How adorable would it be to see a teensy doll-sized blood pressure cuff around your cat’s arm during your annual vet visit?
What? You’ve never seen such a thing? They exist, trust me! Not all veterinarians use them, though. So if you haven’t seen one, no worries. Chances are your vet is still monitoring your cat’s blood pressure. Just not where you can see it.
If your cat’s blood pressure hasn’t been on your radar, let me give you a good reason to add it to the list, especially as your cat ages. High blood pressure – called hypertension – is really common in older cats, and the risk of having it increases when they have kidney or thyroid disease. It’s the leading cause of blindness in older cats.
Many veterinarians use surgical monitors to check blood pressure. When your cat is anesthetized, this functions as it should, monitoring your cat and ensuring she remains healthy during a medical procedure.
Unfortunately during a wellness visit this may mean your cat will be taken out of the exam room and away from you. Removing her from the only familiar thing she currently has – you – will immediately stress her out, especially if it occurs just after you arrive. A stressed-out kitty might equal higher-than-normal blood pressure readings.
“When you take a blood pressure reading, and where, are critical for accuracy,” says Dr. Eliza Sundahl, owner and chief medical officer at the KC Cat Clinic and a past president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners. “Minimize the stress anomaly as much as you can. Then, once a cat is moved into a room, give them five minutes or so to settle in before taking a reading.”
As far as where to take it, she advises leaving the cat where it is most comfortable.
“Often, cats feel much more safe and secure inside their carrier when visiting the vet,” she says.
Blood pressure should be measured wherever the cat will be comfortable and still.
Most of us are accustomed to seeing human blood pressure readings. They’re written in this form: 120/80, systolic over diastolic. But do you know you can’t even get a diastolic reading on a cat with the devices in your vet’s office? At least not one that’s verifiable.
Getting the first number isn’t all that easy, either. In fact, there’s a real art to finding a blood vessel in a cat. If you’re off even a millimeter, you’ve lost it.
“How you take a reading is just as important as when and where you do it,” Sundahl advised. “In order to get an accurate systolic reading, we use a tiny cuff — the kind often used in neonatal intensive care units — combined with an ultrasound Doppler listening device to hear with. We use headphones when we do it, in order to pick up that faint heartbeat in the vein.”
That’s right: a stethoscope can’t pick up a cat’s blood pressure.
If your cat is aging into the double-digit range, getting a baseline blood pressure is important.
“One of the most common illnesses found in older cats is kidney disease, and around 25 percent of these will also be hypertensive,” says Sundahl. “When you consider that one year is equivalent to four years of aging, things can change quickly. I absolutely see cats that are fine, fine, fine … and then boom! They’re suddenly not.”
She prefers to see geriatric cats twice a year — something recommend by the AAFP — to stay on top of sudden changes that can occur.
“Sadly, cats don’t get in to see the vet as often as dogs do,” she added. “We’d like to change that.”
Your cat’s ideal blood pressure while at home should be below 140-150.
While it might be higher under a stressful situation such as a visit to the vet, Sundahl says that many cats have nice, normal low blood pressures when coming in, even the ones who are really scared and upset. So if the blood pressure is elevated at all, it should be retaken during a follow-up visit if the reading is questionable.
And yes, with a cat, you don’t take one reading. You take three to five, sometimes as many as 10 if you’re riding a downward trend, before the readings normalize.
The cat’s state of mind needs to be factored in as well, because a cat who continues to exhibit extreme stress will have a higher-than-normal reading. Especially when just the act of inflating the cuff around the cat’s arm can cause it to spike.
In the end, a vet who knows how to take a good blood pressure reading will take a number of them, throw out the top and bottom reading and average the rest.
If it’s between 150 and 160, the readings are considered questionable, and it should be rechecked in at least six months or sooner to be sure it’s not rising. If the average reading is between 160 and 180 and your vet indicates that’s a believable number, then the cat is at moderate risk of organ damage. This is the time to start treatment.
If blood pressure is 180 or above, the cat is at severe risk of tissue damage, so it’s important to catch it before it gets that high and begin treatment.
Fortunately, treatment is fairly straightforward. The medication is inexpensive, and a standard dose for a cat is so small it can easily be buried in a treat, or a favorite bite of wet food.
“Understanding the role blood pressure can play in a cat’s health is something that has been discussed and recommended for about 15 years,” Sundahl says. “Many veterinarians are just now wrapping their heads around the importance of getting an accurate reading — and all that entails. The AAFP’s Senior Care Guidelines lists recommendations for general practitioners to follow about blood pressure as well as many more older cat concerns.”
The next time one of my cats has a wellness visit, I will ask about my cat’s blood pressure. I will also ask my vet how it is measured. And if staff members take my cat to the back, I will politely ask they bring the unit into the exam room and take it where my cat is most comfortable: in his carrier.
If they have to take my cat back and use equipment that cannot be brought into the room, I will ask to go with my cat and keep him in the carrier or in my lap. I may even ask the office to consider purchasing a Doppler ultrasound unit. After all, I’m the only advocate my cats have, the only voice that will speak up for them. And I intend to do everything I can to keep them around for a very, very long time.
Read more cool cat science stuff by Lisa Richman:
About Lisa Richman: Writer, director, pilot, foodie, cat person. When she’s not on set, this director of film and video can usually be found taking photos of cats (and food) with her trusty Nikon, or cruising aloft at 3,000 feet. She’s cat mom to an opinionated Tonkinese, a hearing-impaired Siamese, and a feline fashionista. She’s also the owner of a recently launched humor blog, and the Cat Writer’s 2014 Entertainment Blog, A Tonk’s Tail.