Recognizing hyperthyroidism in cats and critical signs your cat needs emergency care

I recently shared my story of my beloved cat Sidney, who had hyperthyroidism and later suffered from terminal cancer. I thought I would share what I learned about her over-active thyroid with you in hopes of encouraging people to consider adopting special needs cats and being aware of the signs of hyperthyroidism in your cat.

My little Sidney in one of her favourite spots. Sidney led a normal life for years with hyperthyroidism.

What are the symptoms?
The symptoms of hyperthyroidism in cats includes: excessive urination, excessive or increased vocalization, increased thirst/increased water consumption, weight loss despite increased appetite, poor coat or fur quality, restlessness and increased activity, diarrhea, vomiting, increased heart rate (normal heart rate for a cat is between 140 and 220 bpm) and heat intolerance (seeking out cool places). (Bold symptoms are most common)

What happens if my cat has an over-active thyroid?
This disease commonly affects senior cats. If your cat exhibits any symptoms of hyperthyroidism, you should discuss your concerns with your vet. If hyperthyroidism is left untreated, it can cause kidney and heart failure, both of which may ultimately be fatal after your cat suffers with the illness for long enough. There are a number of treatments available, including regular medication, surgery and radioactive iodine therapy.

How do I know if my cat has hyperthyroidism or another chronic disease?
The best way to keep your cat healthy is by preventative care and regular vet check-ups, the same as humans. Visiting the vet for an annual check-up is vital to finding any early warning signs of disease. Once your cat reaches senior age (10+), they should visit the vet every six months for senior check-ups. Hyperthyroidism can be diagnosed with a simple blood test. Other common illnesses striking senior cats include chronic kidney disease and diabetes.

What else should I look out for in my cat?
As an aside, please take your cat to the vet if they exhibit any unusual changes. While not an exhaustive list, key signs to watch out for, in general, are:

  • increased or decreased appetite
  • increased or decreased water consumption
  • litterbox problems (painful urination exhibited by meowing while urinating, urinating or defecating outside the box, straining to defecate or urinate)
  • black, tarry stool and/or bloody diarrhea
  • frequent vomiting

Cats naturally hide it when something is wrong and they may only show signs of illness when a disease has already significantly progressed. If a cat is not eating, it is very likely something is wrong. If a cat does not eat for more than 48 hours, they are at a very high risk of  contracting a liver disease called hepatic lipadosis and must see a vet right away.

Critical signs your cat requires IMMEDIATE care
If your cat exhibits any of the following signs, you must seek immediate veterinary care. Always know what vet hospitals are open 24/7 or are available on-call 24/7 in your area in case of an emergency. Always have copies of your cat’s medical records in the event you need to see an emergency vet. If you are out of town, be sure to leave this information with your cat sitter.

  • open-mouth breathing or panting, which often occurs when the cat is hunched forward as if gasping for breath
  • seizure
  • bleeding (from an open wound or abscess and/or unidentified bleeding)
  • trauma, such as broken bone or suspected broken bone (being hit by a car, falling from a height)
  • ingestion of toxin or foreign body (Cornell University list of common cat toxins)
  • sudden paralysis or inability to move hind legs
  • blue or white-ish gums
  • bite or sting from a poisonous animal (snake, scorpian, etc.)

NEVER give your pet any kind of human medication unless specifically instructed to do so by a veterinarian. Many medications for humans are extremely toxic to animals.

I would encourage you to take a Pet First Aid course. It could save your pet’s life. You will learn how to take basic vital signs (heart rate, respiratory rate, body temperature), basic preventative care, how to recognise common diseases and treatment as well as wound care and the common vital signs of an emergency.

My year with Sidney: a special connection with a senior cat

My beloved Sidney

Sidney, until recently, was my beautiful and beloved senior cat with whom I was lucky to share one very special year. Its taken me some time to be able to write about this because I wish it had been more than a year, because its emotional, close to my heart and a little more personal than I’d like to get on this blog. It devastated me when she passed away in December. Even now, it is difficult to write.

My beautiful Sidney came into my life unexpectedly. I have been a great animal lover my whole life, but there is something so special I love about cats. I always wanted one. But between moving every couple of years and being a student, I was never able to adopt a cat of my own because I believe in forever homes and being financially capable of supporting a pet.

One of her favourite past-times was snuggling in bed, especially with mom.

Sidney was 12 when I met her, or about 65 in “human years” and had hyperthyroidism, or an overactive thyroid. We adopted her from a neighbour and I was utterly happy. Even though I know how much I love cats, I never expected this little tuxedo cat to steal my heart the way she did.

Sidney was a true people cat. She loved the company of people and soon enough, she followed me around the house and was always in the same room as me. One of her favourite past-times was sitting on laps. She would sit on mine for hours if I let her and sometimes we just sat together, her and I. She would purr happily as soon as she was in my arms and, unlike most cats, loved being picked up and cuddled. She was so different from every other cat I’ve known and I don’t expect to meet any like her again.

Her beautiful and wise green eyes held a deep understanding.

Her eyes held this wisdom in them, like she completely understood me and sometimes I would just talk to her and she would patiently listen. When I was sick, she laid on my bed with me all day. When I was sad, she would snuggle up to me. During some tough times and periods of unemployment and the anxiety that comes with it , she was a constant in my life and she gave me a much-needed sense of purpose. We developed quite a bond, and our neighbours told us she was a calmer, happier cat around me. It seems we both needed each other.

Her hyperthyroidism would qualify her as a “special needs” cat to most, but to me, she was just special. Its a common ailment in older cats and we managed it by giving her anti-thyroid pills (Felimazole) twice a day. If it sounds challenging to give a pill to a cat, I can honestly tell you it really wasn’t, but she was pretty agreeable. We gave it to her in a tiny bit of yogurt or rolled up in a bit of wet food, or the easiest of all, in a Greenie’s Pill Pocket.

Exploring outside, she was like a kitten again following mom around the yard and playing in the sun.

However, in November last year, she had lost noticeable weight and was eating much less. Food was one of Sidney’s great loves in life, so I knew something was wrong. The vet found her thyroid was still too high, so we increased her medication. But they had also found a lump in her abdomen and we scheduled a followup in another week.

I could never have prepared for what happened. During that week, we rushed her to the hospital when she started open-mouth panting (a critical sign to go to the vet NOW for any cat), we found out she had cancer that had spread to her lungs. It broke my heart, both knowing it was terminal and fearing she was in pain.

DSC01360 - Copy
Sidney often curled up and slept here at the foot of the bed with mom and dad. Here she is modelling for me in one of our many photoshoots.

Sidney stayed in the hospital overnight so she could be stabilized and have fluid drained from her chest cavity, which had caused her difficulty breathing. The next morning, we picked her up and spoiled her extra, and started prednisolone treatment for palliative care. It was suspected lymphoma, and this treatment often slows the cancer and gives them more time.

Unfortunately, Sidney did not have much more time. A week later, she was having breathing difficulty again, and I knew what it meant. I’d pre-planned a list of possible vets who perform at-home euthanasia and reluctantly called. We had a vet come to the house and Sidney passed away at home, in my lap, a very favourite spot on December 21. It was, quite literally, the darkest day of the year. I’m not sure I’ll ever fully get over her loss. She was one extraordinary cat.

My dear cuddlemuffin and best friend, Sidney, I hope you are running free in the sun now. You will be forever in my heart.

Sidney was my best friend, my little shadow who followed me around and my cuddlemuffin. Words don’t express how much I loved her. She brought us so much joy, happiness and love and we were so very lucky to share a special year of our lives with her. Senior cats are very special and need loving homes, too. I realise it is kitten season, but please, please consider giving a loving home to a  senior cat who desperately needs comfort, happiness and love in their last years of life. If they have special needs, find out what needs to be done. It could be as easy as a pill pocket once a day. You, too, may end up with a beloved friend like Sidney.

Important Resources for Pet Loss Grief:
Washington State University Veterinary Medicine Grief Phoneline: 1-866-266-8635, talk to a veterinary medicine student who is trained in grief counselling for free.
The Pet Loss Support Page: if you prefer to write rather than talk about your experience and feelings to seek support from others who have lost a pet, too. There are many websites out there dedicated to pet loss, do a google search to find the right one for you.
Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-784-2433, if you are unable to cope and having thoughts of suicide, please call this number or go to to find a local number to call in the U.S. or internationally.
Other ways to cope may include writing a blog post, making a scrapbook, creating a video of your pet or holding a memorial service. If you know of other good resources, please leave a comment with a link.

Remember it is perfectly okay to grieve for your pet. Don’t let those who don’t understand bother you. It can be extremely difficult to lose a pet because, unlike a person, they love us unconditionally no matter what, they do not judge and they are big part of our daily routines. Its a special kind of love not found in other relationships.

Are you prepared for your pet’s care in a disaster or evacuation?

I love animals and pets and I am sometimes more aware of natural hazards as an earth scientist than other people. Combine the two and you get pet emergency preparedness.

I’d been planning a post about this, and in light of our recent Mw 4.8 earthquake in Victoria (which I admit scared me!), I thought it was a good time to post about this. Getting pet first aid certified and living near a plate boundary has definitely made me more aware of what to do for my pet in case of emergency. In fact, I will openly admit my pet first aid kit is better than my human one!

No matter where you live, some kind of natural disaster could hit. Whether its an earthquake, tornado, blizzard, volcanic eruption, flood or a hurricane, you should always be prepared. Prepare an emergency kit and an evacuation plan for yourself and your family. It pays to prepare for these things, and maybe you have.

But have you thought about your pets? If not, make sure you do! No matter where you live, there could be an earthquake, tornado, blizzard, flood, and you have to have a plan not only for yourself and your family, but for your furry friends, too! You won’t always know when its coming, so its best to always be prepared in case the worst happens.

After the Christchurch earthquake in 2011, hundreds of cats were heart-breakingly abandoned and left homeless. To read more about them and how they are being rescued, take a look at Red Zone Cats .

Its the same story following the Japan earthquake in 2011 and the subsequent Fukushima disaster. The Japan Cat Network is striving to help lost pets and those left behind in the areas affected by radiation.

The most important thing to remember is never leave your pet behind if you are evacuated. If it isn’t safe for you, it is NOT safe for your pet!

Make sure you have the following essentials ready:

  • Carrier/crate – you should actually leave this out for them all the time, so they can get used to being around it.
    • Be sure to practice putting your pet in their carrier ahead of time.
  • Extra food and drinking water in a handy backpack or rolling suitcase.
    • A can opener if cans are not pop-tab cans.
    • Food and water bowls.
  • Extra medication if your pet requires any plus whatever you use to administer it to them (like pill pockets). This is very important if they have a chronic condition!
  • For a cat, have extra litter handy and a litterbox or cardboard box to be used as a litterbox, as well as a scooper and garbage bags.
  • For a dog, have an extra leash and collar on hand to get them out of the house quickly. They’ll need to go for a walk after you evacuate, after all.
    • Its not a bad idea to keep a muzzle on hand as well in the event you need to restrain your dog.
    • Plastic bags for poop scooping.
  • First aid kit – You can buy one at a local pet store or assemble one following the guidelines from the Humane Society and the American Veterinary Medical Association.
  • Plus: Consider getting pet first aid certified. It made me a lot more confident in caring for my cat and I guarantee you will learn something you didn’t know. Check with your local first aid providers if they offer a pet course, ask a local pet store or animal shelter, or google “pet first aid + your town”.

Other items for pet disaster kits (be sure to put all papers in waterproof ziploc bags!):

  • Keep a list of phone numbers for your regular vet, the local 24/7 emergency pet hospital, your pet sitter or any secondary care-giver for your pet in case you are away (a neighbor or perhaps someone with a key to your place)
  • Address, phone number and contact info of at least two pet-friendly hotels in your area in the event you have to evacuate with your pets and stay in commercial accommodation.
  • Blankets, towels, toys, pillows, brushes for grooming, a thundershirt to help keep them calm (thundershirts for pets)
  • Copies of your pet’s medical history. Its a good idea to have this in case of an emergency in case you ever need to take them to the hospital (and I hope you don’t).

Other things to think about for general pet safety:

  • Make sure you plan for a secondary care-giver in the event you are not able to get home to care for your pet. Make sure they have a key to the house, know where all food, medications and emergency supplies are kept.
  • Printed photos of your pet in case they go missing. Putting up photos and missing posters in your neighbourhood is one of the best ways to find a missing pet.
  • Make sure your pet has ID! Microchip, tattoo or a collar ID tag. More than one is even better. It is so important to have your pet’s name, your phone number (and/or address) and if they require any medications engraved on the ID tag so when found, you can be contacted and they can get proper care.
  • Get a sticker for your door in the event of emergency, please rescue my cat. Such as this one (free) from the ASPCA.
  • Consider looking into pet insurance. If your pet is young and healthy, this may be good for covering unexpected pet costs in the future. I ultimately decided my cat was too old for it to be worth it, but if I ever got a young pet I would definitely invest in insurance.

ASPCA Disaster Preparedness
Canadian Disaster Animal Response Team Be Prepared!
Humane Society Guidelines for pet disaster planning
Walks’n’Wags Pet First Aid for the US and Canada