Not all illnesses are contagious, of course. Let's take a look at noninfectious health problems that can affect some cats.
Cats cause allergic reactions in many people (see Cats and Allergies), so I guess it's only fair that cats can suffer from allergies, too. Let's look at the most common feline allergens.
Don't give your cat antiallergy medications unless your veterinarian advises you to do so.
- Inhalant allergens are airborne particles that irritate the respiratory system, causing asthmalike symptoms, and, in some cases, hair loss and skin lesions. Dust from kitty litter is a common offender; other common inhalant allergens include pollen, tobacco smoke, fragrances, household spray cleaners and deodorizers, and dust. Inhalant allergies are often treated with antihistamines or, in severe cases, steroids.
- Contact allergies are caused by physical contact with a substance that causes a reaction. Common contact allergens include plants, household cleaners, carpet fresheners, dust, wool and synthetic fibers, ink, and topical medications.
- Flea allergy is very common and often becomes worse as the cat grows older and more sensitive to flea saliva, which the insect injects as it bites. A single flea bite can cause a massive allergic reaction in some cats.
- Food allergies are also common. Grains and dairy products are the worst offenders, but some cats are allergic to meats, dyes, preservatives, and other ingredients used in some cat foods and treats. Food allergies often take some time to show up and can be difficult to pinpoint. A cat might eat the allergen-containing food for years before allergic symptoms become evident. Food allergies may also contribute to FUS (Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease). Simply switching to a different food can make all the difference.
- Drug and anesthesia allergies also occur in some cats. There's no way to predict which cat will react to which drug, so it is important to observe your cat carefully after vaccinations or while taking medications.
Skin patch tests can be used to diagnose contact allergies, but often diagnosis is a drawn-out process of elimination because symptoms vary from cat to cat and can indicate other problems. However, some common allergy symptoms include the following:
- Dermatitis (inflammation of the skin)
- Skin eruptions
- Oily skin
- Hair loss
- Changes in pigmentation
- Inflammation of the ears
- Respiratory problems
- Swelling, particularly on the face
Removing the source of the allergen can sometimes control allergies. If your vet suspects your cat has a food allergy, he or she will probably recommend a bland hypoallergenic diet until symptoms clear up, followed by a slow shift to a food without the suspected allergen. Vets often use antihistamines to control symptoms, and in severe cases, steroids, preferably on a short-term basis.
Anal Gland Problems
The anal glands (anal sacs) are small glands embedded in the anal sphincter muscle. When the cat defecates or becomes alarmed, the anal glands excrete a pungent fluid thought to be used for individual identification and to mark territory.
Occasionally the anal glands become impacted (blocked), infected, or injured and require veterinary care. Signs of anal gland problems include licking or biting at the anal area, scooting the rear end across the floor, or a foul odor.
The most common cause of feline constipation is the infamous hairball. Frequent brushing will reduce the amount of hair your cat swallows while grooming himself, and special foods and hair-ball treatments will help keep the nasty things from forming (see Keeping Up with Your Cat's Hygiene).
Lack of sufficient water can also cause constipation, particularly in older cats who don't drink regularly. Be sure your cat has constant access to clean, fresh water.
Liver and Kidney Disease
Infections, parasites, cancer, toxins, medications, and various diseases can all cause potentially fatal damage to the liver. Jaundice is symptomatic of liver disease, but other symptoms are not specific, making liver problems difficult to identify.
Kidney disease is often similarly serious and difficult to pinpoint, although changes in urination can indicate kidney problems.
Blood tests for liver and kidney function should be part of routine health care, especially for older cats or cats at special risk for liver or kidney disease.
Pancreatitis and Diabetes
The pancreas produces insulin to help the body metabolize sugar and other pancreatic enzymes to help the body digest and absorb fats.
Pancreatitis—a potentially lethal inflammation of the pancreas—can be caused by certain infections, medications, infections, metabolic disorders, trauma, and shock. Symptoms of pancreatitis in cats include fever, abdominal pain, and elevated heart rate. Treatment usually involves withholding food temporarily to allow the pancreas to rest and recover, administration of fluids and electrolytes to combat dehydration, and management of complications or suspected underlying causes.
If your cat has diabetes, keep her indoors and let everyone who might feed her know that she can't have extra snacks!
Diabetes occurs when the pancreas loses its ability to regulate blood sugar. Diabetes is most common in older cats, but can occur in young cats as well. Symptoms of diabetes include excessive thirst and, consequently, excessive urination. Obesity can trigger the disease, so fat cats should be tested periodically, especially if they exhibit other symptoms. Not all diabetic cats are fat, though, so if your cat drinks a lot, consider having him tested. Some diabetic cats lose weight spontaneously.
You can sometimes manage diabetes through diet, but many diabetic cats need daily insulin injections to control excess blood sugar. Most people can learn to give the injections, but frequent vet visits are important to be sure the dosage is correct. You can use urine glucose strips, available in any pharmacy, to monitor daily levels. But be sure to ask your vet what to do if your cat's blood sugar drops too low due to insulin injections—Karo syrup is often used to bring the level back up, but veterinary guidance is critical.