Just not feeling well is a common complaint in cats and naturally the problem might be minor or catastrophic, but here's what to expect if you bring in a feline patient for just not feeling well.
History and Exam:
The first step is narrowing the problem down and a good vet can often get a pretty good idea with just a pertinent history and a hands on exam. What's important in the history is age, sex, recent heat or pregnant?, duration of the problem, and obvious observations such as diarrhea, no stool, gagging, vomiting, not eating, straining to urinate, not using the litter box, limping, energy level and so on.
During the exam, we will be listening to heart and lungs, looking closely at the mouth, eye, gums and ears, and feeling the lower abdomen, bladder, and lymph nodes. We will get a temperature, palpate the spine, go over the joints ,and ask a lot of questions. Usually this will allow us to get a good idea whether the problem is respiratory, abdominal, urinary, neural, a bite wound abscess, a suspected hair ball, parasites, a tooth or ear infection, a suspected poisoning, or any number of other things that can go wrong.
If the problem is pretty obvious on exam...say a bite wound abscess with high fever or a hair ball clogging up the lower bowel (both these problems are very common without the owner realizing it)...then we usually just go ahead and treat the obvious problem. At the bottom of this page there is a complete directory to see how we treat wounds, constipation, diarrhea, and a many, many other problems
If the problem is not obvious or we suspect there's more going on than meets the eye; then we're left with two basic choices which each vet deals with differently based on the situation and their experience. This is where the "art" of veterinary practice comes into play. Anyhow, the two basic choices are to either treat by trail and error based on the veterinarian's instincts for a day or two or spend a little more effort and money in an attempt to get a real diagnosis. This usually means using our lab to check urine, stool, and blood to get as many clues as we can. It may also mean taking radiographs or ultrasound images. Such diagnostic tools are wonderfully helpful.
We vets are frequently surprised that people who look like they might not be able to make the rent on a mobile home are more than willing to pay a couple of hundred dollars on radiographs and laboratory work if it will help their pet.... while people that spend that much on a night out bulk at spending much money on their sick pet at all. People are funny this way.
At any rate, most vets will recommend what is reasonably ideal for the case and then give you some less than ideal options and let you decide how aggressive to get with the case.
At our clinic, if you opt to skip recommended lab work, radiographs, hospitalization, I.V. fluids and so forth, we will gladly try symptomatic treatment... often with great success... but encourage you to return for more aggressive diagnostics and therapy if your pet isn't much better soon ... or if the problem is temporarily relieved but then returns. Medical therapy is not a "one shot" affair. Monitoring and follow up are important... as is the willingness to change tack if initial treatment is not working.
So here we go.
Plan A: is to treat the problem IF your experienced vet can make a fairly certain diagnosis in the exam room. It still gives me a little thrill when the whole family doesn't have a clue why their cat is sick and I can come up with a solid diagnosis within a few moments of hearing the history and doing a quick exam.
It comes from lots of basic study, continuing education, and seeing case after case. And every vet with a few years of experience is good at this. But it's still a thrill to feel like Sherlock Holmes.
However. Some things are obvious to everyone concerned. Take diarrhea for example. The big question then becomes Why... what's the underlying cause?
And is this particular case going to respond to simple home treatment or is this a case where the patient might die if we don't determine and fix the underlying cause?
Plan B: If the problem or seriousness of the case is NOT obvious, the next step is to start ruling things out without breaking the bank... and that's what an experienced vet is very good at. This means taking radiographs if appropriate and/or doing lab work on urine, stool, and/or blood.
I tell my clients that being a vet evaluating a sick cat is like a pretty woman evaluating a man on a first date. The initial history and exam is like the first dinner date... you can get a good "feel" for the guy by what he says, how he listens, how he behaves, how he tips, how much he brags, and how he drives ... all this is helpful, but as you know... it's easy to be fooled. If you really want to know what's real, you need a police report, a credit report, and a reference letter from the ex-girl friend. That's what getting information from x-rays and lab reports is like. It's usually worth it to know sooner than later.
Plan C: sometimes it takes a little time and observation to figure what's going on. So your vet may recommend keeping your cat in the hospital for supportive care and observation. I don't want to be over dramatic, but we often have "eureka" moments of insight just by observing your cat and performing our vital sign checks several times during their stay. Often the problem, in hindsight, is something I might have detected day 1 if only all my little gray cells were working at 100% capcity.
Plan D: often this is concurrent with plans A-C but involves simply blasting away with treatment that is LIKELY to help even though we don't have a solid diagnosis yet. Typical treatments include bowel evacuation with laxatives or enemas if the abdomen is a little gassy or tight, I.V. fluids, antibiotics, a little hit of steroids, atropine, and/or B12. It's often the case that the patient will be all better before we truely figure out what the problem was. It's important as a vet not to get lazy and rely too much on Plan D, but life in the medical world is not all perfectly categorized... sometimes we have to "wing it"... and that's where experience is golden and where the "art" of medical practice comes in.
Plan E: When initial lab tests, radiographs, and symptomatic treatment fail to get a diagnosis or a positive treatment result ... or if there is a good tentative diagnosis... but the problem is serious or requires specialized treatment... then it's time to take advantage of a good referral practice. There's one in nearly every big city ready to team up with you and your local vet to help your cat. They have the specialized training and equipment to deal with everything from complicated cases of diabetes to lymphoma, irritable bowel disease, auto-immune diseases, cancer, neural diseases and many other problems that can be very difficult for the general practictioner to handle.
"What To Expect When You Go To The Vet"
if your pet should have a problem with ...
To include Femoral Head Removal, Hip Dysplasia, Anterior Cruciate Ligament Injuries, Panosteitis, Radiographic Demonstrations, Disc Disease, and Bone Surgery
Strokes, Vascular Diseases, Anemias, DVT, DIC, Blood Parasites, Rat Poison, & Bleeding disorders
Cardiology Heart disease in Cats, Cardiac Hypertrophy, Valvular disease, Cardiac Insufficiency, Congestive Heart Failure, Heartworm Disease, and a little history about the milestones in treating heart disease Cats: general information page and directory of diseases and problems specific to cats including vaccine recommendations, leukemia, feline viral infections, feline upper respiratory disease and cats that just aren't feeling well. Dermatology: Skin problems including allergies, rashes, bacterial infections, and itching. Hair Loss, Yeast Infections, Hormonal Problems Heart disease; Cardiac diseases, vascular diseases, stroke, & heartworms Hormone Diseases: Diabetes, Thyroid Disease, Cushing's Disease or Hypercortisolism, Addison's disease or Hypocortisolism, Pancreatitis, obesity as a disease Infectious Diseases Colds, Distemper, Parvo, Leptospirosis, Bruceellosis, Panleukopenia, Feline AIDS, Leukemia, Hepatitis, Kennel Cough, Ringworm, Rabies, FIP, Canine Herpes, Toxic Shock Syndrome, & More Intestinal problems: diarrhea, constipation, torsion, indigestion, and gas. Also pancreatitis, vomiting, esophagitis, colitis, parvo and other types of dysentery Metabolic Diseases: Diabetes, Thyroid Disease, Cushing's Disease or Hypercortisolism, Addison's disease or Hypocortisolism, Pancreatitis, obesity as a disease Parasite Problems Fleas, Ticks, Heartworms, Intestinal Worms, Mosquitos, Lice, Mites, and other welfare recipients Poisons Snakes, Insects, household chemicals, plants, and foods that might poison your pet Skeletal-Muscular Problems Arthritis, Fractures, ACL, Ligament Injuries, Disc Disease, Pannus, and many other problems of the bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments Skin Problems: allergies, rashes, bacterial infections, and itching. Hair Loss, Yeast Infections, Hormonal Problems Surgery: Spays, Castrations, Testicle Recipes, Soft Tissue Surgery, Hard Tissue Surgery (Bones), C- Sections, Declawing, Tumor Removal and Cancer Surgery
Other Topics on This Site
Zoonotics: Diseases, worms, and parasites people get from pets.
Includes information about Prescription diets used to treat disease, and a discussion about the pet food industry
Includes information about feline and canine heat or estrus, breeding, C-Sections, pyometra or Infected Uterus, dystocia, no milk, mastitis, & brucellosis
Also newborn care, undescended testicles, and alternative to spaying and castration
WildLife Page: Taking care of baby bunnies, squirrels, and birds. A very funny story about beavers, and other misc information Our Dog Page: a directory of problems of concern in dogs including parvovirus, distemper, canine herpes, and other diseases