known as dermatophytosis, it is a fungus that can infect the skin, hair and nails. 

If not treated properly, this highly contagious disease can cause lesions over large areas of the animal’s body, causing skin infections.

It can spread to humans and other pets in the household, too. 

Symptoms

  • Skin lesions – usually on the head, ears and forelimbs
  • Flaky bald patches that sometimes look red in the center
  • In mild cases, localized areas of redness or simply dandruff
  • None – but the cat carries ringworm spores 

Ringworm is transmitted through direct contact with an infected animal. Otherwise, it is through indirect contact with materials contaminated with skin cells or hair of infected animals. 

Kittens less than a year old, long-haired cats, old cats and those with compromised immune systems are most prone to infection. Warm and humid conditions tend to promote ringworm infections, too.

Treatment

Depending on severity, the veterinarian may prescribe:

  • A medicated shampoo or ointment 
  • Oral medication

Keeping your cat’s immune system in great shape will help prevent it from catching any fungal infections in the first place. Feed your cat the most nutritious fresh food possible. 

Raw, unprocessed meat packed in cans would have the highest nutritional value. The more processed the meat is, the less natural nutrients it would hold. 

Heat from cooking meat destroys taurine, an essential nutrient for cat health, as well as other water- and fat-soluble vitamins. 

That is why dry food is a less advisable option. To make up for nutrients lost from so much processing (blending, cooking, heating, drying), artificial supplements and flavouring are added into dry food.

3. Parasite infection

Intestinal parasites or “worms” can cause no outward signs of infection. 

Outdoor cats or those routinely exposed to soil where other animals defecate are prone to worms. Other ways of transmission include ingesting prey infected with the parasite, through nursing/pregnant mother cats or through infected fleas. Cats which do not receive regular preventative health care are most at risk.

Common types of worms: 

  • Roundworms - the most common internal parasite resembling spaghetti three to four inches long 
  • Hookworms - less than an inch long and reside primarily in the small intestine 
  • Tapeworms - long, flat, segmented parasites 4 to 28 inches long 
  • Lungworms – worms that reside in the lungs 

Symptoms

Symptoms differ depending on the type of parasite and the location of infection, but some common clinical signs include:

  • Worms visible in stool or segments of worm seen near anus
  • Bloating or round, pot-bellied abdomen
  • Trouble breathing
  • Constipation
  • Bloody stool
  • Weight loss
  • Vomiting
  • Coughing
  • Diarrhoea
  • Anaemia

Bring your cat to a veterinarian to confirm the presence of worms. Avoid self-diagnosis since worms are not always visible or identifiable.

Treatment 

  • Injection 
  • Oral medication
  • Topical medication

Prevention

  • Keep your cat indoors to avoid exposure to infected cats, rodents, fleas and faeces.
  • Avoid giving your cat fresh meat from the market or homemade raw meals. These may sometimes contain parasites which are not always visible to the naked eye. Instead, opt for raw cat food prepared by pet food specialists. The quality standard for commercial meat for raw pet food is actually higher than fresh meat from the market. Raw meat from the market is expected to be cooked. Raw meat for pet food canning is not, so the hygiene standard for this meat is much higher than that for  human consumption. Additionally, raw canned foods must undergo pasteurisation to sanitize the contents further.

4. Eye Problems

A number of things can cause eye-related problems:

  • viruses 
  • trauma 
  • cataract
  • glaucoma
  • corneal ulcer  
  • conjunctivitis
  • inflammation 
  • retinal disease

Symptoms 

  • squinting
  • cloudiness
  • watery eyes
  • tear-stained fur
  • pawing at the eye
  • visible third eyelid
  • red or white eyelid linings
  • gunk in the corners of the eye

Eye problems should not be taken lightly. Sometimes the root of the problem is something else entirely. Unless you know the cause for sure, there isn't much you can do except to pay a visit to your vet.  

Treatment 

The kind of treatment varies greatly according to the cause of the eye problem. It can be in the form of eye drops, oral medications or injections depending on the cause.

To boost your cat’s immune system, choose high quality wet foods.

5. Upper Respiratory Infection

Upper respiratory infections (URI) are fairly common in cats, especially kittens. The nose, throat and sinus areas are susceptible to infections caused by a variety of viruses and bacteria - transmitted through sneezing, coughing, or while grooming or sharing food and water bowls.

Calicivirus and herpesvirus account for 80 to 90% of URI cases. Once infected, the cats can become carriers for life. 

Left untreated, some upper respiratory infections can progress to pneumonia or have other serious complications, such as blindness or chronic breathing difficulties.

Symptoms 

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Gagging
  • Rapid breathing
  • Decreased appetite
  • Nasal and oral ulcers
  • Open-mouth breathing
  • Discharge from the eyes 
  • Clear to coloured nasal discharge

Some may not show clinical signs. However, they often develop bacterial infections  caused by Chlamydia and Bordetella secondary to these common viral infections.

Treatment

  • Rest
  • Isolation
  • Medications
  • Wet cat food
  • Support with fluids
  • Nutritional support 

Prevention

  • Keep your cat up-to-date on vaccines recommended by your vet. 
  • Isolate infected cats to protect other pets living in the same place.
  • Keep your cat indoors to minimize the risk of exposure to infected animals.
  • The best defence against upper respiratory infection is a healthy immune system, so choose cat foods that have a good amount of antioxidants.

6. Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease (FLUTD)

FLUTD is extremely common in cats. It is usually seen in middle-aged, overweight cats that eat a dry diet, get little exercise, use an indoor litter box, or have little or no outdoor access. Stress, a multi-cat household, and sudden changes can also raise a cat's risk. 

There are a few common causes for problems related to urinary tract health which will be explained further on in this article. Generally, they can be boiled down to diet and lack of water

Dry cat food is water depleted and some are acidified. Relying on cats to drink water on its own is not advisable, as they may not do so. Giving them wet food, which has over double the moisture content of wet food, is a safer bet.

Symptoms

  • Vomiting
  • Depression
  • Dehydration
  • Bloody urine
  • Lack of appetite
  • Straining to urinate
  • Crying when urinating
  • Urinating in unusual places
  • Licking around the urinary area (often because of pain)

Common causes for FLUTD are:

Urolithiasis (urinary stones)

These are collections of minerals that form in the urinary tract. The most commonly seen are calcium oxalate and struvite (magnesium ammonium phosphate). Calcium oxalate stones are caused by acidified diets while struvite is caused by overly concentrated urine

Struvite stones can be dissolved through proper diet but calcium oxalate stones need to be removed surgically..

Urinary infection

The most common cause for this is bacteria. Sometimes it is caused by kidney disease, diabetes or hyperthyroidism (overactivity of the thyroid gland) which is more common among cats older than 10 years of age.

The treatment for urinary infections often depends on the severity of the infection and the organism causing the infection, and may include fluid therapy, urinary acidifiers, and/or antibiotics.

Urethral obstruction

This involves the blockage of a cat's urethra, causing it to strain to urinate. There are many causes of urethra blockage, but the two most common are stones (struvite and calcium oxalate stones) and plugs (softer compressed material). 

The cat can even appear constipated, straining to defecate. Once the cat cannot urinate, the kidneys are no longer able to remove toxins from the blood or maintain a balance of fluids and electrolytes in the body. Urethral obstruction is a potentially life-threatening condition and must be treated immediately. Flushing, surgery, fluid therapy and antibiotics may be required to save the cat. 

Feline idiopathic cystitis (FIC)

Also called inflammation of the bladder of interstitial cystitis, it is the most common among cats below 10 years of age. There are numerous medical treatments but often the veterinarian will start by addressing any behavioural issues. This may include feeding only canned cat food and reduction of stress.

Prevention

The best answer is water. The more dilute the cat’s urine is, the less likely minerals can clump together to form crystals and stones in its bladder or kidney.

Cats have evolved to obtain most of their moisture needs from prey, so they are extremely thirst tolerant. They are also capable of conserving body water by concentrating their urine.

Thus, they are much less likely to seek water even when their body needs it. This is the main reason they are so susceptible to urinary crystals and stones. 

Since you can’t force your cat to drink water, the only way is to change their diet. The best diet to prevent this problem is wet cat food.

Recent research by veterinary teams in France and Germany suggested that wet and homemade diets cat foods were more effective for preventing calcium oxalate crystal formation than dry foods. 

7. Kidney disease

Kidney disease is basically kidney failure in varying degrees of severity from mild to severe. It means the cat’s kidney can no longer function properly. Older cats are more prone to kidney disease. 

Poisons are the most common causes for kidney failure. For example, certain human medications, pesticides, cleaning fluids and toxic plants like lilies. 

Symptoms

  • increased water consumption or urination
  • weight loss
  • vomiting 
  • foul breath
  • decreased appetite

Treatment

  • Antibiotics  
  • Medication 
  • Prescription diet 
  • Kidney transplant
  • Subcutaneous fluid 
  • Hospitalization for intravenous fluid 

Prevention

Kidney disease in cats can't be reversed, but it can often be managed for long periods of time. 

Carry out blood screens on your older cat at regular intervals to check kidney function values. By the time most cats show recognizable signs of illness, 75% of their kidney function is already irretrievably gone. 

Giving your cat high quality wet food from a young age will ensure it has enough moisture needs to prevent accumulated strain on its kidneys.

8. Diabetes Mellitus

This serious condition is diagnosed fairly commonly in cats. It is caused by either a lack of the hormone insulin or an inadequate response to insulin. 

When a cat does not produce insulin or cannot utilize it normally, her blood sugar levels elevate. The result is hyperglycaemia, which, if left untreated, can cause many complicated health problems for a cat.

The main cause of diabetes seems to be obesity and age. The others can be genetics, pancreatic disease, certain medications and abnormal protein deposits in the pancreas.

Symptoms

  • Lethargy
  • Weight loss
  • Dehydration
  • Unkempt hair coat
  • Increased urination
  • Unusually sweet-smelling breath
  • Urinating in areas other than litter box
  • Excessive thirst/increase in water consumption
  • Change in appetite 

Diabetes is considered a manageable disorder. Many diabetic cats can lead happy, healthy lives. If not treated, diabetic cats can develop kidney disease, neurological disorders or other metabolic diseases. 

Treatment

  • Seriously ill cats when first diagnosed would require intensive hospitalized care for several days to regulate their blood sugar levels.
  • Some cats may respond to oral medication or a high-fibre diet.
  • For most, insulin injections are necessary.
  • Timed insulin treatment and scheduled meals are also required.

It is even more crucial for diabetic cats that their diets do not contain any carbohydrates. Dry food tends to have some carbohydrate content, so it may be best to stick to high grade wet food.

Prevention

Keeping your cat at a healthy weight is one way to decrease his risk of developing diabetes mellitus. This will require a proper diet and regular exercise. Choose zero-carbohydrate feed. Wet food made from only animal protein is the best.

9. Cancer

Similar to people, cats can get various kinds of cancer. There is no single cause for cancer but both hereditary and environmental factors are known to lead to the development of cancer in cats.

Among the more common types of cancer are:

  • Lymphosarcoma or lymphoma (LSA) - the most common
  • Skin cancer of the ear, eyelid or nose 
  • Gastrointestinal lymphoma - lumps in the stomach or intestine 

Symptoms

  • Lumps 
  • Swelling
  • Bad breath
  • Weight loss
  • Diarrhoea or vomiting
  • Scaly and/or red skin patches
  • Persistent sores or skin infections
  • Difficulty breathing, urinating or defecating
  • Abnormal discharge from any part of the body
  • Listlessness, lethargy or other marked change in behaviour

Treatment

Treatment options vary and depend on the type and stage of cancer. They include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and immunotherapy or a combination of therapies.  

A sick cat may lose its appetite and stop eating.  Fatty acids in raw, unprocessed meats are natural magnets for cats. Wet food made from these may keep the cat motivated. 

10. Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV)

As the name FIV suggests, it is a virus that weakens the immune system of a cat, making it susceptible to various secondary infections. Cats FIV may not show symptoms until years later. 

The virus is mainly passed from cat to cat through deep bite wounds, which occur during aggressive fights and territorial disputes. It can be passed from mother cat to her litter, too.

Symptoms

  • Fever
  • Anaemia
  • Diarrhoea
  • Sneezing
  • Weight loss
  • Dishevelled coat
  • Behaviour change
  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Skin redness or hair loss
  • Wounds that don’t heal
  • Discharge from eyes or nose
  • Inflammation of the gums or mouth
  • Inflammation of the eye (conjunctivitis)
  • Frequent urination, straining to urinate or urinating outside of litter box

Cats with FIV can develop various forms of cancer, blood diseases or kidney failure, which will ultimately claim the cat’s life.

Prevention

  • The best way to prevent your cat from contracting the virus is to keep him indoors, avoiding any chance of contact with infected felines.
  • Any recently adopted cat should be tested for FIV prior to entering your home.

Treatment

Sadly, there is no specific antiviral treatment for FIV. Most treatments only address the symptoms. Since the infected cat’s immune system is compromised, it makes sense to feed the cat commercially prepared wet raw food, which has the highest content of nutrients.

Conclusion

Prevention is better than cure. Some of the illnesses mentioned in this article can be easily prevented by giving a cat the right diet.

The best fresh cat food for a healthy cat is wet food, preferably made from raw, unprocessed meat. This type of feed is high-protein and high in natural essential nutrients but low- or nil- carbohydrate content.

Wet foods also have high water content, essential for keeping your cat hydrated. Dehydration over extended periods is the main cause of many health issues.

Getting your cat to the vet routinely for check-ups is another way that common feline illnesses can be caught and treated early. 

Sources:

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FETCH by WebMD. Why Are My Cats’ Eyes So Watery? (Online) Available at:  https://pets.webmd.com/cats/causes-of-feline-watery-eyes#1  (Accessed on 17 June 2020)

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