Keeping Your Senior Cat Healthy

Pet Health and Safety  •  PetPartners  •  Friday, May 15, 2020

Cats, like their human counterparts, are prone to the aches, pains, and health issues that seem to come hand-in-hand with advancing age. Unfortunately, as the average lifespan of our cats increases, so does the chance that owners will see age-related issues arise in their senior cats.

Visit Your Veterinarian

As your cat begins to age, your veterinarian will likely start to recommend a few things. All cats should be seen once a year for their annual wellness checkup, however once your cat gets older, it may be helpful for your veterinarian to start doing some tests to make certain your cat’s internal organs are functioning as they should. Cats have evolved to hide signs that they are feeling under the weather and these tests can let your vet know that something is wrong with your cat, long before he displays outward signs of illness.

“I recommend that owners have yearly blood work done on their pets if the animal is healthy, and increase that frequency if any clinical signs present themselves or if abnormalities are seen in the blood work,” says Dr. Julie Byron, a small animal internist at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana.

Signs of an Issue in Older Cats

According to Dr. Byron, geriatric cat owners should also increase their awareness of how their cat is acting and feeling, as well as keeping an eye out while cleaning the litter box. It is important to be able to recognize what is normal for your cat so that when there is a change, you can recognize it. She explains that a trip to the veterinarian is warranted if your cat is displaying any of the following signs or symptoms:

  • Significant changes in water intake and urination
  • Weight loss 
  • Decreased appetite
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Failure to groom
  • Appearance of a growth or mass
  • Any changes in activity level or normal daily habits

Two of the most important tools that a veterinarian uses to start narrowing down the list of possible problems are an accurate history from the owner and a thorough physical exam. Bringing your pet in to the veterinarian is only the first step; it is important to share with your veterinarian any changes and symptoms your cat is displaying.

Common Health Conditions in Senior Cats

There are certain conditions that are more common in our elderly cats including renal (kidney) disease, gastrointestinal diseases, arthritis, hyperthyroidism, and neoplasia. With these conditions come certain signs and symptoms that, when seen by an owner or veterinarian, can lead to a quick diagnosis of the problem.

Kidney Disease in Cats

Renal disease is a common issue with senior cats. Subtle changes in your cat’s kidney function can be picked up on the recommended yearly blood work, before any outward symptoms have presented themselves. Since kidney problems often cause symptoms, such as increased water consumption and increased urination, if blood work is not done or if the problem develops rapidly before it can be caught on a routine blood panel, owners may notice they need to fill the water bowl more frequently or that the litter box needs to be emptied more often.

“Owners should understand that while kidney disease is usually a degenerative disease, it is not necessarily a death sentence for the pet,” advises Dr. Byron. “There are medications and treatments on the market that can greatly increase the cat’s quality of life and delay the progression of the disease.”

Hyperthyroidism in Cats

An overactive thyroid gland, or hyperthyroidism, is another common problem in the aging cat population. If your cat has an overactive thyroid, you may notice that he is losing weight, even though his appetite may have increased dramatically, or that his sleep-wake cycle has changed. Hyperthyroidism in cats is both easy to diagnose and treat. Unfortunately, if the disease is left untreated or undiagnosed it can lead to cardiac disease, gastrointestinal problems, high blood pressure, blindness, and even death.

Neoplasia in Cats

The one disease that every cat owner dreads hearing about is neoplasia. Unfortunately, it is a common problem in geriatric cats and is also one that can be incredibly difficult for a veterinarian to diagnose. According to Dr. Byron, it is the ability of feline cancer to mimic other diseases and include multiple organ systems that makes it so difficult to pinpoint on a diagnostic work-up. In order to diagnose neoplasia, your veterinarian may ask for extensive diagnostic testing, which is necessary in order to rule out and narrow down the list of possible differentials your pet’s symptoms and signs may point to.

While the necessary diagnostic tests can be expensive, if you are interested in pursuing further treatment for your pet, these tests are essential. Pet insurance can help alleviate the costs of a cancer diagnosis so you can focus on helping your pet heal. Your animal’s prognosis and treatment strategy will vary greatly based on the results of these tests and whether a final diagnosis can be made.

Senior Cat Arthritis

Another common disease in aging pets is arthritis. According to Dr. Byron, arthritis in cats is under-diagnosed due to their ability to hide any signs of pain or discomfort. Signs of arthritis in cats can manifest in a variety of ways including mobility issues, decreases in activity level or ability/desire to jump, limping, weakness, and decrease in appetite. If you notice any of these signs do not medicate your pet with human over-the-counter drugs, as these can be very hard for your cat to metabolize and actually may damage their internal organs. There are newer veterinary medications that can be used safely in cats as a long term arthritis treatment that your veterinarian can prescribe.

Adding Years to Your Senior Cat's Life

“Above all, owners need to understand that age itself is not a disease,” explains Dr. Byron “It just means that your pet has an increased likelihood of experiencing certain problems and illnesses. As veterinarians, we work to combat these problems and ensure that your pet has the best quality of life possible.”

Keeping your pet mentally and physically engaged each day is an important way to add years to your senior cat's life. Be sure to manage your older cat's diet to ensure he remains at a healthy weight. Consider adopting a cat or kitten for companionship and to help your senior cat get moving.

Consider enrolling your cat in a pet insurance policy so you can afford the very best treatment for him as he ages and keep him feeling his best! Get a quote today.

For more information on issues that your geriatric cat may encounter, contact your local veterinarian.
This article, by Sarah Dowling, is reprinted with permission from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign College of Veterinary Medicine.  For more information visit:  http://vetmed.illinois.edu/petcolumns/

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