Providing the best care for senior cats

Senior cats are likely to have one or more health problems, but with your help they can still lead long and comfortable lives. This internist answers the most common questions practitioners have about caring for senior cats.
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Feb 01, 2006



Cats are living longer because of a greater focus on routine healthcare for pets. As their veterinarians, we are challenged with the task of helping these cats live long, high-quality lives. The American Association of Feline Practitioners and the Academy of Feline Medicine (AAFP/AFM) Panel Report on Feline Senior Care1 provides a consensus on important goals and recommendations to help you care for senior cats. This article highlights many of the principal points in that report in conjunction with my clinical experience.

What age is considered geriatric in our feline patients?

Cats begin to show age-related changes between 7 and 10 years; most show changes by 12 years.1 A decline in overall body condition and a general unkempt appearance may be noticeable. Some cats do not show any outward age-related changes until later years, possibly lulling owners into believing their pets have no aging concerns. Also, clients do not like the term geriatric, so using the term senior care may be more appropriate as you discuss the concerns of an older cat with the client. Cats are considered to be senior at age 7 and older.

What are the goals of senior care?

The goals are to manage and monitor chronic disease, prevent disease progression, and provide a good-quality life. To help practitioners meet these goals and establish a minimum standard of care, the AAFP/AFM panel report set forth objectives to promote the longevity of feline senior patients and improve their quality of life by

  • Recognizing and controlling health risk factors
  • Detecting disease during the preclinical phase
  • Correcting or delaying the progression of existing disorders
  • Improving or maintaining residual function.1

An important point in the panel report was to start a senior preventive healthcare program for cats between 7 and 11 years of age, which should continue for the rest of their lives.1

What is the recommended healthcare program for senior cats with no clinical signs of disease?

Obtain a complete medical and behavioral history at every patient evaluation. The details in these histories can help you identify problems before the onset of clinical signs. For example, an owner may comment that the cat seems more affectionate or more aggressive recently. This subtle change in behavior could be a clue that the pet has hyperthyroidism and may precede more obvious signs such as an increased appetite and weight loss.

Performing a thorough physical examination at least every six months, including vital signs (temperature, pulse rate, respiration rate, mucous membrane color and refill time, hydration status), helps you establish what is normal for a particular cat and recognize early physical changes, such as a heart murmur, pain, small irregular kidneys, or a thyroid nodule. Also be sure to evaluate a patient's weight and body condition and compare your findings with those from previous examinations. You may identify a trend in weight gain or weight loss before the change is apparent to the client.

Blood pressure measurement is a desirable part of every physical examination in cats of all ages. While the panelists who wrote the guidelines did not reach a consensus on routine blood pressure measurement in senior cats with no clinical signs of disease, the importance of identifying systemic hypertension before organ damage or retinal hemorrhage or detachment in senior cats is well-known. Since measuring your blood pressure is one of the first things done when you visit a physician's office, your clients are familiar with this procedure and will likely accept this recommendation for their own cats. By measuring a cat's blood pressure annually from a young age, you will establish a baseline for this cat, which will help you decide if the cat suffers from systemic hypertension as it ages or is stressed during a hospital visit. The goal for a normal blood pressure in a cat is 145 to 160 mm Hg or less (systolic reading).2

Perform other routine diagnostic tests in a healthy senior cat with no clinical signs of disease at least annually, including a minimum of

  • A complete blood count consisting of a hematocrit; red blood cell count, indices, and morphology; a white blood cell count; a differential white blood cell count (evaluated cytologically); a total protein concentration; and a platelet count
  • A measurement of serum creatinine and potassium concentrations and serum alanine aminotransferase and alkaline phosphatase activities
  • A total thyroid (T4) concentration by radioimmunoassay
  • A complete urinalysis collected by cystocentesis, including urine specific gravity, urine sediment cytology, and glucose, ketones, bilirubin, and protein measurement
  • A feline leukemia virus (FeLV) antigen test and a feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) antibody test if the cat has not been tested previously or if it is at risk of exposure