When to Go to the Veterinarian: How Sick is Sick Enough

How much should it cost? How sick is that kitty anyway?



My cat has had all of his shots plus a recent tapeworm shot.  He has been lethargic and drool has been pouring from his mouth.  He has not lost his appetite and is currently drinking more water than usual.  Should I take him to the vet $$$ ?


Dr. Nichol:

I think I understand your problem. Your kitty is eating but not feeling well. Clearly his drooling and excessive drinking are not normal. But is he really sick enough to justify the expense ($$$) of a visit to the veterinarian? Or, put differently, will he get better on his own or will he just get sicker if he doesn’t see a doctor?


Cats are special to those of us who love them and share our homes with them. They’re different than dogs and people in that they complain less; maybe that’s part of their appeal. It’s also what makes it hard to recognize when they are in trouble. Typically a cat who is sick just lies low and tries to be inconspicuous. There’s a good reason for it considering the instinct of self preservation. In the wild only the strong survive. A kitty who advertises his illness by grousing about it is more than a nuisance-he’s somebody’s lunch. He may be sicker than you think.


We have special challenges in veterinary medicine because our patients can’t tell us what’s wrong. We rely heavily on the observations of the pet’s family. And cats make it harder still in that they tend to hide their disabilities by being less active. So here are some important questions that will help you decide if your boy is really sick. Does he go outside? Does he chew house plants? Any vomiting or diarrhea? Is he passing more urine than normal? You said that he has had his vaccinations and an injection for tapeworms. Did his symptoms start the same day?


Now that I’ve added more uncertainty I’ll try to provide a few answers. If this boy goes outside I would be concerned about antifreeze poisoning. This sweet tasting toxin can quickly damage kidneys causing drooling and increased thirst. On the other hand if he’s just sucking on the bitter leaves of indoor plants, I would shake my finger at him and explain that he has just reaped the consequences of his bad behavior. How about other symptoms? If he has vomiting and/or diarrhea he may have other serious trouble. Important concerns here would have to include intestinal disease, organ failure, and maybe diabetes. Lastly, if he got his injections the same day he may just have a stress reaction. But whatever you do, do not give him an aspirin and call the doctor in the morning. Aspirin, ibuprofen, and especially Tylenol will make for a much sicker kitty.


So what about the expense? I wish money didn’t have to be a factor but let’s face it-it is for a lot of folks. You love this guy and want him to have the very best but if he’ll get better anyway…. Here’s what you can do. Call your veterinarian’s office and ask a for a little telephone advice. Provide all the information you can. If they say that they better take a look, do as they suggest. No way do they want your kitty to take the wait-and-see approach if they think he’ll be at risk. And if you take him to the doctor remember that you’re the boss. The veterinarian has two jobs. First to diagnose and make treatment recommendations. Second to do as you ask. I say you are smart to be concerned. Just don’t gamble with the health of your cat.





Poor Appetite & Inactive Means this Cat is Really Sick, Not Bored with Food


I have a 10 year old female tabby cat, who until a month ago, had a healthy appetite and a wealth of energy.  She became suddenly listless and lost her appetite almost completely.  We tried different foods; we bought toys, treats and catnip, and spend time with her and still she insists on sitting in corners and she won’t have ‘conversations’ with us.  Could this be a sign of something more serious than boredom?  I’m worried about my little girl but I’m not sure if her behavior warrants a trip to the vet.


Dr. Nichol:

You cat is not bored; she is truly sick. There is no behavior disorder that would cause a sudden loss of appetite and failure to interact.


Offering a smorgasbord of gastronomic delights to sick pets is a common mistake. The tragic result of days or weeks of denial is a gradual worsening of the underlying disease. I have seen many pets who were beyond help by the time the owners finally gave up on the “bored with food” theory. Our pets don’t speak a human language; it is our responsibility to err on the side of caution.


Your kitty has serious internal disease. Be prepared for the doctor to recommend an in-depth diagnostic work-up to include a lab profile and x-rays. Don’t waste time. A physical exam should never be considered a last resort.