Dealing with Older Cat Health Problems
By Lorie Huston, DVM
It probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone that a senior cat has needs that are different than those of a young cat. But how do you know when your cat is a senior?
Generally, cats over 7-10 years of age should be considered seniors. With increasing age, changes in the body occur as well. For instance, in one study, roughly 90% of cats over the age of 12 years were noted to have radiographic evidence of arthritis. Needless to say, with arthritis comes pain and mobility issues. If your older cat has become less active and is now reluctant to jump on counters and other areas that he used to frequent, it may be because your cat has developed arthritis.
Likewise, without the proper care, dental disease can pose a problem, particularly for older pets. You may be surprised to learn that veterinarians find evidence of dental disease in many pets as early as 2-3 years of age. If nothing is done to care for your cat’s mouth, by the time your cat is a senior, he may even have lost some teeth. Dental disease can be painful, causing your cat to have difficulty eating or even avoid his meals. This may result in weight loss and an unkempt hair coat.
Dental disease is certainly not the only disease that can lead to weight loss. Senior cats frequently suffer from kidney disease, thyroid disease, liver disease, heart disease and other conditions that may result in weight loss.
On the other hand, some senior cats may have the opposite problem. Some cats will become less active with age, essentially becoming couch potatoes, and will gain weight as a result. Obesity is a major health issue in cats of all ages, and senior cats are no different.
What can you do to help your senior cat? Here are some tips:
Schedule regular visits with your veterinarian. Your cat needs to be examined at least yearly if it appears healthy, as many diseases are hidden and not apparent. Remember it is much cheaper to prevent disease than it is to treat it!
Ask for a body condition evaluation during each vet visit. Body condition is crucial to determining whether your senior cat is overweight, underweight, or at an ideal body weight. In fact, you should also ask your veterinarian to show you how to evaluate your cat's body condition at home.
Feed your older cat a diet with adequate protein levels. Avoid vegan or vegetarian diets. Cats are obligate carnivores. They require nutrients such as taurine and arachidonic acid that are only found in animal sources. They also require a higher protein level than dogs, comparatively. Learn to read a pet food label and feed a diet that is appropriate for your cat’s age and lifestyle.
Feed your cat to remain at its ideal body weight. Overweight cats have a higher incidence of diseases such as diabetes, liver disease, skin disease, even cancer. Your veterinarian can help you choose an appropriate diet for your cat. Your cat must be fed carefully to make sure all his nutrient needs are met. Some obese cats may require a specialized diet that is lower in calories but nutrient rich. Diets that are high in L-carnitine can be helpful in weight loss. The level of carbohydrates in cat food are controversial but a proper carbohydrate blend can help keep your cat feeling satiated.
Consider fortifying your senior cat’s diet with fatty acids such as DHA and EPA. They have been shown to be useful for cats with mobility issues due to arthritis or other joint diseases. Supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin are also beneficial for senior cats.
Consider a special diet if your older cat has heart or kidney disease. For example, diets lower in sodium are sometimes advocated for cats with heart disease, while diets which help control phosphorus, calcium and other electrolyte levels are given to cats with kidney disease. Your veterinarian can help you choose the best food for your cat based on your cat’s individual situation.
Ask about special diets for cats with hyperthyroidism. Diets with restricted iodine levels are now available as a potential management method for cats with hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid gland.) However, it is important that cats with normal thyroid function not consume these diets. If you have questions, ask your veterinarian for advice.
Take care of your cat’s mouth. Brushing your cat’s teeth may seem like a silly idea but it can help keep your cat’s mouth healthy. If you cannot brush, consider dental treats that help keep the teeth clean.
Environmental enrichment is important for cats of all ages and should not be abandoned for senior cats. Interactive toys, food puzzles (particularly for overweight cats), even supervised access to the outdoors through the use of "catios" or leash walking can help keep senior cats entertained as well as helping to burn excess calories and keep muscles and joints healthy.
Provide your older cat with special accommodations. For instance, cats with arthritis might benefit from litter boxes with lower sides for easier access into and out of the box. Providing soft bedding for your cat, either with a cat bed or with towels or blankets to rest on, can help your cat be more comfortable. Be sure that food and water are easily accessible. Don’t force your arthritic senior cat to go up and down stairs to eat, drink or use the litter box.