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Cat communication: Here's how to tell if your cat is healthy and happy

A cat's meow could mean a thousand things. We spoke to animal behaviourist Dr Jo Righetti about how to know if your feline friend is in tiptop shape.

Cats are mysterious creatures - their wacky, cute, and crazy behaviour is the source of endless Internet content. Though, it can be quite tricky to tell if your cat is happy and healthy.

As well as having a playful nature, a loud purr, twitchy tail and wide-eyes, we asked Dr Jo about the other tell-tale signs of fitness for cats. 

So what are some of the signs of a healthy and happy cat?

A cat’s coat is a tell-tale sign they are in tip-top shape. Dull fur and flaky skin imply your cat could be sick, while hair loss indicates an underlying illness, or that they are feeling stressed. In happy, healthy cats, you’re looking for soft and shiny coats.

You can tell a lot from a cat’s digestion too. Small, firm stools are a sign that better nutrition is making a positive difference inside your cat and less food is passing through as waste.

What are signs of an anxious, unhappy cat?

Just as there are visible signs that indicate your cat is healthy, there are just as many that indicate your cat may be sick. Look out for these six different things that might signal your cat could be unwell.

  1. Body condition: To assess your cat’s body condition feel their ribcage. If you notice that their bones are jutting out, or you have to apply pressure to feel their ribs, then your cat’s weight may be too low or too high.
  2. Digestion: If your cat is avoiding going to the toilet or straining to go, or you spot blood in their urine or feces, you should take your cat to the vet urgently.
  3. Skin, coat and eyes: It is normal for your cat to lose hair during season changes but unusual hair loss can be a sign of illness or long-term stress. Because cats groom themselves on a regular basis, a way to tell if your cat is suddenly losing an excessive amount of hair is to evaluate whether or not she is vomiting or producing hairballs more frequently.
  4. Immune system: If you notice your cat sleeping a lot more and is generally more lethargic than normal this could be a sign that your cat has a weak immune system.
  5. Dental health: When it comes to your cat’s teeth, bad breath, drooling, lumps or bumps, inflamed or bleeding gums and reluctance to eat are all key signs that your cat could be sick and needs to be checked out by a vet urgently.
  6. Bone and joint health: You can understand your cat’s bone and joint health just by observing them. If you notice your cat unable to perform routine tasks or movements, like climbing stairs, jumping up or down, or playing, there could be a health issue in play.

A cat that is not-so-healthy may be lethargic, lacking energy or playfulness. They may want to be alone, hiding or sleeping for a lot of the day. They may not be interested in their food and their toilet habits may change. Any change in behaviour may have physiological causes so always have your cat checked by a vet if you are worried.

What are some of the things we should be feeding our cats to maintain a good diet – dry food, wet food, raw meats?

Manufactured dry cat foods that are complete and balanced, provide all the nutrition cats need to thrive, together with a supply of fresh water.

The more premium the product, the more nutrient dense it is, meaning your cat is getting more goodness in a lesser amount of food, so the bag lasts longer. High-quality dry food, such as Purina One, is often more digestible, meaning more goes to work on the inside, and what comes out the other end is less frequent, smaller and firmer. Dry food also provides the added benefit of dental health – helping to reduce the build-up of plaque and tartar as your cat crunches.

Manufactured wet cat food works as an additional moisture source for your cat – particularly if they are not big drinkers. Aside from the obvious health benefits, unlike humans, who have 10,000 taste buds, our cat friends only have 470 on average, which means the texture of the food helps to play a pivotal role in a cat’s enjoyment. Combining wet and dry food enhances the texture and variety for your cat.

Raw diets may not provide cats with the complete nutrition they need, and may expose cats to the threat of food-borne pathogens.

Cats like to eat little and often, at least 4 times a day, so owners will soon get to know their cat’s preferred eating habits.

I’ve read that cats meow just for their owners – it’s a form of cat-to-human communication. What are some of the things they’ll try to communicate with us?

Cats do ‘meow’ to their owners, more so than to other cats. This means that their language has evolved as they have come to live alongside humans.

Cats have a varied vocal repertoire. A hungry ‘meow’ will be very demanding. A greeting ‘meow’ will be light and high-pitched.

Cats have a special ‘meow’ called a ‘solicitation meow’ and this is a little, light, chirrupy ‘meow’. They generally use it when greeting their owners or when asking for food. Of course, most owners respond by chatting back to their cat.

What are some things we could do to improve our cat’s day-to-day? Perhaps some ideas we might not know about?

Cats enjoy being up high, so another thing that owners could do is to clear space on their shelves, bookcases and tables. This makes them feel safe, secure and, as they look down on us, superior!
Oh and never throw away a cardboard box. Cats love them!

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