How will getting older impact the health of my cat?
If they're anything like me, that means their back's going to hurt and they get sore for no good reason at all. Other than that, it's aging, as everything slows down...kidneys, thyroid conditions, all of those things. I won't rattle off all the possible complications with aging and cats, but just like us, age catches up with the best of us.
How do a cat's nutritional needs change as they age?
Fair question. Their nutritional needs are probably less. Why? Because their metabolism is slowing down. They don't need as many carbs, calories, and probably not as much fat. Maybe they need more fat because they're getting thinner. It depends. Usually, our old cats are not getting thinner. So there's that. There's also the potential for kidney issues. Kidneys are kind of infamous for slowing down, so to speak, as a cat gets older. If that is the case, they need a low protein diet to decrease the workload on those kidneys. So again, it's little subtle ways like that that can definitely be something that can change as the cat ages.
What are some signs and symptoms that your cat may be slowing down?
There will be some subtleties, as we all know what a kitten does. I mean, they're bouncing off the walls. They're jumping on cabinets, sinks, countertops, beds, wherever. An older cat is going to be probably much less likely to do that. Maybe they used to do those things and now they just can't. It just hurts too much. You will also see things like inadequate grooming. As cats age, if they start to feel stiffer and have arthritis that hurts, or maybe they're feeling ill from some underlying condition, they're not going to be too worried about cleaning themselves. So you will start to have matting or that almost clumping of the fur where it's kind of oily. It's all from a lack of grooming. So, that's another sign of aging that can happen.
Weight loss can be another subtle thing that you'll see, where all of a sudden you might have this nice full cat, not excessively full hopefully, but now you can start to see the ribs. You can see the spine, things like that. Again, it's a tough thing to answer all possibilities in one question, but it's those kinds of little subtle things that you need to be looking for as your cat ages to maybe give you the ability to detect if something is wrong early on.
What are some health complications or diseases that are commonly experienced by senior cats?
When I see an older cat somewhere in the 13 to 14, 15-year-old range, the cat will often be seen for what we in veterinary medicine called "ADR". Ain't doing right. The things that immediately come to my mind are kidneys, thyroid, i.e. hyperthyroidism, diabetes, or cancer. I'm not saying those are the only four possibilities—very far from it. There are exceptions to every rule. But those four things for me as a veterinarian with 20 plus years experience, those are the things that I see in elderly cats when they come in losing weight...not eating, dehydrated, it's usually one of those four that I'm looking for.
What kinds of preventative care can help extend the life of my cat?
A good quality diet. And as I mentioned earlier in the kidney example, maybe a specific or prescription good quality diet, depending on what condition might've been diagnosed. That's one. Proper wellness care, doing blood work periodically. Maybe you start doing wellness blood work when they're middle-aged, and that way, if they do begin to develop some of these conditions, again, I'll use kidneys as an example because it's so common in cats, the earlier you can detect that the better outcome that you can potentially have moving forward or long-term. So those kinds of things are what I think can help benefit the life of a cat.
Why are wellness exams and regular checkups important for senior cats?
For the reason I just mentioned. The whole reason for wellness exams is to try to catch something early before the cat shows you any clinical signs. The chances of you being able to successfully treat a cat in early renal failure are so much better. All right, let me approach it another way. So if they come in for a regular wellness exam, vaccines, that kind of thing, we do blood work and we realize that their BUN and SDMA, or maybe just SDMA, which is one of the earliest, most sensitive indicators of kidney function, maybe just that's elevated. I will almost guarantee you that that cat will have no clinical signs if only the SDMA is elevated, but it doesn't lie to you. It's elevated for a reason because it is the most sensitive indicator of early renal impairment. So what can we do?
We can absolutely put that cat on a low protein diet, maybe increase water intake. Those kinds of things are what we're going to do in that stage. Fast forward six or eight months, maybe a year, maybe even longer than that, but fast forward for somebody that didn't do that with their cat. And now their cat is vomiting, dehydrated, and doesn't want to eat. We get them in, we pull blood work and now it's BUN, creatinine, phosphorus, SDMA, every kidney marker is elevated, and sometimes through the roof elevated. That's a lot harder to bring them back from that point.
You can try IV fluids. You can try diets, you can try supplements. You can try all these things, but you might not ever get them back to a normal, happy quality of life for lack of a better word. But if we would've caught it much earlier at the very beginning, the "tip of the iceberg", if you will, the potential outcome would have been completely different.
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Cat Senior Care - FAQs
How do I evaluate my senior cat's quality of life?
I get asked this question probably more than anything else is—how do you know what their quality of life is? And I think the best way I can answer it is, does your cat still do the things that they've always enjoyed doing? Does your cat still do the things that made them your cat, for lack of a better way to put it? It's different for every animal. Some cats enjoy eating, some enjoy chasing toys, some enjoy chasing a laser, and some like to sit at a window and wish they could chase the sparrows and squirrels outside. Whatever it is, can your animals still enjoy the day-to-day routines that are its life?
Do they still behave the same way? Do they still get excited about the same things? If those things happen, then I would say that animal probably still has a fair quality of life. There are variations with everything, of course, but that's probably the most tangible message that I try to convey to people. They're going to lose weight as they age. They're perhaps not going to eat as much. Maybe they drink a little more. Those are all factors as well, but at the end of the day when we're making an end-of-life decision, it’s about whether they can still do the things that they've always enjoyed doing.
What are the signs my cat is dying?
That's a tricky one to answer. So I will simply say this. I'm going to focus on the literal act of dying. And I know that's grim, but if this question is intended to cover things such as maybe my cat is passing away at my home now with me, I would expect to see things like a cat that is no longer responsive, number one. They're usually laterally recumbent laying on their side, but you can't rouse them. They're breathing but you can't rouse them. They don't respond if you call their name. There may be what's called a palpebral reflex. You can touch by their eye and they should blink just like we should but they don’t. You start seeing a diminished or a lack of a palpebral reflex, things like that.
Sometimes severe dehydration will be evident if can pick up their skin and they have a very prolonged skin tint. That's not an end of life sign, but most cats that are at that point usually are going to be severely dehydrated. And then I would think the last, and I mean the very last that you may see (hopefully you won't see it at home) would be what we call agonal breathing. That is anytime an animal passes, whether they're passing on their own or if that’s something that we've assisted them with, oftentimes they will take to take these very, very deep breaths right at the end as they're passing. Again, a grim topic but these are some of the things that you would be looking for at the absolute in stages of life.
How do I know if my cat is in pain?
Thankfully, that's not as grim of a question to answer. So pain can be as simple as vocalization. It can be carrying their body posture differently. If it's arthritic type pain, they will be carrying themselves differently. Maybe they're hunched back. Maybe they're walking with real short steps because it hurts to walk. Maybe it's that you go to pick them up or you touch them in a certain area, and they either vocalize or they try to bite you or something like that. If they have a tender or painful spot, they’re going to lick or bite at that area a lot because it hurts and they can't figure out why, and they don't understand it. So they just want to lick and lick and lick or bite at that area.
What is the difference between hospice and palliative care for my senior cat?
That's truly a good question. And I'll be honest with you. One that I had to look up myself to get the answer, but so the way I know it now, and the way I think of it is this. Palliative care is when you were trying to control the pain or suffering of an animal, but there is still hope of a recovery or a cure, whereas hospice care is still the ultimate goal is to try to make an animal comfortable, to remove whatever pain and suffering that cat might be going through. But with hospice care, typically there is no chance of a resolution or a cure. You have reached the end of your treatment options, and you're just trying to make the cat comfortable until they pass or can be put down.
What is euthanasia like for a senior cat?
Euthanasia would be us as veterinarians easing the passing of said cat, or maybe not easing, but causing the passing. There are drugs that we use injectably that, there's no polite way to put it, but that will stop the heart of a cat. And obviously in their life, that way it's very humane. It's very quick. It's very peaceful. It is quite literally an overdose of an anesthetic. So there's no pain involved with it. It's just, again, when we know that an animal (a cat in this case) is at the end of their life and there's nothing else we can do, there's no point in allowing that animal to suffer and to die a long, drawn-out, painful death. There's no point in that at all. So it's our responsibility as veterinarians to ease that suffering. And that's how it's done.
How can I tell if it is time to euthanize my cat?
The reality is most of these cats are going to show you much more subtle early signs, and you're probably going to take the cat to your veterinarian to have them checked—to have lab work or x-rays—whatever it takes to diagnose what the underlying problem is. So again, with that information and the advice of your veterinarian and their staff, a group decision will typically be made in reference to what treatment options are. Euthanasia is usually the last thing that we can do to ease their suffering. So once all other treatment options have been exhausted and there is no improvement or the animal continues to decline, that's when the time for euthanasia.
Would it be better to let my senior cat pass away on its own?
I get asked that one every now and then as well. The simple answer is, no. I can't really justify a reason for me to say that's better. I've been doing this for over 20 years and I can count maybe not on one hand, but probably on two hands, how many times an animal has died peacefully on their own at home. It just doesn't happen very often. They fight. They hang on. They just don't let go the way that we would want them to let go. So oftentimes it stinks, but we as veterinarians and sometimes you as owners have to make that hard decision for them. I encourage people to think of it not as being cruel because I, too, struggle with that.
What gives me the right to do that? What gives me the power and the right to decide if an animal lives or dies? It's a weird power to yield, but I've come to realize that it's the last bit of love that we can give them. It really is. When you know that the end is there, there's nothing else you can offer and there's nothing that's going to make this animal turn around. Isn't it kinder to let them go with dignity, pain-free, in a controlled, loving setting where their owner can be right there with them, holding them, talking to them? I would like to go that way.
I hope that that can be done for me one day, and I know it can't, but who wouldn't want to pass that way in that situation. So, yeah. I think it is much more feasible and humane for the animal to ease them in their passing, as opposed to drawing it out and just waiting and waiting and waiting for them to pass at home.
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