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Understanding Cat Behavior: When Does it Become an Emergency?

Pet owners get used to their pet’s day-to-day habits and notice when there’s a change in their behavior. Slight changes in behaviors are normal, but when these changes are sustained over time, this could be a sign of a medical or psychological condition that requires veterinary action.

Cats can be especially hard to read, masters at hiding pain and illness. This kitty characteristic is one of their evolutionary defense mechanisms, explains Dr. Stephanie Borns-Weil, DMV, an animal behavior specialist from the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.

It is only when cats are experiencing intolerable pain that they show symptoms of distress. They may become withdrawn, anxious, or display unexpectedly aggressive behavior towards their owners and other animals in the household. They may also become either extremely quiet or extremely vocal. Look for extremes.

Truly understanding cat behavior involves watching for these behavioral and physical changes, which may be symptoms of underlying illnesses.

Difficulty Breathing

Difficulty breathing can claim anyone’s (human or pet) life in a matter of minutes, which is why this symptom is at the top of the list when it comes to diagnosing pet emergencies.

Some signs to watch out for: breathing with mouth open, coughing, wheezing, heaving sides, abnormal respiratory noises, or the appearance of “breathing funny”.

If you observe any of these symptoms with your cat, seek immediate veterinarian help.

Changes in Eating Habits & Appetite

Cats are often thought of as finicky eaters but they usually have very healthy appetites.

Understanding cat behavior means knowing that when a cat suddenly loses their appetite, it could be a sign of: upset stomach, stress, dental problems, intestinal parasites, a cardiac problem, ingestion of a toxic substance, or intestinal blockage. Loss of appetite may also be a sign of separation anxiety or depression.

On the other extreme, when cats suddenly have ravenous appetites, this could be a sign of either psychological distress or medical conditions that include diabetes, hyperthyroidism, or poor food absorption in the gastrointestinal system.

Understanding cat behavior to diagnose an emergency situation means also being on the lookout for sudden increased thirst, which may indicate a kidney or urinary tract problem.

Drastic Weight Changes

In relation to food and eating habits, sudden weight gains or losses are not normal for cats. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to notice weight loss or gain, especially in long-haired cats.

Some of the medical conditions associated with drastic weight loss include diabetes, dental problems, inflammatory bowel disease, respiratory infections, cancer, leukemia, and feline immunodeficiency virus. Changes in diet, schedule, or routine can affect the cat psychologically and may also affect their appetite.

A sudden and unexplained weight gain may be caused by tumors or diseases involving the cat’s internal organs.

Changes in Litter Box Activities

Cats are usually clean and have fixed toilet habits, so doing anything outside the usual tells the owner that the cat is distressed or needs medical attention. When cats suddenly do not defecate or urinate in their litter box, this could be a sign that they have a urinary tract infection, kidney stones, feline interstitial cystitis, or even a blockage.

For instance, urinary obstruction, which is more common in male cats (due to their anatomical design), is a fatal condition that happens when cats aren’t able to urinate. Cats with this condition suffer agonizing pain, which may rapidly progress to kidney failure and potentially, bladder rupture. This may cause high blood-potassium levels, which eventually lead to cardiac arrest.

Diarrhea is also something to watch out for, because it may lead to dehydration and intestinal inflammation. This may be caused by dietary indiscretion or intestinal parasites, among other problems.

When you observe a change in a cat’s litter box activities, consult a veterinarian to rule out any medical problems before dismissing this behavioral change as a behavioral problem.

Changes in Sleep Patterns

Adult cats typically spend 16-18 hours a day cat-napping or sleeping, and normally wake up when it’s feeding time or when their owner enters the room. Understanding cat behavior means knowing that cats failing to react to these stimuli may indicate a problem.

Some of the signs to watch out for include:

  • Change in sleeping hours. If your cat sleeps longer or shorter hours than usual, they may be nursing an illness. Note that obese cats may sleep for longer periods of time, due to pain or low energy levels.
  • Changes in areas of sleep. This could be a sign of arthritis (when they can’t sleep in their usual high places) or a sign of fear/avoidance.

Changes in Grooming

Cats are usually meticulous about their hygiene, spending lots of time cleaning themselves. Any change in appearance, such as bald patches, dirty or greasy fur, and hair loss, may be signs of underlying medical conditions.

Aside from physical appearances, owners should also watch out for changes in grooming behaviors, such as over-grooming or not grooming at all. Cats that suddenly over-groom themselves may be experiencing allergies, dry skin, or a flea problem. They overgroom because the licking releases endorphins, causing the cat to feel soothed.

On the other hand, a decrease in grooming may be a sign of an underlying health problem.

For instance, overweight cats may have difficulty reaching some areas of their bodies, causing a matted coating. Because they have a hard time cleaning themselves, they are also at risk for anal gland problems and urinary tract infections. Older cats experiencing dental or arthritic pain may also be experiencing some discomfort that prevents them from grooming the way they used to.

Changes in Social Interaction

Compared to dogs, cats can seem snobby and picky in terms of who they interact with, though most cats generally enjoy interacting with their family members and owners.

Cat owners should watch out for when their pets suddenly display aggressive behaviors and refuse social contact. This behavior can be brought on by stress or anxiety, caused by changes in the household, such as a new pet or family member being introduced, death or divorce in the family, seasonal, schedule or location changes. Stress could also be triggered by the aging process.

This is manifested through signs such as panting, hiding, reacting to contact with a painful area, or vocalizing.


Cats may not talk, but they can vocalize their feelings. Take note of the characteristics of the sounds they make, including frequency and volume.

Changes in vocalization may indicate illnesses such as asthma or an upper respiratory infection. Yowling may be a symptom of hearing loss, while persistent vocalization may be a cry for help.

Final Thoughts: Understanding Cat Behavior: When Does it Become an Emergency?

Pets cannot talk, so they cannot tell us directly when something is wrong. However, they communicate by showing us subtle cues that hint at when something is wrong with them. As a pet owner, it is important to take note of these sudden behavioral changes as these may be symptoms for underlying medical conditions.

If your cat is acting strangely, get in touch with the experts at Veterinary Specialists of the Rockies for help diagnosing an emergency situation.

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