Senior Health Checks in Cats
By Sally Coggins | Dated May 12, 2020
At Gordon vet hospital we pride ourselves on continuously striving to optimise health care for your beloved pets. In recent times we have actively sort to expand and improve our services for cats. Our recent renovations have allowed us to offer a separate entrance and waiting room space just for cats, assisting in minimising stress to our feline patients. We have recently attained Silver accreditation with the International Society of Feline Medicine’s Cat Friendly Clinic program, a testament to our clinic’s commitment to optimising cat welfare in a clinic environment. We have also welcomed Dr Sally Coggins to our team, a feline only practitioner with over 10 years experience in feline only practice. Below is an article written by Sally highlighting the importance of regular health care visits to optimise the health our ageing cats.
The importance of senior checks in cats
Chronic kidney disease, diabetes mellitus, hyperthyroidism, hypertension (high blood pressure), arthritis, chronic pancreatitis and inflammatory bowel disease are some of the most common health conditions seen in our older cats. All of these conditions can have impacts on your cat’s quality of life and their longevity. The good news is, all of these conditions can be managed or even cured with early diagnosis and intervention, helping your cat to live a longer and happier life. One of the biggest challenges we face with cats is recognising the disease in the first place.
Why is it so hard to detect health problems in cats?
To answer this, we need to look at the evolution of this species. In the wild, cats typically exist as solitary predators. They are the “king of the jungle”. Anyone who has ever watched a David Attenborough documentary knows that weakness in the wild equals death. As soon as you show weakness, you risk losing your territory and/or your life. The consequences don’t get much higher than that!
When your ability to survive is intrinsically linked to appearing strong, it’s easy to understand why our feline counterparts are hardwired not to show weakness. Unfortunately for them, this often means they don’t show us that there is a problem until their disease is advanced and truely overwhelming them. As vets, our chances of reversing or managing conditions once they are advanced get much lower.
“Optimising senior cat health care is a TEAM approach.”
What can you as do as a pet owner?
Knowing what to look out for and then acting on this, is one of the most important things you can do as a pet owner. Here are some things to be aware of:
This is a BIG red flag. By the time you can tell your cat has lost weight, it is almost always significant. When we see our cats every day and they typically only weigh 4-6kgs (give or take), it is nearly impossible for us to be able to recognise subtle weight changes. We typically don’t detect weight loss until it is more than 500g and has occurred over a relatively short timeframe (weeks). Although 500g is a trivial amount of weight for most humans, it’s 10% of most cat’s body weight (that’s like you or I dropping 5-10kgs without trying). This is also where regular health checks are beneficial, as they help track weight trends over months to years. If your cat is consistently losing 200-300g over sequential health checks, it tells us something else is going on and that further investigation is indicated.
Another big one for cats. A thirsty cat is a definite sign that something is going on under the surface. Getting your cat assessed for kidney disease, diabetes, hyperthyroidism or a urinary tract infection is recommended.
Changes to appetite (both increases and decreases)
Altered eating patterns are another thing worth acting upon. Decreases in appetite can be a symptom of many different disorders and a thorough physical examination (+/- diagnostic testing) is always indicated. Increases in appetite can be a symptom of hyperthyroidism, diabetes and gastrointestinal diseases, again highlighting the importance of a health check.
Sleeping more; not jumping as high; seeming slower to get up from rest; reduced grooming behaviour / matted coat; weight gains; ingrown or thicker gnarly toes nails; missing the litter tray (all of a sudden peeing or defecated immediately next to the litter tray). These are not just signs of “old age”, these are very commonly signs that your cat may have significant arthritis and is actually in pain. Arthritis is something we have many management tools for and is probably the biggest cause of daily chronic pain. Don’t let your cat suffer in silence.
Vomiting and/or Diarrhoea
An increased frequency of vomiting (and/or softer bowl motions) is not “normal” for a cat, particularly if they never used to vomit when they were younger. Vomiting and diarrhoea can be a sign of gastrointestinal diseases like IBD, but can also be sign of many other metabolic conditions such as kidney disease, liver disease, hyperthyroidism and pancreatitis.
Altered behaviours such as vocalising at night time or seeming disorientated and confused, again are not just signs of “old age”. These are the most common signs we see with high blood pressure in cats (a VERY treatable condition). Unfortunately sudden blindness or stroke are the other ones, thereby highlighting the importance of blood pressure monitoring as your cat ages, to try and intervene before it gets this severe. General irritability or aggression in older cats can also be symptoms of hyperthyroidism or arthritis. Whereas an increase in hiding behaviour may suggest another disease process is at play or your cat is actually in pain.
What can we do as vets?
Performing regular health checks on cats from the age of 10 years onwards is fundamental. I typically recommend seeing your cat every 6mths as they get older, to help pick up weight loss trends, arthritis symptoms, dental disease, subtle changes to gut thickening or kidney size etc.
Urine testing is an incredibly helpful component to our senior monitoring toolkit and is one of the first screening tests I implement for older cats. In-house urine testing performed at the clinic is a very simple way for us to rapidly rule out kidney disease, diabetes and urinary tract infections. Chronic kidney disease is extremely common in older cats and the first sign of this is typically a drop in urine concentrating ability (this often happens well before any overt clinical signs such as an increased thirst are noted). Dietary modification early on in the course of chronic kidney disease is the only tool proven to increase life expectancy when managing chronic kidney disease. A drop in your cats urine concentrating ability would therefore give us more justification to consider doing a blood test to confirm and stage your cats renal function.
Blood pressure measurement at these checks is another tool I try and incorporate. We all know blood pressure can go up with stress and most cats will be experiencing some degree of stress at the vets, no matter how much we minimise this (aka “white coat effect”). Getting an idea of what your cat’s “normal” is during routine vet trips is therefore helpful in establishing baselines from which we can monitor trends. If your cat’s blood pressure readings are trending up over time, this gives us more confidence we are detecting a true finding, not just a one-off stress response. Other factors such as changes to the backs of the eye and the detection of kidney disease also help us differentiate true hypertension from stress.
Blood testing is the other major arm of diagnostic screening tests that may be employed during a senior health examination. Depending on your cats history, physical examination findings and other test results, a blood test be may recommend. I will always tailor the tests required to your cat. Sometimes simply checking the blood sugar is all that is required. Other times, much more comprehensive testing may be involved, but these will never be recommended unless I feel we can justify them and that it will help optimise your cat’s welfare.
Take home messages
Essentially, as a pet owner, bringing your cat into the clinic for regular health checks as well as being observant and seeking advice when subtle changes are noted, are the best things you can be doing for your ageing cat.
Early detection is key to optimising outcomes with the majority of diseases our older cats get.
I will only ever recommend a test if I feel it will impact how we manage your cat’s health. Just because a cat is old, doesn’t automatically mean we have to run every test under the sun. I will always start with a physical examination and then a discussion with you regarding what I feel is indicated to optimise your cats wellbeing, whilst always working within any budget constraints.
If you would like to book your cat in for a senior health check, please contact our friendly reception team on (02) 9498 3000, alternatively you can book online https://gordonvet.com.au/book-