My thanks to Laura Dumm for this great illustrationThe trouble with most old cats is they all end up looking pretty much the same. They slowly lose weight, they spend less time grooming and so become unkempt and matted, they may be agitated from time to time or they may sleep more. For a variety of reasons, they can become picky about food. Now this may not seem like a big problem but when you consider that the two most common treatable diseases of geriatric felines can create similar symptoms, then you can see why it is crucial to be able to tell the well old cat from the sick old cat.

Over the next couple of weeks I’ll try and give you some idea how you can do this.

The two common conditions are hyperthyroidism (an over active thyroid gland) and kidney disease.

Neil the vet

Back in the early Eighties, when I was a fresh faced, luxuriously haired veterinary student, hyperthyroidism was almost unheard of in old cats. Now it is by far the most common hormone disorder seen in the species. It occurs equally in males and females and is rare in cats under six years old. Most affected animals are over ten. It is usually caused by benign growths of one or both of the thyroid glands. These tiny glands can normally not be appreciated, as they sit on either side of the windpipe in the cat’s neck. In almost all affected animals they will be enlarged and palpable by the trained hand. Only one in a hundred of these growths will be cancerous, so treatment is really worthwhile.

However, because the symptoms seen are gradual in onset, very variable and range from mild to severe, it can be difficult for owners to realise that anything is actually wrong. Left untreated, patients will develop irreversible muscle and heart damage. Their quality of life is also greatly reduced. Many are only diagnosed when presented for routine vaccinations and heart abnormalities are noticed.

So what should cat owners look out for?

Because hyperthyroidism creates an increase in the body’s metabolic rate, the most common sign is weight loss. Crucially, however, this weight loss occurs despite an excessive appetite. Around 70% of hyperthyroid cats will drink more than normal, though this is also found with diabetic cats and those with kidney disease. Most affected cats are restless, anxious and hyperactive and many suffer intermittent tummy upsets. Vomiting and diarrhoea are therefore common. Frequently the heart rate is raised to the point that it is too fast to accurately count and heart murmurs are usually present. Taken on their own, none of these symptoms are diagnostic, but they do tell you something is wrong!

At the vets, a simple blood test can be conclusive. We can provide results within a half hour. Other tests can rule out concurrent disease and treatment of the hyperthyroid case, bearing in mind that many are very old, can be successfully achieved with tablets on a daily basis. For suitable candidates, surgery to remove the enlarged gland can be curative.

Is your old cat as well as you thought she was?

(Next time, kidney disease.)

Neil McIntosh

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