The Cat Health Check Guide Body Condition and Weight

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Walking cat
Walking Cat

The profile of the rear quarters of a healthy cat should give the impression of strength and support. The body profile will taper down slightly toward the tail end, while remaining well-muscled, particularly around the haunches. A slight belly pouch is normal, although it is more prominent in heavier cats, or in obese cats who have lost weight. The haunches and back legs are sturdy, poised for running or jumping. The entire rear quarters are covered with fur, which may be sparser in the very last part of the tummy. When walking or running, the rear limbs of younger cats should flow smoothly with no evidence of stiffness or pain.

Organs in the Lower Body

The organs of the abdomen and lower half of the cat include the liver, stomach, spleen, kidneys, bladder, small intestine, colon, and reproductive organs (testicles or uterus). Unlike the upper body of the cat, except for part of the liver, these organs are not protected by the skeleton. Diseases affecting these organs cause clinical signs including:

  • Vomiting: Vomiting (sometimes accompanied by diarrhea) can be a sign of several diseases and conditions, including hyperthyroidism, kidney disease (acute and chronic), pancreatitis, and ingestion of toxic human foods, plants, or other substances. Diarrhea and vomiting can indicate an intestinal problem, such as IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease) or even cancer.
  • Rapid weight loss: Sudden weight loss is always a red flag and when combined with vomiting, can be a sign of the diseases and conditions mentioned above. In overweight cats, rapid weight loss can lead to a serious condition called hepatic lipidosis (also known as fatty liver disease). While potentially fatal, hepatic lipidosis can be cured if caught and treated soon enough.
  • Butt-scooting: When a cat scoots its butt across the floor, leaving behind an extremely stinky brown substance, it is most likely caused by infected or impacted anal glands. Cats may also spontaneously express their anal glands when surprised or upset. Impacted or infected glands require veterinary treatment.
black and white cat with yellow eyes
black and white cat with yellow eyes

Cats showing any of the signs above should be taken to their veterinary clinic without delay to ensure proper examination, diagnosis, and treatment.

Spinal Column

The spinal column runs the entire length of the body, from where it joins the head to the middle of the tail. Also called the spinal canal, it consists of the backbone (vertebral column), which encloses the spinal cord. This spinal cord is the message center of the body and operates through nerve endings to control the functions of all parts of the body. Nerve endings also convey sensations of feeling, such as heat, cold, and pain. The spinal cord is one of the most important organs of the body.

The spinal column in a healthy cat is extremely flexible, which allows for the agility for which cats are famous. A falling cat can right itself by twisting its spine to be able to land upright on its feet. The spine of a cat in a relaxed four-legs stance will be fairly straight and parallel to the ground, sloping down slightly from the front shoulders and again toward the base of the tail.

Ginger cat (Felis silvestris catus), sitting, with its tail stretched out
Ginger Cat (Felis Silvestris Catus), Sitting, With Its Tail Stretched Out


The cat's tail is used for balancing and conveys the emotions of a cat at any given time. A rapidly lashing tail means trouble, and it's best to respect that signal.

short-coated white cat
short-coated white cat
cat lying on bed
cat lying on bed


Never pull a cat by its tail. You can cause serious injury to the cat, which may cause serious injury to yourself. Tail trauma is a veterinary emergency. Some cats have to undergo tail amputation if the injury is severe. Some tail injuries can heal themselves or be surgically repaired. Injuries resulting in paralysis of the tail may be accompanied by fecal and/or urinary incontinence due to damage of the nerve supply to the area.

Manx cats are born without tails. Some Manx kittens are born with Manx Syndrome, which is a genetic condition that causes malformation of their spinal cord. This causes neurological signs in the rear limbs as well as urinary and fecal incontinence and in some cases, spina bifida, a more severe deformity of the spinal cord.

Tortoiseshell Manx cat looking over its shoulder
Ginger Cat (Felis Silvestris Catus), Sitting, With Its Tail Stretched Out

Back Legs and Feet

The rear haunches, back legs, feet, and claws complete the anatomy of the rear quarters. Flexible hips and the strong bones, joints, and powerful musculature of the cat's back legs give enormous strength for both running and jumping, which are essential for catching prey in the wild.

In older cats (>8 years old), slowness or hesitation in mobility, can be a sign of arthritis, particularly if the cat has difficulty in jumping up on furniture or using their litter box. Excess weight contributes to arthritis, as well as other medical conditions. A program of slow weight loss prescribed by your veterinarian is essential for obese cats. Hip dysplasia, which is seen more frequently in certain breeds (Persian, Siamese, and Maine Coon) can predispose cats to arthritis. Your veterinarian can also recommend medications to help soothe sore joints and prevent progression of arthritis. Glucosamine and Chondroitin are commonly prescribed and are combined in the product Cosequin (R) .

The back legs, paws, and claws are as important as those in the front. Their strength enables the cat to push forward and quickly reach a high speed for pursuing prey or running from predators. The back claws are powerful for delivering painful rabbit kicks, both in play and in self-protection. Although front claws should be clipped routinely, it is not recommended to clip the back claws of cats that spend time outdoors, because of their use for protection.

Running kitten
Running Kitten

The body of a healthy cat is poetry in motion. It is the perfect balance of form and function, with the bonus of beauty and grace. Your charge when you take cats into your home is to make sure that they receive a wholesome, nutritious diet, an adequate exercise in the form of play, and a planned program of veterinary care, to help ensure that they stay healthy for as long as possible.