Published on November 9, 2016
Most cats in the United States live predominantly indoors. In this safer environment, it is common for today’s cats to live into their late teens, and every veterinarian has seen at least a handful of 20-something cats. Senior health care is an important part of feline medicine today.
A checkup every six months is essential for cats aged 8 years and older. Most cats are extremely skilled at hiding illness. While some diseases have obvious clinical signs, initial changes may be subtle and go unnoticed, especially in multi-cat households.
The most common sign of disease in senior cats is weight loss, usually noted by the veterinarian during a routine exam. Weight loss alone is an indication for blood work, a urinalysis and an intestinal parasite check — which comprise the minimum medical database for an older pet.
Discussing subtle changes in behavior with your veterinarian may indicate underlying problems. Increased drinking, changes in appetite, more frequent urinating or other litter pan issues may be the first clue to a problem. Early detection of problems allows more successful management of disease.
Almost every older cat has some degree of kidney disease. Cats with this disorder begin to drink more and leave larger, more frequent clumps of urine in the litter pan. As the disease progresses, protein byproducts build up in the blood stream, making your cat’s appetite pickier or causing occasional vomiting. You may notice your cat losing weight.
Tests will reveal unconcentrated urine with increased protein byproducts in the blood, which is known as azotemia. If the byproducts become dangerously high, uremia develops, which is the ultimately fatal result of kidney failure.
Kidney disease cannot be reversed, only managed. Progression varies between individual cats. Our goal is to slow down weight loss using diet changes and medication to control the azotemia and improve the appetite. Teaching owners to administer fluids by subcutaneous injection at home is frequently a mainstay of treatment.
For most the effective treatment, your veterinarian should regularly monitor blood values, body weight and blood pressure, which can rise dangerously high in kidney disease.
Thyroid gland tumors, though almost always benign, are common in cats 8 years and older. These tumors secrete excessive amounts of thyroid hormone, measured as T4 on blood tests, which switches the cat’s metabolism into overdrive.
Cats with hyperthyroidism tend to eat very well but still lose weight. They may vomit frequently and can act restless and wired up. A heart murmur may develop as the disease progresses.
Hyperthyroidism is relatively easy to control with medication. Occasionally it can be controlled with diet alone if the owner is extremely diligent. Surgery to remove the enlarged thyroid gland can be curative, although the treatment of choice is irradiation of the abnormal thyroid tissue.
When older cats lose weight yet do not have obvious abnormalities on their screening blood work, we become concerned about the possibility of intestinal cancer. Most cats have a history of chronic vomiting, but the monthly “hairball” will become weekly or even daily vomiting.
The most common form of intestinal cancer in cats is lymphosarcoma. Specific blood tests can make veterinarians more suspicious of this disease, as well as finding thickened or otherwise abnormal intestines on an ultrasound exam. The definitive diagnosis, however, requires an intestinal biopsy, performed either endoscopically or through exploratory abdominal surgery.
Lymphosarcoma can be very responsive to chemotherapy, which can sometimes extend a cat’s quality of life for two or more years.
Most older cats suffer at least a little from osteoarthritis pain. This is especially true of overweight cats. It may be difficult to notice since cats are not walked daily on a leash. Those with arthritis usually just move less.
They may become matted because it hurts stretch to groom normally. They stop jumping up on a favorite windowsill or bookcase. Even shorter heights like chairs or beds may make them hesitate, either going up or coming down.
Sometimes they begin to urinate or defecate outside of the litter pan. Cats who have to travel two flights down to the litter pan in the basement may decide it just hurts too much. In the pan, a cat with lumbar spinal arthritis may find it painful to defecate and try to avoid doing so, eventually resulting in constipation.
Historically, few medications were available to treat pain in cats. This has been changing recently, and now there is hope that, in conjunction with weight loss and alternative modalities such as laser therapy, we will be able to make older feline patients more comfortable.
Remember, a thorough examination of your pet and discussion with your veterinarian is the first step in diagnosing illness in your senior cat. We recommend visiting the veterinary office every 6 months once your cat is older than 8 years. Early recognition of disease provides the best chance for successful management, enabling your feline friend to have the longest, happiest life possible.