Signs of a Sick Cat or Dog

This is my cat, Scruffy. This was taken about 11 months ago. He is very sick right now with Felv, but hanging in there. Praying he makes it!!!

Credit: Alison Clatterbuck
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Different pets will display sickness symptoms differently, but you should always be on the watch and consider a call to your vet when you notice any of the following signs of a sick cat or dog.

Diarrhea or Vomiting

  • With one episode, withhold food for 24 hours, then begin feeding small amounts of a bland diet, such as boiled meat with white rice.
  • If the bout lasts longer than one day or is very violent, or if pain or abdominal swelling are apparent, get your pet to the vet immediately.

Scratching, Licking, or Chewing

  • Look for parasites. Treat fleas or ticks with a natural remedy or over-the-counter medication.
  • If the scratching comes on suddenly or is very severe, or if there is hair loss and the skin is breaking, see a vet.

Panting, Coughing, Wheezing, or Sneezing

A moderate pant or cough may just mean he's overheated or overexerted. If it is severe or prolonged, seek medical attention.

Pain, Stiffness, or Difficulty Moving

  • Examine the legs and pads of feet for cuts, warmth, or bruising if your pet begins to limp. If everything appears to be normal and the animal is otherwise behaving naturally, keep him calm and indoors, and observe him for 24 hours for signs of improvement.
  • See a vet if your pet is unbalanced, staggering, falling down, or collapsing.
  • Arithritis is common in older dogs. One out of five dogs has it. See if your dog tires easily during long walks or if he limps, lags behind, or appears stiff. Is he reluctant to climb up steps or to jump up like he used to? Is he slow to rise from a resting position? Have your vet check it out. More and more pet owners are using acupuncture for long-term pain relief from arthritis.

Bowel or Urinary Problems

  • If your pet appears fairly normal but strains to pass feces, he may be constipated. This may indicate a blockage. Consult your vet within 24 hours. Vomiting along with bowel problems could be serious.
  • Urinary problems in cats are very common and can become serious. If your cat begins making frequent trips to the litter box, meows while in the box, or suddenly begins using the corner of the living room rug instead of the box, call your vet. If you see any signs of blood while scooping out the box, get your cat to the vet right away.

​Eye and Ear Disorders

See a vet if there is bleeding, or clear or yellow discharge; clouded, dry, or bloodshot eyes; failing vision; or any lumps or bumps.

Does your pet have allergies?

  • Dogs and cats get hay fever, and they can be sensitive to pollens and molds, dust, feathers, and wool. They usually get itchy rather than sneezy, so be aware of those signs.
  • If a pet is itchy from allergies, provide relief with cold water, or soak with an oatmeal paste. You may even give antihistamines, after first consulting with a vet. Severe, prolonged symptoms may require allergy shots.


Bad breath is not just a nuisance, but also a health issue. Attack the plaque on your pet's teeth to avoid halitosis and gum disease.

  • Brushing your pet's teeth is the best way to do this, but toys with grooves or mildly abrasive surfaces (like rawhide) will also help to remove plaque. Getting pets to eat carrots and dry pet food will be beneficial as well. A chlorophyll tablet or special constituted biscuits (often black, sold in pet food stores) can inhibit odor.
  • Be aware of other bad smells that may signal illness. Ear infections will give off a strong odor that permeates the coat. Abscesses or skin ulcers can be other sources of bad smells. A sweet or fruity smell is often associated with diabetes—be sure to have that checked out by your vet.

More Illnesses to Look Out For

Cat Flu

Cats are prone to a type of flu that brings weepy eyes, a runny nose, and sudden sneezing attacks. Help your cat feel better by making sure she eats, cleaning the mucus from the eyes with a damp washcloth or cotton ball, and making sure she's breathing right. A few drops of saline solution in a stuffy nose can help breathing. See a vet if the problem persists.

Kennel Cough

This type of bronchitis gives your dog a dry, raspy noise in his cough. For relief, make sure your dog has plenty of clean air (no smoking) with humidity. You can give your dog cough syrup fit for humans if it contains dextromethorphan, but NOT acetaminophen. There are also some herbal cough syrups on the market. Check with your vet first.

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my cat was fine last night

By s.musselwhite

my cat was fine last night came in ate well played and went into her kennel to go to bed {kept that food down} this morning when she came out she drank water immediatly vomited back up kept it away for an hr no vomiting as soon as she drank vomited then had a bought of explosive diarhea on the bed no blood just looked like runny stool smelled pretty bad that was 3 hours agao she has had none since i have confined her to her kennel she has no fever no abdominal pain or bloating does not want to be held though and does not want to go out she has had all shots and been spayed a month ago aspca but i have no resources to take her in my husband has cancer we are on fixed income over 60 and im crying y eyes out can you please help or sugges something thank you for your time sally smith

We are very much hoping that

By Almanac Staff

We are very much hoping that your cat is feeling much better by now. We have just read your message. Whenever something like that happens, we'd suggest that you call your vet for advice. We are not veterinarians and are not qualified to diagnose your pet or recommend medication. Vomiting and diarrhea can be anything from a hairball to something the cat ate, digestive problems, a cold, to something more serious.

When there is a pet emergency, or even just a question for a vet after vet office hours, you can call either the emergency number of the vet (usually a voicemail on their phone will mention the number to call), or often there is a 24-hr veterinary emergency hospital somewhere in the area who takes calls/questions. The two services that come to mind in our area do not charge for advice over the phone, but you might want to check if you call one in your area. The vet emergency hospitals often can advise you what to do over the phone--even a question about food, medication, etc.; or if they think that it is a true emergency they will ask you to come in (but that can certainly be expensive). If you do need to bring a pet in to a vet or emergency clinic, perhaps there is a neighbor or friend who might be able to help take your cat in if needed; some vets also make house calls. Also, your vet might be able to work with you financially, if needed, so that your cat can get the care it needs.

It is always upsetting to have a beloved pet sick--not knowing how serious it is, how to help him/her get better or at least feel more comfortable. We very much hope that your pet will be OK, and that this episode was only temporary. 

Best wishes,

The Old Farmer's Almanac team

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