How to Thoroughly Head Check Your Cat

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Portrait of a cat

If you are a cat owner, you want him or her to be healthy. Knowing what a healthy cat looks, feels, and even smells like can help spot any changes that may require veterinary attention. Examining your healthy cat from head to toe helps establish a baseline. It is important first to point out that a “disability” such as an amputated limb, blindness, or hearing loss does not automatically rule out being overall healthy. For example, an active blind cat may be much healthier than an obese cat with excellent vision. A thorough check of your cat’s head (and all the elements on the head) is a good place to begin.

Before You Begin

You'll want your cat in a relaxed state to begin your at-home exam. A healthy, observant cat's head will usually give an impression of alertness. Except under particular circumstances (when sleeping or on the prowl, for example) the head will be carried high.

What You Need

No tools are necessary, but it might be helpful to keep notes along with the date of the exam. In case you do discover something, you'll have some record of when it may have begun.

  • Notebook
  • Pen
  • Flashlight

Check the Skin for Abnormalities

Run your hands over your cat's head, along the jaw line and cheeks, and around the neck. Get to know what all the lumps and bumps on your cat's head are in a healthy state. Ruffle up the fur so you can check the skin for scabs, redness, fleas, etc. If you feel or see anything new or unusual, consult with your veterinarian.

Examine Your Cat's Ears

Except for the Scottish fold and the American Curl, a cat’s ears will be triangular in shape. The outside ear coat is very short, and, as a rule, somewhat sparser than the hair on the rest of the cat’s body. Because of this, white cats and other cats with light-colored ears are susceptible to squamous cell carcinoma, a form of cancer which tends to attack the ear tips and pink noses of these cats. Any indication of sores or scabs, or a “crusty” appearance, that fails to heal normally should trigger a visit to your veterinarian.

The ears should be clean, with no signs of ear mites, abnormal masses, or infection. Although a cat’s ears may normally show a small amount of wax, there should be no foul odor or visible pus or drainage, which could lead to hearing loss. A cat with healthy ears shouldn’t shake its head nor paw at its ears. Any of these signs are a red flag that the cat should be seen immediately by a veterinarian.

Look at Your Cat's Eyes

Your cat’s eyes should be clear, bright, and alert to the surroundings. The pupils may be narrow or wide, depending on the amount of light passing through them, but they should be the same size. The whites of the eyes should be white, with no evidence of yellowing or redness. Although you may see tiny blood vessels on the surface of the whites of the eye, the appearance of blood in the eye chamber can be a veterinary emergency. Squinting or blinking of one eye could also indicate an injury to the eye, such as foreign matter or a scratch from another cat. These are also indications that a veterinarian should be consulted. Reddening of the pink membrane that lines the eyelid is seen with conjunctivitis, which can sometimes be difficult to treat. None of these conditions are responsive to DIY home treatment. Any of them could eventually lead to serious problems and blindness if left untreated.

Check Your Cat's Nose

A healthy cat’s sense of smell is much stronger than a human’s, which is not surprising, since the cat’s nose may be one of its most valuable assets. Cats depend heavily on the sense of smell to locate food in the form of prey, scent out enemies (predators, dogs, other cats), or scout for a mate. Cats use their own scent glands to mark their territory, which may range for several miles in the wild. They use their vomeronasal (Jacobson’s) organ within the nose, to identify pheromones — chemical substances important for communication between individuals.

A cat’s nose skin may be of any color, including black and pink, or even a combination of colors. You might notice some black spots called lentigo simplex on the nose and face. These are usually normal but consult with your veterinarian if they grow or change rapidly.

The nostrils should be free of mucus, and not “runny.” Although a cat may sometimes sneeze because of allergies or dust, continuous, severe sneezing may be an indication that they have a foreign body embedded in a nasal passage, a nasal tumor, nasal mites, or another potentially serious health problem. So is a cat pawing at its ​nose? This is more common with cats allowed outdoors, who may have inhaled a foxtail or sharp blade of grass. This requires immediate veterinary attention. 

Give Your Cat a Dental Exam

Like its nose, a healthy cat's mouth and lips may be pink or black. Sometimes as cats age, their previously pink lips may develop black pigment spots, which is normal. The normal color of a healthy cat's gums and the roof of the mouth is a "bubblegum" pink. Very pale gums or dark pink to red, irritated gums, especially in tandem with other symptoms, should be checked by a veterinarian at once.

As an obligate carnivore, cats' teeth are designed not only to kill prey but to tear and shred its flesh for swallowing. Cat teeth are also an important defensive weapon. An adult cat has 30 teeth, 16 on the top and 14 on the bottom:

  • 12 Incisors: Used for grooming, and scraping shreds of meat from the bone of its prey.
  • 4 Canine teeth (aka "Fangs"): Used mostly for defense and killing prey.
  • 10 Pre-molars: Used in conjunction with the molars.
  • 4 Molars: Unlike humans, cats do not use their molars to "grind" their food. Instead, they work in a sort of "slice-and-dice" operation, somewhat like an electric meat slicer does.

A cat's teeth are normally white, with little, if any, tartar buildup. They are rooted securely in the cat's jawbone. Any signs of redness in the gums around the teeth or loosening of teeth should be investigated by a veterinarian. Following a regular dental care plan will help ensure healthy teeth and gums.

Locate All of Your Cat's Whiskers

Although the long whiskers above the upper lips on each side of the nostrils are the ones we commonly think of as whiskers, cats also have whiskers above the eyebrows, way back on the cheeks, and shorter ones on the backs of the front legs.

These extra strong hairs are called vibrissae, or tactile hairs, and they are at least twice as thick as the cat's ordinary hair, with roots that go three times deeper, surrounded by nerves and blood vessels. Vibrissae should never be trimmed, as they are a needed tool for cats. They will fall out occasionally, just as regular hairs shed, but replacements will grow back in.

A cat's whiskers are so sensitive that they can feel the slightest whisper of a breeze. Their whiskers are invaluable in judging wind speed and direction, which helps both for self-protection and for identifying the location of potential prey. 

Preventing Problems During a Head Examination

If your cat begins to balk at the exam, take a break. You'll want to be thorough, but there is no reason to cause your cat distress. Give the cat some time and then pick up where you left off. The exam can be carried out over a few hours or days, but make sure you do finish it and date your notes correctly.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet’s health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.

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