Understanding Your Old or Aging Cat
Indoor cats now live an average of 15 years, and it is not uncommon to see cats 18 to 20 years of age. The domestic cat in the wild (sometimes called a feral cat) has a short life expectancy-about 6 years. Accidents, diseases, parasites, the trials of securing food, and the stresses of multiple and frequent pregnancies all contribute to this shortened life. The city cat fares somewhat better, but still contends with infectious diseases, accidents, fights, and sometimes malicious behavior on the part of humans. The indoor pet, being well nourished, vaccinated against infectious diseases, and protected from accidents, fares the best.
Of greatest importance is the care the cat has received throughout her life. Well-cared-for pets suffer fewer infirmities as they grow older. But when sickness, illness, or injury is neglected, the aging process is accelerated.
The Geriatric Checkup
Caring for an older cat is directed at preventing premature aging, minimizing physical and emotional stress, and meeting the special needs of the elderly. Cats older than 7 should have a complete veterinary examination at least once a year-often, twice a year is preferred. If the health of the cat is questionable, she should be seen by a veterinarian more often. If symptoms appear, she should be seen at once.
The annual geriatric checkup should include a physical examination, complete blood count, blood chemistries, stool exam, and urinalysis. Depending on the results, special liver and kidney function tests, a chest X-ray, and an electrocardiogram may also be needed. Some veterinary clinics include checking blood pressure as part of the geriatric exam for cats. Thyroid hormone levels, such as T4, are also important in older cats.
Kidney disease is relatively common in older cats, and a new, simple urine test called Early Renal Disease Healthscreen (ERD) checks for protein leakage into the urine-specifically, albumin. This test may pick up kidney failure very early on so you can take steps to slow its progression.
Routine dental care, including scaling the teeth, may be needed more frequently than once a year.
Danger Signs in the Geriatric Cat
If you see any of the following signs, take your cat to the veterinarian as soon as possible.
- Loss of appetite or weight
- Coughing, shortness of breath, or rapid, labored breathing
- Weakness or difficultly moving about
- Increased thirst and/or frequency of urination
- Change in bowel function with constipation or diarrhea
- Bloody or purulent discharge from a body opening
- An increase in temperature, pulse, or breathing rate
- A growth or lump anywhere on the body
- Any unexplained change in behavior
In general, older cats are more sedentary, less energetic, often less curious, and more restricted in their scope of activity. They adjust slowly to changes in diet, activity, and routine. They are less tolerant of extremes of heat and cold. They seek out warm spots and sleep longer. When disturbed, they are cranky and irritable. Most of these behavior changes are because of physical ailments-diminished hearing and smell, stiffness, and muscular weakness-that restrict a cat's activity and ability to participate in family life. A cat so deprived may withdraw, engage in compulsive self-grooming, or eliminate in places other than the litter box.
Boarding and hospitalization are poorly tolerated in old age. Often, cats left in these situations eat poorly or not at all, become overly anxious or withdrawn, and sleep poorly.
Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome
Cognitive dysfunction syndrome has become a well-known syndrome in geriatric dogs. A similar condition is seen in some older cats. Just as in some older people, the older cat may have memory problems, forget behaviors such as how to use the litter box, and lose some awareness of her surroundings. Some cats will pace, sleep less at night, or walk around crying as if they are lost. Disorientation may be evident in up to 40 percent of cats from 16 to 20 years of age.
First, any medical problems that could cause these changes need to be eliminated. If medical causes can be ruled out, the diagnosis is cognitive dysfunction syndrome.
A drug called L-deprenyl (Anipryl) is approved for use in dogs with this condition, but not for cats at this time. L-deprenyl has been used off label in some cats and seems to be beneficial. A release must be signed to use a drug off label. Research is ongoing into other drugs that will increase the action of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, in the hope that they will help older cats with cognitive dysfunction.
This article is excerpted from “ Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook” with permission from Wiley Publishing, Inc.
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