Vet Says Cats Adept at Hiding Illness from Owners

Vet Says Cats Adept at Hiding Illness from Owners

A leading London-based feline vet is recommending that cat owners generally need to watch their cat’s behaviour more closely – to spot subtle signs of illness before it becomes serious.

Dr. Jeremy Campbell, a Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons Advanced Practitioner in Feline Medicine and owner of The London Cat Clinic, one of only a handful of practices in the UK that is cat-only, says that felines instinctively hide illness from their owners –  “There is no survival benefit in the wild in showing weakness from illness,” he says.

There are, Dr. Campbell explains, some key changes in behaviour to look out for if an illness or disease is to be spotted early and treated effectively. More common conditions that cats may inadvertently be concealing from their owners include arthritis, dental pain and gastrointestinal disease.

One of the most important indications of ill health in a cat is when he or she suddenly prefers to spend time in a less elevated or unusual perch in the house. Cats, being both predator and prey animals, instinctively prefer to be in a higher place from where they can securely survey their surroundings.

Dr. Campbell explains: “In the wild, cats are solitary hunters that move from small prey meal to small prey meal only relying on themselves without the protection of a pack or social unit.  If they let down their guard and are injured this makes them less able to protect themselves and hunt which equals vulnerability.

“An elevated position enables your cat to continuously monitor their environment and assess potential threats, or feeding opportunities. Height is also a sign of status to most cats, particularly those in a multi-cat household.

“Has your cat started to keep close to the floor, sleep at a lower level, or even on the ground? Has the ‘perching order’ changed amongst your cats? These are definite signs to look out for that could suggest that your cat might be ill.”

Many households now have indoor cats, but what if an outdoor cat suddenly becomes an indoor cat? Dr. Campbell asks.

“Many people choose to keep their cats indoors with access to a garden or out on a cat lead, as they may have concerns over safety and disease so changes are more readily noticeable. But, if your outdoor cat is spending a lot of time around the house, it  could be that something is wrong with him, and he should be examined by your vet,” Dr. Campbell explains.

“Cats are masters of disguise when it comes to camouflaging disease and injury they are hardwired not to show pain because there is no survival benefit in doing so. You might put this down to a change in preference, but is it? Why would a cat move from a position of strength to a position of relative vulnerability? Does it accompany any other changes in your cat’s habits like decreased grooming or more matting around the tail base and bottom?”

These signs may signifiy dental or other systemic disease, says Dr Campbell.

Dr. Campbell continues:

“A change in perching behaviour may reflect development of degenerative joint disease or osteoarthritis, and the increased joint pain that is associated with jumping to the higher perches is a deterrent and keeps your cat ‘grounded’. “

“Arthritis is vastly underdiagnosed in feline patients and has been shown in various studies to affect between 60 and 90% of cats, particularly older cats. Commonly affected areas are the spine, shoulders, hips, elbows, knees and ankles. Certain breeds including Maine Coons, Persian, Siamese, Burmese and Scottish Folds have a higher incidence of developing the disease.

“Has your cat has developed a middle-age spread or worse? This extra weight will worsen arthritic pain and speed progression of the disease and becomes a vicious cycle. Evidence of arthritis may be found by your vet at yearly check-ups, and in some cases, there is obviously reduced joint mobility combined with pain.

“In other cases, the signs may be subtler and require x-rays (radiographs) to diagnose. Is this middle-age spread appropriate to their food intake? There are unfortunately other reasons that cats can look overweight but in fact aren’t and they should be checked if there is a sudden perceived weight gain.”

Dr. Campbell concludes:

“There is no need for our feline friends to suffer in silence if we are just that bit more aware of what they are doing in the background and remembering that height is might and lack of height can mean something is afoot.”

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14 thoughts on “Vet Says Cats Adept at Hiding Illness from Owners

  1. I remember when our vet told us cats are champions at hiding illness and pain. I was devastated to think my cats could be suffering without me knowing it!
    He reassured me that as good owners we know our cats very well, so we just had to be aware of any change in their usual habits. This ties in with the info above.

    1. We just had a scare with Oli after we came back from the NPS. He went to the toilet A LOT. Rushed him to the vet in the afternoon yesterday and she thinks it might be a urinary tract infection. He got a pain killer and anti Biotics and seems a lot better today.

      1. OMG! How awful for you. I can guess how worried you and Iain must’ve been. Thank goodness he’s doing better today. 😀

  2. I’m so glad you posted this Marc-Andre. I had read the same thing a while back: that there’s no survival benefit to cats to showing a weakened state, so they generally put up a good facade about health issues.

    One of my cats started beating up the others around feeding time. We couldn’t figure that out, she was so mild-mannered. But when she had her teeth cleaned and they found that several teeth needed pulling, she was then sweet as can be around food again. She actually was showing a “braver” face rather than a weaker one with all the pain she must’ve been in. I learned so much from that incident: some behaviors can mean things you never expected and follow-up with a vet is very important.

    So I agree it is very important to stay alert to changes in behavior!

  3. Very interesting article. I recommend to friends of cats to thank Dr. Campbell! read it carefully

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