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How to Recognize the 10 Most Common Ailments of Senior Cats

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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 make sure they get 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. That being said, as cats age, they experience changes in their bodies that can contribute to illness. For example, compared to younger cats, the immune system of older cats is less able to fend off foreign invaders. Chronic diseases often associated with aging can impair immune function even further. Dehydration, a consequence of many diseases common to older cats, further diminishes blood circulation and immunity. As well, the skin of an older cat is thinner and less elastic, has reduced blood circulation, and is more prone to infection.

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 10 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. Stomatitis is a type of dental disease that creates swelling and ulcers in the mouth. As you can imagine, it’s quite painful and can prevent your cat from eating. If your cat is also drooling and is experiencing weight loss, 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. Treatment options range from steroids (prednisone) to antibiotics if an infection has set in, professional cleaning under general anesthesia, to tooth removal – the most dramatic course of action. Your veterinarian can recommend the best course of treatment.

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.

9) High Blood Pressure

This health issue doesn’t just affect humans. Senior cats can suffer from high blood pressure and it can be serious if left untreated. It’s also known as hypertension and can affect your cat’s organs and cause a seizure, blindness, and other debilitating conditions. It often accompanies other diseases, so getting at the source is important. If your cat is diagnosed with high blood pressure, your veterinarian may recommend medication or a diet change or both.

10) General Decline

Older cats groom themselves less effectively than do younger cats, sometimes resulting in hair matting, skin odor, and inflammation. Older cats may not use scratching posts as frequently as they did when they were younger, therefore, nails should be checked weekly and trimmed if necessary. Sometimes the claws of aging felines are overgrown, thick, and brittle and may need special care.

In humans, changes in the brain brought on through aging contribute to a loss of memory and alterations in personality commonly referred to as senility. Similar symptoms may be seen in elderly cats: wandering, excessive meowing, apparent disorientation, and avoidance of social interaction.

Hearing loss is common in cats of advanced age as a result of various factors, and changes in the eyes can also occur. A slight haziness of the lens and a lacy appearance to the iris (the colored part of the eye) are both common age-related changes, but neither seems to decrease a cat’s vision to any appreciable extent. However, several diseases, especially those associated with high blood pressure, can seriously and irreversibly impair a cat’s ability to see.

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 demeanor.
  • 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.
    -Urinalysis
    -Thyroid hormone level
    -Blood pressure
  • A Routine Wellness Care review that includes parasite control, vaccinations, dental care and Weight management.

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