—Feline Behavior Specialist 🇺🇸
This is the second article in a two-part series on senior cats, and we’ll look at common diseases that face aging cats.
If you haven't read part one yet, you can do so by clicking this link.
Why are we doing this? Isn’t it kind of depressing? No! Because with early detection, most of these conditions are extremely manageable, so knowledge will keep your kitty comfy and with you longer.
This is not to make you upset or paranoid, but just to educate you on what you could face. Just more of a reason to stay in tune with your cat and take them to annual wellness exams.
It’s also important to note that just because your cat has symptoms doesn’t mean it’s definitely a related illness.
One of my cats urinates a lot and drinks a lot of water, so his care team and I were extremely concerned about his kidneys. It turns out, his kidneys are fine, and the symptoms are just a reaction to the steroid he takes daily to manage his inflammatory bowel disease. Having said that, communicate any physical or behavioral changes to your vet.
Kitties get sore joints too! Arthritis was often undiagnosed in cats, but in recent years, awareness has helped more vets, and patient owners notice when mobility is slightly off.
- Stiff or painful joints, most commonly around the hip, knee, ankle, and elbow
- Matted fur (can’t groom hard to reach places)
- Decreased activity level and less jumping
- Weight loss
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory meds
- Supplements, like Cosequin® and omega oils
Prognosis: It’s rare for a cat to become completely immobile, and it’s just more likely you will notice them not wanting to walk as far, being slower on steps, etc. While you can’t reverse arthritis, the above treatments can make your cat more comfortable.
Teeth: Dental Disease
Problems with teeth are extremely common in cats. While dental disease can technically strike at any time, there is an increased likelihood of dental disease in senior cats. We’ll look at the three most common dental diseases, gingivitis, periodontitis, and tooth resorption.
Gingivitis is an Inflammation of gums due to the build-up of plaque. It’s extremely treatable by brushing your cat’s teeth or scheduling a teeth descaling procedure (dental) with your vet. If untreated, it turns into periodontitis, which is when the tissue attached to the tooth and underlying gums and bone are weakened by disease-causing bacteria in the cat’s own immune system. It sounds bad, and it is, but if addressed, your cat can live pain-free.
- Mouth pain
- Decreased appetite
- Bad breath
- Redness, swelling, and sometimes bleeding gums (gingivitis)
- Gum recession, tooth root exposure and tooth loss (periodontitis)
- Brushing teeth
- Teeth scaling (requires anesthesia)
- Antibiotics (pill or oral rinse)
- Tooth removal (in extreme cases)
Prognosis: Since gingivitis is reversible and preventable, the outcome is usually great! For periodontitis, once the problem teeth are removed, and teeth with gingivitis are scaled and polished, the cat should do well. It’s important to do what you can to prevent gingivitis in the first place by brushing your cat’s teeth.
The tooth basically breaks down, from the inside out, and is the #1 reason for missing teeth. The cause isn’t known.
- Tooth pinkish close to the gumline
- Extreme pain
- Reluctance to eat
- Pain management
- Prevent progression
- Tooth removal
Prognosis: Similar to other dental conditions, once the problem tooth is removed, the cat should be okay. If there is no discomfort or pain, monitoring your cat will be the most important part of managing this condition.
When the lens in a cat’s eye becomes foggy, the light can’t pass through, and vision is impaired.
- The eye appears hazy, blueish, or cloudy
- May have vision impairment (bump into furniture)
Prognosis: If you catch cataracts early and the cause isn’t something underlying, the prognosis is good. If caught later or due to an underlying illness, blindness is a possibility.
GI Tract: Inflammatory Bowel Disease
The simplest way to explain IBD is the lining of the GI tract thickens because of infection or intolerance to a protein in the cat’s diet. The thickening makes it harder for the cat to absorb nutrients and digest food properly, making it a major problem.
- Chronic vomiting and/or diarrhea
- Mucus in stool
- Weight loss
- Poor appetite
- Diet - Need food with protein cat hasn’t been exposed to before or a high-fiber diet.
- Fiber supplement
- B12 injections
- Steroids and other anti-inflammatory meds
Prognosis: If the cat responds to any of the treatments, especially dietary changes, the prognosis is good. Even if the cat needs to be on steroids long-term, most side effects are minimal in cats (unlike humans). If diet and steroids are not effective, there is room for concern. Additionally, it is believed the inflammation associated with IBD could lead to GI lymphoma. But relax, IBD is more common than GI lymphoma.
Kidneys: Chronic Kidney Disease
Kidney disease is the end result of a variety of diseases, from viral and bacterial infections to congenital defects and kidney stones. Your vet will diagnose the stage of kidney disease or renal failure by analyzing a ratio of creatinine levels vs protein in urine and measuring blood pressure.
- Excessive thirst
- Excessive urination or urinating without control
- Poor coat quality
- Weight loss
- Phosphate binders
- Potassium supplementation
- Vitamins B & C
- Anti-vomiting meds
- Blood pressuring lowering meds
- Treatment of anemia
Prognosis: Damage is mostly irreversible, but with early detection and proper management, kidney disease progresses very slowly. Cats undergoing treatment can have several fulfilling years.
An enlarged thyroid causes an increase in certain hormone production and leads to a superfast metabolism. So, sounds good because it controls weight, right? Wrong. When a metabolism works at that rate, the body cannot consume enough nutrients to keep up and will start to pull calcium and phosphate out of bones, weakening them and putting your cat at risk for osteoporosis.
- Weight loss
- Increased appetite, thirst, urination
- Unkempt coat
- Vomiting & diarrhea
- Radiation iodine therapy
Prognosis: When the cat responds to treatment, the prognosis is good; however, the thyroid impacts a lot of other areas in the body, so secondary problems like heart disease and high blood pressure are possible.
Heart: Heart Disease
Some cats are born with heart disease, and others acquire it over time, so it can sometimes feel like a coin toss. We’ll look at the symptoms and treatment for cardiomyopathy, the thickening of the heart muscle, and because it’s the most common form of heart disease in cats.
- Difficulty exercising
- Shortness of breath
- Fast breathing while at rest
- Chronic coughing
- Elevated heart rate
- Meds that:
- Relax the heart muscle
- Slow heart rate
- Decrease workload of heart
Prognosis: There are so many variables; it is hard to say. If your cat has a form of heart disease that progresses slowly or stays in mild stages, then that is the best outcome. Heart disease is incredibly unpredictable, and even with medication, can progress into a failure quickly. Also, many cats have heart disease that remains undetected until it’s advanced. The prognosis for those cats isn’t as positive.
Just like with people, cats can get all types of cancer. The most common forms are lymphoma (blood cancer), squamous cell carcinoma (skin cancer, especially common in warmer climates), and fibrosarcoma (from injected vaccines, medicines, and fluids).
- Lumps in odd places that continue to grow
- White plaque or raised bump on the skin (for skin cancers)
- Lumps at injection sites (fibrosarcoma)
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Sores that do not heal
- Difficulty swallowing, breathing, urinating or defecating
Prognosis: For lymphoma, nearly 75% of cats go into complete remission. Skin cancer is more aggressive, and for the 10% who get squamous cell carcinoma orally, the outcome usually isn’t good. Fibrosarcoma tends not to metastasize, so once surgery and chemo or radiation are complete, the prognosis is good; however, the cat cannot receive any more vaccines because the risk of cancer coming back is too high.
Early Detection Is Key
These are just quick overviews of common illnesses and diseases in seniors. Monitor your fur babies closely and always reach out to your vet if you have any questions about their health. Remember, most of these have a good prognosis and can be managed. Just be sure to take them to the vet a minimum of once a year for an exam and senior blood panel.
American College of Veterinary Surgeons - Osteoarthritis in Cats
Cornell University of Veterinary Medicine - Feline Dental Disease
Cornell University of Veterinary Medicine - Feline Cataracts
VCA Animal Hospitals - Inflammatory Bowel Disease in Cats
VCA Animal Hospitals - Chronic Kidney Disease in Cats
The Cornell University of Veterinary Medicine - Hyperthyroidism in Cats
Harlingen Veterinary Clinic - Heart Disease in Cats
Pet Health Network - Cancer and Cats
Pet Health Network - 3 Most Common Cancers in Cats
Article by Elizabeth Italia 🙋♀️
Cat Behavior & Fostering Specialist