Health Concerns for the Aging Cat



Written by: Dr. Chip Coombs

After living with a cat for many years, it is only natural that an owner will feel that they know them inside and out and would certainly be able to know when they were sick. This seems like a fair assumption, but cats can fool us, as behavioural changes and habits can change subtly and slowly over time. Consequently, we might just assume that “it’s just old age” and not really attribute any true significance to the change itself.

As our pets age, as is the case with us, we don’t function quite as well as we used to, and medical issues arise. They might be sudden and obvious, or they may occur slowly and discretely over time. Hence, it is very important that as our pets age we have them checked physically at least once a year and when they become seniors, every six months is even more prudent. A thorough physical exam is very important along with an in-depth history from you, the owner, to determine if there have been any changes – such as decreasing appetite, drinking more water, using the litter box more often, vocalization, inability to reach that favourite lookout perch, or any other noticeable change.

If any such changes have occurred, your veterinarian will undoubtedly want to take a blood and urine sample to run some routine, diagnostic tests that will help determine where a potential issue may lie. For example, a cat drinking more water than usual is a common clinical sign noticed by an owner. This is often triggered by something as simple as noticing that the water bowl is constantly dry. As a clinical sign alone, drinking more water implies something is amiss, but it could be any one of many different possibilities – i.e. bladder infection, kidney issues, liver issues, thyroid issues or diabetes to name a few. Blood and urine tests will quickly determine the cause.

So, what are some of the most common issues facing an elderly cat?

One of the most common issues would be Kidney Failure. Kidneys don’t usually just suddenly fail to function unless exposed to a toxin or are affected by a very aggressive form of cancer. Usually, kidney failure is a slow gradual process that occurs over many months and often years in which the kidneys gradually become less efficient at filtering the blood and excreting the body’s waste products. As the waste products accumulate, the body gets poisoned. Typical clinical signs would be excessive drinking and urinating along with a decreasing appetite and weight loss. If caught early, renal failure (which can affect about 75% of cats) can be successfully stalled for years through diets, medication and fluid therapy.

Some of the above clinical signs can also be caused by another common disease in older felines and that is Hyperthyroidism. Cats have two tiny thyroid glands in their throat region and if one or both become overactive, they enlarge and become easily palpable on physical exam. The detection on a physical exam can be easily corroborated by a blood test. Usually, a cat has excessive drinking and urination with weight loss, but the appetite is usually increased. The metabolic system of the cat’s body is in overdrive due to the excess thyroid hormone being produced and needs to be brought under control to avoid a figurative crash and burn of specific organs, like the heart. Treatment is straightforward either with daily oral medication or radioactive iodine I131. When caught early, and the hyperthyroidism is under control, cats can live very long lives.

Diabetes is also very common in older cats and, once again, has similar clinical signs of excessive drinking and urinating with weight loss. Initially, the appetite is increased, but as the ravaging effects of uncontrolled diabetes sets in, the appetite will dwindle rapidly. Diabetes is controlled the same way in cats, as it is in people, through injections of insulin. The odd cat’s blood sugar levels can be balanced through oral medications, but insulin usage is the norm. With cats the best approach is prevention! Overweight cats are very prone to getting diabetes and so if your veterinarian is recommending that your cat loses weight, it is very important to make that happen.

Dental Disease in cats, especially older cats, is very common – and it is painful! The tooth enamel in cats is very thin and when tartar builds up on the outside of the teeth, the enzymes and bacteria that are trapped against the tooth and gum surface cause havoc by dissolving the tooth enamel. The result is exposed tooth pulp (painful!) and following infection. Because cats can be quite stoical, an owner may not appreciate that the mouth is painful, unless they see their cat pawing at, or eating out of, one side of the mouth. Regular physical exams and appropriate cleaning is the best prevention and special diets and home-care brushing can be very helpful as well.

When owners reach a certain age, they get reminded every day of how they are not so young anymore through the various aches and pains in their joints. Arthritis in cats is just as common, although they don’t have the benefit of having bionic joint replacements to bring them relief. Drugs and supplements are the usual treatment, and these can be very effective. However, again it is best to start early before the joints in question become so worn that they are bone on bone. There are a plethora of treatment options including oral drugs and supplements designed to stop the pain and rebuild the joint cartilage. Owners can also use special diets and can be taught how to give small injections under the skin. Although far too early to know for sure, it is even possible that medical cannabis might have some promise in a few years.

The final concern for older cats, that is common, is Cancer. Unfortunately, as we all are so aware, cancer can affect us and our pets at any age. However, increasing age certainly does increase the possibility because as the cells age, their normal activity becomes more flawed and are more inclined to multiple in bizarre fashion. Lymphoma is the most common cancer in cats and can show up anywhere in the body. Leukemia is also quite common and may or may not be caused by a virus. If the virus is particularly common in your area and you have an outside cat, your veterinarian may recommend a preventive vaccine. Other common cancers are Squamous Cell Carcinoma and Fibrosarcoma. The challenge with cats is very similar to what faces people, we often don’t know the cause of a particular cancer and so preventing it can be very difficult. However, it is fair to say that the prognosis is usually much better if it is diagnosed early and treated early. If cancer has progressed or metastasized, treatment may not be an option, other than palliative care. Cancer can be insidious, which make regular physical check-ups that much more important for your cat, even if there are no unusual clinical signs. If caught early, many cats with cancer will have a number of quality years ahead. So even if your cat lives indoors and seems fine, regular physical exams increasing with frequency as they get older, is your best prevention.


Keep your cat happy and healthy! To learn more about our cat insurance coverage or to get a quote visit: