The Look Of Thyroid Problems

The picture above shows Bingo, a cat from our clinic before and after treatment. I need all cat owners to know the warning signs of this insidious disease.

You are looking at one of the top three diseases of older cats. Without treatment, it causes significant health problems leading to early death. I would say that when you compare the pictures, it’s obvious. Yet it’s still missed all the time.

Why Don’t We See It?

cat thyroid problemTo answer this, have a look at a photo that now only shows two cats before treatment. Suddenly it’s not obvious at all, is it? These cats are suffering from hyperthyroidism but both of them were only diagnosed on a routine annual health check. That’s no criticism of their owners; in fact, it’s a testament to the power of getting ‘just a checkup’.

Wait until you hear the veterinary story. Until the 1980s this disease wasn’t being recognised by a lot of vets either. It’s still a subject of intense debate; many of these vets swear that they couldn’t have been overlooking it. To these vets, it appeared out of nowhere and it’s possible they are right.

However, I think the real reason they missed it is ‘pattern recognition’, and that’s why I’m writing this blog. Without a recognised pattern, the signs of this disease hide in plain sight among all the other diseases of old cats. Then once you see it, it’s so obvious you wonder how you didn’t see it before.

Two other examples spring to mind.

  • When dog owners find a lump, they often think it came up overnight, because once they find it, it’s impossible to miss.
  • Before feline AIDS was discovered, vets already saw that cats who got into a lot of fights died young. Without a viral explanation, they would say that fighting made cats get ‘run down’.

Facial Expression & Illness In Cats

The curious thing is that this observation may be only the tip of the iceberg. It’s been known for a long time that vets are no better than flipping a coin in knowing whether a cat is in pain (read here how I work out if cats are in pain). But a recent study using facial landmarks showed us a possible way forward. You can read this study here.

In essence, what they did was measure distances between a range of facial features to read a cat’s facial expression, and showed that it could do a lot better than a human at recognising pain: in fact 98% versus 13%. Those who know me know how often I say “everything will change the day we invent a reliable test for pain”. Could this be it?

What Hyperthyroidism Looks Like

The most obvious signs of cats with excessive thyroid hormone are usually a combination of:

  • An increased appetite i.e. a hungry cat,
  • Weight loss despite no reduction in food intake, and
  • A characteristic facial expression

It’s important to point out that I say here isn’t ‘textbook’ science but only my personal experience. It’s also vital that any suspicion taken just from appearance is confirmed by a blood test. You can read more about the symptoms, testing and treatment of hyperthyroidism here.

Why Do Thyroid Cats Look Different?

I think the facial shape changes in hyperthyroid cats are due to:

  • Selective muscle wastage
  • Hypertension and changes in mental state
  • Weight loss

In other words, I think that it’s a combination of physical and behavioural changes that create the clinical picture I see. That leads to the biggest message of most of my cat blogs: cats don’t tell us how they feel.

I have no doubt life is a lot less fun for a hyperthyroid cat. Just have a look at the two photos at the start, both kindly taken at home by Bingo’s owners. Try telling any cat owner the ‘after’ photo isn’t the happy one!

Have something to add? I would especially love to hear other vets’ views. Comments are welcome below and will appear within 24 hours of lodging.

By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These help topics are from a series regularly posted on Facebook and Twitter. The information provided here is not intended to be used as a substitute for going to the vet. If your pet is unwell, please seek veterinary attention.

Is It Bad For Cats To Drink Milk?

What if there’s a parallel universe where cats are our masters and keep us as pets. Wait, hang on… that’s our universe.

OK, let’s try that again. Imagine a universe where cats actually look after humans. I can just hear the sorts of things they would say:

  • You really must get one, they’re so cute.
  • Have you seen how they carry things around with their cute little hands?
  • They beg so adorably for ice cream or chocolate.
  • I train mine using those horrible smelly sweets.

Then there would be the responsible cats who say that you should never give your human any chocolate, ice cream or sweets. It’s just not good for them and shame on you other cats for spoiling your human so.

Now back to reality. Hopefully, you can see what I’m doing. A Google search will tell you that cats are lactose intolerant and that milk causes gastrointestinal upsets. All this is true, in theory. In practice, it’s all about the individual cat and the amount you give.

Why Give Cats Treats

Cats aren’t dogs. I don’t feel any need to give my dogs treats because everything they get is a treat to them. Crumbs? Awesome! You dropped a piece of banana? Double awesome! An unguarded cat litter box? I’ve died and gone to heaven!

Cats don’t work that way. Cats aren’t going to give away their appreciation for just any old thing. You’ve got to earn it.

Getting a cat to do a trick or even just to come when called feels like a major life achievement. That’s why most cat owners when asked will admit to feeding treats to their cat. Things like meat offcuts, fish, or odd personal tastes like Grendel and his seaweed rice crackers. So what about milk?

Can Cats Drink Milk?

In practice, cats love milk and I have never known a problem with an owner feeding it. Yes, I’m sure it’s possible to give them an upset tummy but we aren’t exactly running milking sheds here. It’s usually only a small amount on offer.

Of course, some cats will suffer food allergies to any ingredient. If you look at this data on cat food allergies you’ll see why I stop dairy and fish in any cat with skin or gastrointestinal problems. Then there are kittens, who should never be given milk containing lactose. However, these are the exceptions to a generally harmless treat.

Is It OK To Give Cats Milk?

As long as you only feed a treat-sized amount and your cat is healthy, you are doing no harm. Like most things, it’s better to give the same amount regularly than causing big changes in the diet each day. This allows the gut to adapt.

cat lapping milkAs for lactose, small amounts are tolerated by most cats. If you’re worried about the lactose you can buy special lactose-free pet milk, or use yoghurt which has a naturally lower lactose level.

How do I give Grendel a milky treat? Every morning I froth milk for our coffees and ‘somehow’ there’s always too much froth left over. The warm frothy kitty-cino is probably only a splash of milk but it’s one of the many highlights of his day.

What Treats Are Bad For Cats?

The good news is that cats generally are clever enough to avoid problems. This list of dangerous foods for dogs is also true for cats if they actually ever ate them. As for foods that might just be too rich or unbalanced, the solution is in the very word we use: ‘treat’. If you keep them to under 5% of a lean diet the only risk you take is that your cat may become more demanding, not any less healthy.

Related: How to keep cats from getting overweight

By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These blogs are from a series regularly posted on Facebook and Twitter. Like or follow our page or subscribe via email to read the latest.
Have something to add? Comments are welcome below and will appear within 24 hours of lodging.

Help! My Cat Is Drinking A Lot

At A Glance (Details Below)

What To Do

If A Cat Drinks More Than Usual

  1. It could be due to diabetes, kidney or thyroid disease
  2. These are all easily diagnosed on routine blood & urine testing
  3. The top three causes can all be managed or treated if detected in time
  4. If testing is normal, there’s usually nothing to worry about


Now dive deeper… Read more

How You CAN Get Your Cat To Lose Weight

Imagine the outrage if a character called Fat Dog (or fat anything for that matter) was created today. Yet, there we were in Adelaide in the 1980s watching Fat Cat tell us to go to bed at 7:30 every night.

The fact is that an overweight cat is taken less seriously than an overweight dog. We see fat cats as fun and loveable, and somehow beyond our control. Like Garfield and his lasagne. Read more

Help! Dogs With Cuts & Cats With Wounds

At A Glance (Details Below)

What to do

When A Dog Or Cat Gets A Cut

  1. Don’t handle the wound if it looks clean, just keep your pet out of the dirt
  2. To remove dirt, rinse cuts in a solution of 1/2tsp salt to 1 cup water
  3. If there is serious bleeding, apply a tight bandage using clean cloth
  4. As long as you see a vet immediately, a tight dressing should do minimal harm and may be lifesaving

Now dive deeper… Read more