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6 Common Health Concerns in Senior Cats

Veterinarian Dr. Alycia Washington on how to spot them and how to treat them.

by Alycia Washington, DVM
December 1, 2021
Owner pets senior ginger cat.
Tanya Yatsenko / Stocksy

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Advances in veterinary medicine have led to an overall increase in the life expectancy of cats, especially those that receive regular veterinary care. Even with regular checkups, cats are at risk of developing certain diseases as they age. What should you be on the lookout for when your senior cat is old enough to qualify for kitty AARP? Let’s review six common diseases affecting senior cats, their symptoms, and some expected diagnostics and treatments for them.

1. Chronic Kidney Disease

Chronic kidney disease (CKD) is one of the most commonly diagnosed diseases in senior cats. The kidneys are responsible for eliminating waste products, balancing the body’s water content, and releasing hormones that control blood pressure, calcium levels, and red blood cell production. Kidney function often decreases with age, leading to dehydration, buildup of waste products, urine changes, high blood pressure, and anemia. 

Symptoms of CKD in cats include increased urination, increased water intake, vomiting, decreased appetite, and weight loss. Cats with CKD have trouble maintaining hydration, so increased urination and thirst are often early signs of this disease. Vomiting or decreased appetite may indicate a sudden increase in kidney enzymes. CKD causes weight loss due to reduced muscle mass and fat stores.  

Blood work, urinalysis, and blood pressure checks are used to diagnose chronic kidney disease and determine the stage of the disease. Ultrasound of the kidneys may be useful in differentiating CKD from other causes of kidney problems. Since CKD is managed, not cured, treatment may include diet, fluid therapy, or medications, depending on the severity of the disease. 

2. Hyperthyroid Disease

We’ve all seen the cranky, skinny old cat. While some of these slender cats are just asserting their dominance over humans by being crabby, others have underlying hyperthyroid disease. Thyroid hormones help regulate body temperature, metabolism, and behavior. Hyperthyroid disease involves an overproduction of these thyroid hormones, leading to rapid metabolism, increased hunger, high blood pressure, and behavioral changes. 

Symptoms of hyperthyroid disease include weight loss (despite a healthy appetite), vomiting, and changes to behavior like hyperactivity and aggression. Feline hyperthyroid disease is diagnosed from a thorough physical exam (checking for enlarged thyroid glands) and blood work. Once confirmed, additional tests are often recommended to rule out secondary issues like kidney or heart disease.

Treatment involves regulating thyroid hormone production with medication, diet, radiation treatment, or surgery. Depending on the chosen therapeutic option, treatment may be long-term management or a one-time procedure. 

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3. Diabetes Mellitus

Older, overweight cats are at increased risk of developing diabetes mellitus. Diabetes mellitus occurs when the body’s blood sugar levels are abnormal due to either a lack of insulin production (Type I) or inappropriate response to insulin (Type II). Cats are more likely to be diagnosed with Type II diabetes. Symptoms of diabetes mellitus include increased thirst, increased urination, poor appetite, vomiting, and weight loss. Diabetes mellitus is diagnosed with blood work and a urinalysis. 

Treatment involves dietary restrictions and insulin injections — often twice daily. Regular blood sugar checks are needed to ensure the insulin dose does not need to be adjusted. Cats with Type II diabetes mellitus can go into remission with proper treatment. Remission of disease has been reported in approximately 30% of cases with treatment, so early diagnosis and appropriate treatment can make a big impact. 

4. Arthritis

Senior cats may become less active with age, as cartilage wears thin, leading to joint inflammation and pain. Some of this may be due to a well-developed indifference to their surroundings, but sometimes it is due to underlying joint pain.

Symptoms of arthritis in cats include limping, reluctance to jump, stiff gait, and decreased activity. Radiographs are used to identify arthritic joints — hips, elbows, and knees are common sites of feline arthritis. Treatment involves pain control, weight management, and environmental changes like pet stairs and low-walled litter boxes

5. Dental Disease

Cats commonly develop dental disease as they age. Feline dental disease can vary in severity from tartar build up to tooth resorption. Untreated dental disease leads to oral pain and increased risk of infection. A tell tale signs of dental disease are when a cat has bad breath, difficulty eating, drops food, drools, and has poor appetite. 

Dental disease is diagnosed with a thorough physical exam and dental radiographs. Treatment involves dental cleanings, extractions (tooth removal) when indicated, and treating underlying infections.

6. Cancer

An unfortunate truth is that the risk of cats developing cancer increases as they get older. Common cancers seen in cats include lymphoma, squamous cell sarcoma, and mammary tumors. Symptoms seen in cats with cancer include poor appetite, lethargy, weight loss, labored breathing, changes to the skin, or fur loss. However, symptoms can vary widely, so regular check-ups are essential for early detection. 

Diagnosis is dependent on the type and location of the disease, but blood work, radiographs, ultrasound, and cytology are commonly used tools. Treatment options vary by diagnosis, but your veterinarian can talk you through all available options.

alycia washington, dvm

Alycia Washington, DVM

Alycia Washington, DVM, is a small animal emergency veterinarian based in North Carolina. She works as a relief veterinarian and provides services to numerous emergency and specialty hospitals. Dr. Washington is also a children’s book author and freelance writer with a focus on veterinary medicine. She has a special fondness for turtles, honey bees, and penguins — none of which she treats. In her free time, Dr. Washington enjoys travel, good food, and good enough coffee.