My cat is ill but how will the vet know what is wrong? Cats are notoriously good at hiding symptoms of sickness so what can the vet do to find out what’s ailing her? Dr Ingrid explains what a thorough examination entails.

My cat is ill: fact-finding

Cats can’t tell us what is wrong and that means that we veterinarians need to be detectives; we take a step-by-step approach to ensure we follow the clues that we can.

The first step in the diagnostic process is to look at the cat’s ‘signalment’. That is a fancy word for description; in other words, we need to know if the cat is male or female, its age and breed. Having this information will rule in, or out, a whole host of potential diagnoses. For example, a six-month-old cat is unlikely to have kidney failure, whereas this might be at the top of my list in a 15-year-old cat.

Then we’ll need from you a comprehensive history of your pet. Attentive owners go a long way in helping us make a diagnosis. Every little bit of information you can give us about your cat and what you have noticed helps us. The signalment and the history already gives us a few clues as to what the diagnosis could be, but we then need to investigate a little further.

My cat is ill: the Minimum Database

The next step is to start putting together what we call a ‘minimum database’. This includes the signalment and the history, but most importantly it includes a thorough clinical examination.

  • We will examine your cat from head to toe.
  • We take some objective measurements: the temperature, heart rate and breathing rate. And then I like to start at the nose, check eyes, ears, teeth, tongue and gums.
  • I will then feel the neck and listen to the heart and lung sounds thoroughly.
  • I then palpate (feel) the abdomen. We feel for enlarged organs, kidney size and shape, any possible growths, obstructions, constipation and bladder size.
  • I will also feel the cat all over looking for growths on the body, any changes in coat, and abscesses.
  • And lastly I will look at the musculoskeletal system, and check the cat’s back and legs to see if there are any painful areas.

Cats are masters of disguise and will hide symptoms. On top of that many diseases will have the same symptoms, so we look for any potential abnormalities to put the diagnostic puzzle together.

Why does my vet need to take a blood smear?

Often a blood smear forms part of a ‘minimum database;. A blood smear allows us to look at the blood cells and gives us further clues, for example:
• We get an idea of whether the red blood cell count is low or the cells are pale, indicating anaemia.
• If the white blood cell count is high this could be an indication of infection, inflammation or cancers like leukaemia. If the white blood cell count is very low it is an indication of potential Feline Leukaemia Virus (FeLV) or Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV).
• We also look at the platelets and very high numbers indicate chronic bleeding and low numbers could mean there is a sudden blood loss (e.g. rodenticide poisoning)
• And lastly we look for blood parasites like Babesia felis and Mycoplasma haemofelis which are transmitted by ticks and fleas respectively.

The last test that forms part of the ‘minimum database’ is a urine test. We normally collect urine by extracting a small amount from the bladder with a needle and syringe, which is a quick and relatively painless procedure for a cat. This test gives us huge amounts of information and can rule in or out kidney disease, bladder infections, urine crystals and diabetes.

Formulating a plan

Once we have gathered the information from the signalment, history, clinical exam, blood smear and urine analysis we will put together a mental ‘abnormalities list’ and then we try to link those abnormalities to certain diseases. This helps us to put together a differential diagnosis list, in other words a list of possible diagnoses. Once we have that we can implement the best possible treatment for your cat so that even if he’s trying to hide what’s wrong, we can do our best to help him get well again!

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