By Jessica Vogelsang, DVM
“Cats are the great pretenders.” So goes one of the common tropes of feline ownership, and in many cases it’s true. Cats are subtle creatures, not ones for making a big scene whenever they feel under the weather. But subtle or not, cats are susceptible to just as many symptoms of aging as the rest of us, particularly as they approach their senior years. The good news is astute pet owners looking for small changes can spot many signs of aging as long as they know what to look for.
Vision Problems in Cats
Eye problems in aging cats can present as a primary condition or secondary to a larger health issues. Some of the most common primary eye conditions in cats are trauma, cancers, and glaucoma (increased intraocular pressure).
The eyes are the window to the soul, but they are also the window to the cardiovascular system. Ocular disease may present secondary to another primary condition such as elevated blood pressure. Hypertension is often seen in cats suffering from hyperthyroidism and/or kidney disease. This may present as engorged retinal blood vessels noted during a physical exam, or in severe cases a detached retina, observed by owners as sudden blindness or decrease in vision.
Any of the following signs warrant a trip to the vet for a close examination:
- Pawing at the eye or excessive blinking
- Engorged blood vessels in the sclera, or whites of the eyes
- Pupils that remain dilated even in high light, or are two different sizes
- Bumping into objects or other signs of decreased vision
- Cloudiness or visible debris in the front of the eye
Kidney Disease in Cats
Kidney disease is one of the leading causes of illness in senior cats. You may initially notice an increase in drinking and urination as the kidneys lose their ability to concentrate urine. As the disease progresses, cats lose weight and their appetite as toxins accumulate in the blood. Although kidney (renal) failure is irreversible, early detection and specially designed kidney diets can slow progression of the disease.
Conversely, a sudden lack of urination can also be a sign of serious kidney disease or urethral obstruction. When a cat cannot urinate it’s considered an emergency situation which requires immediate veterinary attention.
Dental Disease in Cats
While visible tartar and periodontal disease are significant findings in felines, they are susceptible to a dental problem even more severe. Between 30 and 70 percent of adult cats will experience feline tooth resorption, a poorly understood disease that causes the body to dissolve teeth at the roots. This very painful condition may go unnoticed as the visible crowns above the gumline may appear perfectly normal, even with the roots crumbling away.
Regular dental cleaning at the veterinarian is essential to maintain periodontal health, but so is taking dental radiographs. This is the only way to definitively diagnose tooth resorption. Older cats who appear reluctant to eat, drool, or appear to have difficulty chewing should be evaluated promptly.
Lumps and Bumps in Cats
Cancer is well described in most mammals, a genetic consequence of the aging process. Cats are no exception. Some types occur more commonly than others: white cats, for example, are more susceptible to squamous cell carcinomas in the unpigmented regions of the nose and ears, while certain types of vaccines have been associated with soft tissue sarcoma. It can strike any cat at any time, however. If you notice an unusual lump or mass on your cat, have it evaluated by your vet.
Weight Changes in Cats
While one pound may not seem like much to you, that represents a 10% weight difference in a ten-pound cat. Sudden drops in weight can indicate a litany of problems ranging from diabetes and kidney disease to cancer and hyperthyroidism. Any noticeable change in your cat's weight warrants an evaluation by the vet. Sometimes it is the first and only early sign of significant disease.
Joint Disease in Cats
Recent studies indicate that osteoarthritis, a degenerative condition of the joints, may be more prevalent in cats than previously thought. The clinical signs of osteoarthritis differ than those seen in dogs; they may retain a normal range of motion in the joint and tend to limp less commonly than their canine counterparts, leading owners to conclude their pet is “simply getting old” as opposed to actually experiencing pain.
Often a reluctance to jump is the only thing an owner notices. Other signs may include decreased use of the litter box due to pain associated with climbing in and out of it, decreased appetite, lethargy, and poor grooming.
Although treatment options are more limited in cats than in dogs due to metabolic differences, there are ways to help reduce pain for felines suffering from this disease. Never give your cat a human or canine pain medication; Tylenol is particularly lethal, even in small doses.
Your cat can’t tell you if he’s hurting, which is why it's so important to be "in tune" with any seemingly minor changes in behavior. They can often be the only signs you get that something is wrong. In addition, don't forget to bring your cat in for regular veterinary visits (ideally twice a year for senior cats) to identify those age-related diseases early.
With proper care and lots of love, your cat can hopefully enjoy his or her senior years gracefully and comfortably.