Eight Major Health Concerns for Senior Cats

Veterinarian Jeremy Grossbard says the buzzwords for aging pets is “senior at seven.” But you may not notice any changes until years later.

 |  Mar 1st 2012  |   0 Contributions


Your kitty is all grown up, and so are her health needs. Even though she may not have you playing cat-and-mouse as much these days, paying attention to the changing wellness issues at paw is very important.

Health Concerns in Older Cats

Veterinarian Jeremy Grossbard says the buzzwords for aging pets is “senior at seven.” This serves as a recommendation for when to start approaching your cat’s health care from a different perspective, but doesn’t necessarily mean your cat is actually considered a senior. You may not notice any changes until years later.

“The most important thing for when pets hit the senior years is getting regular, thorough health exams and baseline bloodwork,” he explains. Bringing your cat to your vet for regular checkups and conversations about your pet’s well-being will help catch potential problems earlier and make preventative health care measures more effective.

Here are some of the most common health issues for senior cats and what you can do to help. It’s important to talk with your vet before acting on any of your concerns, and go in immediately if you notice any sudden or drastic changes in your pet’s health. Words of wisdom from Dr. Grossbard: “Age is not a disease! Just because we’re older, it doesn’t mean that we’re sick.” Your smart cat probably already told you that, though.

Obesity

Appropriate diet and exercise are important throughout your cat’s life. “I’m not so concerned about what my patients weigh, I’m more concerned about what they look like relative to their size," Grossbard says. "Ideally, we want to be able to run our hands down the back and be able to feel the ridges of the spine. Going down the sides of the chest, we want to feel the bumps of the ribs. If you can’t feel the spine, your pet is too heavy.” There are other things your vet may evaluate as well to determine if your pet’s weight is appropriate.

The most common cause of cat obesity is an imbalance in diet and exercise. “In general, combating obesity is done by increasing activity and decreasing caloric intake. It’s a basic equation,” he explains. He typically recommends a strict dry food diet, without canned food, and treats and snacks in moderation.

If you have been overfeeding your cat, you may experience some backlash over a healthier diet change. Dr. Grossbard calls it “tough love”: It won’t be fun, but you need to make a change for your cat’s health. He recommends keeping the rituals of treat giving, for example, but making swaps to keep it healthier. “It potentially doesn’t matter what the treat is, it’s the ritual. Rather than a high-fat, high-calorie treat, try a single kibble.” This lets you keep the loving activity without the extra fat and calories.

In general, the more exercise your pet can get, the healthier she will be. Encouraging cat exercise can be more difficult than taking a dog for a walk, for example, but spend that time doing active play with your cat. Get a feather toy and play chase or pull out the favorite swatting ball. It’s all about meeting your pet’s individual needs and creating a routine.

Underlying health issues are another potential cause of obesity. It’s very important to have regular vet checkups to detect these issues early. Thyroid disorder and endocrine and hormonal problems can cause your cat to be overweight. Treating these underlying issues appropriately can often achieve weight loss without changes in diet and exercise. A vet will be able to tell you with some basic bloodwork if your pet requires some “tough love” or some additional treatment -– or both. Remember, always consult with your vet before making changes to your cat’s lifestyle. 

Arthritis

Arthritis is a common senior cat ailment. Symptoms can include stiffness when walking, especially after sleeping, difficulty going upstairs, or missing a target when jumping. If you notice these symptoms, go in to your vet to get your cat checked.

Many vets recommend a glucosamine supplement once your cat has reached seven years of age. Dr. Grossbard says, “Think of it as being a lubricant. It helps bones glide more smoothly against each other and decreases the severity of arthritis development over time.” Essentially, glucosamine gives nutritional support to cartilage and slows joint degeneration. Your vet can recommend the appropriate kind, and it’s important to follow those recommendations. Human glucosamine supplements are not as effective for pets.

At home, you can give your cat stairs up to the couch or bed and get a lower-set jungle gym to make jumping less strenuous. It’s also helpful to have a bed or mat on the first floor to let your pet rest comfortably during the day.

Lipomas

These fatty, well-defined lumps under the skin are common in older-aged cats. They are almost always benign, meaning they won’t spread to other parts of the body. Dr. Grossbard says, “They are more of a cosmetic problem than a medical problem,” but still recommends you get any bumps examined by your vet. A rapid change in size or consistency is concerning and warrants immediate removal and biopsy. If your vet has checked out the bump and it’s not changing and not bothering your pet, it’s likely removal isn’t needed. However, if the lipoma is in a bothersome location like the armpit and rubs when your cat walks, removal is recommended.

Cancer

Leukemia, or cancer of the blood, is primarily a concern for kittens, but cancerous lumps and bumps can show up later in life. There are many potential causes, including the aforementioned lipomas, so getting regular checkups and investigating any new or rapidly developing lumps is very important. Any wound or sore that doesn’t heal also needs attention fast. If you are concerned about something, go in to your vet.

Kidney Disease and Renal Failure

This nearly silent killer is the number one natural cause of death in cats. Dr. Grossbard warns that by the time your cat is showing symptoms, like voiding frequently, missing the litter box, and drinking excessive amounts of water, it is likely that there is already significant damage to the kidneys.

Some amount of kidney disease is normal with older cats, but appropriate treatment starts with regular checkups. Your vet can determine an appropriate approach, including plenty of water, vitamin and dietary supplements and other measures to prevent extensive damage. With advanced kidney failure, options include dialysis, IV fluids, and even organ transplant surgery. The most important thing you can do for your cat is get regular vet checkups and bloodwork to catch symptoms and prevent damage as much as possible.

Vision and Hearing Loss

It’s normal for all cats to experience some changes in their vision and hearing as they age, just as humans do. Their night vision won’t be as clear and they may not hear quiet noises as well. Your cat’s eyes may even look a bit cloudy with age, which Dr. Grossbard says is normal with age-related vision loss and doesn’t necessarily indicate cataracts. If your pet is running into things or seems afraid to move, see your vet immediately. This can also be a sign that a retina has detached, which needs immediate attention. With cataracts, a vet eye specialist can remove the cataract and improve your cat’s vision significantly. They may also recommend special eye drops.

At home, you can keep nightlights on, especially around corners or in favorite nooks. Keep staircases illuminated to help prevent nighttime falls and try moving play areas into more open, well-lit spaces to encourage more active play. The better your cat can see, the less it will impact playtime and other important aspects of life.

Dementia

All dogs and cats can experience a degree of dementia in their lifetime. Symptoms are more commonly noticed at night than during the day. Your pet may sleep more in the daytime and pace and cry at night. He may stare into space, unaware of his surroundings and cry and act more nervous at these times. You may also notice a change in eating patterns or a loss of housebreaking. Dementia cannot be reversed, but you can typically slow the progression with dietary supplements or medications. Speak with your vet on an individual basis for a customized plan, since each pet’s experience is very different. It’s important to be loving and patient with your pet, as this is a confusing time for them, too.

Dental Health

Your furry friend may act like everything is under control, thank you very much, but it’s important for your cat’s teeth to be evaluated and cleaned regularly. Your vet can recommend the best options. Dr. Grossbard encourages pet dental care, saying, “Significant dental disease can lead to infections that spread to other parts of your pet’s body.” Simple preventative measures can make dental care much easier later on.

Extra Tips for When to Contact Your Vet Immediately

Here are Dr. Grossbard’s top reasons to contact your vet ASAP about your senior cat. If you are ever concerned about something, see your vet.  Below are just some of the most common reasons to go in quickly, but always follow your gut instinct if you think there is a problem.

Sudden behavioral changes

Refusing to eat for 48 hours

Vomiting if more than once or twice in 24 hours, or several times in a row

Loose stool for 48 hours

Constipation -– if your cat is attempting to go but can’t, go in ASAP. If he isn’t straining or acting constipated, 24 to 48 hours without a bowel movement is not unreasonable.

Hair loss -– this is not normal and is suggestive of an underlying hormonal problem, immune system issue or development of an allergy. 

Loss of housebreaking 

Concern over accidental ingestion: If you think your cat may have eaten something toxic, go to the vet ASAP.

The most important takeaway is to get regular health exams and blood work for your cat. Setting a baseline and promoting early detection is important for preventing and appropriately managing many wellness issues.

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