For domestic cats in the UK, their three-score-years-and-ten is about 14 years, but many of them now live for a great deal longer. We certainly have many patients at the clinic who are in their late teens and still going strong, and just a few who make it into their early to mid twenties.
So what are the particular health problems these senior citizens might face?
The commonest problems we see are:
- dental problems
- kidney disease
- over-active thyroid glands
- heart disease
- reduced mobility and joint pain
Most cats don't brush their teeth regularly and in combination with a soft diet, they often develop a buildup of thick yellow calculus on their teeth. This calculus contains a lot of bacteria which (quite apart from the smell) can cause painful inflammation of the gums and can spread around the body causing infection elsewhere. Keeping the teeth clean is very important: food supplements such as Plaque Off can help soften and loosen the plaque and calculus, and daily applications of oral hygiene products like Logic Oral Hygiene gel can help control bacteria in the mouth. Where the calculus is very thick, tooth cleaning can only be carried out under an anaesthetic.
The kidneys are vitally important organs that help control the water balance of the body, excrete waste products from the blood, balance the levels of body salts and regulate blood pressure. The kidneys often start to fail in old age, resulting in increased urine output and thirst, reduced appetite, weight loss, nausea and anaemia. Early detection of kidney problems with regular blood and urine tests helps us guide you on the best diet and choose appropriate supplements and medication to keep your cats healthy and comfortable for as long as possible.
The thyroid hormones help to regulate the metabolic rate of the body. Many older cats develop over active thyroid glands, resulting in them always feeling hungry whilst losing weight, becoming restless and agitated and developing secondary heart disease. Treatment is available, either as daily medication, surgery to remove
the affected glands or a form of radiation treatment. Successful treatment can massively improve an older cat's quality of life.
The commonest heart problem in older cats is a thickening of the heart wall. This reduces the size of the heart chambers and the heart has to compensate by beating faster all the time to avoid fluid buildup in the lungs. Early detection and management to control the heart rate, blood pressure and to support the damaged heart muscle is vital to slow the progression of this disease.
We all know that older cats often do less and sleep more, but for many cats that inactivity is simply because their bones and joints ache. If your older cat is less active than before, if he or she is grooming less with obvious matted fur or more dandruff than before, is more grumpy or irritable or hesitate before jumping up onto furniture, it might be due to aches and pains. If you ask your vet to carry out a full mobility assessment, you may find that a great deal can be done to increase their comfort.
No one really wants to mention the word, but it's a common problem in older cats. Get used to running your hands over your elderly companion looking for any unusual bumps or swellings, and make sure that your vet carries out a full examination at least twice a year. Many types of cancer can now be treated effectively with minimal distress, so early detection is vital.
We are often asked whether annual booster vaccines are really necessary as cats get older. The issue is not about vaccination: it is about protection from potentially fatal diseases at a time when their natural immunity may be fading a little. We
strongly recommend that older cats have a simple blood test to see how well they are already protected. If they have high antibody levels, no vaccine is needed, if not then we can give a booster in the knowledge that it is really needed.
Are there any particular feeding requirements for older cats?
Cats with these kind of old age problems will often have quite specific dietary needs, so you really should discuss this with your vet, but just remember that older cats, like older people often are not so interested in food and will only take smaller amounts at a time. Make sure that there is always plenty of fresh water easily available for them to drink.
Remember - old age itself is not a disease: there is a great deal that we can do to improve the quality of life of our older companions