Cats are masters at hiding what ails them, and they frequently will not show any noticeable signs of sickness or injury. Even if you bring your cat in for annual check-ups, the reality is that a year is plenty of time for problems to develop and escalate, and unfortunately, illness and injury somehow often seem to surface on the weekend, when your vet’s office is closed.
If you learn how to check your cat’s vital signs, like your cat’s heart rate and respiratory rate, you’ll have a baseline from which to gauge her general health and a way to check up on her if you suspect a problem. It’s also a good idea to learn the early symptoms of common cat health issues so that you’ll have a better chance of noticing if there’s a cause for concern.
Of course, it goes without saying that checking your cat’s vital signs is no replacement for regular wellness visits. Your vet is paws down your cat’s best health expert, and NOTHING should take her place. Not to mention that regular wellness care is a lot less expensive than waiting until there’s a problem.
Given that cats are so good at masking illness, pain, and discomfort, by the time you see visible signs, the issue may be well advanced and costly or impossible to resolve. Because of this, learning to check their vitals can be, well, vital to getting an early sign of potential problems.
How to Check Your Cat’s Vital Signs at Home
1. Check Your Cat’s Heart Rate
You can check your cat’s heart rate pretty much the same way you would check your own—by feeling her pulse. A good pulse point for a cat is located on her left side, just behind her front leg. Feel with one hand until you’ve located a steady pulse. If you do it gently, she won’t even know that you’re not just petting her and will be far less likely to protest. Determine your cat’s heartbeat like this: count the number of beats for a full minute or count for 15 seconds and multiply that number by 4.
A normal cat heart rate is between 140 and 220 beats per minute. If she’s been resting, your cat’s heart rate will be on the lower end of that scale.
Once you know your cat’s normal heart rate, you’ll notice and be wary of any changes in her heartbeat. If your cat’s heart rate is too slow, too fast, or irregular, there is cause for concern for your cat’s health. It may be indicative of issues in your cat’s heart, like high blood pressure or even congestive heart failure, and she should be checked by your veterinarian.
2. Check Your Cat’s Temperature
To take your cat’s temperature, use a good old-fashioned rectal thermometer. Since most (if not all) cats will refuse to submit willingly to having something inserted into their tail end, this is definitely a two-person job!
Make sure you lubricate the end well and then insert it about 1 to 2 inches. If you have a digital thermometer, hold it there until it beeps to signal it’s done. Otherwise, wait for about 2 minutes to ensure getting an accurate reading. You could even use a thermometer like this one that’s specifically designed for animals.
Another option, and one that is probably far less trouble for the cat or cat parents, is to use the kind of thermometer that takes your cat’s temperature by being inserted into her ear. You can also find thermometers that go under your cat’s armpit!
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It’s a good idea to practice taking your cat’s temperature even when she’s healthy. That way, you’ll have a good baseline to compare if she ever does have health issues.
You may be wondering: What is a normal temperature for a cat? Don’t panic when you notice that your cat’s temperature is a little higher than what you’d expect for yourself — it should be. The purr-fect feline body temperature is between 100 and 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit. If your cat’s temperature is much higher or lower than that, you should check in with your vet.
3. Check Your Cat’s Respiratory Rate
Your cat’s vitals also include respiratory rate. To check your cat’s respiratory rate, simply count the number of breaths she takes in one minute. This is easiest to do when she is relaxed but standing. You’ll know she’s taken a breath each time you see your cat’s chest rise and fall, or you may find it easier to place your hands on her sides in order to feel the movement.
Watch your cat, and count her breaths for a full minute. A healthy respiratory rate for a cat is between 20 and 30 breaths per minute. If your cat’s respiratory rate doesn’t appear normal, like she’s breathing rapidly or if she appears to be panting and she hasn’t just been playing vigorously, this could indicate a problem. She may simply be hot or stressed. However, rapid breathing may be indicative of serious medical conditions such as asthma, hypoxemia, and even congestive heart failure.
If you notice your cat’s respiratory rate is higher than normal or see other unusual symptoms, contact your veterinarian right away.
4. Pay Attention to Your Cat’s Dental Health
Gum disease causes pain and has a negative effect on your pet’s health and well-being. Healthy cat gums should be light or bright pink and not red, swollen, or bleeding. Healthy cat teeth, just like human teeth, are white, clean, and free from chipping.
Bad breath is usually the first symptom of dental problems in cats, but they can also cause drooling, pawing at the mouth, and trouble eating. If you notice any problems in your cat’s mouth, talk to your veterinarian about getting them resolved. The most common dental issues are tooth resorption, periodontitis, and gingivitis.
You may be able to avoid dental issues in the first place with a simple oral care routine. Daily brushing will help keep kitty’s teeth and gums healthy.
Just make sure to use toothpaste that’s meant for cats. Cats should never use people toothpaste! Pet toothpaste is fairly simple to use. Just apply it to your cat’s gum line with your finger or a toothbrush. No scrubbing needed. Don’t give up if your cat isn’t immediately in love with having her teeth cleaned.
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You may be able to get her used to it if you start gradually by touching her mouth while you’re cuddling and work up to gently pulling up her lip and touching her teeth. It may be easier to clean your cat’s teeth if you use a cat toothbrush that slides on over the end of your finger.
If you’d like additional information, here’s a full tutorial on how to clean your cat’s teeth.
5. Watch Her Weight
According to some estimates, half of all cats are overweight, and a quarter of them are obese. Since carrying excess weight can contribute to a slew of dangerous health conditions, it’s good for cat parents to monitor their feline friend’s waistline. But how can you tell if your cat weighs more than she should?
On average, a healthy cat weight is usually between 8 and 10 pounds, though there is room for a lot of variation between individual cats. Certain cat breeds are obviously more prone to being a little slimmer or carrying a little more weight.
A good test to see if your cat is at a healthy weight is to place your hands firmly on her sides, over her ribs. If you can’t feel her ribs at all, then she is overweight. On the other paw, if you can see her ribs, then she is underweight. Overweight cats tend to have trouble grooming their rear ends and the middle of their lower backs, so if you notice your kitty neglecting these areas, it may be that she’s having trouble reaching them due to some excess weight. In addition, overweight cats may have a swinging paunch between their hind legs, and they may snore.
If your cat could stand to lose a few pounds, your veterinarian can help you come up with a healthy plan to manage her weight. A good digital scale can help you weigh her quickly at home and keep track of her progress.
If your cat won’t stay put long enough to get an accurate reading. Just step on your bathroom scale while you’re holding your cat, and then subtract your weight to find out how much your cat weighs.
Even if your cat is a healthy weight, it’s important to monitor her body condition since gaining or losing weight can be symptoms of underlying health issues. Weight loss despite a healthy appetite can be a symptom of cat diabetes.
6. Look Out For Behavioral Changes
While cats are known for their quirky, sometimes unpredictable behavior, some behavior changes can be symptoms of underlying problems. If your kitty begins to eat or drink less or more, starts hiding more, stops jumping on things, grooms significantly more or less, or begins to exhibit any other unusual change in behavior, you should call your veterinarian.
Although there may be a perfectly normal explanation for your kitty’s behavior, it could also be the beginning of a more serious issue, like cat diabetes, kidney disease, or a cat UTI. If you wait until the signs are more obvious, then treatment could be much more difficult.
One sign of illness that’s often misunderstood is going outside of their litter box. Sometimes their behavior is easily resolved. Old litter boxes start to absorb smells (even if you clean them regularly), so it could be that kitty is just looking for a cleaner place to do her business. Or it may be that switching to a larger box or one that’s not covered will do the trick. When issues with the litter box itself are the root of the problem, a new litter box will frequently resolve the issue.
Sometimes, though, accidents can be an early warning sign of health issues that need to be addressed. It is one of the tell-tale cat diabetes symptoms, as well as one of the more common cat UTI symptoms. It can also be an indicator of kidney disease. If your previously meticulous litter box user suddenly starts going in other places, you should check with your veterinarian to rule out serious medical issues.
While you’re waiting for your visit, you might want to try a home test kit like this one. It can detect signs of diabetes, kidney failure, cat UTI, or blood in your cat’s urine. The test results can give you valuable information to share with your cat’s veterinarian.
Of course, even with regular wellness checkups and monitoring of your cat’s vital signs, unexpected problems can arise. Worrying about your cat’s health is stressful enough without adding the worry of how you will pay for the care that she needs.
I always recommend getting pet insurance as a way to manage those unexpected bills. Embrace Pet Insurance covers unexpected accidents and illnesses, but certain plans also reimburse you for routine wellness care!
The best way to keep your purr-fect companion healthy is to know their normal vital signs, catch problems early, and treat them before they have a chance to get out of control. If you practice checking your cat’s vital signs when she is not sick and watch for changes in her behavior or body condition, then you’ll know what is normal for her and will have the best chance of keeping her happy, healthy, and purring by your side!