Common Cat Health Issues by Breed, Age, and Environment

by Aliyah Diamond
Pawlicy Advisor
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Pet Care Blog
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Cat Health Issues
Cats can suffer from a variety of health issues, but many are preventable through routine care. Learn more about the risk factors for disease in cats.

Most pet owners are aware that certain dog breeds are more prone to health conditions than others, but the same is true of cats. And although cats are generally less expensive to care for than dogs, cat health insurance can help cat parents avoid thousands of dollars in potential vet bills if their cats get sick.

If you’re bringing a new cat or kitten home, there are a few things you can do to help your cat stay healthy. You should also remain aware of any signs that could indicate your cat may be sick or injured.

Here’s what you need to know about health problems prevalent in cats:

Common Signs of Illness in Cats

Cats are known for their silly behavior. Even if your cat is acting weird, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your cat isn’t feeling well.

For example, if your cat is loafing around, scratching your furniture, or darting around the house, they are probably just living their best cat life.

Even cat vomiting can be normal behavior if it occurs less than once per month. Your cat might occasionally vomit what some people call a “hairball” simply because they’ve ingested too much of their fur while grooming themselves. Acute vomiting can often be resolved in a matter of days with simple treatments and medications but may require a visit to your veterinarian.

However, if your cat’s behavior changes significantly, it could be a sign that something is wrong. If an active cat seems suddenly lethargic, it could be suffering from an illness like a virus. The changed behavior could also signify a serious emergency, especially if the symptoms are accompanied by labored breathing, wheezing, or coughing.

Other common signs of illness in cats include:

  • Blood in urine or feces
  • Chronic bad breath
  • Diarrhea
  • Difficulty urinating/defecating
  • Crying out while in the litter box
  • Discharge from eyes or nose
  • Increased appetite or thirst
  • Increased vocalization
  • Loss of appetite
  • Limping or mobility issues
  • Personality changes (such as hiding more often)
  • Reluctance to groom or overgrooming
  • Skin irritation and hair loss
  • Swelling of their face, ears, paws, tail, or limbs
  • Weight gain or weight loss

There are also some telltale signs that your cat is experiencing a medical emergency. You should bring your cat to an emergency animal hospital if they exhibit any of the following:

  • Acute injury or trauma
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Breathing with their mouth open
  • Possible exposure to poisonous or toxic substances
  • Gums that are blue or pale white
  • High body temperature
  • Imbalance or dizziness
  • Not eating for 24 hours or longer
  • Repeated vomiting in a 24-hour period
  • Seizures
  • Severe pain (often accompanied by vocalization)
  • Unconsciousness or unresponsiveness

Sometimes, it can be hard to tell if your cat is sick, but don’t hesitate to call your vet if your cat is displaying any of the signs above or if you aren’t sure.

At-Risk Factors for Disease in Cats

There are specific factors that make cats more at-risk of specific types of diseases. Many of these factors, such as age and genetics, are outside of our control. But we usually have control over our cats’ environments, and it helps to stay educated about your cat’s risk factors.

Here are some health risk factors to consider.

Age

Your cat’s age can make them more at risk for certain health conditions, and it isn’t just older cats who are at risk.

It’s not uncommon to find worms in kittens, for example. Kittens are also more at risk for the following illnesses:

  • Ear mites
  • Feline Cerebellar Hypoplasia (FCH)
  • Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV or “feline AIDS”)
  • Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP)
  • Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV)
  • Panleukopenia (Feline Distemper)
  • Feline Herpes Virus (FHV)
  • Some parasites
  • Upper respiratory infections

If you are worried your kitten may be sick, it is essential to take them to the vet right away so that your doctor can rule out some of these severe illnesses. Many of the conditions above are curable as long as you bring your pet to the vet in a timely manner so they can get the diagnosis and treatment they need. Some conditions are also preventable with routine vaccinations, so talk to your veterinarian about a vaccine schedule that can help keep them safe and healthy as they grow up.

Kitten cuddled up with owner

Cats can live for 15 to 20 years, and most of those years can be happy and healthy with the proper care. But just like dogs, older cats become more prone to illnesses and other problems as they age. For example, it’s not uncommon for vets to find hyperthyroidism in cats as they get older—10% of felines will be found to have the disease.

Additionally, older cats are more at risk of illnesses such as:

  • Arthritis
  • Cancer
  • Chronic renal disease and other kidney problems
  • Dental disease
  • Diabetes (one cause of pancreatitis in cats)
  • Feline lower urinary tract disease
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Other chronic conditions
  • Urinary tract infections

Older cats should visit the vet more often than younger cats. Most veterinarians suggest that cats aged 1 – 10 should visit the vet at least once per year. Cats older than 10 should visit the vet twice per year.

Environment

Cats can become sick or injured due to risks in their environment as well. The most common examples include accidental poisoning, puncture wounds, and pathogenic infection.

Accidental Poisoning

  • Most households use detergents and cleaners that could be potentially poisonous to cats. Store household cleaning products and toxic substances where cats can’t reach them. Cats love to climb, so the safest place for harmful chemicals may be in a cabinet or drawer that your cat cannot open.
  • Some types of plants are toxic to cats, such as lilies, tulips, azaleas, oleander, and chrysanthemum. If you enjoy having potted plants around the house, make sure you select plant species that aren’t a risk to your cats if ingested.
  • Essential oils used in oil diffusers are often toxic to cats and can cause organ failure or neurologic disease. You should consult your veterinarian when deciding if and which essential oils might be safe to diffuse in your home.

Puncture Wounds

  • Likewise, many cat owners let their cats roam free outside for at least part of the day. While cats may love to explore the outdoors, this also exposes them to risks, whether you live in a populated area or out in the country.
  • Cats can be killed or injured by vehicles and other machinery when walking around roads or near construction sites.
  • Depending on where you live, they are at a higher risk of being taken by wildlife predators like coyotes and bobcats, or facing off with aggressive cats in the neighborhood.

Pathogenic Infection

  • Outdoor cats that sustain bite wounds are more prone to bacterial infections, including abscesses that fester under the skin and FIV.
  • Cats may also encounter more contagions if they spend large amounts of time outside. For example, exposure to spores or an infected animal is a common cause of ringworm in cats.
  • If you plan to let your cat outside, make sure they are up to date on their vaccinations and protected against fleas, ticks, mosquitos, and intestinal parasites.

Consider creating a safe outdoor environment for your cat near home, so they are encouraged to spend more time nearby. Additionally, talk with your veterinarian about what additional vaccinations your cat may need to keep them safe if they are outdoors.

Cat receives pet sitting on ledge outdoors

Genetics

Cats can also get sick due to genetic and inherited disorders that impact their quality of life. There are more than 70 genetic mutations documented in cats. Some of the most common hereditary issues in cats include:

  • Feline lower urinary tract disease
  • Diabetes
  • Polycystic kidney disease
  • Polydactyly
  • Heart disease
  • Deafness
  • Blindness

Polydactyl Cat Health Issues

A polydactyl cat occurs when a cat is born with more than the usual number of toes on one or more of its paws. This anomaly can occur in any breed of cat.

Polydactyly in cats is caused by a genetic mutation in a dominant gene. Most often, polydactyly affects the cat’s front paws, although sometimes it can affect a cat’s rear paws. It is exceedingly rare for a cat to have polydactyly on all its paws.

If you’ve ever heard the term “Hemingway cat,” this is a reference to cats with polydactyly. The author Ernest Hemingway famously lived among polydactyl cats at his Key West estate, and the descendants of those cats still roam the grounds.

The good news is that this genetic mutation is mostly harmless and likely won’t cause any significant cat health issues. You might need to take extra care to trim your cat’s nails, however, as they can get caught on drapes and furniture.

Some polydactyl cats also need extra monitoring, especially if their extra toes interfere with their ability to walk or climb.

Although some genetic disorders (such as polydactyly) can affect any type of cat, others are more common in certain breeds.

Purebred Cats That Are Prone to Genetic Disorders

If you have a purebred cat or you are concerned about potential genetic disorders, here are some that present themselves in some of the most popular cat breeds.

Siamese Cat Health Issues

Siamese cats are beautiful, but according to the Animal Hospital of Rowlett Veterinary Clinic, they are prone to several genetic disorders, such as:

  • Adenocarcinomas of the small intestine
  • Asthma
  • Cervical neck lesions
  • Congenital heart defects
  • Cutaneous asthenia
  • Cutaneous mastocytomas
  • Esophageal hypomotility
  • Feline endocrine alopecia
  • Feline hyperesthesia syndrome
  • Gangliosidosis
  • Glaucoma
  • Hip dysplasia
  • Hydrocephalus
  • Hypotrichosis
  • Malignant mammary tumors
  • Mast cell tumors
  • Mucopolysaccharidosis
  • Nystagmus
  • Primary endocardial fibroelastosis
  • Sphingomyelinosis
  • Strabismus

Bengal Cat Health Issues

Bengal cats are more at risk for the following illnesses:

  • Cataracts
  • Entropion
  • Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM)
  • Progressive renal atrophy (RPA)

Manx Cat Health Issues

Manx cats are more at risk for the following illnesses:

  • Atresia ani
  • Corneal dystrophy
  • Rectal prolapse
  • Spina bifida
  • Congenital vertebral malformations

Persian Cat Health Issues

Persian cats are more at risk for the following illnesses:

  • Chediak-Higashi syndrome
  • Congenital epiphora
  • Entropion
  • Hip dysplasia
  • Mannosidosis
  • Patellar luxation
  • Peripheral pseudocysts
  • Polycystic kidney disease
  • Primary glaucoma
  • Seborrhea

Sphynx Cat Health Issues

Sphynx (hairless) cats are more at risk for the following health issues:

  • Alopecia Universalis
  • Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM)
  • Spasticity

Ragdoll Cat Health Issues

Ragdoll cats are more at risk for the following health issues:

  • Bladder stones
  • Feline infectious peritonitis
  • Feline mucopolysaccharidosis
  • Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy

Munchkin Cat Health Issues

Munchkin cats are bred with short legs, a genetic mutation that is a type of dwarfism. Some animal welfare advocates consider the practice of breeding animals for exaggerated physical characteristics to be inhumane, especially when those characteristics can cause health problems, which is the case with Munchkin cats. These cats are also not “purebred” like the above breeds; they are often mixed breed cats who display the similar features described above.

Munchkin cats are more at risk for the following health issues:

  • Lordosis
  • Mobility issues
  • Pectus excavatum (concave or hollowed chest)

Tabby Cat Health Issues

A tabby cat is technically not a type of cat breed and doesn’t carry with it any specific genetic risks for illness.

Instead, “tabby” simply refers to the striped pattern of the cat’s coat. This pattern is not breed-specific and comes in many colors, sizes, and hair lengths.

Himalayan Cat Health Issues

Himalayan cats are more at risk for the following health issues:

  • Excessive eye tearing
  • Polycystic kidney disease (PKD)
  • Progressive retinal atrophy (PRA)
  • Respiratory problems

Man gives kiss to pet cat

How to Prevent Health Issues in Cats

The best way to prevent cat health issues is to keep your cat indoors as much as possible, ensure they are updated on their vaccinations, and bring your cat for regular checkups at the vet. You can also protect your cat against intestinal parasites, worms, fleas, ticks, and other risks with certain monthly preventative medications.

Most veterinarians recommend you to bring an adult cat to the vest at least once per year, but two visits or more per year is ideal for ensuring your cat has a healthy life especially as they get older. Cats are exceptionally good at hiding their pain, discomfort, or health changes from you. Because of this, pet parents often don’t know something is wrong until the illness or injury has become more serious. By bringing your cat to the vet annually, routine exams and diagnostics can ensure your cat is truly healthy, or increase your likelihood of catching a treatable disease early on.

There are also plenty of things you can do at home to improve your cat’s quality of life with routine care:

  • Brush your cat’s teeth regularly (preferably every day)
  • Brush your cat’s coat regularly (at least once weekly)
  • Provide a constant supply of clean water
  • Empty your cat’s litter tray daily
  • Spay or neuter your cat
  • Play with your cat to give them exercise
  • Provide your cat with a comfortable place to sleep
  • Provide your cat with vertical enrichment to climb on

It’s also important to feed your feline consistent meals with healthy cat food. Some cat parents allow their cats to graze and simply leave their food bowl full. While this makes feeding easy, it can also contribute to obesity if your cat grazes too frequently. It also may be hard to notice if your cat starts eating less than normal, which may be an early warning sign that they are ill.

If your cat experiences rapid weight loss or weight gain, consult your veterinarian about their overall health, feeding schedule, and diet.

How to Save on Veterinary Care for Cats

Finally, you should consider protecting your cat’s health by getting pet insurance. Pet insurance doesn’t just help you avoid expensive veterinary bills. It can protect their quality of life. It also ensures your cat has access to all the veterinary care they need if they get sick or injured, or if they suffer an emergency.

You can use Pawlicy Advisor to compare pet insurance from leading providers right now.


Key Takeaways

  • Cats are prone to a number of illness and injuries, but many of them are preventable or curable.
  • There are certain risk-factors that increase the risk of health issues in cats, including age, environment, and genetics.
  • Some purebred cats are more prone to certain genetic disorders that pet parents should be aware of.
  • The best way to ensure your pet cat's health is through annual vet visits and routine care at home.
  • Pet insurance can help you cover the cost of veterinary care to promote a happy, healthy life for your feline friend.

Aliyah Diamond

About the author

Aliyah Diamond

DVM Candidate - Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine

Aliyah Diamond has more than ten years of experience in animal hospitals - working with dozens of species from dogs and cats, to elephants and snow leopards. Her lifelong passion for helping animals currently has her earning her doctorate of veterinary medicine at Cornell University and helping Pawlicy Advisor educate pet parents.

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