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What to expect when your cat is showing signs of ageing
As in humans, the effects of the ageing process will vary with each individual cat. The first signs of ageing start anywhere between the ages of 7 and 11 in most cats. Cats over 14 years old are considered geriatric, although many live well beyond that age.
The first sign of ageing is often a general decrease in activity combined with a tendency to sleep more. Older cat’s bodies are not as mobile and reflexes not as quick as they once were. Hearing, eyesight and the sense of smell and taste may deteriorate gradually. Many elderly cats eventually develop signs of senility with loss of memory, reduced ability to cope with changes in their routine, increased vocalisation, or inappropriate urination or defaecation.
Sooner or later significant changes will occur which require attention and should not be accepted as ‘just due to old age’. These changes are signs of disease or discomfort and may be sorted out or made better with some care. If you are in any doubt, please arrange an appointment with us to discuss any concerns you may have.
How to keep your senior cat comfortable
Older cats are fond of their regular routine and like to live a peaceful life.
They are often less able or willing to groom and look after their nails. This can be ‘just’ due to ageing but may actually be a sign of arthritis or toothache. If you are worried about the possibility of underlying pain, please arrange to have your cat checked at the surgery. Reduced nail care can lead to the nails growing too long and, as they are curved, they can grow into the cat’s paw, which is very painful and leads to infections. It may therefore be necessary to start trimming older cat’s nails on a regular basis. Grooming is very important for cats, so when this is no longer possible or easy, it greatly improves an elderly cat’s wellbeing if the owner assists with it. The eyes and ears may need to be wiped more regularly. Brushing is also advisable, both for comfort and also because poor coats can make a cat less resistant to cold and wet. Thin cats or cats with arthritis may find being groomed with normal combs or brushes painful, and they may object! In these circumstances try using a soft baby brush for grooming. If matted parts of the coat cannot be teased out, they may need to be cut, but this should be done very carefully as older cat’s skin can be very thin and is easily cut away with the matted hair. If you are in any doubt about this please ask us for assistance.
Cats with deteriorating eyesight or hearing may be more easily startled or may fail to respond at times, so you need to be understanding and make allowances for this. Affected cats may also be more accident-prone. When you initially notice such changes, please book an appointment for your pet to have a health check. Whilst sometimes just being related to ageing, deteriorating eyesight in particular can be a sign of disease, which may lead to total blindness when not treated promptly. Poor vision in older cats can also be associated with
other treatable problems such as high blood pressure, so having your cat examined by the vet is very important under such circumstances.
Older cats need warm and soft bedding for a comfortable nap. Please make sure your cat has a personal place to retire to and is left undisturbed by other family members and pets when he/she is in this private bed – older cats may well be less patient when disturbed!
Regular exercise is important to prevent stiffness and loss of muscle mass. Older cats often suffer from arthritis, but as they are rarely lame, it is difficult for owners to recognize that they are in pain. Please book an appointment if you feel that your cat’s activity level has dropped, so that we can assess whether chronic pain plays a role. This can significantly reduce your cat’s quality of life and also make him/her grumpy when groomed or cuddled, but the good news is that we are now able to treat chronic pain in cats much better than previously.
Bladder and bowel function can deteriorate with age, and jumping through the cat flap on arthritic joints to go to the toilet in cold and wet weather may be not something an elderly cat looks forward to. It is therefore a good idea to provide litter trays if you have not done so already. This also gives you the chance to monitor the trays and, therefore, your cat, for signs of urinary problems or constipation, which can be troublesome in older cats.
Nutrition plays an important part in helping your senior cat to stay healthy.
Some cats tend to put on weight as they get older, usually because they are less active and spend more time sleeping. Excess weight can worsen health problems such as heart disease or arthritis, so if you feel your cat is overweight please consult us about how to get rid of those extra pounds.
Other cats have the opposite problem and lose weight. This is sometimes just because their senses of smell and taste deteriorate – as cats depend very much on these senses, affected individuals may eat less because they feel their food is less tasty. Often, however, the weight loss is due to an underlying chronic disease or ‘wear and tear’ on the body and may initially be the only sign of problems. If your cat starts to lose weight, it is advisable to arrange an appointment at the surgery.
Generally, it is fine to feed elderly cats normal cat food or food designed for senior cats. However, if your cat has been diagnosed with one of a number of diseases (e.g. kidney problems) you may need to feed a prescription diet. This is a complete food especially designed to reduce signs of the disease and to delay deterioration. Different prescription diets are available for a number of conditions – we will advise you which one is best for your pet.
As many older cats tend to drink less, a tinned diet with a higher water content may be preferable in some cases. Fresh drinking water should always be available – some cats drink more when a drinking fountain is offered.
Some older cats start to drink more than they used to and this is usually a sign of a developing disease. It is advisable to arrange an appointment with us if your cat seems more thirsty than normal.
Older cats are more prone to disease and, as prevention is usually better than cure, it is a good idea to start thinking about the health of your older cat before signs of disease are obvious. Older cats’ immune systems become less efficient, infections are picked up more easily and the body has more trouble to fight them. In view of this regular booster vaccinations are still advisable in senior cats. (See Vaccination in cats information sheet).
Regular worming is also advisable, even though sometimes the intervals between worming can be increased when older cats stop hunting and tend to stay indoors. (See Worming your cat information sheet).
We perform yearly health checks for any cat that comes for annual vaccinations, but in older cats more frequent health checks may be advisable. Additional tests such as blood pressure measurements, urine or faecal analysis, and/or blood tests are sometimes beneficial and will be discussed with you on an individual basis.
Many diseases of older cats are due to wear and tear on their organs. The onset of symptoms is often slow and insidious and it is easy to miss early signs. Subtle signs such as weight loss, increased drinking or a change in appetite or behaviour, even if mild, should prompt you to arrange an appointment. Often such diseases can be much better controlled when they are diagnosed early.
Many older cats are in chronic pain due to tooth problems or arthritis. Even if the pain is not severe enough for them to stop eating or be obviously unwell, constant low grade pain reduces their quality of life considerably, just as it would for a human. We can usually help, and many owners are amazed at the improvement in behaviour and wellbeing of their cats after the problem has been sorted out or controlled.
Common health problems
Recently it has been shown that arthritis is actually very common in older cats. However, cats rarely go lame – they usually show much more subtle signs of the problem such as stiffness or reluctance to jump. Some cats show no joint related signs at all, but just become grumpy, stop grooming or even go off their food. Several options are available to help cats with arthritis, so please contact us for advice and/or mention those subtle signs when you next see us for an appointment. (See Arthritis information sheet).
Dental problems are very common in older cats but affected individuals often soldier on very bravely even when their problems are quite severe. Cats rarely show obvious signs of pain or stop eating. Other, less obvious signs of dental disease include salivation, reduced grooming, reduced activity or grumpiness. If dental problems are diagnosed, then it is usually necessary to treat the teeth under general anaesthesia. Tartar (which can become very severe in cats) is scaled off with the help of ultrasonic equipment and the teeth are polished. All diseased teeth are removed – fillings are very rarely performed in cats. Many people feel worried about general anaesthesia for their elderly pets. However, even though it is true that every general anaesthetic carries a certain risk, anaesthesia is much safer now than it used to be and we can take steps, such as the use of intravenous drips and blood testing prior to anaesthesia, to lower the risk even further. We will discuss these issues with you when you bring your cat for a dental check up. Many owners are impressed by how much happier their cats are after dental treatment. (See Dental care for dogs and cats information sheet).
Hyperthyroidism or overactive thyroid gland
This disease is very common among older cats and leads to deterioration of the whole body due to an abnormally rapid metabolic rate. Its onset is usually very subtle and many people put initial symptoms such as weight loss, increased appetite or thirst, down to old age. Although an overactive thyroid gland is potentially serious, is can be treated in several ways and the disease can usually be controlled or cured before it shortens the life-span of your pet. (See Hyperthyroidism information sheet).
Most people know that kidney disease is quite common among older cats. It usually develops due to wear and tear on the kidneys and cannot be cured. However, if we diagnose the disease early we can usually take steps to slow down the progression of the disease and allow patients a longer and better quality of life. (See Chronic kidney disease information sheet).
The heart is another organ that is put through a lot of wear and tear throughout the life of a cat, so we do see heart problems in older cats on a regular basis. Unfortunately, we often diagnose heart disease in cats at a much later stage than in dogs because cats lead such a relaxed life that problems in heart function are often seen only when the heart is severely diseased. We usually have to do some tests to find out exactly which disease affects the patient’s heart and to find the right medication. Once on medication, some cats can lead a very happy life for several years, although unfortunately other cases may be diagnosed so late that the heart cannot stabilise, even with appropriate medication. Signs of heart disease to look out for are reduced activity, weight loss and breathing problems, such as fast or very heavy breathing. Unlike dogs, cats with heart disease rarely cough.
Sugar diabetes is quite common among older cats, particularly when they are overweight. Cats are the only animals in which sugar diabetes can occasionally be cured by slimming them down to normal weight. Many diabetic cats, however, need to be on regular insulin injections, which they usually adapt to surprisingly well. Early signs of diabetes are again subtle and mild, for example weight loss, increased hunger and thirst. Blood and urine tests are necessary to diagnose the disease. Once stabilised, diabetic cats can have a very good quality of life. (See Diabetes mellitus information sheet).
Lumps and bumps
As cats get older, they are more prone to develop lumps or growths. Some of those are nothing to worry about, but others unfortunately are cancerous. It is advisable to book an appointment as soon as possible if your cat develops new lumps anywhere on his/her body – it is important to remember that we may be able to just reassure you that everything is fine. Often we recommend a fine-needle biopsy, a simple and painless procedure which does not require sedation or anaesthesia. Should we find that the lump is not completely benign we may still be able to offer treatment by surgery and/or medication in order to improve your cat’s quality of life and his/her life expectancy. The sooner such problems are addressed, the better.
Dementia/senile brain changes
With improved nutrition, better living conditions and veterinary care, many cats become very old these days, and as a result we see more and more cats with signs of dementia and reduced brain function due to ageing. Aggression, confusion, a reduced ability to cope with stress or changes in their routine, frequent – and sometimes loud – vocalisation and urinating or defaecating in inappropriate places are among the signs that can point towards senile changes in elderly cat’s brains. Some cats can also show loss of memory and for example demand to be fed shortly after they have had a good meal, simply because they have forgotten they have had it. Of course we cannot turn the clock back, but it makes sense to try your cat on dietary supplements or gentle medication, hopefully to improve the brain function in such cases.
If you have any queries or concerns about your elderly cat, please do not hesitate to contact us.