Any time you take your cat to the vet, she will perform a thorough head to tail physical examination. Depending on your cat’s age, she may also want to do routine blood and urine testing. If you brought your cat to the vet because of a health issue, she may recommend additional diagnostic tests, such as x-rays and ultrasound to determine the nature of your cat’s illness.
Diagnostic testing for cats doesn’t end with these, by now, fairly routine tests. Veterinary medicine has advanced over the last few decades and tests such as MRI’s, CT scans, endoscopies and others are no longer the prerogative of human medicine.
Learning that your cat may need diagnostic testing can be overwhelming. While some tests are painless (x-rays, ultrasound) or minimally invasive (blood draws and urinalysis), they may still cause considerable stress to your cat. Other tests may involve sedation or even anesthesia.
Most vets recommend annual testing for cats seven years and older, and, depending on a cat’s health history, annual or bi-annual testing for senior cats over the age of eleven. Typically, your vet will run a blood chemistry panel, a complete bloodcount, and a thyroid function test. It’s also a good practice to get one time bloodwork for a young healthy cat so you have a baseline for future comparison. Urinalysis is recommended for cats seven years or older.
It is critically important that every cat, regardless of age, has complete bloodwork done before undergoing any kind of anesthetic procedure, even a routine dental cleaning. This test will be required by any reputable vet clinic.
Diagnostics when your cat is ill
For cats who present with signs of illness, your vet will want to run, at a minimum, a complete blood panel. Depending on your cat’s symptoms, she may also require a urinalysis, x-rays and/or ultrasound.
Ask these three questions before any diagnostic test
The following questions can help you decide, in partnership with your vet, whether to pursue diagnostic testing for your cat and which tests will be appropriate for your cat’s condition and temperament.
How risky is the procedure?
Does the procedure require sedation or anesthesia? How invasive is the test? What does recovery involve? While anesthesia can be safely tailored even to cats with known medical conditions such as heart or kidney disesase, no anesthetic procedure is without risk. Discuss the risks of the procedure vs. the benefits with your vet before you agree to the test.
Are finances a concern?
Diagnostic tests are expensive. If finances are a concern, be honest about it with your vet. There may be alternative, less costly tests that may also yield answers about your cat’s condition. A good vet will always recommend the optimal course of diagnosis and treatment, but will work with you as needed to determine whether there are other options.
What will you do with the information from the test?
This is the most important question to ask, and the answer will be different for every cat and every cat parent. Let’s say your vet is testing for cancer. Will you be willing to put your cat through chemotherapy or surgery, or would you opt for palliative care? Is your cat comfortable with frequent vet visits if that’s what treatment would require?
Dr. Andrea Tasi, a homeopathic feline house call veterinarian and owner of Just Cats Naturally, frequently has discussions about whether or not to pursue diagnostic tests with her clients. “A typical example I can come up with is a cat with a significant heart murmur on exam and an elevated proBNP blood test. It’s very likely that this cat has heart disease.” The standard recommendation for this cat is a cardiology consult with an echocardiogram, EKG, and blood pressure measurements. “The cat is completely impossible to give any medication to, will not allow pilling, will not allow topical medications, and only eats dry food, so mixing something in with food won’t work, either,” says Dr. Tasi. “And the cat gets very very stressed by any trip to vet.” Is it worth doing the cardiac workup? “In this case, no,” says Dr. Tasi. “The owner understands that the cat may go into congestive heart failure, develop a blood clot, or even die from a sudden cardiac event. Of course, the cat might do any of these things even if treated with cardiac medications.”
This can be a tough decision for many cat parents. We all bring our own experiences with illness and treatment to the table. We may have had a negative (or positive) experience with a different cat in the past. Even experiences with illness of a human family member or friend can influence this process. Personal opinions and even spiritual beliefs can also play a role in determining what we are willing to do for our cats.
I want to stress that there is no right or wrong answer. Your best approach is to discuss any concerns or misgivings you have about diagnostic tests with your veterinarian so that together, you can make the best possible decision for your cat, and for you.