How to Recognize the 8 Most Common Ailments of Senior Cats

Over the years I have been lucky enough to be pet parent to many felines who lived well past 16. Although I think we’d all agree it’s a blessing to have our pets for as long as we can, caring for an aging pet is not for the faint of heart. When age-related illness strikes it can be pretty swift and often carry devastating results. I have two 16-year olds, one 14 year old and one who will turn 10 this year and if experience has taught me anything, it’s to get them in to my vet for a senior cat exam so that we can spot health issues early-on and take the necessary steps to keep illness at bay.

Because our felines are still part of the animal kingdom, the rule of “predator or prey” exists and cats will often hide any illness or discomfort so as to not appear vulnerable. It’s up to us as diligent pet parents to notice changes in behavior and react accordingly. To help in the quest to keep our feline fur-kids happy and healthy in their senior years, here are eight health issues common in older cats, and how to spot the signs:

Related: Playtime Tips for Your Senior Cat

1. Kidney Disease

Not uncommon in cats, kidney failure is the result of age or injury and means the organ is no longer filtering waste products from your cat’s urine but sending it into her blood stream. Symptoms can include weight loss, an increase in urine volume, bad breath and thirst. If caught early, your vet can prescribe a diet that is low in protein, sodium and phosphorus and includes Omega-3 fatty acids that can help slow the progress of this disease.

2. Liver Disease

The upside is that the liver is a regenerative organ that can often heal itself from injury and disease. Signs your cat is suffering from liver disease can include vomiting, loss of appetite, abdominal distension and pale or yellowed gums. Your vet needs to be involved in prescribing a course of treatment that may include antibiotics to help with secondary infections, diuretics to reduce abdominal swelling and daily supplements such as a water soluble form of Vitamin K, B12 and Vitamin E.

Related: How Feline Behavior Can Change with Age

3. Heart Disease

Like humans, the heart muscle in cats can become diseased with age and unable to pump blood. Known as congestive heart failure, the most common form of this disease is cardiomyopathy which can be genetic in cats and tends to impact primarily males. Warning signs include an intolerance to activity (labored and increased rate of breathing) and paralysis of rear legs. Your vet will look for abnormalities of the heart through an electrocardiogram or enlargement / thickening of the heart walls through an ultrasound before prescribing treatment.

4. Diabetes

Diabetes is your cat’s inability to produce enough insulin to balance blood sugar, or glucose, levels. Cats at risk tend to be inactive and overweight with the first signs of diabetes presenting as increased thirst and heavy urination. With my diabetic cat, I first noticed the clumping litter was incredibly sticky as a result of the elimination of the sugars in his urine. Your vet can run blood tests to make a formal diagnosis and treatment can be as simple as a low-carb diet or a more complex daily insulin therapy.

5. Arthritis

Extremely common in older cats, arthritis is a painful condition that can cause your pet to become less active, sleep more and appear unkempt because it hurts too much to groom. It typically impacts shoulders, hips, elbows, knees and ankles and your pet’s reluctance to be active should never be considered as just a normal sign of aging. While arthritis can’t be cured, it can be treated and once diagnosed your vet can prescribe a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to help with pain management.

6. Hyperthyroidism

This disease is one of the more easily identifiable diseases in older cats because it pairs increased appetite with sudden and dramatic weight loss. With hyperthyroidism your cat’s thyroid gland goes into overdrive and produces an excess of the hormone thyroxine, which increases her metabolism. Diagnosis can be done by your vet through blood-work and managed on an out-patient basis with drugs that can inhibit the production of thyroid hormones.

7. Periodontal Disease

Smelly breath is the first sign something is wrong in your pet’s mouth. Coupled with difficulty in eating, drooling and weight loss and it’s almost certain you’re dealing with dental issues. It’s not an uncommon ailment for cats of all ages, but it is painful and can rapidly become serious for senior cats. Your vet can advise on the most appropriate course of treatment, which may include extractions, antibiotics if infection has set in and professional cleaning under general anaesthesia.

8. Cancer

The “Big C” is a word every pet parent dreads and because senior cats can often be battling a number of diseases at the same time it can be difficult to immediately diagnose. While symptoms are specific to the type of cancer, they can include abnormal swelling that doesn’t go down, weight loss, difficulty eating or swallowing, difficulty breathing and sores that do not heal. Get your feline into your vet to get a proper diagnosis and to begin a program of treatment that will rid her of the disease or help her manage the pain.

At the end of the day, older cats need to have a senior cat exam on an annual basis (sometimes every six months depending on the outcome). I would strongly recommend that even if your budget doesn’t allow for this type of testing each year, you have it done once so that you can get the “lay of the land” and make any necessary adjustments to your pet’s diet and health care routine.

Senior Cat Examinations will include:

  • A lifestyle history on your pet to establish her eating habits, activity levels, overall demeanour.
  • A complete physical exam from tip to stern that will include feeling for lumps, bumps, sores, reactions, odors – anything that doesn’t seem right.
  • A Minimum Database testing that will include:
    -Complete Blood Count (CBC)
    -Chemistry Screening – To evaluate kidney, liver, sugar etc.
    -Thyroid hormone level
    -Blood pressure
  • A Routine Wellness Care review that includes parasite control, vaccinations, dental care and Weight management.