Integrative Pet Vet column: Aging in cats is similar to aging in humans
Integrative Pet Vet
Aging is an inevitable part of life. It affects all species of animals. The rate of aging and overall health impact quality of life as cats move into their senior years. Some individuals appear to age at a faster (or slower) pace than the average. Factors like diet and genetics can affect aging. Preventive health care and diet can be controlled while other factors, like genetics cannot be as easily addressed.
Cats age similarly to humans with changes in kidney and liver function, brain activity, sight and hearing, and muscle strength. There is also an increased occurrence of cancer, dental disease and degenerative diseases like osteoarthritis. Early detection and supportive care is important just as it is for humans.
The average lifespan for a cat is 12-15 years. Definitions vary, but cats are generally considered as senior at 11-14 years of age and geriatric at 15 years. Comparing cat ages to human ages provides perspective. Aging in the first two years of life for a cat is thought to be comparable to the first 24 years of life for a human. After two years of age, add four years for each cat year to estimate the human comparison. For example, a 15 year-old cat would be equivalent to a 76-year-old human.
As cats age, their behavior begins to change. The most obvious changes include sleeping more, being less active, grooming less and having a reduced appetite or becoming picky eaters. Hearing loss and declines in vision are frequent.
Older cats generally want more attention and prefer more holding and petting. However, they do not always like being brushed even though they tend to become matted more often. Dislike of brushing can be the result of the skin becoming thinner, less elastic and having reduced blood circulation. Joint and back discomfort may contribute to resistance to brushing. Cats are generally very good at hiding discomfort and may only demonstrate it by protesting against being brushed or having their nails trimmed.
Other signs of degenerative joint disease and back discomfort include reduced or no jumping up onto the bed or having difficulty getting into the litter box. Some cats with back discomfort become constipated and need emergency care because they have pain associated with defecation. Problems with constipation can be more challenging because older cats also tend to be chronically dehydrated.
While constipation can lead to reduced appetite and even episodes of vomiting, other age associated disease problems can affect eating patterns. Dental disease is common in older cats. This can cause discomfort in the mouth and lowered eating. Kidney disease is also common in cats and can lead to poor appetite, excess drinking and, when severe, can result in vomiting and significant decline. Diabetes, on the other hand, causes an increased appetite and increased drinking and urination. Over production of thyroid hormones (hyperthyroidism) also contributes to increased appetite.
Aging results in changes in the brain that can lead to disorientation, alterations in personality, wandering and excessive meowing. It is important to note that not all behavior changes are the result of the aging brain. Some of the disease problems already mentioned can change behavior.
Providing good quality food and fresh water are important aspects of maintaining health in cats throughout life. Cats are very good at hiding illness, so it is valuable to monitor your cat closely for any changes that might be related to an illness. Addressing problems early is an important part of preventive health care and managing quality of life later in the aging cat. Common measures of quality of life include assessment of mobility, presence of discomfort or pain, elimination and grooming patterns, appetite and water consumption and sociability.
Even though certain problems are common and predictable in the aging cat, it is important to have a complete evaluation including blood and urine testing. In some situations X-rays and ultrasound are valuable parts of the assessment. These tests provide the basis for outlining a support plan for the aging cat. This support or therapy plan may include diet changes and alterations in feeding strategies, nutritional supplements, herbs, acupuncture, osteopathic and other manual therapies, and drugs for high blood pressure, thyroid problems and diabetes.
If you have questions about your aging cat, contact your veterinarian.
Ron Carsten, DVM, PhD, CVA, CCRT was one of the first veterinarians in Colorado to use the integrative approach, has lectured widely to veterinarians, and has been a pioneer in the therapeutic use of food concentrates to manage clinical problems. He is also the founder of Colorado Animal Rescue (CARE). In addition to his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, he holds a PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology and is a Certified Veterinary Acupuncturist and Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist. He practices integrative veterinary medicine in Glenwood Springs.
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