Senior Cat Health: When Is it Time to See the Vet?

Photo of Rusty Black Cat in Reflected Sun

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There are some conditions in senior cats that warrant prompt attention. Knowing how to identify clinical signs early on, will hopefully lead to a quick diagnosis and immediate treatment. A cat is considered a senior when they reach the age of seven. At this time, you can expect to see some physical and behavioral changes occur. It is not unusual for them to develop vision and hearing loss, and maybe some dementia. So it is recommended that your senior cat is seen by their veterinarian at least twice a year to make sure these changes aren't affecting their overall health.

Arthritis

Arthritis, also known as osteoarthritis, is a degenerative disease of the joints. At least 90 percent of cats over 12 years of age have evidence of degenerative joint disease on radiographs. Owners may not relate minor changes in their cat to arthritis, because they may not yet show signs of lameness. This condition should be at the top of the list especially if your senior cat is overweight. Be aware if they are having difficulty grooming, jumping onto furniture, accessing the litter box, and are more irritable than usual. Your veterinarian may recommend some lab tests and radiographs to help diagnose arthritis. Treatment options include pain management, surgery, physical therapy, joint supplementation, cold and heat therapy, muscle toning and strengthening, and acupuncture.

Brushing Cat's Teeth
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Dental Disease

Dental disease affects more than half of the cat population over three years of age. Cats have many of the same dental problems as dogs, including periodontal disease, fractured teeth, and oral growths. Cats are also plagued with tooth resorption (a tooth defect where the root erodes and disappears when they are replaced by bone) and inflammation. Pay attention when you notice a decrease in appetite, bad breath, and drooling. On examination, tartar build-up and gum inflammation may be noted. Dental radiographs may be needed to identify the extent of dental disease. Treatment options include a professional dental cleaning, extraction of diseased teeth, removal and/or biopsy of oral growths, antibiotics, and pain management.

Kidney Failure

The kidneys serve many roles, including water conservation, toxin removal, calcium, phosphorus, pH, and electrolyte balance, blood pressure regulation, and red blood cell production. A pet with impaired kidney function will have a difficult time concentrating urine. It will need to drink extra water to process the body's waste chemicals.

Initially, an owner may notice their senior cat drinking a little more water than usual. As the disease progresses, the cat may have significant water intake and urine output. Kidney failure is diagnosed through lab testing. This condition is irreversible. Treatment is aimed at slowing down the disease. Treatment options are based on the progression of the disease and may include fluid therapy, diet therapy, and supplements. In severe cases, a blood transfusion may be needed.

Diabetes Mellitus

Diabetes Mellitus is caused by a deficiency of insulin in the body. Insulin is necessary to remove glucose (sugar) from the bloodstream. When it is low or absent, there is a buildup of glucose. Normally, the kidneys conserve the bloodstream's glucose, but when they are overwhelmed the glucose spills into the urine in high amounts. Glucose draws water with it and eventually leads to increased thirst and urination.

Diabetes is similar to kidney failure in that clinical signs may be subtle in the beginning. In addition to increased water intake and urine output, a senior cat may experience increased appetite and weight loss. Diabetes Mellitus is diagnosed through bloodwork and urinalysis (examination of the urine). Once diagnosed, your veterinarian will discuss treatment options which will include insulin injections. Also, prescription diets are available. It is possible for a cat to go into remission. So, starting treatment as soon as the condition is diagnosed is important.

Hyperthyroidism

Hyperthyroidism occurs when the thyroid gland secretes thyroid hormones in excess. This is the most common endocrine (glands that secrete hormones) disease in cats, and affects late middle-aged and senior cats. Hyperthyroidism affects the entire body, so owners may not realize there is an issue until the disease has progressed. Clinical signs vary, but most owners report that their cat has a voracious appetite with no weight gain, or loss of weight. The diagnosis is based on bloodwork that reveals elevated thyroid hormone levels. Other testing may be necessary to determine the severity of the disease. Treatment options include anti-thyroid medication, anti-thyroid diet, radioiodine therapy, and in some cases, surgery.

Symptoms of Hyperthyroidism in Older Cats

  • Increased appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Increased Water Intake
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Increased heart rate
  • Hyperactivity
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Aggression

Cancer

It is not uncommon for owners to find a growth or mass somewhere on their cat's body. For some types of cancer, this is the first sign of a problem. Here we will focus on intestinal lymphoma, a type of cancer that affects senior cats. Lymphoma is cancer made up of lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell. Intestinal lymphoma is a distinct growth or group of growths, that infiltrate the delicate membranes of the bowel lining. Cats with intestinal lymphoma usually have a chronic history of weight loss, vomiting, diarrhea, or all three. Appetite can be variable. The most accurate way to diagnose intestinal lymphoma, is to examine a sample of intestinal tissue (biopsy). A diagnosis can be presumed with an ultrasound, if a biopsy cannot be obtained. Treatment is based on the severity of cancer, but chemotherapy is typically recommended. Approximately 70 percent of cats with low-grade lymphoma (the majority) will achieve remission. The average survival time is 23-30 months with chemotherapy treatment.

References

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.