Top 5 Ways to Improve Life for Your Senior Cat

If your senior cat is starting to slow down, there are extra steps you can take to ensure that it is healthy, comfortable and content.

How to Help Your Senior Cat
Here are five basic steps you can take to make life better for your senior cat:

1. Visit your veterinarian regularly. Cat owners sometimes have the tendency to not schedule regular veterinarian visits unless their cat is due for vaccines, says Dr. Debbie Van Pelt of the Veterinary Referral Center of Colorado. But bringing your cat in for at least an annual exam helps your veterinarian catch treatable illnesses in the early stages. For example, your veterinarian can check for lumps and bumps. “Cancers that are caught early can be treated and removed,” says Van Pelt. Veterinarians think of cats as senior at about age 10, says Dr. Tracy Dewhirst, a veterinarian in Knoxville, Tenn. However, it’s a good idea to have your veterinarian do a baseline blood-check when your cat is about 7 years old, advises Dewhirst. “It’s a good landmark. Then the veterinarian has something to look back on if your cat starts to develop problems.”

2. Maintain your cat’s dental health. “From a veterinary health standpoint, oral health is really big. We see cats decline rapidly when they don’t have their teeth taken care of,” says Dewhirst. If your cat develops plaque and gum disease, bacteria can find its way into the bloodstream and threaten your cat’s heart health, among other problems. Cats with dental problems also might struggle to eat and maintain weight.

3. Watch your cat’s weight. Excess weight can lead to serious conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, and a fat cat is more likely to suffer from arthritis. Make sure your cat is eating a high-quality food designed for senior cats, and try rationing the portion sizes to help your cat maintain a healthy weight, as its metabolism has slowed in the last few years. Your veterinarian can help you figure out an appropriate calorie count and portion size for your cat. You’ll also want to notice if your cat is losing weight, since older cats can develop thyroid problems, says Dewhirst.

4. Be a detective. Cats tend to be private, aloof and secretive. “By the time a cat owner notices a behavior change, things may have progressed farther,” says Van Pelt. “We see a lot of older cats where by the time we see them, we are diagnosing them with kidney disease and heart failure.” Pay attention to little clues, such as water intake, how much your cat is eating and its elimination habits. A change in elimination can signal a myriad of health problems and indicate a need for a veterinary visit.

5. Make your cat comfortable. A 16- or 17-year-old cat might show signs of creaky joints. If you simply make things easier, your cat is sure to enjoy better quality of life. Create warmth for your cat by using a heating pad or placing its bed near a warm area.

6. Give your cat extra attention. Natasha Deen, a Canadian author of young adult novels, helped two beloved kitties live to the ages of 19 and 21, and she thinks extra attention made a difference. Deen cuddled her cats more and regularly brushed and groomed them. Your loving attention is crucial, says Deen.

How to Prevent 5 Common Cat Illnesses

You are more than a source of food, catnip and scratches behind the ear. You are your cat’s health advocate.

Many common cat illnesses and health problems are readily preventable with simple actions on your part, say veterinarians. “There are very basic things you can do,” says Dr. Tracy Dewhirst, a Knoxville, Tenn., veterinarian who writes regularly for The Knoxville News-Sentinel and Exceptional Canine. “But a lot of people don’t do the basics.”

Make sure your cat receives regular veterinary exams, and follow these practices to help ensure your kitty’s long life, say experts. Here are five problems you can work to avoid.

GI Upset
“Often, when pets present to veterinary hospitals for GI distress, the cause is identifiable and preventable,” says Dr. Katy J. Nelson, a veterinarian who hosts a local pet show on a Washington, D.C., TV station. Too often, we yield to temptation and that pleading look, and we feed our cats people food. Although you might be able to process sugar-loaded or fat-laden foods, your cat can’t handle these morsels. “When we decide to treat them with one of our yummy treats, we often do more harm than good,” explains Nelson. An upset stomach could mean a case of diarrhea or even pancreatitis.

Diabetes

Nelson considers diabetes to be the most preventable condition veterinarians see today. “Diabetes is not only a severely debilitating, life-threatening disease, but also very expensive, very difficult and very time-consuming to manage,” she notes. Obesity in cats is directly linked to Type 2 diabetes, advises Dewhirst. Managing your cat’s weight through portion control is a key to your kitty’s good health. Talk to your veterinarian about your cat’s weight, and provide play opportunities that offer your cat some exercise.

Dental Disease

Poor teeth and gum health leads to other serious health issues, the veterinarians advise. “Inflammation of the mouth causes chronic inflammation all over the body,” says Dewhirst. Yes, you can indeed learn to clean a cat’s teeth. Regular veterinary exams and cleanings will help maintain your cat’s dental health.

Heartworm and Other Parasites

Heartworm isn’t limited to canines. This serious parasite afflicts cats as well, and Dr. Duffy Jones, owner of Peachtree Hills Animal Hospital in Atlanta, says the disease can be easily avoided. A monthly application of a preventative will protect your cat. The heartworm is a parasite that is spread through the bite of mosquitoes, and heartworm disease is particularly problematic for cats, says Dewhirst. “It’s not treatable in cats,” she says. Even if your cat lives indoors, you should use a preventative to protect against heartworm, fleas and more.

Injuries and Trauma

The world can be a dangerous place for cats, particularly at night, notes Dewhirst. If your cat does go outdoors, limit outings to daylight hours, advises Dewhirst. “They need to come in at night; they need to be somewhere safe,” she says. She sees cats injured and bitten after being chased by dogs or after confrontations with wild animals. Cats also fall victim to cars. Helping your cat maintain a healthy weight will also keep stress off its joints and prevent injuries, notes Nelson. “Over 60 percent of American pets are overweight, and even a slight amount of extra poundage can significantly increase the pressure on our pets’ joints,” she says.

Thinking preventively will help ensure your cat is around for many more years of head rubs and cuddles. “Make sure to come in for a physical every year,” says Dewhirst. “Make them as parasite-free as possible. Keep them safe and don’t over-feed them. Don’t contribute to a lifestyle that will put them at risk.”

Common Eye Problems in Cats

As anyone who has woken up with a cat sitting on their chest and glaring at them can attest, cats are particularly good at expressing themselves through their gazes. Cats are very sneaky creatures, well-known to be experts at hiding signs of physical disease and distress. For this reason, these deep gazes can be an excellent opportunity to catch early signs of ocular disease in our feline companions.

Eye Problems in Your Cat
Eye disease is a common problem in cats. But due to cats’ quiet nature, it is one that can be easily overlooked, according to Dr. Marcella Ashton, a veterinary ophthalmologist at the The Eye Clinic for Animals in Kearny Mesa, Calif. Owners should be aware of the often-subtle signs of eye disease, so it can be caught and treated early.

In kittens and young cats, the most common ocular diseases are those that are caused by infectious agents or congenital disease (i.e., something the cat was born with). FHV-1, a virus that is one of the causative agents of the feline upper respiratory complex, is a common cause of corneal ulceration. Congenital glaucoma causes an increased pressure inside the eye, resulting in a large, blue eyeball. “The signs are subtle and they mask their pain,” says Ashton, “but the condition can be pretty severe.”

Underlying Diseases
Many times, an underlying systemic disease manifests itself in the eyes and is the first inkling an owner has that the cat is ill. Uveitis, an inflammation of the eyes, is commonly seen in association with systemic infectious diseases such as feline immunodeficiency virus, feline leukemia, toxoplasmosis and bartonella.

“Most owners will notice a cat crying or squinting, which is a pain response,” says Ashton. “They may also notice a difference in pupil size, sensitivity to light, changes in cloudiness of the eyes, or a blue tinge to the eye.” Any of these signs warrant a veterinary visit for a full evaluation, not only to address the eye, but also to make sure there is not an underlying disease that requires treatment.

Be Vigilant About Older Cats
These same conditions are seen in older cats. The FHV virus can remain latent in a certain part of the eye, and flare-ups are common during times of stress for cats or owners. A move, a new pet or a breakup with a boyfriend can stress the cat enough to reactivate the virus.

As cats age, a litany of diseases develop that present in the eye. One of the more common diseases Ashton sees in practice is melanoma, a cancer that manifests as brown spots on the iris. “They can be diffuse brown spots or look like cocoa powder,” says Ashton.

Kidney disease, a common condition in older cats, can also first manifest itself in the eyes. Since the kidneys are involved in the regulation of blood pressure, cats with renal disease often have accompanying high blood pressure. This leads to burst blood vessels in the eyes, causing a red eye, or retinal detachment, which causes blindness.

Symptoms to Watch
Cats are very adaptable, and owners might not notice right away when a cat is having visual problems, says Ashton. “Owners will notice dilated pupils that are not responding to light,” says Ashton. “They may also notice the cat holding their whiskers piloerected (involuntarily erected) forward,” which can also be an indication of a visual problem.

Any of the following signs are cause for a visit to the veterinarian, as they can indicate pain, infection or a disease process:

  • Dilated pupils or pupils of two different sizes
  • Sudden change in eye color
  • Unusual spots on the iris (the colored portion of the eye) or the cornea (the surface of the eye)
  • Squinting, winking, or pawing at the eye
  • Ocular discharge

Are You Protecting Your Cat’s Health?

We all want our pets to live healthy lives, but are we as informed as we should be? Take this quiz to see how you measure up.

1. I schedule basic veterinary checkups for my adult cat:

a. Once a year

b. Twice a year

c. When needed

Optimal answer: b. Twice a year

Although annual visits are a good start, twice-yearly exams are your best insurance against hidden diseases, says Dr. Ernie Ward, a veterinarian based in North Carolina. “I also recommend checking your pet’s blood test and urinalysis once a year in patients over 7 years old,” he says.

2. I treat my cat with over-the-counter medicines (e.g., painkillers):

a. As soon as symptoms appear

b. Only in emergencies

c. Never

Optimal answer: c. Never

The No. 1 cat poison is human medication. “Simple human drugs, like acetaminophen, can be fatal to cats,” says Dr. Patricia Joyce, an emergency veterinarian in New York City. Keep your pills to yourself.

3. I check my cat’s ears:

a. Once a year

b. Every few months

c. Every few weeks

Optimal answer: c. Every few weeks

Ear infections are preventable with careful monitoring. “If the earflap is red and inflamed; if the canal is narrow, has a heavy buildup of debris or is smelly; or if touching your cat’s ears is painful; you have a problem that needs to be addressed,” says Dr. Bernadine Cruz, a veterinarian in California.

4. My cat gets its teeth cleaned:

a. Once a year

b. Twice a year

c. Every five years

Optimal answer: a. Once a year

Annual cleanings are recommended, but Dr. Katy Johnson Nelson, a Virginia-based veterinarian, says some cats need more. “Just like some people have more cavities, some cats have significantly more severe dental disease than others. Your veterinarian will be able to determine how often they need those teeth cleaned,” she says. Between cleanings, brush your cat’s teeth at least weekly.

5. I bring my cat for vaccine renewal:

a. Yearly or sooner

b. Every three years

c. Every five years

Optimal answer: a. or b. Yearly or sooner, or every three years

Core vaccinations are given every three years, others last a year or less. Discuss this with your veterinarian and know the schedule for each vaccine.

6. I enrich my cat’s environment by:

a. Leaving toys out

b. Creating a window perch

c. Dedicating part of a room to my cat, with toys and structures

Optimal answer: c. Dedicating part of a room to my cat, with toys and structures

“Even though cats can be elusive, dedicating a part of the room to them -- with toys, perches and attention -- is essential to making them feel part of the home,” says Nelson. This simple step can help prevent behavior problems and unwanted pounds, and it can even prevent disease.

7. I exercise my cat:

a. Daily

b. Weekly

c. Seriously? Exercise my cat?

Optimal answer: a. Daily

To keep your cat lean and healthy, and to prevent many behavioral problems, daily exercise is key. “Two to three five-minute play periods using interactive toys, laser pointers, dancing feathers or whatever your cat enjoys is just as important as nightly chin-scratches,” says Ward.

8. I let my cat roam outside:

a. Never

b. All the time

c. Only when I go out

Optimal answer: a. Never

“Today’s outdoor environment poses many dangers for cats,” says Ward. “Whether being struck by a car, attacked by a dog or poisoned by trash, it’s always better to keep your kitty indoors.” Cruz recommends a microchip implant, just in case.

9. My cat’s food bowl is made of:

a. Plastic

b. Ceramic

c. Metal

Optimal answer: b. or c. Ceramic or metal

“Plastic is associated with allergies, ulceration of the lips and chin acne,” says Nelson. Plastic is also more likely to retain bacteria.

Score:

Eight to nine correct: Congratulations! You are doing a great job of safeguarding your cat against medical problems. But remember that as your cat ages, you’ll need to adapt too. Maintain a close relationship with your vet and your cat will live a long, happy life.

Five to seven correct: Looks like you’ve got a decent foundation when it comes to safeguarding your cat against medical problems, but there’s room for improvement. Go back over your incorrect answers and take action on them!

Zero to four correct: Oh no! We’re sorry to say it, but at 50 percent or less, you scored an F. You’ve got some work to do when it comes to safeguarding your cat against medical problems.

Cat Cancer Study Sheds Light on Human Cancer

Cancer is the leading cause of death in cats, according to the Pet Cancer Center. Among humans, cancer remains a primary cause of death around the globe, the World Health Organization reports, with up to 84 million people projected to die of cancer by the year 2015.

Such statistics are daunting. But for reasons not yet fully understood, cat cancers tend to be among the most aggressive among mammals. It’s possible that we’re just not detecting them early enough. Researchers, however, are learning more about cancer, with treatments improving with advanced science, knowledge and technology. Kim Selting, an associate teaching professor of oncology at the University of Missouri-Columbia College of Veterinary Medicine, shares some of her latest findings, which could also apply to our health.

The Mammal Cancer Connection

Researchers, like Selting, are working to establish connections that can benefit all mammals suffering from cancer. “Recent initiatives in medicine emphasize the fact that despite differences in anatomy, the basic parts are the same across species, especially mammals,” she explains. “And despite minor differences in physiology, those parts have very similar functions and responses to disease across species.”

As a result, her university has created the One Health, One Medicine initiative. It emphasizes research on numerous animals -- not just rodents, which used to be the norm for cancer studies. Selting recently coauthored such a study, published in the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association. In it, she suggests that the following five factors can apply to cancer in cats, dogs and humans:

1. Genes Selting explains that “breed affects cancer risk just as race/ethnic origin can do so in human medicine.” This is because the genes among individuals in certain pet breeds, or human populations, are likely to be similar. “If said genes, such as tumor suppressor genes, are faulty and are related to the risk of acquiring a certain cancer, then it follows that these cancers will be overrepresented in a given population.” Siamese cats, for example, can be predisposed to intestinal and breast cancers.

2. Environment Selting suggests that cats that breathe tobacco smoke, for example, may have a heightened risk for lung diseases. “Cats are fastidious groomers, and every environmental contaminant that is present in the air and settles on the fur is then exposed to the cat’s mouth and system as they lick their fur.”

3. Diet Food may also contribute to disease prevention or instigation. “Feeding a good-quality diet logically can improve health, though no particular diet is known to abrogate cancer,” says Selting.

4. Lifestyle Countless studies conclude that exercise and stress levels can impact cancer.

5. Medical Care No tests can currently predict cancer occurrence in cats, but “early detection often offers a better prognosis,” says Selting. “Any change in a cat’s health should be investigated.”

Cancer Prevention for Cats and Humans

While much about cancer still remains a mystery, the new studies at least suggest a course of preventative action.

  • Pay attention to genes. Consult with your doctor and your cat’s veterinarian and discuss the risk factors related to your ethnic origin and your cat’s breed.
  • Do not smoke, and keep your home clean and free of potentially dangerous chemicals.
  • Follow the latest research concerning food and cancer prevention.
  • Both you and your pet need to exercise. Our bodies evolved to handle ample activity, so talk with your doctor and your cat’s veterinarian about what exercise would be best.
  • Note physical changes in both you and your cat. Schedule regular medical appointments, which can detect cancer before symptoms even surface.

While Selting and others prove that studying cancer in cats can shed light on human cancer, researchers are also driven to learn more about cats. “Companion animals rely on humans for food and shelter, but they repay the favor with devotion and companionship. We are their voice and are responsible for their quality of life,” says Selting.