Some indication of a cat’s state of health may be obtained from its response to certain stimuli.
It is true that in relatively mild disease conditions some normal responses can still be elicited but their absence in the average cat may be taken as significant evidence of severe abnormality.
- In response to firm stroking of the back from behind the neck to the base of the tail cats arch their backs against the stroking hand and raise the tail to a perpendicular position with hindquarters slightly elevated, the hind legs being somewhat extended.
Variations from this response may be noted in; (a) cats which are severely ill, in which it is absent, or (b) in some cases of parasitism by fleas when stroking of the posterior dorsum results in exaggerated and abnormal responses, the cat either licking itself violently in any accessible place or attacking by licking and biting either the caressing hand or the affected area of skin; growling sounds are often made.
- Response to fondling by tickling the chin, cheeks or parotid region by rubbing the head into the caressing hand. This response is apparently under greater voluntary control than the previous one, is not so regularly elicited and is of less help as a guide to health.
The mechanism which produces purring is still unknown but it is a sign widely accepted as an indication of pleasure and comfort. Owners often interpret it as evidence of health: this, however, is not true since many cats, especially old ones, will purr during the later stages of fatal illness.
It is often necessary to disabuse owners’ minds of the idea that because a cat has purred it is either not seriously ill or is convalescent.
Cats are usually fastidious as regards personal cleanliness although exceptions do occur, sometimes because of the owner’s neglect of the coat and sometimes for no apparent reason.
In cats which normally wash regularly absence of this activity is evidence of a considerable departure from health whereas the r- establishment of a washing routine is reliable evidence of impending recovery.
In some cases washing may be inhibited by local factors such as the ulcerated tongue in cases of ulcerative glossitis.
In health normal sleeping positions are either curled up in lateral recumbency, head tucked into chest and abdomen or, less commonly, in extended lateral recumbency with limbs extended in a relaxed manner.
A normal resting posture is the sternal position with forelegs flexed under brisket and head drawn slightly back into the neck.
In disease a sternal posture is often adopted but the forelegs are seldom tucked under the body—they are usually extended below the elbow and the cat’s head droops over them in an extended position.
Cats dying of, for example, feline enteritis or chronic nephritis may adopt a sternal posture, head hanging over a dish of milk or water, making feeble attempts to lap for hours on end. Adoption of this type of sternal posture is a serious sign.
Cats presented in extremis from any cause are often found to be lying in lateral recumbency with spine arched convexly and limbs drawn towards one another.
Spraying by male cats, i.e. the emission of small jets of urine against an object, e.g. wall or curtains, with the hind-quarters raised, penis directed backwards and tail held quiveringly erect, is usually taken to be evidence of territory demarcation and is thus assumed to be an activity peculiar to entire males. This does not account for all cases of spraying, however, which can also occur in castrated males and be evidence of any form of resentment, e.g. jealousy over the introduction of another cat.
Territorial spraying by torn cats is a strong reason for castrating male cats kept in urban areas.
In cases of cystitis or urethral obstruction it is necessary carefully to distinguish between spraying and repeated attempts to micturate; in the latter case the more usual posture for urination is usually adopted, i.e. hindquarters directed downwards in a squatting position and tail held horizontally.
The feline temperament renders it peculiarly liable to various forms of mental trauma such as change of environment or some physical interference which subjects the cat to indignity. Complete loss of appetite, correctly called anorexia nervosa, may result. One particularly graphic example which may be cited is that of a Blue Persian castrated male cat which had been given an enema for relief of a rectal impaction. For one month subsequently the cat refused all food but every clinical investigation proved negative. It was eventually decided that the cause must be psycho somatic and treatment by phenobarbitone and Vitamin B complex was successful.
It is a curious and somewhat contradictory fact, in view of the foregoing, that the author has never seen any evidence of mental trauma due to restraint for the routine method of kitten castration; it is the adult cat which is more prone to mental disturbance.
A condition which might loosely be described as shell-shock was seen far more often in cats than dogs after air-raids in the last war. A curious ‘psychosis’ has also been described by Mitchell (1953) in which 6 of 10 cats rescued from Canvey Island after the disastrous East Coast floods developed a syndrome of anorexia associated with signs of mental disturbance shown by attempts to catch imaginary objects both in the air and on the ground. There was slight fever. Symptoms resolved in four days, possibly assisted by sedatives.
It is thus clear that the psyche of the cat cannot be ignored by those who have to deal with it whether as pet or patient.