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PHYSICAL CHANGES IN OLDER CATS

Your pet's soft, glossy fur may have a little more gray than it used to, and you've noticed a few more white hairs around her eyes - that's normal. But you shouldn't automatically attribute any other changes you notice in your feline companion to the fact that she is just getting old.

With appropriate attention, many common age-related problems can be treated successfully or their progression delayed. Here's what to watch for:

Changed Grooming Behavior

Your cat may need a bit more help to keep looking and smelling good as she ages. Why?

Cats who aren't as flexible anymore may lose interest in self-grooming, causing their coats to become dirty or oily and mat more easily. Also, your cat's claws will get less wear as she slows down, so she'll need more frequent nail trims.

You can help your pet by combing and brushing her daily and trimming her nails as needed. Brushing reduces the amount of hair shell swallow during self-grooming, which should help keep her from forming hairballs in her intestine. And regular grooming sessions give you the perfect opportunity to detect any lumps, bumps, parasites, or sores that won't heal - and catch potential health complications early.

With good nutrition, regular brushing, and an occasional bath, your cat will be shiny and comfortable. And she'll appreciate the attention and the chance to spend time with you.

As they grow older, some cats begin grooming excessively. This compulsive behavior may be related to stress or boredom. And you may not catch your pet in the act if she licks and chews her fur only when you're gone. One telltale sign is a thinning of the coat on her back. In advanced cases, you also may notice sparse hair on your cat's tummy and legs.

Cats don't lose their hair with age, so if your cat has a thinner coat or patchy bald spots, take her to the veterinarian. He will check your pet for external parasites, chronic illnesses or behavior problems.

Abnormal Discharges

If your cat has abnormal or foul-smelling discharge coming from the nose, eyes, mouth, ears, vagina or penis, it could be a sign of an infection or cancer. If you notice pus or blood on your pet, take her to the veterinarian right away.

Intestinal Distress

Your pet may vomit or have diarrhea if she eats the wrong thing or gets a hairball. This intestinal upset can dehydrate your older pet rapidly and can signal serious illnesses such as kidney disease, pancreatic disease, inflammatory bowel disease or cancer. Alert your veterinarian if the problem is severe or recurring.

Changed Breathing

Your cat's breathing pattern and rate can tell you a lot about the health of her lungs and whether she's comfortable. Healthy cats take between 20 and 40 breaths per minute when they're resting.

Rapid breathing or panting could mean your pet is in pain, overheated or suffering from lung disease. And if she has difficulty breathing or can't get into a comfortable position to sleep, it may indicate such serious problems as congestive heart failure or fluid surrounding the lungs from an infection.

Coughing also can signal problems. Your pet might cough if she has inflamed airways, heart disease or cancer. If you notice signs of breathing-related health problems, take your cat to the veterinarian for an exam.

Mouth and Teeth Trouble

Pets of all ages can have bad breath. But it really isn't normal - your cat's mouth should be almost odorless. A bad smell could mean your kitty has health problems, including periodontal disease, tooth decay or fractures, ulcers, abscesses - or a systemic illness such as kidney disease.

Your cat may paw at her face if she has a foreign object caught in her mouth or gums. And she may lay off the chow or drool if her mouth is sore. Not getting enough to eat can put her at risk for other health problems such as hepatic lipidosis, or fatty liver, so call your veterinarian if your kitty skips more than one meal.

Keep in mind, older cats are likelier to suffer from dental diseases and oral tumors, so they may need more frequent dental cleanings and treatments than young cats. Premium dental diets and special treats can help reduce tartar buildup.

If your cat has lost many teeth and has trouble chewing, she may need a semi-moist or canned food that's easier to chew and digest to help her maintain an ideal body weight.

High Blood Pressure

Hypertension, or abnormally high blood pressure, frequently affects older cats. Cats who have an underlying illness such as kidney disease or hyperthyroidism are more likely to have high blood pressure, but it also occurs in aged cats who don't have other diseases.

Cats with this disorder may suddenly become blind, drink more water and urinate more frequently, experience seizures, develop musculoskeletal or respiratory problems, or have bloody noses. They may also behave strangely, gazing into space or yowling excessively.

Even if you don't notice any symptoms of high blood pressure, it's important for your veterinarian to examine your elderly cat at least twice a year. Your veterinarian will assess your cat's condition and can measure her blood pressure to determine if treatment is needed. If necessary your veterinarian will prescribe medications to manage the hypertension and to help prevent damage to your cat's organs.

Let your veterinarian know about any concerns you have about your older cat. You'll improve the chances for early detection of disease and ensure prompt care - which can extend and enhance your pet's quality of life.