Cats are independent and this makes them very good at hiding signs of ill health. Old cats will be less active and old age itself is not an illness but watching out for subtle changes can help identify any underlying signs of illness.
A common condition in old cats is having an overactive thyroid gland – hyperthyroidism – which typically causes weight loss despite a good or excessive appetite. It can cause heart failure and the weight loss will eventually lead to severe weakness. It is identified using a blood test and is often very treatable.
Dementia can also be a side-effect of hyperthyroidism but age itself can lead to brain deterioration and the development of strange behaviours. In combination with deafness, cats may start to yowl loudly and randomly. Loss of litter training can be dementia-related but may also be due to underlying physical causes. Some supplements or medications may help these symptoms.
Chronic kidney failure becomes more common in old age, leading to irreversible loss of kidney function. Early signs include drinking more but, as many cats choose to drink outside, this may go unnoticed. This will progress until the cat has a reduced appetite and may vomit intermittently. Affected cats are hungry but feel nauseous, so don’t actually eat. A blood/urine test can diagnose this and, in the earlier stages, diet changes and medications can improve symptoms.
Arthritis is also common but frequently under diagnosed. If a cat is sore from arthritis it will stop jumping up on to raised surfaces and will be generally less active. It may become more grumpy due to the ongoing pain and may over-groom in areas of sore joints. Various options are available for pain relief, either orally or by injection.
The reduced activity of older cats can lead to overgrown claws. The claws on the front feet particularly curl round as they grow and will embed themselves in the cat’s food pads causing pain and infection. Regular clipping can prevent this.
Old age often causes hearing and sight loss. Cats with high blood pressure, often secondary to kidney or heart problems, can go blind because of the pressure effects due to retina damage. Blind cats can cope well in their own environment and their blindness may go unnoticed. If identified early through blood pressure testing medication can prevent eye damage.
Cancers also become more common with age. Non-pigmented skin on the ears and face can develop skin cancers which start off as a non-healing or recurring scab and can progress to large ulcers. Using sun block from an early age can prevent this. Surgical removal where possible is usually curative.
Cats can live happily into old age with very little to ail them. However, many are showing subtle signs of illness which will be affecting their quality of life and noticing these can help them get the help they will benefit from.
by Lynn Broom
Longmead Veterinary Practice