Cat getting teeth brushed

Cats have a reputation as low-maintenance pets, perfect for people who don’t have the time to care for an animal. That’s not true, of course, but it can be difficult to convince some people otherwise. "Cats take care of themselves," is something I hear a lot, and it makes me wince every time.

What’s largely happening is not that our cats are fending for themselves — as so many people assume — but rather that because they’re so good at hiding signs of illness, we don’t realize how sick they are until they’re very sick indeed. And sometimes when I do see cats as a practicing veterinarian, I see not only what people brought them in for — an abscess, perhaps, or a limp or a chronic cough — but life-threatening issues the cats' owners hadn't even noticed.

These are serious problems that seem painted in the boldest hues to my eye, yet appear to be invisible to many cat owners. And it happens all the time.

Are You Missing the Big Picture?

Sometimes, even when I point out these problems, cat owners don’t think they’re as important as I do. They may accept my diagnosis, for example, but not follow up or follow through on treatment plans. It really saddens me to think of the misery these cats are in. Don't be guilty of neglecting your cat's health; check out these five feline health problems people don’t worry about as much as they should — and talk to your veterinarian about any that sound familiar.

Feline obesity: Many of us are living in glass houses when it comes to weight (both ours and our pets'), which may be one of the reasons your veterinarian is reluctant to bring it up. And many veterinarians are doubly sensitive when it comes to discussing an overweight pet with an overweight owner, not wanting to hurt any feelings. But you need to take a good look at your cat, and you need to know what you are allowing when you let him get and stay overweight. Let me be blunt: Fat kills. And even when it doesn’t contribute to the development of a disease or condition that leads to euthanasia, it makes your cat’s life miserable.

Hyperthyroidism: You might think it’s wonderful how much energy your senior cat has, but if hyperthyroidism is at the bottom of all this activity, it’s really not a good thing at all. And while obesity is a problem, as I’ve noted, an increase in energy — coupled with extreme weight loss — is often due to hyperthyroidism, the overproduction of thyroid hormone by the thyroid gland. Hyperthyroidism is easily treated or managed, which makes ignoring the symptoms even more tragic for your cat.

Urinary tract disease: Litterbox problems are one of the most common reasons why cats are given up for adoption. Many people don’t realize that these problems may stem from health issues, such as infections or stones in the urinary tract, rather than bad behavior. If you think your cat is missing the box “for no reason” or “out of spite” or even “because he’s stupid,” you need to reassess — and talk with your veterinarian. Don’t give up your cat, and don’t resolve to “live with” the mess. Find out if an illness is causing the problem, and then take care of the problem. You and your cat will both be happier.

Dental disease: Letting a cat live with dental disease is nothing less than a form of animal cruelty, in my opinion. That’s because of the constant pain your cat is in: Think about what you go through when you break a single tooth, then imagine having a mouthful of rotted teeth and infected gums. Imagine the pain of trying to eat! A comprehensive dental examination is an essential part of diagnosing feline dental problems, which may not be as obvious as those in dogs, in part because cats are so good at hiding signs of pain. Once you know what the problems are, work out a plan for treatment — which may include extractions — to end your cat's suffering.

Achy-breaky joints: Arthritis may be incurable, but pain from those aching joints can be treated. We understand this when it comes to our own discomfort and pain. When we hurt, we see a doctor and ask for solutions and treatments. Your cat can't tell you where it hurts or ask you to make an appointment with the vet, but I guarantee you she's suffering all the same. The aches and pains of old age can be managed, but only if you talk to your veterinarian.

"Chronic" Doesn’t Mean "Untreatable"

Ongoing problems with your cat’s health sometimes start slowly and get worse over time. In other words, these issues can creep up on us, so we may not pay much attention to them, or we might overlook them entirely. That’s why I want you to step back right now and look at your cat. Be brutally honest: Are you ignoring chronic health issues that are making your cat miserable? Are you sure you aren’t?

If your cat hasn’t seen a veterinarian in a while, it’s time to schedule that comprehensive exam. And take heart: For every one of these often chronic conditions there are things that can be done to stop, treat or even reverse the damage. All you need to do is recognize the problem and work with your veterinarian for your cat’s better health.