By Arnold Plotnick, MS, DVM, ACVIM
Geriatric Health Care for Cats
At Manhattan Cat Specialists, our Geriatric Wellness program is designed to enhance the length and quality of your cat’s life. Here at MCS, we have a special place in our hearts for elderly cats and are devoted to keeping senior cats happy during their golden years.
Pets today are living longer and better quality lives than ever before, thanks to improved nutrition, veterinary care and educated owners. This increased longevity means that more cats are reaching an older age, and that owners will be faced with the special demands and problems that become apparent with age. Understanding the aging process and the most common problems that face the geriatric cat is the first step in providing the best possible care to geriatric patients. The main focus of geriatric health care is owner education and the early detection and prevention of disease.
It is important to realize that aging itself is not a disease; it is simply a stage of life. Increasing age causes a gradual decline in the body’s ability to repair itself, maintain normal body functions and adapt to the stresses and changes in the environment. Many changes occur in cats as they age. For example, metabolism changes so less food is required. Cats, in general, have a more sedentary life style, and older cats, specifically, are usually less active so weight gain and obesity are common problems. The lack of exercise contributes to reduced muscle tone and strength, further adding to the potential of obesity.
Changes in a cat’s environment or routine may actually contribute to behavioral changes or even illness. With time, cats begin to have a gradual decline in their hearing, sense of smell, vision and taste. Decreased taste sensation can contribute to anorexia, especially if the cat becomes ill. It is not uncommon for older cats to spend more time sleeping and have more difficulty being roused. Additionally, the body’s ability to repair itself decreases and the function of the immune system is compromised with increasing age. Metabolic and endocrine problems, organ dysfunction, and cancer are all seen with increased frequency in the geriatric.
The Aging Cat
Proper care, nutrition, medical attention and the cat’s environment are all controllable and important factors that can improve a cat’s quality of life and longevity dramatically. For example, intact feral male cats have a life expectancy of three years. On the other hand, neutered male, indoor house cats commonly live into their teens.
Advantages of a Geriatric Program
By developing and following a geriatric health plan, disorders and disease can be detected early enough to provide medical or surgical intervention. Some disorders of the geriatric patient may be difficult to help, however, it is usually possible to make significant improvements in the quality of the pet’s life by educating owners and by early intervention. The goal of any geriatric health program is to prevent or delay the development of disorders associated with aging. Practicing prevention is always better than treating a disease already present. In the long run, preventive medicine improves quality of life and is more cost effective than waiting for problems to appear. A well-educated and proactive owner is the first step in optimal senior cat care.
The routine geriatric exam and accompanying diagnostic tests are recommended to ensure that the early stages of disease are discovered and appropriate preventive measures and treatment plans instituted. The most common diagnostic tests performed as part of a complete geriatric work-up include:
- A complete medical history. Asking the right questions is very important in obtaining a thorough geriatric health history. Some veterinarians have specific geriatric health history questionnaires that can be filled out by the owner or a health professional. In addition, any problems or concerns that owners have about their pet should be discussed; however, it is equally important that the veterinarian ask specific questions that may uncover problems that an owner may simply attribute to “old age” and just something that they will have to live with. Very often these are signs of underlying disease and are very treatable.
- A complete physical examination. A complete physical examination should be performed to attempt to uncover specific problems. The eyes are examined, and a retinal exam may be performed if there is some question as to whether your cat may be experiencing some loss of vision. The ears are examined for signs of infection or allergies. The mouth, gums and teeth are evaluated, with dental disease and gingivitis being common findings. Lymph nodes and the thyroid gland are evaluated for enlargement. The skin and quality of the hair coat are observed. Skin tumors or swellings are noted. A poor hair coat or a lack of grooming may be signs of allergies, parasites, infections or systemic illness. The heart and lungs are evaluated with the stethoscope and any abnormalities or murmurs are noted. The abdomen is palpated for any masses or organ enlargements. Finally, the general body condition and weight are recorded.
- Complete blood count. In geriatric patients, anemia is not an uncommon finding. Red blood cell morphology can help determine if the anemia is acute, chronic or related to a neoplastic (cancerous) condition. The total white count is also noted, and increases may indicate inflammatory or infectious conditions.
- Biochemical profile. The biochemical profile is a very valuable test in the geriatric animal. Information about the liver, kidneys, pancreas, blood sugar, and electrolytes is obtained through this important test.
- Thyroid testing. Hyperthyroidism is a very common problem in older cats. The most common signs of hyperthyroidism are increased appetite and weight loss.
- Urinalysis. Analysis of the urine can help detect underlying urinary tract infection, kidney problems and diabetes. If necessary, a urine culture may be recommended.
- Fecal examination. Since gastrointestinal parasites may be more debilitating in geriatric animals, a yearly fecal exam is recommended. Additionally, some parasites have the potential to be transmitted to people, re-enforcing the value of yearly fecal exams. Routine fecal floatation is recommended, with specific tests for the protozoan parasite Giardia performed if necessary.
- FIV and FeLV (feline leukemia virus) testing. Both of these viral diseases may cause suppression of the immune system and can contribute to many other systemic illnesses. In cats that are at risk of exposure to these viral diseases (i.e. outdoor cats or cats that have contact with other cats) routine blood testing is recommended. If the viral status of a cat is unknown, testing is also advised. Cats who have previously tested negative and have had no possible exposure to other cats may not need this test.
The above represents the most routine diagnostic tests that are recommended for the senior pet. Based on the history and physical examination findings, common additional testing might include:
- Blood pressure measurement. Hypertension (high blood pressure) is being increasingly identified in the geriatric cat. Usually, hypertension is associated with other disease conditions such as kidney disease and hyperthyroidism.
- Aspiration of skin masses. A common finding on the physical examination of older cats is small masses in the skin. Many times these are benign tumors or cysts that grow slowly and rarely cause problems. However, cats do have a higher incidence of malignant skin tumors than do dogs. Because of this, it is usually recommended that skin tumors on cats be aspirated (a needle is inserted into the mass) and the recovered cells evaluated microscopically for evidence of malignancy. The size and location of all masses should be recorded in the medical record, so that changes in previous masses or the development new masses can be noted.
- Radiographs. Radiographs (x-rays) may be advised based on the initial tests or physical exam findings. Chest radiographs are part of a cardiac work-up if a new murmur is found and as a screening test for cancer. Abdominal radiographs might be needed if organ dysfunction is suspected or organ enlargement or masses is detected during the physical examination.
- Cardiac (heart) evaluation. If there is indication of potential heart disease such as a newly discovered or a worsening murmur or a nighttime cough, a more complete cardiac evaluation is indicated. Chest radiographs, an EKG and an echocardiogram will help better define the extent and cause of potential cardiac disease and whether treatment is necessary.
- Abdominal ultrasound. Abdominal ultrasound offers a non-invasive method of visualizing masses and organs within the abdomen. Generally, more detail and structure can be obtained with an ultrasound than with radiographs.
- Endoscopy. Evaluating the stomach and initial part of the small intestines through the use of endoscopy is a valuable diagnostic tool. A common problem that some older cats have is inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Cats with IBD usually have vomiting and or diarrhea as symptoms, but sometimes present with weight loss as the only complaint. Endoscopy offers a relatively non-invasive method of obtaining gastrointestinal biopsies for establishing a diagnosis.
All cats should receive routine vaccinations as required by law (rabies) and vaccines that are appropriate for individual needs. Specific vaccines and frequency of administration may vary depending on veterinarian and/or clinic preference or policies. Treating an older cat depends on the individual requirements or problems of the pet. The most common problems of geriatric cats include:
- Nutritional concerns. The proper diet is very important in the care of a geriatric cat. There is no best food to feed a geriatric cat. The best food depends on the specific problems or nutritional requirements of the individual animal. For example, obesity is a very common problem of older animals. Obesity is a serious concern in the geriatric animal because it directly correlates to a decreased longevity and may contribute to other problems. Cats that are overweight are more likely to develop diabetes, hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver disease), heart problems, arthritis, non-allergic skin conditions, or feline lower urinary tract disease. For some animals, low calorie, high fiber diets make weight loss easier. Manhattan Cat Specialists has a specially designed obesity program for cats that are overweight. Additionally, through the geriatric work-up, special nutritional requirements or restrictions may be recommended. These diets attempt either to slow the development of the disease process or improve specific organ function. Special diets for many diseases (even in the early stages) including kidney, liver, gastrointestinal, heart, dental and skin disease are available. Even diets for diabetes and cancer may be recommended.
- Dental disease. A very common finding on a geriatric exam is dental disease and gingivitis. Left untreated, dental disease usually leads to tooth loss and may serve as a reservoir of infection for the rest of the body.
- Kidney disease. Renal disease is a very common finding in the older cat. Asymptomatic cats usually have chronic disease. Chronic kidney disease is managed primarily through dietary modification. Other treatments might include antacids, phosphate binders, potassium supplements, subcutaneous fluids, anti-nausea medications, appetite stimulants, and blood pressure medications.
- Hyperthyroidism. Hyperthyroidism is a very common disease of older cats. There are several treatment options. Generally, the safest and most effective treatment is radioactive iodine therapy. The most common form of treatment is with oral medications (methimazole [Tapazole®] being the most common) that reduce the blood thyroid level. The Hill’s company manufactures a prescription diet (Hill’s y/d) that, if fed exclusively, will control hyperthyroidism.
- Diabetes. The first sign owners usually see when their cat develops diabetes is excessive thirst or urination. Diabetes is generally managed by giving insulin injections at home. Dietary changes are also recommended.
- Hypertension (high blood pressure). The first aspect of treating hypertension in the cat is to identify and treat any possible underlying disease conditions such as kidney disease or hyperthyroidism. Occasionally cats with hypertension will present only with signs of eye disease. Sudden blindness is sometimes seen due to retinal detachment or hemorrhage. Hypertension can also cause secondary cardiac changes and associated heart disease. A common drug used to treat hypertensive cats is amlodipine (Norvasc).
- Cardiac disease. Newly discovered heart murmurs are a common physical exam finding in the geriatric cat. Many times these murmurs are found before a cat shows any signs of cardiac disease. Finding a heart murmur in an older cat does not necessarily mean that the cat has cardiac disease, however, it is a reason to pursue further diagnostics. A common cardiac disease in the senior cat is a disorder called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, in which the heart muscle becomes abnormally thickened and stiff. This condition is often associated with hyperthyroidism or high blood pressure. Early detection of heart disease, treating underlying disorders, and proper therapy may slow its progression.
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Treatment of IBD includes prednisone and/or other immunosuppressive drugs, and dietary changes. Sometimes IBD is associated with concurrent hepatitis and/or pancreatitis.
- Skin tumors. On the basis of the size, location and aspiration results, removal of certain skin masses may be recommended. If the mass is not removed and submitted for histopathology, the owner should be instructed to monitor the mass for changes in size, shape or texture.
- Neoplasia (cancer). Unfortunately, cancer is a significant problem facing the geriatric cat. Lymphosarcoma is the most common type of cancer in the cat. Not all cancers are fatal. Surgery, chemotherapy, even radiation therapy is available that can significantly extend the pet’s life. The prognosis depends on the type and location of the cancer.
Suggested Geriatric Health Program
Manhattan Cat Specialists’ Geriatric Wellness Program has been carefully designed so that we can detect problems early and prevent or delay the development of disorders associated with aging. Geriatric cats should usually have routine veterinary exams at least twice a year. Obese patients should be placed on a weight control program. Depending on the patient, physical exam findings and history, certain diagnostic tests may be recommended.
For patients that are apparently healthy, twice yearly physical examination is recommended. Blood tests may or may not be recommended, depending on the results of previous evaluations.
For patients with minor health concerns, twice yearly physical examination is recommended. In addition, a complete blood count, biochemical profile, fecal examination, thyroid function tests and urinalysis may be recommended.
For patients with significant health concerns, physical examination may be recommended every 2 to 3 months. In addition, a CBC, biochemical profile and urinalysis will likely be necessary to track the progression of any illnesses and to evaluate the effectiveness of any prescribed therapy. Depending on the patient, an abdominal ultrasound, blood pressure and echocardiography may be indicated.
Manhattan Cat Specialists is devoted to keeping your cat happy and healthy for as long as possible. Please call us with any problems or questions. We’re here to help.