From their uncanny ability to inhabit boxes and their silly whiskers to their love of laser pointers and their crazy catnip personas, cats provide their people with endless hours of love and entertainment. As cat owners, you want to return the favor by giving your pets long and healthy lives. February is National Cat Health Month and, as veterinarians, we appreciate the opportunity to shine a light on cat wellness. And while you want your cat’s years to be many, you should also want that time to be full of good health and plenty of enrichment. There are ways you can contribute to optimal health for your cat, and we share tips on that below by answer some FAQs about cat wellness.
What is a cat wellness exam, and what will my veterinarian be looking for during it?
A cat wellness exam is when you bring your cat into a veterinary hospital for a check-up when they are perceived to be healthy. Your cat may also be due for vaccines at these well appointments as part of a good preventive care routine. We generally start by getting the cat’s history. We’ll ask you many questions about appetite, water consumption, urinary habits, litter box behaviors, how they've been at home, and if there's been anything that you perceive as unusual happening.
The next portion is an examination. Many vets start with the ophthalmoscope to look in both of the cat’s eyes to make sure that they're bright and shiny, examining all the way back to the retina. We’re hoping to see young, shiny, healthy eyes with no conjunctivitis, blinking, or winking. We then turn the ophthalmoscope into an otoscope to see down into the cat’s ears. We want to make sure there's no wax buildup, debris, polyps, bleeding, or anything unusual in the ears.
Typically, the next thing we do is an oral exam to check the cat’s teeth, and let’s be honest—this is probably the least enjoyable part of the exam, as cats have a particular loathing for it! We try to make it quick as we look at the outside of the teeth, their tongue, underneath the tongue, and at the roof of the mouth. We want the gums to be nice and pink and moist and the teeth to be clean. We rate the teeth based on a score of one to four, with one being the very best healthy teeth. The next thing we generally do is feel their lymph nodes going all the way down the body. We don't want to feel their lymph nodes, per se, as they shouldn’t be large and prominent.
We listen to the right and left-hand side of the cat’s heart and lungs with a stethoscope, taking the heart rate. A heart rate in a cat can be anywhere between 150 and 200 beats per minute and be normal. Listening to the rhythm is also essential, as that tells us whether or not the cat has a heart murmur. The other thing we do is we do take their body temperature. Cats typically don’t like getting their temperature taken rectally. The ear thermometers are more comfortable, but they’re also a bit more challenging to use and get fitted correctly.
Lastly, we’ll squeeze the cat’s tummy, feel the bladder, the kidneys, and intestines to make sure they're not uncomfortable. In other words, we make sure the organs that are supposed to be there are there and nothing else. And we take a look at the overall way they hold themselves. We also rate them on their body score—with one being too skinny and nine being too heavy. And five is right in the middle.
It's not required by law, but most veterinarians will also use the wellness exam to urge you to microchip your cat if you haven’t done so already. Losing your cat can be a heartbreaking situation. Although a microchip doesn’t guarantee a safe return, it can help if another person or family finds your cat and has them scanned at a vet clinic or shelter. What’s even greater is the newer ones help to scan cats for their body temperature.
The AAHA also has some helpful guidelines on what should be involved in a cat wellness exam.
Does wellness impact the longevity and health of my cat?
Absolutely! The longer you keep your cat free of diseases, the better off they will be.
Other ways wellness can contribute to the health and longevity of your cat are as follows:
Keeping them free of internal and external parasites
Enlisting optimal nutrition
Keeping them at the right body weight
Ensuring good dental care
Getting them access to regular physical and mental stimulation
Pursuing veterinary care whenever you notice a change in cat behavior
Regular wellness visits also help us pick up on things like heart murmurs and, the early we catch and treat conditions, the better the prognosis will be. Preventive care goes hand in hand with cat wellness.
Will my cat's wellness exam require lab work?
Most veterinarians will give you the option to run an early detection profile—a CBC chemistry and thyroid test. We obviously hope it's normal every year. Still, if we find something that's not normal, it gives us a chance to get started and research that before becoming a potentially life-threatening and perhaps costly illness.
When should I bring my cat in for a veterinary wellness exam?
Kittens need to see a veterinarian for a series of appointments at 8 weeks, 12 weeks, and 16 weeks. And then they'll also likely come in to be spayed or neutered. Beyond that, an annual exam is generally sufficient. When cats become seniors, we’ll likely suggest two visits a year with blood work and perhaps blood pressure because cats can get hypertension. Sometimes we’ll ask you to bring a fecal sample with you to the clinic.
What are some signs and symptoms that my cat might be feeling unwell?
Cats are stoic creatures, and, unfortunately, they hide a lot when they’re not feeling well. They don't come and greet you and do other typical behaviors. Maybe they're limping, vomiting, having diarrhea, not eating, sleeping way more than they used to, or not playing. Any change in your cat's routine should alert you to a problem and, at the very least, warrants a call to your veterinarian.
How can I make in-person wellness visits easier on my cat?
Cats are notoriously hard to get to the vet as, unlike dogs, they generally loathe trips in the car. And to keep your cat safe, you need to use a cat carrier. As veterinarians, we suggest that you use the cat carrier for things other than taking your cat to the vet. Consider using their favorite treat or toy to get them in there and used to it so they can associate the carrier with being a happy place, and not just as transportation to a place where they get poked and prodded!
Happy National Cat Health Month! If you have questions about how to improve your cat’s health or you’re due for your next wellness visit, please give us a call.