Westbury Animal Hospital
713.723.3666 · 4917 S. Willow Dr. Houston, Texas 77035 

The Masters of Deception – a Tale of Cats and Disease

By

Jennifer Garb DVM

If animals could speak the dog would be a blundering outspoken fellow, but the cat would have the rare grace of never saying a word too much." - Mark Twain

I have always been a great admirer of cats.  Independent, discerning yet affectionate they have been a fixture in my life from childhood onwards.  Cats, more than anything else, propelled me into my career as a veterinarian.  When I started my career as an emergency veterinarian, I envisioned a hospital lobby filled with exceptionally ill cats and dogs – much like a human emergency room.  I was prepared for all conceivable means of trauma, toxin exposures, or pets with obvious acute illnesses.  For the most part, that was indeed the bulk of my patients.  There was, however, a subset of patients that posed a particular challenge that I had not been prepared for during my veterinary education.  These patients, according to their owners, had been fine up until the day before the trip to the emergency room.  They usually presented with nebulous signs of malaise such as not eating or not sleeping in the place they had slept for years.  A physical exam followed by routine tests would reveal a chronic, often terminal disease that clearly had been going on for weeks if not months.  Diseases such as kidney failure or cancer were often the underlying cause of the pet’s sudden malaise yet the pet had shown no signs of illness until the very day I saw it.  “How can my cat have cancer if it was fine yesterday?” owners would ask, their faces a picture of disbelief and grief.  “Your cat has been deceitful” I would answer.  And that would be the truth.  Cats, I would explain, can hide their illnesses so well that many times we discover the diseases when they are well advanced, beyond the reach of medical intervention. 

Many times owners would be faced with the devastating task of having to say good bye to their beloved pet upon the emergency visit.  Needless to say, these cases were particularly poignant for me and very traumatic to owners.

In their grief, owners would often query whether they could have done something to prevent the terminal disease.  My answer would unequivocally be “no”.  However, detecting subtle changes in a pets’ behavior, whether cat or dog, could have alerted them to the disease earlier and given them time to prepare for the inevitable end. 

So what signs should serve as a warning that a serious medical condition could be lurking? 

Refusing food – if a “good eater” suddenly wants nothing to do with food and there have been no environmental changes this may be an indication of underlying disease.

Hiding – cats are creatures of routine.  They often have a favorite chair, window sill or spot on the carpet.  If a cat begins to hide under the bed, in a dark closet, or chooses an uncharacteristic place to rest she may be giving you a hint that not all is well.

Vomiting - many cats vomit occasionally.  However, vomiting may be the only indicator of severe internal disease such as kidney failure.  Vomiting more than twice, particularly in combination with inappetance, is a very important indicator of disease and should be investigated further.

Changes in bathroom habits – cats are known for their fastidiousness.  Self-soiling or soiling a favorite place of rest without attempting to move away should prompt immediate suspicion of underlying serious illness and should prompt a veterinary visit as soon as possible.

Changes in breathing - open mouth breathing in a cat usually signifies profound lung or heart disease worthy of immediate veterinary attention.  Breathing rapidly while resting or contracting the tummy muscles during breathing are often symptoms of lung disease and should serve as a red flag to owners.

Cats are truly the masters of deception but dogs do not fall far behind.  The misleading tail wag, always a heart warmer, should not cloud our ability to detect subtle changes in behavior.  No one knows a dog as well as an owner so if you have a nagging feeling that not all is well please does not ignore your gut instinct and consult with your veterinarian sooner rather than later.

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