We’re fortunate that many cats live well into their teens or even to 20 years of age or more. We generally define senior cats as any cat over 10 years of age. Geriatric cats can remain active and comfortable, but they are prone to certain health conditions. Being aware of these problems, reacting right away to changes, and providing recommended preventive care can all help keep your cat well into her later years.
It’s important to take a thorough look at your cat at least monthly. It’s more of an inspection, really, because in your daily interactions you may miss subtle changes that can indicate a problem.
Look at her eyes for any changes, such as cloudiness. Cats can get cataracts, but it might also simply be an age change called nuclear sclerosis that has minimal effect on vision. Pay attention to her hearing. If you think she’s going deaf, try stomping on the floor to create vibrations to alert her when you are coming to pet her. A deaf cat can also learn to react to lights, such as a blinking penlight, to get her to come.
Gently touch your cat’s whole body (think of it as a medical massage!). Learn what her body feels like, so you can check for weight gain or loss and the state of her muscle mass. This is the time you’ll notice new lumps or bumps developing. Compare her front legs to each other, and the same with her back legs. You might notice subtle swelling or a bony growth.
Pay attention to how much your cat is eating and drinking daily. This may require separate feeding and drinking areas if you have multiple cats. Watch for drooling, increased drinking, and bad breath. Check the litter box for the amount and characteristics of urine and feces. Too much or too little urine, overly loose stools, overly dry stools, and/or evidence of blood in the stool and/or urine are all signals that something may be wrong.
Don’t forget to note your cat’s behavior and locomotion. Senior cats may have moments of difficulty adjusting to changes in their routine or environment. Arthritis is more common in cats than many people realize. An arthritic cat may no longer feel up to navigating the stairs to a litterbox on a different level of the house. Talk with your veterinarian about a joint supplement, like glucosamine.
Many cats have problems grooming as they age. This may be due to arthritis or cognitive loss. These cats may develop mats along the spine and back if they are not groomed regularly. Severe cases may require shaving with clippers. Nails can become brittle and, with less grooming by the cat herself, old nail sheaths may build up. Plan regular nail trims.
“Regular physical exams, even twice yearly, are important for geriatric cats to catch problems early on,” says Noelle Perry, DVM (Cornell 1996), Medical Director of Burrstone Animal Hospital in New Hartford, N.Y. Along with a thorough physical exam, expect your veterinarian to recommend bloodwork. Early diagnosis may not lead to a cure for some problems, but it can make control easier and give you more quality time with your feline companion.
Dental disease, hyperthyroidism, diabetes, and kidney disease are fairly common ailments of senior cats, says Dr. Perry. You can help to delay the onset of these problems or even prevent them by being proactive. With close observation, you can pick up these problems early on, get treatment, delay progression, and give your cat extra years of comfortable life.
Dental Problems: As we discussed in our October 2017 issue, dental disease is common in cats. If your cat is already comfortable with having her teeth brushed, you are way ahead of the game. Brushing is the best way to prevent dental disease in cats. Cats with dental problems often have bad breath, drool, and can be hesitant to eat and/or drink. If your cat comes running to her food bowl eagerly but then walks away, her teeth may be hurting her. Your cat may need a thorough dental exam, radiographs, and cleaning at your veterinary clinic to get back on track to a healthy mouth.
Thyroid Disorders: Cats who develop hyperthyroidism tend to be very hungry, very thirsty, very active, and they often urinate more than normal and, in some cases, may vomit. Despite extra food, they often lose weight. You may notice your cat not grooming herself as well as usual or that she’s keeping you awake with her activity at night.
Hyperthyroidism is diagnosed with a blood test and palpation of the thyroid gland on the cat’s neck. A hyperthyroid cat usually has an enlarged thyroid gland. Your veterinarian may also check for hypertension, as many hyperthyroid cats have high blood pressure.
There are four treatments used for hyperthyroidism:
1. Daily medication in the form of pills or a gel.
2. Radiation therapy using radioactive iodine to destroy thyroid tissue. (See Ask Elizabeth in our October issue for information on radioiodine, a usually permanent solution to hyperthyroidism.)
3. Surgery to remove the thyroid gland from the cat.
4. A low-iodine diet to interfere with thyroid hormone production. This is generally the least successful therapy, but it does work for some cats.
Diabetes: You may notice weight loss despite an increased appetite, increased drinking, and/or increased urination. Some cats will also show nerve damage and walk “down on their hocks.” Diagnosis is via blood-glucose evaluations. A number of health problems can affect the blood-glucose levels in cats, so a thorough history, physical examination, and bloodwork are required for an accurate diagnosis.
It is a good idea to weigh senior cats monthly, so you catch any small weight changes immediately instead of waiting to see a drastic change. If you have a 10-pound cat, she may have to lose a full pound—10 percent of her weight—before you can visually see the difference. Be sure you report any unexplained weight loss to your veterinarian.
Watching your cat’s weight and helping her stay active is important to all cats at all life stages, but it’s especially helpful for diabetes. Obesity increases the risk of diabetes in cats, as it does in people. Interactive toys can help your cat stay active. You could even build a “catio,” so your cat can enjoy some outdoor time in an enclosed, safe environment.
Diabetic cats often require insulin injections. Most cats tolerate the injections very well. Your veterinarian or her veterinary technician can train you to give them. The Cornell Feline Health Center has an excellent set of videos that demonstrate caring for your diabetic cat (go to http://bit.ly/2x6U12g). Some cats can be managed without insulin or may gradually drop their need for insulin. This is a disease that requires frequent checkups of blood glucose and adjustments to your care plan.
Kidney Disease: Chronic kidney disease is commonly found in older cats. Owners may notice increased drinking and urination, and loss of appetite. At a veterinary examination, anemia, buildup of toxic wastes, and hypertension may all be noted. Your veterinarian will do bloodwork and may suggest radiographs or an ultrasound so he or she can fully evaluate the kidneys.
Treatment for kidney disease tends to rely primarily on increasing your cat’s fluid intake and managing her diet carefully to minimize toxic waste buildup. You may need to give subcutaneous fluids for extra “flushing” of the kidneys. Families can easily learn to do this and most cats tolerate fluid therapy very well. (See August 2017 article on kidney disease.)
Cornell’s Wealth of Knowledge
Cornell University has long been a leader in feline health care. The Cornell Feline Health Center was established in 1974 and became the first academic center devoted specifically to feline wellness. We have additional excellent resources at our website for cat owners, including information on senior cats and aging. Go to: http://bit.ly/2v8LfPC
The Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine recently published a study, lead by Dr. M. Katherine Tolbert of the University of Tennessee, titled “Evaluation of Gastric pH and Serum Gastrin Concentrations in Cats with Chronic Kidney Disease.”
Chronic kidney disease (CKD) occurs frequently in cats. In advanced cases, it’s associated with hyper- oxia (excess oxygen in tissues) and vomiting due to uremic toxins and gastric hyperacidity. Based on previ- ous research that showed an asso- ciation between hypergastrinemia (the presence of excess gastrin in the blood) and CKD, the researchers believed cats with CKD would have decreased gastric pH, compared to healthy cats. They compared 10 cats with CKD and nine healthy cats.
The researchers concluded that cats with CKD may not have gastric hyperacidity, compared to healthy cats, and may not need acid sup- pression. More studies are needed.