Whilst most cats are expected to live until their mid-teens, working as a vet in practice, it is not uncommon for me to see cats well into their twenties. So what conditions should we be looking out for in cats as they grow older?
Hyperthyroidism is a disease affecting the thyroid gland, causing it to produce too much thyroid hormone. Too much thyroid hormone speeds up metabolism and puts extra strain on the heart. Cats affected by hyperthyroidism typically have a ravenous appetite, rapid weight loss and a very fast heart rate. Due to the extra work on the heart, they may develop secondary heart-related problems.
Hyperthyroidism is usually diagnosed via a simple blood test and is often treated surgically or medically, though radiation therapy may be another treatment option.
Kidney disease is often the result of a chronic degeneration of kidney tissue. Unfortunately, kidneys are unable to repair themselves, so when they become damaged the changes are permanent.
Kidneys act as a filtering system, removing waste products from the body and eliminating them via the urine, and they are also responsible for conserving body water. When they become damaged, the waste products build up within the body and more body water is lost into the urine. Often the first symptom you will notice is your cat drinking a lot more water and passing a greater amount of urine. Over time, this may progress to weight loss, a reduced appetite, vomiting, diarrhoea, lethargy and anaemia.
A blood test along with a urine sample is usually sufficient to detect kidney disease. Unfortunately, there is no 'cure' for the disease, but through diet control, supplements and some new medications now available, it may be possible to slow the speed of kidney degeneration and improve the quality of life for your cat.
Hyperthyroidism and kidney disease are both fairly well-known conditions of older cats, but did you know that both of these conditions may lead to high blood pressure, or hypertension?
Hypertension can also occur alone, and if untreated, it may cause blindness, disorientation and seizures. Treatment usually involves addressing any underlying conditions and using medication to reduce the blood pressure.
Many cats develop arthritis as they age. Spotting the signs of arthritis can be quite tricky as cats like a quiet life and tend to spend a large part of the day sleeping! But resting more may be a sign that your cat is uncomfortable.
Look out for other symptoms, such as difficulty jumping onto furniture, reluctance to climb stairs or use a cat flap, stiffness when walking and difficulty grooming. There are treatment options available to help ease any discomfort your cat may be feeling – your vet will be happy to discuss these with you.
Diabetes tends to occur more commonly in overweight cats and interestingly, if treated early, in some cases it is possible for a cat diagnosed with diabetes to recover.
Diabetes occurs when the body is unable to absorb glucose from the bloodstream. Absorption of glucose requires a hormone called insulin. If there is a lack of insulin, or if the body is unable to respond to insulin, glucose will build up in the bloodstream and diabetes will develop.
As an owner, you might notice your cat is drinking large volumes of water, urinating more frequently and wanting more food. Over time, you might notice that your cat has lost weight.
Testing for diabetes involves collecting both a blood and a urine sample from your cat. If diabetes is confirmed, treatment is via daily insulin injections and diet control. Your vet will be able to talk you through the treatment – although they are a commitment, insulin injections are not as scary as they sound!
Most cats will need treatment for dental disease over the course of their life. It is very common for cats to develop problems with their teeth and gums which can be extremely uncomfortable and affect their ability to eat. If your cat will allow you to, look for redness of the gums, bleeding, build up of tartar and bad breath – but don't risk getting bitten or injured! A cat with sore mouth may resent being examined, so if in doubt, make an appointment with your vet for a check up.
Heart disease may develop secondary to another disease process, such as hyperthyroidism, or as a primary condition. A heart murmur can sometimes be heard on examination. If diagnosed early, progression of the problem can be slowed with the use of medication, but ultimately, congestive heart failure may develop whereby fluid collects on the chest and the heart struggles to pump blood effectively.
Early signs of heart disease can be difficult to spot, but watch out for laboured breathing and panting after exercise or periods of stress. Again, although not curable, use of medications can improve the symptoms of heart disease.
Cats, just like other animals, can be affected by various types of cancer. They may present as visible external tumours or may occur internally and be much more difficult to detect. The symptoms will depend on which type of cancer it is and which organs are involved, and treatment may or may not be successful, again depending on the type of cancer.
So, what can we do to help our ageing cats?
Regular veterinary check-ups are very important in the older cat - a good recommendation would be for your cat to visit your vet twice a year, though your vet may advise more frequent health checks if appropriate. These health checks will involve an examination and weight check, and your vet may advise testing blood and urine samples and checking your cat's blood pressure.
In addition to these regular health checks, make an appointment with your vet if you notice any changes to your cat's normal behaviour or routine. Early detection of disease will increase the chance of it being successfully managed, enabling your cat to live a comfortable and happy life!