Sunday , 16 June 2019

Caring for Your Older Cat with Cat Expert Vet Dr. Sarah Caney BVSc PhD

Sarah Caney head and shoulders

Every pet parent wants their cat to live a long & happy life. Today there are more & more advances to help your feline do exactly that. There are things you can do in your home to help your cat & also things that are important to watch for with older cats, to be sure they get the best care to stay in vibrant health in older years.

We have a treat for you at Dr. Sarah Caney BVSc PhD to talk about cat health, especially for older cats! Learn how to care for your older cat – so they can be and stay healthy and live the most optimum life they can.

Dr. Sarah Caney BVSc PhD is a 1993 graduate of the University of Bristol (UK) where she also did her residency in feline medicine and PhD. She is one of only 14 Royal College of Veterinary Surgeon’s Specialists in Feline Medicine and enjoys seeing a mixture of first opinion and referral feline patients. She has written a number of books for cat owners and veterinary professionals including ‘Caring for a cat with chronic kidney disease’ published by her company Cat Professional, a subdivision of Vet Professionals Ltd ( Sarah does a lot of owner-orientated feline research through online questionnaires and is especially interested in geriatric feline medicine.  At what age is a cat considered an older cat?

Dr. Sarah Caney BVSc PhD: The cat charity International Cat Care (formerly the Feline Advisory Bureau) has recently redefined age ranges in association with Hill’s Pet Nutrition. Their age ranges classify older cats as:

1.     ‘Mature’ when they 7–10 years old (equated to a 44–56 year old human)
2.     ‘Senior’ when they are 11–14 years old (equated to a 60–72 year old human)
3.     ‘Geriatric’ when they are 15 years or older (equated to a human 76 years or older)
These are the terms I use when assessing my own patients.  What health concerns are an older cat most vulnerable to at their age?

Dr. Sarah Caney BVSc PhD : There are many common problems in the older cat…. These include

•    Chronic kidney disease (also known as chronic renal failure) – Estimated to affect about 30% of cats over the age of 15
•    Cognitive dysfunction (the cat equivalent of Alzheimer’s). The age-related deterioration in brain function which results in behavioural changes such as toileting accidents, increased vocalisation (especially ‘yowling’ at night), confusion, forgetfulness and altered sleep patterns. This is estimated to affect more than 50% of cats over the age of 15
•    Hyperthyroidism – Estimated to affect about 10% of cats over the age of nine
•    Constipation
•    Deafness
•    Dental disease
•    Diabetes mellitus – Estimated to affect up to 1% of all cats
•    Cancer
•    Osteoarthritis – One study estimated that this affected more than 90% of cats over the age of 12
•    Systemic hypertension (high blood pressure) –  Estimated to affect more than 20% of cats with chronic kidney disease
The good news is that advances in feline medicine mean that we are now much better at both diagnosing and treating all of these conditions. Even in those conditions where a ‘cure’ is not possible (such as arthritis), there are always lots of things that can be done to improve quality of life (such as providing help with the cat’s environment (eg steps/ramps to favourite sleeping places), joint supplements and painkillers). How can a pet parent best take care of their older cat? What daily actions and regular routines can they do to help their older cat?

Dr. Sarah Caney BVSc PhD : This is a huge topic to try and cover! The essentials would be to
•    Daily activities which may be helpful in an elderly cat would include
o    Checking the claws to make sure that these are not too long. Older cats are more vulnerable to overgrowth of the claws which can be painful and debilitating
o    Grooming your older cat, especially if they suffer from arthritis which may make grooming themselves difficult or painful. Many cats love being brushed by their owners!
o    Don’t ignore any changes in your cat’s behaviour as they may be indicators of problems that can be helped. For example, if your cat starts to have toileting accidents (eg missing the litter tray) it may be due to arthritis which is affecting their ability to get into the litter box and/or adopt a normal toileting posture
•    Many of the older cat illnesses are very treatable now so don’t assume that there is no point in making a diagnosis! For example, newer treatments for chronic kidney disease are helping many cats to live with this diagnosis for several years with an excellent quality of life, following diagnosis
•    Cats are very good at hiding signs of illness and it is very common for small clues of illness to pass unnoticed until the illness is more advanced. A good example of this is weight loss which is an excellent indicator of ill health (many illnesses) but often is not noticed by a carer until very advanced. The answer in many ways to dealing with this problem is to perform preventive health checks on a regular basis in older cats. In general, the older the cat, the more frequent checks are justified. For example, the International Cat Care Wellcat recommendations involve:
o   ‘Mature’ cats – those aged ≥ 7 years – should have an annual examination including detailed history, physical examination, weight check, blood pressure (BP) measurement and a urinalysis.
o   ‘Senior’ cats – those aged ≥ 11 years – should have blood tests done (haematology, serum biochemistry, total T4) once a year in addition to the recommendations already made for mature cats. Consideration should be given to increasing the frequency of check-ups to every 6 months in these cats.
o   ‘Geriatric’ cats – those aged ≥ 15 years – should be assessed at a veterinary practice every 6 months at which time a clinical examination, weight check, body condition score, BP and urinalysis should be performed. Blood tests should continue to be done annually unless there is any clinical indication to increase the frequency of these.

I like to see my senior and geriatric cats every 3-6 months to ensure that I am quick to spot weight loss or other changes in my patients. The earlier a diagnosis can be made, the greater the chance of successful treatment. As ever, vigilance and attention to detail are the key.

Pediatric scales (ie those designed for weighing babies) can be a helpful addition to the household allowing you to check your older cat’s weight on a regular basis (eg monthly). Weight loss of 5% or more of your cat’s body weight should not be ignored – this equates to a 4 kg cat dropping to 3.8 kg or less.  What type of food should you feed an older cat? Are there specific treats that are good for an older cat, or any that are “no-no’s”?

Dr. Sarah Caney BVSc PhD : Many petfood companies make ‘lifestage’ diets which are designed according to the age of the cat. Senior catfoods tend to be lower in phosphate (which is of benefit to cats with reduced kidney function) and may have supplements aimed at improving joint and brain function in them. The ideal diet will vary from patient to patient and usually the cat’s veterinarian is the best person to advise regarding nutrition. For example, the type of nutrition is especially important in cats with chronic kidney disease. If your older cat has a chronic condition (like diabetes or something that needs daily medication or monitoring), what steps should a pet parent take to best take care of them?

Dr. Sarah Caney BVSc PhD : Again this is a huge question to answer. Overall, the best results come from good team work with your veterinary professionals. Every patient should be treated as an individual and their care designed accordingly. Close monitoring, attention to detail and an individualised approach are the key to a successful outcome. Keeping a treatment diary can be helpful (recording specific clinical signs, treatment administered etc). Trust your instincts and don’t be afraid to contact your vet if you are worried about your cat.  If you are going on vacation or away overnight and need someone to care for your older cat, what should someone know that would be specific for caring for older cats? What should you be sure to tell your cat sitter or friend who is caring for your cat?

Dr. Sarah Caney BVSc PhD : Some general tips would include
•    Elderly cats are often very ‘set in their ways’ – in other ways they are very routine driven. If someone different is caring for the cat they should be instructed as to what the cat’s routine is in every way. Changes in the food offered, litter box substrate, unfamiliar people/animals etc can all be stressful for an elderly cat. If possible, the cat should be cared for in their home environment (assuming that they are not ill/requiring hospital attention)

•    If the cat is being hospitalised or cared for in a boarding cattery then it can help to provide bedding, litter, food and other familiar items (toys etc) for the cat to have with it. Synthetic pheromone preparations (eg Feliway) used as a diffuser (in the hospital or cattery) or sprayed into the unit before the cat arrives can all help to promote a sense of calm and well-being

PurrfectCatNames:  There have been many medical advances in vet care today. If the vet recommends a serious procedure for your older cat, how can you determine it is the best course of action? Would getting a second opinion be a good way to go? Are there websites or books you can turn to? When do you know that this medical care is “too much” for your older cat?

Dr. Sarah Caney BVSc PhD: It is essential to have a good working relationship with your vet. If you feel at all uncomfortable or uncertain about what is being recommended then don’t be afraid to ask for a second opinion from another vet in the practice or a different clinic. It is essential that you feel comfortable about whatever decision is made. Additional resources are available online but be careful as some websites are not as good as others! An excellent website that I can recommend in addition to my own would be that for International Cat Care, a highly respected feline charity:

If in doubt as to whether you can ‘trust’ information you read online, then ask your veterinarian for their opinion. You can also ask your vet to contact a Specialist on your behalf – most Specialists are happy to answer advice calls/emails.

There are some books available that can help – I can of course recommend those on my website since these are all written by Feline Specialists and so contain the highest quality information.

Be careful about trusting books that appear to be quite old (eg more than 5 years) or ones that are written by unqualified people.

It can be very difficult deciding when medical care is ‘too much’. My advice is to trust your instincts as they are usually right. You know your cat best and often you will know when things are too much for you or your cat. If in doubt then ask your veterinarian for their opinion and advice. Make sure that you are completely comfortable with whatever decision is made – if unsure, take some more time to think.

Some useful guidelines for judging quality of life if considering making a decision for euthanasia:

a) Is your cat still behaving in its normal way – following its usual routines and activities (e.g. spending the same amount of time grooming)? Is your cat interacting with you as normal?
b) OR, has your cat become withdrawn and quiet, hiding, not interested in going outside (if normally allowed out) or in interacting with you and other animals in the home?

a) Is your cat still interested in food?
b) OR, has their appetite disappeared and getting them to eat has become a struggle?

Toiletting behaviour:
a) Is your cat still passing urine and faeces in the litter tray (or outside in the garden) as is normal for them?
b) OR, has your cat started to pass urine and faeces in other places (such as on their bed or on your carpets and flooring)?

a)  Is your cat as chatty as normal?
b)  OR, has there been a change in the amount of vocalisation (increase or decrease) or the sound that your cat makes when miaowing?

Pain or distress:
a)   Does your cat seem happy and comfortable?
b)  OR, have you seen any sign of pain or discomfort – for example signs of fear or aggression when being handled or sitting in the same place for hours with a glazed expression?

Signs of illness:
a)    Is your cat free of signs of illness?
b)    OR, is it suffering from signs of illness such as vomiting, weight loss or constipation?

If you answer b) to any of the above questions then you should consult your veterinarian for advice on whether there are any treatments that can help your cat to regain its quality of life. If there are, you need to consider whether to give these treatments a try before making any final decisions. Some who adopt cats prefer to choose an older cat. What are the benefits of adopting an older cat?

Dr. Sarah Caney BVSc PhD : I love older cats myself and would definitely choose to adopt an older cat. I think they make great companions and a perfect addition to the home. The ideal home for an older cat is usually child-free (certainly toddler free!) with a stable and calm atmosphere. Are older cats today getting “older” now than ever before? Are cats living longer lives? If so, what do you think pet parents can do to help their cats live longer lives?

Dr. Sarah Caney BVSc PhD : Yes, it is now very common to see cats in their 20s at vet clinics. The oldest cat I saw was nearly 30 but it is certainly now quite common to see cats in their early 20s. I think the keys to achieving this have been improvements in feline nutrition and feline medicine. Many illnesses affecting older cats can now be treated/stabilised for years with affected cats enjoying an excellent quality of life throughout.

Thank you Dr. Sarah Caney BVSc PhD for joining us today! readers, if you have concerns about older cat care, consider visiting Dr. Sarah Caney BVSc PhD’s website, it offers some helpful resources for pet parents.  You’ll find books aimed at care providers, written by Specialists which contain detailed information on managing specific medical conditions:

Books include:
o  Caring for a cat with chronic kidney disease
o  Caring for a blind cat
o  Caring for a cat with lower urinary tract disease
o  Caring for a cat with hyperthyroidism
o  Caring for an overweight cat

There is also lots of free helpful information, including articles, technical guides and videos directed at care providers and also veterinary professionals, you can find them here:

Consider also taking the time to fill out one of Dr. Sarah Caney BVSc PhD’s surveys about feline illness. There are a range of surveys covering older cats and cats with specific conditions, such as chronic kidney disease. Dr. Sarah Caney BVSc PhD would love to hear about your cats, so if you have the time to complete one of more surveys, they would be delighted and it would help other cat lovers and pet parents.

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