Special Needs of Senior Cats

By Dr. Jean Hofve

Since November is Senior Pet Month, it’s appropriate to talk about the special needs of senior cats.

As mentioned in the previous post, there are lots of senior diets available, but most of them rely on lower fat and protein, and higher carbohydrates. It’s really important to know that dietary protein really has nothing whatsoever to do with the development of kidney disease (in dogs or cats).

It turns out that, while most middle-aged cats are overweight, starting around age 10-12 they typically start to lose weight. This is due to a decreased ability to digest and metabolize protein and fat that occurs with age. So most senior diets are exactly the opposite of what older cats need—more and better protein and fat.

Wet foods are ideal for older kitties—this includes food in cans or pouches, as well as frozen raw diets. They’re easier to digest, and more palatable. (If your cat is a dry food addict, check out my previous blog post on Switching Foods.) Wet foods tend to contain higher levels of protein and fat, and because of the way they’re handled and/or processed, the ingredients are generally better quality than dry food.

Other Age-Related Changes

Just like humans, cats are prone to a number of medical problems as they get older. With diet, supplements, and extra care, many of these conditions can be prevented, delayed, or managed, to give your cat a good quality of life in her older years.

Arthritis

Ninety percent of cats over 12 years of age have arthritis. What is usually considered “slowing down” or “a little stiff” may be a sign of significant joint disease, and is probably quite uncomfortable for most older cats. Treating arthritis holistically is simple and inexpensive. The basic mix is glucosamine sulfate (250 mg per day) and MSM (methyl-sulfonyl-methane, 200 mg per day), which can be added to the cat’s wet food. Other herbs and minerals may also be helpful. These provides good anti-inflammatory action and pain relief. It may take 3-5 weeks for improvement to be noticeable. Here are my favorite joint supplements for cats:


Chronic Renal Failure (CRF)

Many older cats experience some degree of kidney (renal) disease as they age. The first symptom is usually an increase in both drinking and urination. This reflects the kidneys’ inability to reabsorb water and concentrate the urine. As time goes on, most cats lose weight, sometimes dramatically.

It is vital that CRF cats get plenty of fluids, either through consumption, or by administration (intravenous or subcutaneous), to stay hydrated. Dehydration is a major problem in these cats, as it compounds the problems of poor appetite and weight loss. Wet food, such as canned or raw, is an essential part of the diet.

The conventional treatment for CRF is a low protein, low phosphorus diet, and potassium supplementation. However, low-protein renal diets are not indicated until the disease is relatively advanced, because these diets are so restricted in protein that they don’t provide enough for normal body repair. The cat’s body will break down its own muscles to obtain enough protein, causing further weight loss and muscle wasting.

Many cats won’t eat a renal diet, and will do much better on a regular canned food. Experts agree that it is far more important that the cat eats and maintains her weight, than to worry too much about what she is eating. Hydration is also critical; many guardians learn how to give fluids at home to save the cat from the stress of frequent trips to the vet. Here are our best supplements for CRF in cats:

Hyperthyroidism

This problem is typically due to a benign thyroid tumor. The thyroid regulates the body’s metabolic rate, so the increase in hormone from the tumor is sort of like drinking espresso around the clock. Symptoms include increased appetite, weight loss despite eating more, increased heart rate, anxiety or “hyper” behavior, howling at night, increased thirst and urination, vomiting, and diarrhea. Not all cats will have all symptoms, and about 20% of hyperthyroid cats will be sluggish and depressed instead of hyperactive. Untreated, hyperthyroidism can cause a serious heart problem called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy that will ultimately be fatal.

The cause of hyperthyroidism is unknown, but research suggests a link between hyperthyroidism and feeding canned food, particularly fish and giblet flavors. Environmental contamination with fire-retardant chemicals may be part of the problem; fish are commonly loaded with them. Easy-open “pop top” cans also appear to be a contributor, possibly due to chemicals in the can lining. Feeding canned food is very important to an older cat’s overall health, but it may be wise to stick to poultry, beef and lamb flavors that don’t contain fish, liver, or giblets; or go with a homemade or raw diet so you have better control over the ingredients. Other remedies that might help include:

Constipation

A small percentage of older cats develop constipation as they age. Many times this is related to feeding dry food, especially high-fiber (hairball or weight control) diets. There is so much fiber and so little moisture in the diet that the colon can’t keep things moving along properly. Other causes include breed (Manx cats are susceptible), trauma, and litterbox avoidance behavior.

If constipation persists and is not treated, there can be serious complications, including irreversible damage to the muscles of the colon. So clearly, it is best to deal with constipation early before it becomes unmanageable. Watching the quality and quantity of your cat’s stool in the box is vital to keeping your older cat healthy. A healthy stool looks like a tootsie roll; if it’s small, hard and dry, or if the cat spends a lot of time in the box, strains excessively, or cries as he’s defecating, it’s time to act. Any change in an older cat’s litter box habits should be discussed with your veterinarian promptly.

As actress Bette Davis once said, “Age is no place for sissies.” Getting old can be stressful. Essences may also be helpful to keep your cat’s mental and emotional balance. “Graceful Aging” by SpiritEssence is designed to support and balance the body’s cells and organs, and to help deal with the changes that naturally happen with age.

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