SPCA New Zealand
Advice & welfare

Ask a vet
Ask a Vet

My cat Sophie is getting older and I am worried about her developing problems that I might not notice. Can you please give me some advice on how to pick up problems early and what I can do?

This is a great question – as cats age they do tend to start developing more health problems. The earlier problems are recognised, the sooner something can be done to treat the problem, slow down progression, and make the cat more comfortable. However, recognising problems in cats is not always easy! Cats tend to be good at adapting to and hiding problems. The good news is that there are ways that you can monitor your cat’s health to help you pick up problems and address them early with the help of your veterinarian. Here are some tips to help.

Monitor their weight

Weigh your cat every one to two weeks and record their weight. Any substantial or ongoing weight loss can be significant and is often an important warning sign that something is not right. Remember that what we think of as small weight losses or gains can be significant for cats; a 500 g weight loss in a 5 kg cat is 10% of their body weight, which is equivalent to a person of 70 kg losing 7 kg!

Weight loss can indicate many problems – some common conditions being diabetes, hyperthyroidism, neoplasia (cancer) and kidney failure – so if you notice your cat losing weight, take them to the veterinarian for a checkup.

Weight gain in a fully grown cat is also an issue; the sooner a cat gaining too much weight is put on a diet, the less likely they are to become obese and/or be at greater risk of problems such as diabetes.

Monitor their water intake

Keeping an eye on your cat and taking them to the veterinarian if you think they are drinking more than is normal will help you pick up many problems early. Drinking more (and, consequently, passing more urine) can be seen with the following common conditions: diabetes, hyperthyroidism, and kidney failure.

Monitor their appetite

Although a very non-specific sign, poor appetite or stopping eating entirely is a common way cats respond to being unwell. A cat that is eating less or stops eating should always be taken to see the veterinarian as soon as possible.

Monitor their activity level and type of activity

Cats are particularly subtle in their signs of arthritis. You may notice nothing more than a reluctance to jump onto higher surfaces such as a table or bed where previously they would have jumped up easily. Your cat may be slow to rise from the floor or a seated position, a little cautious going up or down the stairs, or may have a subtle but persistent lameness.

Animals with arthritis don’t tend to cry out in pain, more often they just seem to be ‘slowing down’. In reality, many of these animals have arthritis, which is a medical problem that you can help them with and improve their quality of life. Radiographic studies have shown that the majority of cats aged over ten have some arthritis, so when in doubt, assume that your older cat probably does have some joint soreness; this can significantly impact their quality of life. However, there are many things that can be done to help an arthritic cat; the earlier the problem is picked up and management started, the better.

Monitor their behaviour

You are the one who knows your cat best and if they are acting in a way that is not normal, you should consult your veterinarian.

Regular check-ups

Take your older cat to the veterinarian for check-ups regularly and have routine blood and urine tests performed at least once a year (as a minimum these should include checks of kidney and liver parameters, thyroid hormone, blood glucose, complete blood count, and a urine test).

The more time you spend with your cat the easier it is to monitor their health. Some things, like monitoring water intake and toileting, are far easier to do with an indoor or contained cat; nonetheless, it is worth paying close attention to these things as much as possible, even in cats with outdoor access. It is amazing what you can notice just by being aware of what to look for and remembering to take note.

I was driving from Oamaru to Timaru the other day and saw heaps of cows in paddocks standing under the hot sun with no trees or shade. Is there no requirement to provide shelter for cows and other animals?

In New Zealand, a variety of animals are kept outdoors. This exposes them to a range of elements and changes in the weather and climate, with significant variations to conditions both daily and seasonally. Persistent rain and snow, combined with wind, extreme temperatures and high UV index readings can pose a significant risk to the health and welfare of these animals.

Unfortunately, many animals in New Zealand are not provided with sufficient shade and shelter to protect them from exposure to the country’s variable environmental conditions. It is common for shade and shelter to consist only of vegetative or topographical features, which is often insufficient. As a result, animals can experience physical and physiological harm, such as heat or cold stress, which can lead to significant suffering and sometimes even death.

Cold and wet winters have seen high numbers of lamb mortalities; and hot dry summers have led to heat stroke and even death for animals in this country. There is an urgent requirement to provide effective shade and shelter to prevent animals from suffering. The shade and shelter provided must be adequate to protect all of the animals from exposure to anticipated weather conditions, and must be appropriate for the species.

Shelter should provide protection from all possible weather conditions, including the sun, rain, wind and snow. Shelter can also be considered to extend to providing protection from humans, herd mates, and predators. Shade provides protection from the heat and the UV rays of the sun.

In many extensive farming systems and in other situations where animals are kept outdoors, shelter or shade is commonly provided by way of vegetation (scrub, tussock, rushes, long grass, shelterbelts, shade belts and plantations), topography (rocks and ridges, and dips in hills) and other animals (by huddling together).

In many cases, these forms of shade and shelter are insufficient to protect the animals from the extreme and variable weather conditions experienced in New Zealand. Therefore, all animals kept outside should be provided with access to man-made shelter (e.g. shade cloth, huts, sheds or barns), as well as access to natural shelter, where possible. This is especially important when animals may be close to giving birth – it is vital to provide protection for both newborn animals and dams (mothers) – and for those animals that have undergone standard husbandry practices, such as shearing, that may make them more vulnerable to the impacts of the weather.

Under New Zealand’s Animal Welfare Act 1999, there is a requirement that adequate shelter is provided for animals, but unfortunately, requiring the provision of adequate shelter and then enforcing compliance with providing shelter is not straightforward, especially given the variety of properties that keep animals, which range from small lifestyle blocks to large commercial farms.

Some of the new animal welfare regulations that have been announced for New Zealand (those relating to young calves have been enacted already) are a step towards trying to address this issue. These include: the requirement for pigs to have access to shelter and a dry lying area; tethered goats to have access to shelter; and for young calves to have shelter before transportation, at points of sale, slaughter, and during transportation.

There are no other current regulations requiring the provision of shade and shelter to other animals. However, in order for people in charge of animals to meet their obligations under the Animal Welfare Act, the minimum standards in the codes of welfare do include the need to provide shelter to protect animals from any reasonably expected climatic conditions likely to compromise their welfare and survival.

It is not known exactly how the changing climate will affect New Zealand and what this will mean for animals outside and their shelter needs. However, all likely scenarios indicate changes that will have some impact on animal health and welfare. Proactively addressing shelter issues now should not only provide for the needs of animals currently kept outside, but should also help to mitigate the impact of climate change on animal welfare into the future.

Have you got a question you’d like Dr Sarah Zito to answer? Please email it to animalsvoice@spca.nz and it could be chosen for our next column.

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