Five signs of illness in pets which we shouldn’t ignore, Part 1

Signs of illness in pets - rabbits and cats

Some problems and symptoms in our pets are obviously serious and no responsible pet owner would delay seeking veterinary attention - collapse, bleeding, or signs of pain or distress, for example. But there are also ‘lower-grade’ signs and symptoms which, while they might not seem so serious or urgent, also merit prompt investigation. This week, we'll go through the 'top five' signs of illness not to ignore in our pets.

Not eating, particularly in rabbits and cats

While lack of appetite and refusal of food is a worrying symptom in any species, in some, failure to eat can rapidly become a serious problem in its own right - for different reasons, we worry especially quickly about failure to eat in rabbits and in cats.

Rabbits are sometimes known as ‘fibrivores’, as the normal functioning of their (rather complicated) digestive system essentially requires them to be consuming high fibre, low calorie foodstuffs more or less continuously during their waking hours. It is never normal for a rabbit to be 'off their food' - any rabbit not eating normally should be presented for veterinary attention as soon as possible, as failure to eat normally, whatever the underlying cause, can rapidly progress to a condition known as 'ileus' where the activity of the gut becomes progressively more sluggish and may eventually grind more or less to a halt (stasis), often accompanied by gas accumulation in the gastrointestinal tract (bloat). Most herbivores, due to the special ways their guts function, are at risk of similar problems (including horses, where the condition is known as 'colic').

Ileus is a serious, painful condition, which can kill rabbits rapidly without appropriate treatment. Sometimes, sadly, even with aggressive care, these patients cannot be saved, but their best chance of a recovery comes with rapid veterinary assessment and treatment, including investigation and management of any underlying problems as appropriate. So, never ignore a bunny who isn't eating, it's never normal, and it’s really not appropriate to 'see how they are tomorrow' - the sooner the rabbit can start to receive treatment the better.

Cats have evolved to eat a high protein diet - quite the opposite of rabbits, really - but the adaptations to their metabolism which allow this also mean that they start to struggle very quickly if they stop eating. Within two or three days without food intake, even if their fluid intake has remained normal (and this is often not the case - cats who are not eating often will not drink a normal amount, either) cats will start to suffer significant metabolic complications from starvation, which manifests itself particularly in the functioning of the liver. Once this starts to happen, cats will tend to enter a downhill spiral from which, regardless of the initial cause of the loss of appetite, they will struggle to recover themselves from without aggressive supportive care - often this requires hospitalisation for intravenous fluids (a drip) while other problems are investigated and treated.

The initial causes of lost appetite in cats can be highly variable, anything that makes the cat feel unwell - such as a viral infection, or a cat fight injury which has become infected causing a high temperature - can set the situation going. If the cat is treated within the first day or two of problems being evident, the underlying problem can often be identified and treated and the cat's appetite will return quite swiftly, hopefully avoiding the need for sometimes costly and stressful hospital care - so don't ignore a cat who is off their food, the sooner the cause can be identified and treated, the less likely they are to suffer more serious complications!

Watch out for tommorow when we will talk about how drinking can be a warning sign...