All cat owners know that each cat has his or her own personality.

We see kitties who are very happy to visit the doctor, other kitties who refuse to cooperate, and everything in between. Determining the individual personality and — more importantly — the mood of a kitty during an appointment can be a challenge; however, annual wellness exams are very important. Even if your cat does not need any vaccines, yearly exams help us detect subtle signs of illness, such as dental disease and heart disease. Lower respiratory diseases and heart murmurs can develop slowly with no outward signs for months, but yearly physical exams help us find and treat these diseases before they become serious or even fatal.

Annual, routine lab work is another great tool to monitor the health of your cat. Lab work screens for multiple issues, including kidney and liver diseases, diabetes, hyperthyroidism, and lower urinary tract problems. It is estimated that 17-23% of senior pets, over the age of 8 years, have underlying health conditions that are not detectable by physical examination alone. Laboratory tests can help find and treat these concerns early.

Changes in litterbox habits can be a sign that your cat needs medical attention. Urinating outside the litterbox or frequent visits to the litterbox are commonly the first signs of a urinary problem. Crying loudly while urinating and/or seeing blood in the urine are definite signs of a lower urinary issue. The first test for urinary infections is a urinalysis. Bacteria, crystals, blood cells, and glucose, along with a few other things, can be detected on this test. The presence of bacteria along with inflammatory cells point towards a urinary tract infection. Crystals can lead to UTIs, but the bigger concern is bladder stones. Radiographs (X-rays) are needed to check for bladder stones, which are a common cause of chronic UTIs. Glucose in the urine means that kitty needs to be tested for diabetes. There are many different diseases that can be treated or prevented, just by noticing simple changes in litterbox habits.

A cat that vomits more than once a month is not normal. Hairballs should not be ignored, and despite popular belief, cats do not vomit “just because they are cats.” Frequent vomiting in cats is a sign of illness. Twice a month is suspicious, and once a week justifies a phone call to the vet. Any cat that vomits multiple times per week or daily needs to be examined by a vet. Blood work and an abdominal ultrasound will help determine the cause of the vomiting, such as gastrointestinal disease, chronic kidney disease, or a number of other possibilities, including lymphoma. Several houseplants are toxic to cats and can cause vomiting. Every kitty has a reason behind the vomiting that may not be obvious.

Cats are subject to infestation by fleas and ticks as well as dogs. It is important to make sure that your cat or kitten is protected by using an appropriate flea medication or treating the environment.

Cats are also at risk of developing heartworm disease. Cats are more resistant to infection than dogs but, it is still a problem for our feline family members. It is estimated that up to 15% of cats, indoor or outdoor, have been exposed to heartworms. In cats, the number of worms found in infected pets is less than dogs. It is usually 1-3 worms which can live for 2-3 years in cats and can often have fatal consequences. There is no treatment effective to kill the adult worms so prevention is the key.

Dental care is another important way to help improve the length and quality of your cat’s life. Cats and dogs both may suffer quietly with dental disease, which can be very painful. It may also suppress your pet’s immune system or introduce bacteria into the blood stream, which can affect the organs such as the heart and the kidney. Routine examination can determine when a dental procedure is appropriate for your cat. Please be sure to ask your veterinarian about this important tool for your cat’s preventative healthcare.

Feline pet parents and veterinarians share a common goal of improving the quality and quantity of your kitty’s life. Routine physical examinations, addressing concerns such as diet, laboratory testing, flea and heartworm prevention and dental health are the way for your family veterinarian to aid you in your goal of long and happy lives for your cat.

Lori Nichols, DVM, is a veterinarian at Animal Hospital of Dunedin, 1355 Pinehurst Road.