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VET SPEAK: Elderly cats can be good at hiding what's wrong with them


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Cats are living longer and are good at masking what's wrong with them but there are signs to look out for.
Cats are living longer and are good at masking what's wrong with them but there are signs to look out for.

Ember was a much-loved, petite, long-haired cat, full of character. Aged 13, her owners brought her into the surgery as they were concerned about some changes in her behaviour. She had been pacing constantly and repeatedly crying for food. Despite her voracious appetite she was also losing weight.

Just as people are living longer, thanks to better nutrition and good veterinary and home care our cats lives have been extended too. In recent years, feline ages and life-stages have been redefined with cats now considered elderly at 11 years old, senior cats defined as those aged 11-14 and geriatric cats 15 and up.

Although many complex changes accompany advancing years, age, in and of itself, is not a disease. Even though many conditions are not correctable, they can often be medically managed, supported and controlled.

The key to making sure your older cat has the highest quality of life possible, is to recognise and reduce any factors that may be health risks, such as weight gain and dental disease, maintain the health of the body’s systems and detect and manage any disease process early.

Symptoms of senility may also be seen: wandering, excessive meowing, apparent disorientation and avoidance of social interaction.

Examples of common age-related disease processes in older cats are kidney disease (very common with varied symptoms including loss of appetite, increased thirst and weight loss); degenerative joint disease and osteoarthritis (although most arthritic cats don’t become obviously “lame” they may become quite stiff and so have some difficulty gaining access to litter boxes and food and water dishes, particularly if they have to jump up or climb stairs to get to them); hyperthyroidism (often resulting in over activity, hypertension – high blood pressure – and a noted weight loss despite having a ravenous appetite); diabetes mellitus (often diagnosed in previously overweight older cats, with symptoms of increased thirst and weight loss); pancreatitis and inflammatory bowel disease (causing symptoms of loss of appetite, weight loss, vomiting and diarrhoea); dental disease; and cancers.

The immune system of older cats is also less able to fend off infections.

Their skin is thinner, less elastic and more prone to infection. Older cats groom themselves less effectively, sometimes resulting in severe hair matting leading to underlying skin inflammation and infection. Also, the claws of ageing cats are often overgrown, thick and brittle. So regular grooming and nail trimming are advised for older cats.

Symptoms of senility may also be seen: wandering, excessive meowing, apparent disorientation and avoidance of social interaction.

Changes in the eyes are common, often with slight “haziness” of the lens noted. Also, several disease processes, especially those associated with accompanying high blood pressure, can suddenly cause blindness.

Cats are real experts at hiding illness. Sadly, it is quite common for an older cat to have a serious problem yet not show any obvious sign until the condition is quite advanced. Never assume any changes you see in your older cat are simply due to “old age”, and therefore untreatable.

Ember’s blood tests revealed she had hyperthyroidism and she was started on a daily oral tablet medication which she responded to very well.

Alison Laurie-Chalmers is a senior consultant with Crown Vets in Inverness.


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