If there were an AARP for pets, your cat would get his membership card when he turns 8. Thats about 50 years old in human years, according to Feline Life Stage Guidelines from the American Association of Feline Practitioners and American Animal Hospital Association.
If hes reached 11 years of age, thats roughly equivalent to 60 human years. The milestone means its time to start veterinary wellness exams twice a year if you havent already.
The most important reason is that cats age faster than people, so it is more important to catch problems sooner – intervention can occur earlier, says Brian Collins, DVM, a lecturer in the Community Practice Service at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.
Monitoring Disease. I will recommend even more frequent visits in some situations, particularly for owners who are interested in close monitoring of chronic disease conditions, Dr. Collins says. More frequent visits can be stressful for some patients, but we do our best to make them as pleasant as possible. Some pets become more at ease as they visit more often.
The veterinarian will examine your senior feline closely and, if necessary, order laboratory tests and imaging to detect disease.
Heres what to expect:
A Thorough History
Purpose: Its just as important as the physical exam to get an idea of overall health. Youll be asked such questions as: Have there been any changes in your pets urination or defecation? Coughing, sneezing, vomiting, diarrhea? Problems with mobility or pain? Have you observed any changes in behavior that suggest decreased vision or hearing, such as squinting or failing to respond to everyday sounds? Any changes in eating or drinking habits?
How about other behavior changes? Cats with osteoarthritis, which can be treated with medication, diet and even acupuncture, seem less willing to jump up or down. They may cry when lifted or move more slowly or with a crouched posture.
Youll also be asked if your cat is less active. Has his lifestyle changed? Have you moved to a home with more or fewer floors to navigate? We have to see if anything has changed since the last visit, Dr. Collins says.
The Physical Exam
Purpose: to determine overall health.
Essentials: Veterinarians look for acquired health problems through visual and manual inspection, carefully feeling the abdomen to check for masses and to assess the shape and size of abdominal organs. Common problems include skin lumps (both benign and malignant) and lameness due to arthritis or neurologic diseases. Conditions that require treatment include high blood pressure, the heart disease cardiomyopathy and chronic bronchial disease, so the veterinarian will use a stethoscope to listen to the sounds of the lungs and heart.
We also look carefully at the eyes for changes that can threaten vision or give clues to other diseases, Dr. Collins says.
Purpose: to determine if your cat is at a healthy weight and that hes on an appropriate diet.
Essentials: Is your senior cat too thin? Thats a possible sign of many underlying conditions, including kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, cancer and dental disease. Is he overweight, a risk factor for both arthritis and diabetes? If so, the veterinarian might suggest three or four small feedings per day of canned food or a diet designed to promote weight loss.
Additional diet advice will be tailored to your cats needs. For example, if he has chronic kidney disease, a therapeutic diet could lengthen his life. If his vitamin B levels are low, he may be prescribed a supplement. The veterinarian may advise that you provide several dishes of clean water or a water fountain to ensure that your cat consumes enough water.
Purpose: to detect or confirm disease.
Essentials: Veterinarians often recommend a complete blood count to evaluate blood cells and a chemistry panel to check organ function. Other tests may be ordered based on initial test results, the abnormalities that you report or the physical examination.
X-rays and Ultrasounds
Purpose: to supplement information found on physical examination and from laboratory tests.
Essentials: Veterinarians often recommend X-rays to evaluate the heart and lungs, or ultrasound to more thoroughly evaluate the abdomen. X-rays also may help determine the causes of lameness.
Purpose: to check for disease. Eighty percent of cats over three years of age show signs of periodontal disease, often a cause of bad breath. Professional dental cleaning and periodontal therapy often come too late to prevent extensive disease or to save teeth, the American Veterinary Dental College says, adding that multiple problems in the oral cavity can result and may be associated with damage to internal organs in some patients as they age.
Essentials: In addition to disease, veterinarians check for tumors or other problems that can cause pain or make it difficult to eat.
Purpose: to protect against infectious diseases that may cause illness or even death.
Essentials: Senior cats still need the core vaccines given to kittens. One shot guards against rabies, while a combination vaccine protects against respiratory illnesses and feline distemper. Non-core vaccines may be beneficial in some cases, and careful consultation with your veterinarian is recommended to tailor a vaccine protocol for your cat.
Purpose: to help determine quality of life and search for clues of overall health.
Essentials: Half of cats at age 15 have signs of dementia, such as inappropriate elimination. Have you noticed litter box problems? The veterinarian might ask about litter box size, edge height and location, which may need to change over time to ensure your arthritic cat can easily access the box. According to the Feline Life Stage Guidelines, litter box problems, vocalization and confusion can be signs of underlying medical problems.
Finally, dont write off subtle changes as simply old age. Chances are that medication, treatment or changes in management at home (i.e., with litter box problems) can go a long way toward making your cat comfortable and perhaps bringing a welcome spring back to his step. You may find yourself wondering: Why didnt I take him to see a veterinarian sooner?