Senior Felines: Purr-fect pets with particular needs!
Hello wonderful pet people, it’s Dr. Michelle the admitted crazy cat lady here.
This month, unsurprisingly, I want to talk about cats! More specifically, I want to talk about our gorgeous senior felines.
Senior felines are such special parts of our families. We usually have them since a tiny kitten, inherited them from family or adopted when in need from a shelter. They have quirky personalities, funny habits, and gentle cuddles. They really work their way into our hearts.
Unfortunately, our senior kitties are very good at hiding when they are sore or unwell until they reach a tipping point. Often once they reach this point, they are very sick, sometimes with irreversible changes.
How can we overcome this? Well that’s what we are here for! To help you look after and provide the best life for your feline friends.
Cats are considered in the senior category from 8-10 years of age. Generally, cats have an expected lifespan from 15-20 years! This means for a good proportion of their life they need some special considerations and attention. This ensures we are meeting their needs and monitoring for some of the more common conditions we see in older patients.
What conditions do we see in senior cats?
Did you know that 40% of all cats have osteoarthritis (OA) and 90% of cats over 12 years have radiographic evidence of OA! It’s actually very common and yet seems to fly under the radar. Signs cats are suffering from OA include not jumping as high as they used to, using intermediate objects to make jumps (ie chair then table) and hesitating before jumping. Other signs might include muscle wastage and wanting to be held less, or even getting cranky!
As our felines age their metabolisms change and (possibly due to some OA) they become less active. This combined with habits like grazing on food all day can make them very prone to weight gain and obesity! This puts them at much higher risk of conditions such as diabetes mellitus, as well as more pressure on their joints and reduced ability to groom.
One of the most silent diseases in cats is hypertension! It’s actually very common with a recent study showing 20% of cats (that’s 1 in 5!) being diagnosed with hypertension. Hypertension can have quite significant detrimental effects such as damaging the kidneys, affecting the heart, causing headaches, behavioural changes, and blindness.
Renal disease is sadly another quite common condition that we see in our feline patients. The kidneys are so important as they excrete waste from the body, reabsorb fluid from filtered blood, maintain the balance of electrolytes and other minerals. Aside from toxins that can cause acute kidney injury, cats can have a slow and progressive loss of the cellular structures that perform all those important functions. By the time we can see changes on testing they have already lost 70% of their kidney’s function! That’s why it’s so important to catch it as early as possible, so we can manage and slow its progression.
Another frustratingly common disease in cats is an overactive thyroid. It is a disease of middle aged and older cats, not usually in cats younger than 7 years old. The thyroid enlarges and produces excess hormones that end up supercharging their metabolism causing side effects such as weight loss despite a ravenous appetite, muscle loss, hypertension, cardiac disease, gastrointestinal upsets and behavioural changes. The good news is, this is one disease we can treat and CURE if we diagnose it.
Of course, dental disease is an issue for all of our patients no matter the age, species or breed BUT we do see a higher prevalence of poor dental health in older patients. Cats also, because they are such unique creatures, are also predisposed to a terrible condition called “feline oral resorptive lesions” where the body eats away at the enamel exposing the sensitive pulp cavity. Those teeth need to be extracted to end the pain.
Another condition seen often in older cats is difficulty passing faeces. This can start slowly and get progressively worse. Cats are not as good at drinking water as dogs and this combined with a loss of gastrointestinal motility as they get older can lead to issues. If they become completely constipated (termed “obstipated) it can be very painful and life threatening
What can we do to monitor these conditions?
Now I am not trying to scare anyone that has these senior cats! Because as I said at the start with some regular veterinary monitoring and close attention from owners we can identify cats with or at risk of these conditions early and allow us to intervene! So what might your veterinarian recommend?
Six monthly health checks
Animals age more quickly than people, so as they get older instead of annual check-ups and vaccinations, we recommend that we see them six monthly (as a minimum). At these visits we will chat with you about any changes you have noticed, discuss diet and lifestyle, and do a full physical exam. Sometimes little clues may appear that we want to further explore.
Blood pressure monitoring
At these six-monthly checks, it is recommended to also check blood pressure given how prevalent it is in older cats. We do this the same way your doctor would with a little blood pressure machine that inflates a cuff around a limb. We do a few readings to get an average, and while cats can have some “white coat syndrome” studies have shown that it only changes pressures slightly so we can still get a very clear picture of whether patients have hypertension.
Wellness blood tests
Blood testing is also such an important diagnostic and monitoring tool. I personally test my senior cats (12 and 13 years now) annually. This allows us to check key organ function, complete blood counts and thyroid hormones. We can detect diseases like diabetes, renal disease, hyperthyroidism, liver disease, anaemia and more.
Not only does this blood test allow us to make diagnoses, but it also allows us to follow trends in organ function, for example the kidneys. If the kidney parameters (waste products extracted by the kidneys when working normally) we monitor are normal but increasing slightly every year- this is a clue we need to intervene and investigate sooner before irreversible damage has occurred. In this example we may change a cat’s diet to a kidney friendly one BEFORE we reach those abnormal levels that indicate 70% loss of kidney function and slow the progression of the disease.
Other recommendations we might make for your senior cat
As in the example above, diet can play an important part in managing feline health. There are diets specifically formulated for older pets, as well as prescription diets for specific conditions such as kidney disease, diabetes, dental prophylaxis, arthritis, obesity and more.
Sometimes we need to make small adjustments around the home for special senior felines. This might include mid-level perches to assist arthritic cats in reaching high spots (especially if they need to be able to have space from young boisterous animal and children). Sometimes they might need to have softer bedding and more beds around the house. Making sure food and water is in easily accessible places.
For those slightly sedentary and obese cats, if not too arthritic, additional playtime in short bursts to try and encourage exercise is a good idea. We might even suggest changing feeding patterns to encourage weight loss.
Honestly lifestyle is important to all pets so we may recommend this regardless of age!
Particularly in the case of arthritic patients, but even those with dental disease, we may suggest pain relief. In the case of arthritic patients, we have more than just oral medications;
• Zydax (pentosan poly-sulphate) is a course of injections we may suggest that help to make the joint fluid more viscous and slow the breakdown of cartilage in the joints,
• Beransa (monoclonal antibody therapy) is another GAMECHAGING injection we have. It acts on nerve growth factor, which is responsible for approximately 80% of the pain signalling in osteoarthritis. A once monthly injection has senior kitties playing like kittens again!
Finally, we often recommend dentistry to patients. It’s something I know owners find scary as they worry about an anaesthetic in older pets. An while it is not without risk, we anaesthetise senior patients regularly and have lots of adjustments in our medication protocols and comprehensive monitoring during the procedure. Periodontal disease and resorptive lesions are so painful and oral infection makes them feel so unwell, its amazing to see how quality of life is improved with dental cleaning and extractions of problem teeth.
I really hope this information helps you understand your senior cats health better, as well as understanding the recommendation we might make for your pet and why. We love to see those special golden oldies, admire their twinkling eyes and appreciate their bond with owners. I personally hope to see you senior cats (all your cats really) soon.