SPCA New Zealand
Advice & welfare

Ask a vet
How can I pick up health problems in my elderly cat early?

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.

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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