Considerations in Older Cats By Vet Martha Murphy of The Veterinary Cat Clinic, Edinburgh
It may seem far in the future when we get a new kitten, but the time soon comes around where we start to notice that our cats seem to have aged a little, and are not the spritely little things that they once were. Although the kitten phase is great fun, the more mature years can also be very rewarding. By this time, a strong bond has usually developed between the cat and its owners, and they are just as much part of the family as their human counterparts.
Fortunately, there is now a lot more known about the problems that our ‘senior kitizens’ face, and consequently a lot we can do to help them live in comfort and contentment in their golden years.
This is hugely important. Arthritis is a very common problem in older cats, and often goes unnoticed. Some studies have shown that the start of arthritic changes is seen in significant numbers of cats as young as 6 years old.
So why doesn’t it always get spotted? Unfortunately for us loving owners and vets, cats have a tendency to try to hide pain, as it is in their nature to not appear to be weak or compromised.
As they get older, and their joints get a little stiffer and aches and pains start to develop, cats will gradually stop various activities that no longer feel manageable to them. Many owners on first questioning of their cat’s mobility and comfort levels will say it is excellent. It is only on further questioning – does (s)he still jump up onto all the places (s)he used to? Does (s)he still climb trees? Does (s)he play as much? – that a different picture is revealed. These changes can appear very subtly at first, especially if you are around the cat every day.
There are a lot of ways to help cats who aren’t as agile as they used to be, starting with small changes around the house. This can include
– steps or an improvised version for them to reach all the higher places where they enjoy spending time. Cats get a great deal of security from being up high;
– raising food and water bowls to standing height so they no longer have to crouch to eat, which puts pressure on their elbows. This can easily be done by placing the bowl on top of an old ice-cream tub or the like;
– providing heated bedding especially in the winter. Cats, like humans, are often worse affected in the damp, colder months.
Another thing we can do is give them supplements or medications to help keep the joints supple, and free from aches and pains. There is now a wide variety of these, many of which are in easy to administer formats. If you think your cat may benefit from something like this, it is a great idea to get them checked with your vet. Remember, they may not be showing signs that you might identify as signs of pain; but if you think carefully and compare their activities now to those of a few years ago, you might realise that there has been a change.
One of the great bugbear sentences uttered to vets is, “Oh he’s not in any pain; he’s just stiff”, stated as a little old cat hobbles across the consultation table. It always makes me wonder what the owner thinks is making him stiff, if not aching joints and sore muscles!
Many cats as they get older will develop varying degrees of dental disease. They are less handy with the Colgate than humans, so after ten years or so of not brushing and flossing this is not surprising. Dental problems vary from a mild build-up of plaque to large cavity-like lesions, eroded roots, infections and gingivitis (inflammation of the gums). This can be easily rectified with some dental treatment from your vet, which although usually involves a general anaesthetic and a morning at the clinic, can make a huge difference to their quality of life, and prevent further diseases from occurring. There is a link between dental disease and kidney disease in cats, due to the introduction of oral bacteria into the bloodstream, which can then ‘seed’ on the kidneys (or other organs) causing kidney and bladder infections.
A level of prevention can be provided by feeding one of the specialist dental diets, it does not have to be fed as the sole food, but even adding a little of it to your cat’s regular diet can help.
The most common presenting complaints of older cats are: changes in weight, appetite and thirst. Of course, many different diseases can affect these things but our top three in senior cats are:
– Kidney disease
These illnesses can present in a variety of ways, but invariably affect the appetite, thirst or weight of the cat. They are all manageable and best caught early. They can usually be diagnosed with an examination and a simple blood test. So if you have noticed any changes in these aspects of your cat, a check-up is recommended.
Unfortunately, as animals get older, when signs of illness occur, cancer is something that moves up in the list of likely possibilities. It is a word that often brings with it a lot of fear and upset, but as with human medicine, there have been great advances in cancer treatment in animals too. As with other medical issues, the chances of successful treatment are better when it is caught in the early stages.
A sad topic, but an important one for older cats. It can often make the process easier when the day comes if some consideration has been given to the matter prior to the event; of course this is not always possible in acute situations, but is something that can be thoughtfully planned for older cats with long-term illnesses.
Many vets will come to your house for this, so you don’t have to face other people at the clinic, and your cat can be relaxed as possible in its own environment. They will usually require some notice to arrange this as cover must be ensured for the clinic as well.
There is also the consideration of what your wishes are for the cat after (s)he has passed away. Some people have a favourite spot in the garden where they wish to bury them, while for others this is undesirable or unfeasible. In this case, your vet will be happy to assist with arrangements. Pets are normally sent to a specialised pet crematorium. There are options to have the ashes returned to you, although this does incur a greater cost.
It can be very stressful, especially if the euthanasia was unexpected, to try to make all of these decisions on the day, so it is a good idea to think it over at a non-emotional time, and have an idea of what you would like to happen.
As cats get older, their needs change, and it becomes even more important to monitor their health. Six-monthly or annual veterinary check-ups are a great way to pick up on subtle changes in weight, early signs of disease, and also to discuss prevention.
With the right care, you can keep your feline friends around for many years, and keep them feeling as good as they possibly can at each stage of life, so you can enjoy those years to the fullest together
About the Author.
Martha graduated in 2008 from Edinburgh Vet School. She initially worked in a busy small animal practice in Yorkshire before gaining a variety of experience working as a locum in practices around the UK. She joined The Cat Clinic team in 2010, initially working part-time while she completed the University of Sydney’s post graduate distance learning course in feline medicine before becoming a full time member of the team. Martha has been a cat owner since she was born, and dreamed of being a feline vet since she was a toddler. She is intrigued by all things cat, & is self-confessed “cat crazy”! She currently has an adopted rescue cat named “Alfie” who was born deaf, which gives him some curious personality quirks such as staring very intently at people, and chasing the noisy hoover!