Has your cat left a warm spot where she was sleeping? Does it seem too warm?
Cats are much warmer than humans, with a normal body temperature of 99.5 to 102.5 fahrenheit. Usually, their fur prevents us from feeling just how much warmer they are than people. When cats curl up in a spot for a long time, it is easy to feel how warm healthy cats really are and mistake it for a fever.
On the other hand, fevers can be an important sign that your cat is ill. The best way to tell if your cat has a fever is by taking their temperature, but there are other indications as well.
Of course, if you believe your cat is sick, call your veterinarian. Elevated temperatures can be caused by stress or illness. Minor illness or stress may resolve on its own, but more serious diseases will need veterinary attention.
Signs of Fever In Cats
Unlike dogs, cats should never pant. If a cat is panting it is a sure sign of a fever.
Sometimes panting happens in times of extreme stress. Stress elevates a cat’s body temperature and can result in panting. Once stress levels go down, your cat should cool off and stop panting.
If there is no obvious reason for your cat to be stressed, it is likely that she has a true fever.
It is rare to see adult cats shivering unless they have been left in the cold or gotten wet.
Shivering is a response to the body temperature being too low, but can also occur when there is a fever. This is because the body is being signaled to increase temperature and elevate the fever even higher.
- Laying in Strange Places
If you have ever had a fever you may remember shivering under piles of blankets or sweating in a well air conditioned room. Fevers affect the ability to perceive if you are too hot or too cold and cats are no different.
You may notice your cat trying to keep warm in strange places, like the warm coils behind the refrigerator. She may suddenly be interested in getting under the covers with you. Alternatively, you may notice her laying in cool areas of the house where she doesn’t normally go, like a tiled bathroom.
- Hot Ears and Paws
The ears and paws are a good place to feel your cat’s temperature since fur doesn’t get in the way. If you suspect your cat has a fever, feel their ears and paws. Do they feel warmer than normal?
- Lethargy and Poor Appetite
Cats with fevers are highly stressed or sick. A sick cat will be just like a sick human: low energy, sleeping a lot, poor appetite etc. If you suspect your cat has a fever and is showing signs of lethargy it is important to investigate further.
How to Take Your Cat’s Temperature
It’s pretty hard to tell a cat to close their mouth on a thermometer. Here are two options on how to take your cat’s temperature.
Unfortunately, the best way to measure the temperature of your cat is rectally.
Wash the end of your thermometer. Place a small amount of KY or petroleum jelly on the tip of the digital thermometer. Insert the entire metal part of the thermometer until the thermometer beeps, indicating a final reading.
Here is a youtube video showing the process:
If you aren’t comfortable taking your cat’s temperature like the veterinarian does, you can use your cat’s “armpit.” Unfortunately, this method can cause the reading to be too low.
If you measure your cat’s temperature in his “armpit” and it reads over 102.5 F, he definitely has a fever. If the temperature reads between 100.5 and 102.5 F, there is a chance that your cat has a fever. If the temperature is below 100.5 F, your cat almost certainly does not have a fever, assuming the temperature was measured well.
To take the axillary temperature, simply place a digital thermometer between your cat’s front leg and his body. Gently hold his leg in place to trap the thermometer until it beeps and gives a reading.
Remember that you are trying the estimate your cat’s internal temperature. Make sure the thermometer gets as much body heat as possible from your cat.
What Should You Do If Your Cat Has A Fever?
- Low-Grade Fever
Most cat fevers are in the 103-105 F range and are actually beneficial to fighting infection. As long as your cat is acting normally and the fever has lasted under 24 hours, there is not yet cause for alarm.
If your cat is acting lethargic, has recently given birth, was recently injured, is not eating or is just acting “off,” schedule an appointment with your veterinarian right away.
Even healthy cats can have high body temperature from the stress of the vet visit. Therefore, it is important to tell your veterinarian the reasons you believe your cat has a true fever.
- High Fever
If your cat has a temperature above 106 F, he is at high risk for brain damage from swelling (cerebral edema). Temperatures this high are an emergency situation. Call your veterinarian immediately.
You can help prevent brain damage by using ice packs and cool wash cloths on your cat’s head. You can also wet the pads of his feet with water. Be careful not to cool your cat too quickly, as this can cause issues as well. Only bring the body temperature to just below the dangerous 106 F cutoff.
*Do not attempt to cool your cat off unless you are absolutely certain of his body temperature.*
*NEVER give your cat human medications to reduce a fever unless advised by your veterinarian. Most NSAID drugs, such as ibuprofen (Advil) and acetaminophen (Tylenol) are toxic to cats.*
What Causes A Fever?
Technically speaking, a fever is caused by the hypothalamus in the brain. The hypothalamus acts as the body’s thermostat and may increase the temperature for a variety of reasons.
As stated before, stress is the most common cause of elevated body temperature in cats. Although anything above 102.5 F is considered a fever, veterinarians routinely see temperatures up to 103.5 F in healthy cats. A simple checkup gives many cats a case of “white coat syndrome.”
Infections are the most common cause of true fevers in cats. The infections can be viral, bacterial or fungal. Infections may be extremely serious or they may resolve on their own.
Cats are prone to infection if they have recently undergone trauma, met with strange cats or given birth. If this is the case, the infection is likely serious and needs veterinary care. Cats with chronic illnesses such as FIV and feline leukemia are also more prone to infections. Cats with these chronic diseases have difficulty fighting infections.
Fevers in the 103 F to 105 F range will help fight infection, which is why the hypothalamus will elevate the temperature.
If your cat is unable to fight the infection himself, the veterinarian will first want to run blood tests to determine what is going on. A high white blood cell count will confirm that an infection is present and antibiotics, antivirals or antifungals will be prescribed based on the signs of illness. The veterinarian may also recommend fluids, which can help your cat rehydrate and feel better quickly.
- Brain Tumor or Head Trauma
Any physical damage to the hypothalamus in the brain will affect the body temperature of your cat. These fevers can be low-grade or quickly rise out of control.
These types of fevers will likely require management with medications. If the cause is trauma, the brain will likely heal on its own with time. Your cat will simply need help while he is in the recovery process.
If the cause is a brain tumor, a cure would include surgery, radiation and/or chemotherapy. If this is not feasible, your veterinarian can offer medications to control symptoms and maintain a good quality of life.
- Eclampsia (“Milk Fever”)
After giving birth, cats produce a lot of milk for their kittens. This can lower the calcium levels in their bodies to dangerous levels. One of the first signs of eclampsia is a high fever, often accompanied by panting.
A veterinarian will need to restore the calcium levels quickly before serious complications occur.
Several medications, most commonly certain types of antibiotics, will cause fevers. In most cases, the elevated temperature will not cause any harm and may help fight infection. Occasionally, the fever becomes too high and the medication must be stopped.
If your cat has recently started a medication, your veterinarian will determine if this is the cause of the fever. Depending on the medication your cat may continue taking it, stop it immediately or need to be weaned off.
After vaccinations, a low fever can be normal for cats.
The way vaccines work is to trick the immune system into recognizing a safe form of a deadly disease. This way the immune system will remember what the disease “looks like” when it encounters the deadly form.
A mild elevation in temperature is simply a sign that the immune system is reacting to the disease and that the vaccine is working.