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Sad and poorly cat with big eyes

How to tell if your cat’s unwell

Cats rely largely on their wild instincts. And in the wild, larger predators can be a serious threat. That’s why cats have evolved to hide any signs of weakness. Therefore, in the early stages of illness, it’s near impossible for pet owners to realise their cat is poorly or in pain. This also means that cats can sometimes become very sick before they get the attention they need.

But don’t fear, there are a few tell-tale signs to look out for. They might not be the same signs of illness you’d see in yourself, but these odd behaviours often indicate something is wrong in your feline friend. Read on to find out more…

A change in appearance

Cats that aren’t feeling well are likely to look ‘off’. For instance, they might become hunched over or will act more clumsily than usual. Other things to look out for are strange head tilts or not lifting their face up properly. They also might carry their tail differently – for instance, if their tail is normally straight up and quivering when greeting you, but now it’s become limper.

In terms of physical appearance, there might not be one major thing that stands out to you. But by learning what your cat normally looks like, how they sit and how they carry themselves, you’ll be able to spot these subtle changes.

Abnormal grooming

Illustration of a cat overgrooming and undergrooming


Unwell cats generally don’t groom themselves very well. This is because they’re either too tired or too uncomfortable to look after their coat. Unfortunately, this habit can stay with them when they’re feeling better again.

Poorly cats tend to have messy, unkept coats and matted fur. Sometimes, you might even notice dandruff, or their coat will lose its shine.


On the other hand, overgrooming can also be the sign of a problem – such as allergies, a skin condition, joint pain or fleas. Cats will either excessively groom all over their body, or they’ll focus on one area. It can get so bad that they develop bald spots, or the skin beneath their fur can become red, raw and rashlike.

Overgrooming is also a response to stress. If you think your cat is stressed, now might be the time to introduce them to YuMOVE Calming Care for Cats, an all-natural formula designed to promote happiness. But we recommend speaking to your vet first to rule out any underlying conditions.

Behavioural changes

Is your normally friendly and affectionate lap cat suddenly shy and reluctant to come near you? Or is your typically distant feline now uber-clingy and demanding? Perhaps your energetic kitty has turned into a tired grouch? A change in your cat’s behaviour is often the first sign of illness.

We’re not saying that all changes are bad. Your cat’s personality is likely to develop over time. Just like how you probably have a different personality to your younger self. However, sudden changes are the ones to look out for – especially confusion or disorientation.

Unwell cats will tend to hide away. Although some cats may become clingy and demanding of your attention – kind of like how a poorly child would act. And in general, unwell cats have low levels of energy. They’ll sleep too much, play less or become restless. Having said that, hyperthyroidism makes your cat super active to the point where they howl and wake you up constantly, just so they have someone to play with.

Weight changes

Illustration of a fat and skinny cat

Weight loss is more of an urgent, short-term issue, whereas weight gain can be more harmful over time. Either way, a weight change is always something to be concerned about. Whether it’s weight loss or weight gain, we recommend seeking the advice of your vet.

Weight loss

Chronic illnesses can result in slow and extremely subtle weight loss. In fact, it can be so subtle that you might not even notice the change unless you compared your cat to an old photo. Slow weight loss is the sign of many illnesses, from the simple tummy ache to more serious conditions like kidney disease and cancer.

Sudden weight loss – particularly in a previously overweight cat – indicates illnesses like diabetes or hyperthyroidism.

Weight gain

Rapid weight gain could be caused by tumours, pregnancy, an infection or abdominal swelling. Obesity is a quite literally a growing problem in cats – it’s one of the main reasons behind health issues like heart disease and joint problems. 

Appetite changes

Hunger levels

An occasional missed meal shouldn’t ring any alarm bells, but you should take notice if your cat stops eating entirely or only eats small amounts. Is your cat naturally a picky eater? Take a look at our top tips to get a fussy cat to eat.

Most of the time, sick cats have a change in appetite – they’ll either eat less or more. Any major change should be monitored. Cats with dental disease often become picky about their food. And cats with metabolic diseases (like hyperthyroidism or diabetes) will have a hearty appetite and increased thirst. A loss in appetite paired with an increased thirst could indicate a liver or kidney problem.

If your cat hasn’t eaten anything in 24 hours, you need to get your vet involved. Lack of eating – even for a few days – can lead to serious problems like fatty liver syndrome.

Thirst levels

Dehydration is commonplace in poorly cats and should be treated right away. A good trick for spotting dehydration is to gently grasp your cat’s skin in between their shoulder blades and pull it up. The skin should snap back into place right away. If their skin stays up, this usually indicates dehydration.

Increased thirst can mean many different things. The most likely scenario is a problem with the kidneys or urinary tract. If this is the case, your cat is likely to be peeing outside of the litter tray (more on this next!)

A change in urination

Illustration of a cat peeing outside of the litter tray

Peeing in inappropriate places

If your cat suddenly begins to urinate in places other than their tray, this isn’t because they’re acting out. It’s more likely because they associate the litter tray with some sort of pain. If this happens, you should get them checked over by a vet.  

Increased or decreased urination

Increased amounts of urine sometimes means your cat is unable to conserve water properly. This can lead to kidney or liver problems, or diabetes.

Less frequent urination – especially if your cat keeps going in and out of the litter tray, or strains when sat in it – indicates some sort of kidney or bladder problem. This is a very serious issue, and a lack of urination can be life-threatening.

The eyes, nose and ears

Illustration of a cat with leaky and hazy eyes

What should your cat’s eyes, ears and nose look like?
  • The ideal, healthy cat should have bright, clear eyes and the size of their pupils should match.
  • Your cat’s ears should be entirely free of discharge. They also shouldn’t be red, discoloured or inflamed.
  • There’s no one-size-fits-all rule when it comes to a healthy cat nose. Although, generally, your cat’s nose should be slightly moist. There may be signs of nasal mucus, but coloured discharge isn’t normal.

Clear discharge in their eyes and nose isn’t too concerning. However, things start to become more serious if the discharge is pus-like, sticky or discoloured. Many conditions – like conjunctivitis, respiratory infections and even kidney problems – can cause eye discharge.

The third eyelid

Did you know that cats have a third eyelid? Don’t worry if you’re out of the loop. Most of the time you really shouldn’t see it! It’s normally only visible in two situations:

  1. When your cat’s super relaxed. And we mean super relaxed – like right after they wake up from a deep sleep or if they’re recovering from anaesthesia.
  2. If they’re poorly. The protrusion of the third eyelid can be seen in almost any cat that isn’t feeling well.
Hazy eyes

You should seek immediate veterinary care if your cat’s eyes become hazy or cloudy. It can be the sign of many eye diseases, including cataracts, glaucoma or ulcers. It’s especially concerning when paired with excessive pawing at the face, squinting or different-sized pupils.

Ear debris or discharge 

This might indicate an ear infection or could even be the sign of parasites like ear mites. Logistically, your cat can’t clean their own ears to remove any debris, so you should buy specialised ear wipes to give them a helping paw. Or, if you’re concerned it’s something more serious like an ear infection or parasites, get them looked over by your vet.

Bad breath

Illustration of a cat with bad breath

Your cat’s breath will never smell minty fresh. That goes without saying. There’s likely to be a hint of tuna, chicken or whatever food they’ve just eaten. However, their breath shouldn’t be so offensive that you can’t go near them, or it makes you gag.

Bad breath – or halitosis – can be the sign of numerous common cat illness. It could also indicate dental issues like gingivitis or tooth decay. That’s why it’s important to keep your cat’s mouth in tip-top shape. You can do this with dental treats, regularly brushing their teeth and annual dental check-ups.

Vomiting and diarrhoea

Illustration of a cat vomiting


The occasional, rare vomit or coughing up of a hairball isn’t concerning. But anything more frequent than that warrants a trip to your vet.

The reasons for vomiting

You might be thinking to yourself, ‘why is my cat being sick?’ Well, there are many causes of vomiting, but here’s the most common ones:

  • Swallowing something inedible – like a piece of string
  • Eating something poisonous – like a piece of onion or garlic
  • Coughing up hairballs
  • An upset stomach – which can be caused by dietary changes or even medication
  • Food allergies
  • Illnesses like kidney disease, pancreatitis or hyperthyroidism
Number two (literally)

Diarrhoea is easy to spot. And if it’s left untreated, it can lead to dehydration and inflammation of the intestines. Plus, your cat will hate having loose stools. It can even cause them to become stressed, which in turn to leads to further illnesses.

Similarly, constipation shouldn’t be left untreated either. Despite being more difficult to notice, small, hard and dry stools can be the early indicators of kidney disease.

Meowing or yowling

Illustration of a cat meowing

An increase in vocalisation could mean that your cat is unwell, in pain or stressed. It could also just mean that they’re bored. But you should always try to rule out health issues before going down the behavioural route.

Struggling or a reluctance to jump up

Illustration of a cat struggling to jump

As we all know, cats love nothing more than exploring, climbing and jumping around. So, if you notice your cat is starting to limp, or has any trouble jumping, this is a sign of an injury or a condition like joint stiffness. Never assume your cat is fine because they’re eating well and acting normally otherwise. Refusal to jump is something that should be checked out by your vet.

If you find your cat is showing signs of joint stiffness, why not try YuMOVE Cat? It’s packed with all the necessary ingredients to soothe stiff joints, and promote comfort and mobility. Still unsure? Take a look at our Trustpilot reviews. We’re not the UK’s number one veterinary joint supplement brand for no reason!

Our top tip

The signs of a poorly cat can be extremely subtle. So, if your cat seems off in any way, we recommend that you err on the side of caution and get them checked over by your vet. Even if you simply have a question about your cat’s health, your vet will be happy to help.

With any YuMOVE subscription, you’ll also get free 24/7 access to an online vet. Plus, you’ll also save 30% on every delivery and you’ll never miss a treatment again! Discover more of our subscription benefits here.

Faking it

Tabby cat laying on their side

You might have heard the myth that cats can ‘fake’ being unwell. But that’s exactly what it is, a myth. Your cat may show the above signs of illness when their diet is changed, if their daily routine is out of whack, or even if you bring a new piece of furniture into the house!

You might just think they’re being a diva, or ‘faking’ it for attention. But, your cat is just really stressed out. And they have no way of telling you this, so they show you it by presenting these signs of being unwell. And did you know that stress can lead to more serious illnesses? So, you shouldn’t just dismiss your cat’s diva behaviour. Try to get to the root of the issue, otherwise things might get worse.

Emergency situations

There are many situations that need urgent attention. If you spot any of these signs, you shouldn’t wait for an appointment and should contact a 24/7 vet if needed:

  • Traumatic injury – like breaking a bone
  • Struggling to breathe
  • Moderate to high amounts of bleeding
  • Exposure to toxic substances – like certain food or poisonous plants
  • Severe pain (indicated by crying, loud yowling or being aggressive to the touch)
  • Blue, white or extremely pale gums
  • Seizures
  • Collapse or unconsciousness
  • Dizziness and disorientation
  • The inability to walk
  • A body temperature higher than 39°C
  • Not eating anything in 24 hours

You know your cat best. If you’re worried about something that’s not listed above, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Your vet or emergency vet will be more than happy to help you decide if something needs urgent care.

For more tips on how to care for your cat, why not take a look at our guide on how much exercise your cat needs?

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