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7 Cat diseases every owner should know about

Whitney Coy is a freelance writer and editor based in Columbus, OH, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. She writes frequently for SheKnows, as well as several other websites. She writes on topics including parenting, pets...

Learn the most common cat diseases that could affect your feline

You love your feline friend, and you want to keep it healthy. Unfortunately, there is a wide variety of diseases it is likely susceptible to, and knowing about those diseases and their symptoms is the best way to catch them on time.

1. Kidney disease

Melissa Beall, DVM and PhD, of IDEXX Laboratories names kidney failure as one of the top four causes of death for domestic cats. "In fact, one in three cats will develop kidney disease," she says.

Beall says the biggest challenge with feline kidney disease is diagnosing the problem while there is still some kidney function left. "Catching kidney disease early can enable cat owners and veterinarians to treat the disease and allow cats to live years longer than they otherwise would," she added.

Once kidney disease has been identified, it can usually be managed through diet, increased fluids and meds.

Keep your eyes out for these top symptoms of feline kidney disease, and get your pet to a vet pronto if they pop up.

  • Weight loss
  • Increased urination and thirst
  • Vomiting
  • Decreased appetite
  • More frequent sleeping
  • Less grooming and an unkempt appearance
  • Light-colored gums
  • Bad breath

2. Heartworm disease

You might think heartworm is a disease only dog owners should stress over, but that's not the case. While heartworm is less common — and often less deadly — in cats, it still exists and can be the cause of major health issues for your feline friend.

When cats are infected with heartworm, it's usually spread by mosquitoes. Some cats may show no symptoms at all, making screening and prevention even more important.

Beall says when heartworm symptoms do appear in cats, these are the most common:

  • Weight loss
  • Respiratory distress
  • Coughing
  • Vomiting
  • Lethargy

3. Feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV)

Unlike what you might think, FeLV is not a feline cancer but instead is a transmittable disease that can cause many diseases, including cancer. According to Beall, both FeLV and FIV weaken a cat's immune system and make it more susceptible to other infections.

"These viral infections are spread through bodily fluids, such as saliva, and can spread during friendly behaviors like grooming or sharing common food and water bowls," she said.

A simple diagnostic test can determine if a cat has been infected with either of these diseases, which is important in both treating infected cats and limiting exposure to other felines. In severe cases, both diseases are fatal to cats.

Symptoms to look out for include: 

  • Weight loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Vomiting

4. Respiratory disease complex

Respiratory disease complex includes several diseases in cats that present with respiratory symptoms. Dr. Jeff Werber says most feline diseases that present with respiratory symptoms are preventable through vaccinations. He added that some of these diseases can be more serious than others and can affect cats of all ages (though many are more common in younger cats).

Werber noted these symptoms as most common and says you should get your cat to a vet immediately if you notice any of them in your pet:

  • Sneezing
  • Nasal discharge
  • Ocular discharge
  • Congestion
  • Salivation
  • Ulcerations on the tongue (with feline pneumonitis, aka feline chlamydiosis)

5. Hyperthyroidism

"As cats age, we often start to see cases of hyperthyroidism, which is an overactive thyroid, producing excessive amounts of the thyroid hormone," said Werber.

The symptoms for hyperthyroidism in cats depends on how advanced the disease is. "The earliest symptoms of this affliction relate to an increased appetite but often with a weight loss," explained Werber. "As the disease progresses untreated, the disease affects the heart muscle, which causes the cat to get sicker and become sluggish."

He recommends all felines over age 7 be screened for hyperthyroidism.

6. Miliary dermatitis

Miliary dermatitis is a catch-all name for cats exhibiting skin problems, often caused by allergies. While this isn't usually a life-threatening condition, it's one that may make your feline friend very uncomfortable, so cat owners should be aware.

"When it comes to cats and skin disease, we are at a disadvantage. Unlike dogs, where the location of the skin disease on the body can often reflect the source or cause, cats seem to respond the same regardless of the allergen. So often we don't get a clue as to cause of the allergy affecting the pet," said Werber.

These symptoms are a signal that your cat may be experiencing an allergy:

  • Crusty sores and scabs along the body, arms, inside of the thigh and belly
  • Hair loss
  • Itching
  • Granulomas (red, round, hard plaques) usually around the mouth
  • Lesions on the back of the thigh, called a linear granuloma

If left untreated, lesions from miliary dermatitis can become infected, so make sure to consult with your vet if you notice sores or scabs on your cat.

7. Urinary tract disease

Most cat owners have dealt with urinary tract disease at some point. While the symptoms may cause frustration for pet owners, they are even more painful and uncomfortable for your cat.

Symptoms of urinary tract disease in cats include:

  • Excessive water drinking
  • Frequent urination
  • Smelly urine
  • Urination in inappropriate places
  • Difficult urination (going to litter box frequently but without actual urination). According to Werber, this is caused by crystal formation, known as sludge, and is often accompanied by a moaning or crying. If you note these symptoms, it may be an emergency that requires veterinary attention.

These symptoms are all included under the umbrella known as "feline lower urinary tract disease" (FLUTD). "The causes may be related to stress, diet, water intake and secondary infection, which require treatment by your veterinarian," said Werber.

It's not easy to think about all the diseases that can affect your cat, but there is something you can do about it. "You can play a pivotal role in your cat's overall health and well-being by getting to know what is 'normal' for your cat. This will help alert you to changes before they develop into complications," added Werber.

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