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Get the Most from Vet Visits; Learn to Better Observe Your Cat

Vets can't know everything about your cat; here's how to watch closely and ask the right questions.

 |  Oct 11th 2013  |   4 Contributions


If you've cared for a cat for a while, you've probably learned that cats are very adept at hiding certain health issues or things that might be making them uncomfortable. If something seems off with your cat and you can't quite pinpoint what the problem might be, then it becomes important to get very observant, take action (a trip to the vet, if warranted), and provide as much information as possible about what you've observed.

Veterinarians are some of the most devoted people I've seen when it comes to our cats' health. But they can't read our minds or our cats' minds. And unfortunately, our cats can't talk to our veterinarians (well, unless you have an extremely intuitive vet, but that's another story). So when you take your cat to the vet, YOU are a crucial part of the three-way communication process that has to happen (cat-vet-you). And when you're all doing the detective work that is sometimes needed to figure out what's going on with your cat, it pays for you to be as curious, observant, and aware as possible.

First, hone your observations at home

Here's where I often fall down -- and should know better after decades of having cats. I need to keep better records. In cases where there's something going on with your cat that is not acute or obvious, your unease about something begins with a behavior you observed at home. Something may seem off with your kitty. Is he suddenly drinking more? Hiding? Lying in a way that looks uncomfortable and unrelaxed? Changing his behavior in any way? These are indicators that something may be up with your cat. And the more detailed you can be with the information you bring to your vet, the better.

For example, keep notes or a journal. When exactly did you first notice that your cat was drinking more water? Write down the date. Days and weeks can fly by, and it's much better data for your vet if you can tell them specifically for how long a particular instance has been observed.

Also note whether other constants in the household may have changed when you noticed a change in your cat's behavior. For example, if your kitty suddenly started drinking more, did something else in the household change at the same time? Did you switch food, for example? Was a new cat introduced? Write down when conditions changed.

Of course, you also need to be open to the possibility that none of these variables may be related. Don't force a solution -- just give your vet as many observations and facts as you can, so that they have the biggest picture possible with which to make a diagnosis.

My vet has often told me that I am very good at observing my cats. Maybe that's true -- I enjoy watching them, and of course, I worry like crazy when something seems off or not good. Help your vet by honing your observations, and by keeping track of specifically when, and in what circumstances, you might have noticed new or troubling behavior from your cat. Describe the observation as thoroughly as possible.

Here's a personal example. Chester, my orange tabby, suddenly began scratching a bit much behind his ears. He wasn't causing bleeding but the
hair behind his ears was not growing back. This might indicate any number of things: Fleas or a skin rash? Ear infection or worse? Internal tumor? Other?

My handsome Chester, who no longer has raw spots behind his ears.

I've worked with my vet for a long time, and he knew the questions to ask. After an exam that ruled out any skin maladies or an ear infection or visible tumor, we discussed the possibility of an allergic reaction to the food I was giving the cats. My vet suggested putting Chester on a grain-free diet (many good cat food brand now offer this option). We switched Chester's food. Over a period of a few months, he began leaving his ears alone and the hair has grown back in the former raw spots. His hair also looks much better than it did previously.

So, keep a journal of the daily goings on in your household with your cat or cats. Note dates, and circumstances, and observations. It will prove to be valuable information when you do go to the vet and are trying to nail down just what is going on with your cat.

I'm hoping that Norton the kitten has a long healthy life ahead of him, and I'm already observing him to learn what's normal and not normal for this boy.

Ask the right questions and add to the conversation at the veterinarian's office

Think of yourself as a facilitator. Your vet has a lot of knowledge. Sometimes, a question that you ask might get the vet to consider an avenue that might be overlooked. Any information you can bring to the conversation might help bring you closer to nailing the solution to what's going on with your cat. Keep the conversation going and don't be afraid to bring up anything that might be related, even if it seems crazy. Your vet might be aware of a connection between data. Between the three of you (cat, vet, and you), a good diagnosis or way to proceed is much more likely if you're providing as much information possible.

All veterinarians are not alike. I have been very very fortunate to have skilled and supportive vets to work with. If you feel that your vet is cutting you off or not willing to consider information you bring to the table that you think might be significant -- well, then it might be time to shop around for a different veterinarian. We have to be the advocates for our cats' health, after all!

What questions do you ask at the vet's office? What information do you bring and share when something is up with your cat? Share your tips in comments and let's help each other!

Read more about cats and veterinary care:

About Catherine HolmTold that she is funny but doesn’t know it, accused of being an unintentional con artist by her husband, quiet, with frequent unannounced bursts into dancing liveliness, Cat Holm loves writing about, working for, and living with cats. She is the author of the cat-themed memoir Driving with Cats: Ours for a Short Time, the creator of Ann Catanzaro cat fantasy story gift books, and the author of a short story collection about people and place. She loves to dance, be outside whenever possible, read, play with cats, make music, do and teach yoga, and write. Cat lives in the woods, which she loves as much as really dark chocolate, and gets regular inspiration shots along with her double espresso shots from the city.

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