As animals age, changes occur in their bodies. Some of these changes are familiar to us, eg arthritis affecting the joints, but in other parts of the body they may not be so obvious. The muscle in the heart may not pump so well, the cells in the intestines may not absorb food so well. The immune system will not be able to fight infection as well, and the healing process can take longer. This does not mean that older animals cannot undergo surgery or live normal active lives, but it does mean that we should give them a little extra care.
With cats and medium sized dogs aging about 7 years for every human year, we recommend that older cats and dogs have health checks every 6 months (comparable to a human having a health check every 3 and a half years).
Some cats age faster than others but generally they are judged to be; middle aged at 7-10 years old, senior at 11-14 years old, and geriatric at 15 years and over.
With good care many cats can often live to their late teens/early twenties, however, with aging their bodies will undergo changes which can affect their hearing, movement, vision, taste/smell, digestion, sleep cycles and even their ability to handle stress.
Older cats can also often demonstrate behavioural changes. These may be triggered by underlying medical conditions e.g. hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid) or hypertension (high blood pressure), or by an aging change within the brain. Although aging is inevitable and there are many conditions associated with old age, there is a lot that can be done to minimise the negative effects on your cat. The purpose of the geriatric clinics is to pick up early symptoms and provide advice or treatment which can minimise any effects on your cat and their quality of life.
What is checked at a wellness visit?
Weight & body condition – Being overweight or underweight are both potential consequences of aging. Cats that are overweight will tend to move around less, they will visit the litter tray or go out into the garden less and this can make them more prone to bladder issues. They are also more likely to suffer from diabetes, heart disease and arthritis. On the other hand, there are many reasons that an older cat can lose weight (overactive thyroid, diabetes, kidney problems, reduced appetite, dental problems etc). Underweight cats are more prone to infections (poorer immune systems), lack of muscle can also lead to joint discomfort through instability. It is also very hard to increase muscle in an elderly cat with a poor appetite, so maintaining body condition is essential. Treatment of any underlying conditions and advice on appropriate diets can help your cat maintain a healthy weight as it gets older.
Skin & Coat – Grooming is an important normal behaviour in cats. Often older cats stop grooming and this can happen for many reasons. Dental disease making it painful to groom, arthritis and spinal pain making it difficult to turn their head, obesity making certain body parts inaccessible, and brain aging making them forgetful. This can lead to a very thick scurfy coat and the development of matted clumps of fur. Also certain medical conditions (e.g. hyperthyroidism) can result in increased fur growth, which can make the problem even worse. With treatment of any underlying problems and advice on grooming techniques, the impact on the general well being of your cat can be immense.
Kidneys & Bladder – Kidney disease is a common condition in older cats. There are many potential causes, but most commonly in older cats the ability of the kidneys to make the urine concentrated has been lost. This means that they will loose fluid from the kidneys, passing large volumes of urine and be prone to dehydration. Blood tests are very important, but the blood levels will not start to increase until 70% of the kidneys function is lost. In the period during which this initial damage is happening, urine tests are critical to identify those cats whose kidneys are starting to struggle. Early use of certain kidney diets has been proven to increase both the length of life and quality of life in cats with kidney disease. Other medications may be needed if the kidneys are leaking protein or if the cat also has high blood pressure. In older cats, that are producing dilute urine, there has been shown to be a much increased risk of urinary tract infections. These, like in elderly people can have many effects on multiple organs in the body and the brain
Mouth & Teeth – contrary to popular belief, bad teeth are not an inevitable consequence of aging. Implementing a good oral health plan at an early age can help to ensure that your cat does not suffer from any issues. However, sometimes despite best efforts, gum disease and mouth infections can still occur. Untreated gum disease can lead to bacteria getting into the bloodstream (causing damage in internal organs), as well as causing pain in the mouth. Regular dental checks are critical in maintaining the health of your cat.
Eyes- The eyes are a critical part of the health check. Changes in colour of the eye can indicate infection, inflammation or even growths in the eye. Measuring the pressure in the eye can alert us to glaucoma. Changes to the blood vessels at the back of the eye (retina) can warn of high blood pressure (hypertension) which if untreated can lead to retinal detachment and blindness.
Most people expect dogs to slow down as they get older. Although, some some dogs will inevitably slow down, by maintaining a healthy diet, weight and exercise regime, most dogs can remain active well into their senior years.
Arthritis- most dogs over 10 years old will suffer from some form of arthritis, however, this does not need to have a significant impact on their life. Maintaining a healthy weight and muscle mass, and keeping up regular exercise are critical. For those more seriously affected, use of supplements, antiinflammatories and aides such as laser, acupuncture, hydrotherapy and physiotherapy can ensure that they continue to enjoy exercise well into old age.
Lumps and bumps- a lot of dogs as they get older will develop growth and lumps on their body. While most of these will not be sinister, it is generally impossible to tell just from looking at them. Simple testing by inserting a small needle into the lump and sucking out a few cells to have analysed can tell us if the lump is something that needs further attention.
Mouth and teeth- Tartar build up on the teeth of dogs is common if they do not have their teeth regularly brushed. This tartar can lead to gum disease, tooth root abscesses and can even have effects on the liver, heart and kidneys.