Advances in veterinary medicine have helped to increase the life span of many cats. Better research and development of proper diets, coupled with better treatments and management for many emerging and chronic diseases have made it not so uncommon for cats to live to 17 years of age- and well beyond. By becoming aware of special concerns and health problems in older cats, you can help to ensure your cat continues to thrive well into his or her senior years.
The old standby for comparing a cats age to a humans age is for each cat year, it is 7 human years. In fact, cats early development takes about two years, making them at age two the approximate equivalent of a 21 year old person. Thereafter, each calendar year of life is approximately four cat years. An 8-year-old cat is like a 45-year-old human, a 14-year-old cat is 69 years old, and a 20-year-old cat is actually 94 in cat years. The actual age when a cat is considered geriatric varies, but most accept to be between 8 and 10 years of age.
Annual exams with your veterinarian are a necessary part of keeping your pet healthy at any age. Especially with older cats, physical exams every 6 months can help to catch problems before they become serious. Remember, every calendar year is equivalent to 4 cat years- so if your cat only visits the vet once a year, it is the same as if your 75 year old parent only visited the doctor every 4 years- which we all know is not a good idea!
Bi-annual physical exams with your veterinarian can help to assess all facets of your cats health. Weighing your cat, your veterinarian will be able to keep track of your cats physical condition, and take note if your cat begins loosing or gaining weight. Significant weight loss or gain in older cats is often the first sign of a health problem, followed by changes in appetite, water consumption, a change in the consistency or frequency of feces, or increased amount of, or effort involved in urination. If your older cat begins to exhibit any of these symptoms, regardless of how long ago his last exam was, it is imperative for your veterinarian to assess your pet.
The most common health problems in older cats include hyperthyroidism, renal disease and failure, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease and dental disease. Fortunately, all of these conditions can be managed with current veterinary medicine, allowing affected cats to live longer, healthier lives.
Renal (kidney) disease and failure is one of the leading causes of death in cats. While kidney failure is a common condition to older cats, early detection and management has allowed cats with renal failure to live many years past their initial diagnosis. The kidneys are responsible for filtering the blood, separating waste products out, and expelling them through the urine. This is essential to life, and is a constant process in the body. A combination of many factors, including diet, genetic predisposition, injury and age can begin to cause parts of the kidneys to cease functioning. As kidney function decreases, waste products begin to accumulate in the cat, causing weight loss, decreased appetite, depression, increased thirst and urination and dehydration.
Because the kidneys will function at almost normal levels until at least 70% of their function has been lost, often by the time symptoms of kidney disease appear in your cat, they have already progressed to severe kidney failure. As your cat ages, routine blood work and urine analysis to assess the kidney and other major organ function can detect kidney disease before severe damage is done. Special diets can be prescribed to lessen the workload of the kidneys and support function, as well as encouraging water drinking to naturally filter the blood. Even in cats with later-stage kidney disease, diet changes and administration of daily fluids under the skin can help to extend the life of the kidneys, and many cats can live for months and often years with such assistance.
Diabetes in cats is rapidly become a more commonly diagnosed condition. In normal animals, the pancreas produce the hormone insulin, which works to allow the sugars ingested via food (glucose) to travel to the cells of the body, providing energy. However diabetic cats either cease to produce sufficient quantities of insulin, or their bodies stop responding properly to their insulin, decreasing the amount of “food” the cells of the body are able to absorb. The body begins to be starved of energy, and the first sign of diabetes, a ravenous appetite, develops as nature tries to compensate for the lack of energy. Unable to be absorbed, the kidneys work overtime to void the body of excess glucose, causing increased thirst and urination.
Cats that are diagnosed diabetic can often be easily managed with a combination of diet change and supplemental insulin injections. Feeding specially prepared low-carbohydrate diets can significantly lower the bodies need for insulin, and variations in blood-sugar levels are minimized, allowing easier blood sugar regulation. Daily administration of insulin is often the only medication affected cats need, and cats with well-controlled diabetes often can live just as long as their unaffected counterparts.
A disease common to older cats, hyperthyroidism is caused by the thyroid gland becoming over-active. The thyroid gland produces the hormones T4 and T3 to control metabolism, but when production increases it can cause an array of problems for cats. Affected cats typically loose a significant amount of weight over a short period of time despite an increased appetite, and can suffer from increased thirst and urination, vomiting, diarrhea, a rapid heartbeat, high blood pressure and even behavior changes. Diagnosed via blood test, hyperthyroidism can be easily controlled with daily medication, and cats can live virtually normal lives with this condition.
Other common health problems in older cats include inflammatory bowel disease (an increase in inflammatory cells of the lining of the intestine, leading to poor absorption of nutrients, vomiting, diarrhea and even development of lymphoma, a type of cancer), and dental disease.
For any cat in his or her golden years, your careful attention to their physical appearance, behavior and habits can help to identify a potential health problem before it can become serious. In addition, bi-annual health exams with your veterinarian can ensure that your cat is given every opportunity to live a long, healthy life.