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My cat is really getting old

Due to improvements in nutrition, veterinary and home care, cats are living a lot longer than they did twenty to thirty years ago. In the past when a cat reached the age of 13 years old, we believed them to be really old. This is definitely no longer the case. We see several cats that are now reaching ages in excess of twenty years. Cats also tend to age a lot more gracefully than dogs and so it is not always easy to tell when they are starting to struggle or are showing signs of illness.  

Cats are considered elderly once they reach 11 years, with senior cats being between the ages of 11 and 14 years and geriatric cats being over 15 years.  As cats age,  they go through many behavioural and physiological changes and are more prone to developing certain illnesses in their last few years of life.  
 

What physiological and behavioural changes can you expect with your ageing cat?

As cats age, their sense of smell and taste becomes less sensitive. This means that food may need to smell a little stronger in order to appear more palatable to the cat. They also have a decreased ability to digest fat and protein so food needs to provide adequate nutrition but not be too rich. As well as sight, their hearing also diminishes and so extra care is needed to ensure they are out of the way of vehicles or they may need to be brought to their food. 

When considering their behaviour, they become less adaptable to changes in their environment and can become stressed more easily. Older cats tend to spend less time outside and more time sleeping inside.  Their appetite often decreases and they can become fussier due to their diminished sense of smell and taste. Other changes related to particular diseases may be noted. They may start to drink more water with kidney failure, or show pain and aggression due to pain and arthritis.
 

Are there any changes in routine care for your older cat?

As your cat ages, you may need to start doing a few things that weren’t necessary when they were younger and more active. Cat’s are naturally very clean animals and as they get older, grooming does become more difficult. Regularly checking your cat is advisable as problems can be picked up sooner and dealt with more efficiently.  
  • Pedicures - elderly cats are less able to retract their claws and they can become stuck on furniture and bedding. The claws also thicken with age. It is important to check them weekly to ensure that the nails are not growing into the paw pads. Some cat may need regular trimming. With advice and some training from the vet, this can be done at home and may help reduce the stress of a journey to the vet or parlour.
  • Grooming - Ageing cats may struggle to groom themselves due to athritits. Long haired cats, in particular, may need to be brushed several times a week to avoid matted fur. Their eyes may need to be cleaned occasionally with moist cotton wool. It is important to check around their “bottom” (perineum – the area around the anus and rectum) to ensure that there are no faeces stuck and there isn’t matted fur. Some cats may need to be trimmed.
  • Hairballs - The digestive system in older cats can be a little sluggish and so problems like hairballs can become more common. There are several different options when it comes to hair ball control such as food or supplements. If you are unsure if your cat is vomiting or bringing up hairballs then it is important to consult the veterinarian. 
  • Toilet habits - It is advisable to provide an indoor litter box, even if your cat normally urinates and defecates outside. As older cats are more slow and sedentary, they may not want to go very far and they are also more sensitive to the cold and wet. An indoor litter box also makes monitoring the frequency of urination and consistency of stool easier. An increase in urination may be a sign of an underlying condition such as diabetes or kidney failure. Older cats may also struggle with constipation and may need supplements or a change in food. In severe cases, the veterinarian may need to perform an enema.
  • Dental disease - As cats age, dental issues such as gingivitis (inflamed gums),  plaque build-up and loose teeth may become more of a problem. This may affect their appetite, their ability to eat, and may cause them pain. Bad breath (halitosis), drooling, loss of appetite, tooth chattering and pawing at the mouth may all be an indication that there is an underlying dental issue that may need attention. If you are in any doubt then consult the veterinarian.

How often should you take your ageing cat to the vet?

The frequency of veterinary visits will depend on the general health of your cat and any particular illnesses that they may have. Older cats that have not had any issues, are eating and drinking well and do not appear to have any signs of weight loss or other health problems should be seen at least once a year. This gives your veterinarian a chance to assess them and decide whether any procedures or tests are needed. As your cat ages, blood and urine tests are an indispensable tool in detecting problems early, before the onset of clinical signs and severe disease. In the past few years, newer generation blood tests like SDMA, have become available which can pick up kidney disease months, to even years, before it is clinically visible. The levels of these biomarkers start increasing in the blood when there is 40% loss of kidney function compared to the older type of tests where 75% of the kidney function had to be destroyed before the levels of blood markers would increase in the blood tests available to vets. Even with these new and wonderful tests, it is still quite scary to think that we can only start picking up kidney disease by the time that almost half of the kidney function is irreparably damaged. 

Unlike the liver, the kidneys do not have the capacity to regenerate, and therefore once a certain percentage of the kidneys have been damaged, there is no way of repairing it. Therefore it is so critically important that these tests be done at an earlier age, or stage of kidney disease, in order to help protect the functional part of the kidneys. 

If your cat has been diagnosed with a particular condition, visits to the vet may be required more frequently to refill medication, follow up on weight checks or do blood tests.

The following sigs are an indication that your cat should be seen by the vet:

  • Any loss of or change in appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Change in water intake- usually drinking more than normal
  • Struggling to jump, lameness or stiffness
  • Any lumps or bumps
  • Decreased energy levels
  • Balance problems
  • Difficulty in passing urine or faeces or messing in abnormal areas
  • Disorientation or distress or any change in normal behaviour
  • A coat which becomes dull
  • Any other signs of disease like vomiting or diarrhoea, change in vision, bad breath, weakness or anything else which is out of the ordinary

Detecting certain diseases early often helps improve the success of treatment so it is important to be on the lookout for any changes in your cat. Older cats will need more time and attention but with advances in veterinary medicine and care, they should be able to live their last few years in comfort and relatively free from stress.

Just like in humans, the life expectancy of animals are increasing and just as we care for the elderly in our human communities, we can show the same love and care for our geriatric pets and ensure a good quality life for them right up until the end. 

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