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Senior cat healthchecks

Cats have long been recognised as having an amazing capacity to recover from some of the insults that life throws its way and in these days of better diet and better healthcare, a cat’s nine lives are lasting longer and longer. We no longer consider cats of ten years or more as old, but we do recognise that their bodies change. With advancing years, a number of conditions tend to stand out as being seen most commonly in the more mature cat.


The first condition that should be mentioned is kidney failure for the simple reason that many cats do succumb to this in later life. We very rarely know what actually causes the initial damage but the result is that the ability of the kidneys to filter blood and remove waste products is impaired. One of the signs recognised early on in the disease is an increased thirst and increased urination. You may notice your cat suddenly drinking like a fish from all sorts of locations. Cats are originally desert dwellers and have a great ability to concentrate their urine and conserve water. Once the kidneys are damaged, affected cats are noticed to pass more urine which is more dilute than it should be. Although collecting urine samples from cats is always quite a challenge for the owner, and often for the vet, samples are incredibly useful. Checking urine samples can give us an early warning about the kidneys but also help spot problems such as diabetes and cystitis.

A product of the metabolism, Urea is the substance that causes many of the problems and it rises because damaged kidneys fail to remove it from the blood. As it rises, a cat’s appetite will get worse and they will lose weight, but they also lose protein through the damaged kidneys. In severe cases, we also see vomiting, ulcers in the mouth and sometimes depression because of its affect in the brain.

We cannot reverse the damage to the kidneys but we can manage renal failure in a number of ways. By changing a cat’s diet to one of the diets specifically designed for the condition, we can reduce how much urea is produced and therefore improve the way the cat feels. We can also improve their appetite and attend to some of the imbalances that result from failing kidneys.

High blood pressure

Whilst stress is a major factor for humans with high blood pressure, you might not expect such a problem for cats! It can be a knock on effect of kidney failure, but may also occur with any individual, of possibly any age. Not only does high blood pressure result from failing kidneys, it accelerates the damage so it is vitally important to identify it. High blood pressure can also cause other problems such as bleeding into the eyes which can easily result in blindness. The old adage of prevention being better than cure is especially appropriate with a problem that can suddenly leave your cat blind without any apparent warning. Blood pressure is measured in a technique incredibly similar to that used in a Doctor’s surgery. It isn’t always easy but most cats accept it remarkably well.


One problem that results in some of the symptoms already described is called hyperthyroidism. There are two thyroid glands and they are located in the neck. Thyroid hormone controls the speed of the metabolism; how quickly the body works. Hyperthyroidism generally develops as a result of a benign tumour, so it is a form of cancer, however mostly, it is one which we can not only treat, but very often cure. Most of the changes develop gradually. They generally develop an incredible appetite but whilst they may eat everything in the larder, they generally lose weight quite quickly. Some of these cats are described as Morris Minors that turn into Porsches!

Some sickness and diarrhoea may be seen. Their coat deteriorates and they take on a scruffy and unkempt appearance. The more serious side of this condition is the effects that this hormone has on the muscle of the heart. Like a bodybuilder’s biceps, the muscle generally thickens and gets much larger. This leaves less room for the blood and the heart rate must rise in order to pump the blood. As the heart rate, or if you like, pulse rate goes up, the rhythm may also fail. ‘Heart failure’ means that the cat’s heart cannot cope with the volume of blood and as a result of this, fluid is forced from the blood out into cavities such as the abdomen where we get ‘ascites’ or around the lungs where it stops the lungs filling with air. Humans in heart failure often develop a cough but this rarely happens in cats.

Cats develop difficulty with their breathing and the rate of breathing gets greater and the depth much shallower and results quite possibly in severe weakness, even collapse. Once diagnosed by a blood sample, we may treat this condition quite successfully with medications and then quite possibly with surgery.


One might not consider a seven year old cat old, but certainly their joints do seem to age quicker than the rest of them. So why is it that we don’t seem to see that many as suffering from arthritis? Cats will be mostly seen to change their behaviour. They are sometimes referred to as the ‘Four faces of feline Pain’.

Signs to look out for are a reluctance to jump up onto your lap, or onto furniture. You may also observe them being reluctant to use their cat flap which could be most obvious from their use of a cat litter tray, or a loss of house-training. Some may be seen to sleep far more and some others may begin to look rather scruffy as they tend to groom less. Some cats may become very grouchy or they may seem far more withdrawn. So whilst some individuals seem to exhibit the very typical stiffness and may have creaky joints, many others certainly won’t. Arthritis is certainly difficult to confirm in cats with many apparently normal joints on x-ray having quite advanced damage to the cartilage, rather the expected very abnormal appearance seen on this x-ray taken of Gareth’s cat, Felix, with severe arthritis in the hip joint on the left side.

We have struggled in years gone by to identify this problem and to actually help with safe medicines but now we do have medications known as anti-inflammatories which are reliable and safe for long term use in cats so there is help available. We can also turn to a number of supplements shown to help as well as a special diet enhanced with a specific balance of omega 3 fatty acids (fish oils) which is clinically proven to work. We also have a course of injections which slow the progress of arthritic change and reduce the amount of inflammation and pain.


If you think your cat has toothache but is too old for an anaesthetic, think again. Advances in anaesthesia do mean that even cats considered to be really rather old can sail through and make rapid recoveries so don’t consider your cat too old to have rotten teeth and the accompanying pain attended to.

These are just a few of the conditions specifically associated with older cats. As veterinary surgeons, we are frequently reminded by experts that they are not small dogs! This may be a message passed on from the cats themselves, obviously terribly insulted by the merest consideration that this might be the case! In the problems they develop, how we recognise them, and then treat them, then most certainly, they remain both unique and some may consider quite contrary. As Garrison Keilor wrote, “Cats are intended to teach us that not everything in nature has a function.”

Senior healthchecks at Wright & Morten

Identification of some of these problems, especially kidney problems can be hidden from routine examinations so a few other simple checks can help us to identify when they may be developing.

We offer a health check service to make these additional checks. To make it easy for you and to allow us time to obtain and check urine samples, along with checking blood pressure, we can admit your cat in the morning, complete the checks and have the results and your cat ready to go home during an appointment in the afternoon or evening.

Blood sampling

A blood sample may also be completed if you would like us to perform these tests. They allow a far more comprehensive and thorough examination of your cat. It is important that should you wish us to perform this blood sample, that you should withhold food on the morning of the appointment so that the sample results are not altered by the meal.

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