Sammy is 12 years old. That is a respectable age for a cat, so I was very happy to hear from his owner that he was still very well in himself and she had no concerns at all. The purpose of my visit was a routine health check and vaccination and based on Sammy’s good report, I was expecting to issue him with a clean bill of health. However as I began to collect a thorough history, it became apparent that things were not as simple as they had first appeared. ‘Now that you mention it, Sammy HAS been drinking more than he used to, but I thought that was normal for older cats so I didn’t think twice.’ He had also had a great appetite lately, in fact he’d been eating an extra pouch a day, and he had been more talkative lately. All things that his owner had associated with good health but could actually be signs of illness. On physical exam it turned out he had lost some weight and muscle mass, and that he had a lump under his neck. A blood test was recommended and the results confirmed hyperthyroidism. He was started on medication and is now back to his normal self, his owner couldn’t believe the difference! She was surprised how the changes had happened so gradually that she didn’t notice them, but was very happy to have her old cat back. And Sammy certainly agreed.
The above scenario is not at all uncommon. Cats are experts at hiding their illnesses, and sometimes they can become very poorly on the inside whilst appearing relatively normal on the outside. And as in Sammy’s case, sometimes the changes that do happen occur so slowly that we just assume it’s a normal part of aging.
He’s turned into such a ‘grumpy old man’
One of the best examples of this is an older cat’s ‘grumpiness’. It’s easy to assume that older cats have been through enough and now just want to be left alone, but could there be a cause for their change in attitude? Perhaps they can’t see or hear as well as they used to and are more frightened by strange sights or sounds. Maybe they have severe dental disease that causes them to hide away or change their eating patterns. Is arthritis the reason behind their dislike of the brush or even your previously adored petting strokes? These conditions frequently go unnoticed except for a change in behaviour, yet if diagnosed, there are many things we can do to make them more comfortable.
She just can’t seem to ‘hold it’ anymore
Another common but decidedly abnormal symptom is a change in urination or defecation patterns. ‘She just can’t seem to make it to the litter tray anymore, bless her’ is a common complaint, yet one that doesn’t always get brought to the vet’s attention. Cats are clean, proud creatures and don’t generally wet or soil the house without good reason. Perhaps she has kidney disease and is having to cope with large volumes of dilute urine. Could arthritis again be the cause behind her new dislike of the litter tray? Small, covered or high-sided litter trays can be a nightmare for cats that find it painful to position themselves to defecate. Maybe she has diabetes and the sugar in her urine has brought on a bladder infection. Changes in urination or defecation should always be brought to your vet’s attention as there is usually an underlying cause.
All he ever does is sleep these days
Now I am the first to admit that I do not have as much energy as my 3 year old. And my grandmother frequently complains that she’s not able to get out and about as much as she used to. The difference between my son and I is mainly the 30 year age gap. But my grandmother’s reasons may have more to do with her failing eyesight and worsening arthritis. It’s certainly true that kittens are more active than their more mature housemates, and that some slowing can be expected with age. But when your previously active older cat starts to sleep 23 hours a day instead of her usual 20, what might seem like a small change to you could indicate a big problem. High blood pressure can cause depression and lethargy and can also result in blindness, making affected cats less likely to venture from their bed. A cat who used to love going outdoors may find the cat flap too painful now that arthritis has set in. Anaemia (not enough red blood cells carrying oxygen around the body) and its associated decrease in energy levels is another symptom that frequently goes unnoticed.
Some alarming statistics
In a recent study of older cats brought to the vet for routine vaccination, one third of those described as ‘completely healthy’ by their owners were found to be suffering from significant diseases such as kidney disease, high blood pressure or hyperthyroidism. Two thirds had abnormally dilute urine, an early warning sign for kidney disease.
- Chronic kidney disease is estimated to affect about 30% of cats over the age of 15
- 10% of cats over the age of 9 are thought to suffer from hyperthyroidism
- Cognitive dysfunction (a deterioration in brain function giving cats Alzheimer’s-like changes in behaviour) is estimated to affect over 50% of cats over the age of 15
And perhaps most alarmingly, a staggering 90% of cats over the age of 12 (which is not that old really) are thought to suffer from arthritis. Only a tiny fraction of these cats are ever brought into the vet because they appear painful, and only a small percentage of those receive regular treatment for their pain.
‘Common’ does not mean ‘normal’
I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that although some things like drinking a bit more or losing a bit of weight may be COMMON in older cats, they are not NORMAL and may in fact indicate discomfort or illness. If diagnosed (particularly if caught early), most of the above conditions can be treated successful and for those that can’t be cured, we can at least provide care that can dramatically increase the quality of their lives. I’ll talk about some of the things we can do to help our aging feline friends next time but in the meantime, take a good long look at your older cat and think about some of the changes that might be taking place inside that they may not be telling you about. If you discover anything that causes concern, bring it to the attention of your vet. Sure, your grumpy old man may not enjoy being dragged out of his bed and into the vet (don’t be afraid to ask your vet if they would be willing to make a home visit), but the possibility of a more comfortable life far outweighs the temporary inconvenience. Your cat has nothing to lose and everything to gain!
If you are worried about any aspect of your cats health, please book an appointment with your vet or use our symptom guide.