Sometimes as I contemplate a subject for an article I really have to struggle to keep it from being completely dog-centric. It is not that I don’t like cats and exotics, my fuzzy black and orange assistant editors are beloved family members to me. It just seems that dogs have a wider variety of things that happen to them throughout their entire life span, and with the exception of dental disease, indoor cats are not as frequently troubled by so many different things.
That dynamic starts to shift, however, around the age of 13 to 15 years in most cats. As they start becoming older many cats will develop one of the “Big Four” diseases: diabetes mellitus, hyperthyroidism, kidney failure, and cancer.
The symptoms of all four of these problems can be very similar and the onset is often very subtle and slowly progressive. The good news is that there is a lot that can be done about all these things if detected before it is too late. The trick is to know what things may be signaling a problem in you older cat.
Drinking excessively and urinating excessively are usually the most notable early symptoms of diabetes, hyperthyroidism, and kidney failure. Sometimes this manifests as a cat who suddenly starts urinating inappropriately, or a litterbox that feels like a wet block of cement after one day’s use. Cats that start demanding you turn on the faucet so that they can drink or barge on to the table to start slurping out of the ice water in your hand may not just be trying to push you around to be obnoxious, they may have a physical problem driving intense thirst.
Significant weight loss is also a prominent sign of all of the big four. Old cats don’t just get skinny as a natural aging process, something physical causes them to lose weight. It is not unusual for cats to seem to be feeling fine, but if your previously 16 pound cat suddenly weighs 13 pounds he has just lost nearly 20% of his body weight. It is not normal for a cat to spontaneously lose 20% of his body weight when nothing else in his life has changed. Unless you have recently switched him to a severely calorie restricted diet there is probably a serious underlying reason for losing weight.
Cats, more than dogs, tend to hide their symptoms. Sometimes it is behavioral changes, like starting to spend the day crammed under the far corner of the bed, when he used to be outgoing and friendly that can tip you off that something is going on. On the flip side, hyperthyroid cats often become loudly outgoing all night long to the point that your sleep deprivation makes it hard to tolerate them graciously. Cats are creatures of routine and habit. When they start doing things that they have not been doing for the past 13 years it may seem like they are out to drive you crazy, but there is often a physical reason instead motivating those strange behaviors.
This is why regular checkups are essential to the well-being of our older cats. Quite a bit of information can be gathered from a good physical exam, but definitive diagnosis usually requires blood tests and possibly other diagnostics. Annual blood screening for cats over the age of 13 greatly increases the chance of catching the big four in the early stages and therefore gives better chances to give our valued senior family members a longer quantity and better quality of life.