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Metairie Small Animal Hospital (MSAH)

Common Health Problems in Senior Cats: Part 3

A Black & White Cat Getting its Teeth Brushed

Senior Cats: Slowing Down or Sick?

At this point, you've heard how good cats are at hiding their pain and discomfort. Unfortunately, that makes it hard for us to know when they're suffering until the condition is more advanced. Sometimes, early signs can be as subtle as your cat slowing down a bit - and that's also a normal part of growing older for all of us! Deciding whether or not your cat is sick or just a little less active than s/he used to be can be tricky, and you may need your vet's help. You might feel silly if you find out your cat just needs more naps, but wouldn't you rather know it's that and not something potentially life-threatening? In the previous parts of our series on senior cats' health problems, we've talked about arthritis, kidney diseasehigh blood pressure and hyperthyroidism. Today, we'll wrap it up with dental disease and cancer.

Dental Disease

In truth, dental disease is common in both young and older cats. In fact, it's estimated that by 3 years of age, 85% of all cats have some kind of dental disease. With that in mind, it's hardly surprising that by the time your favorite feline has reached his/her senior years, the dental disease may be significant. Besides cavities and broken teeth, periodontal disease, which includes gingivitis, periodontitis, and stomatitis, is very common in cats, even for those that get regular check-ups.

Periodontal disease is caused by plaque and tartar formation which can lead to gum disease - just like in humans! Symptoms can include bleeding, red or swollen gums, consistently terrible breath (halitosis), pawing at the mouth, and difficulty eating (which may look like reduced appetite). Unfortunately, just like all the other conditions we've talked about here, by the time your cat starts showing signs of discomfort, the disease process is advanced. In this case, advanced disease requires a full scaling and polishing of the teeth and, often, many tooth extractions. Ouch! It definitely pays for you to start dental cleanings for your cat before his/her mouth gets to this stage.

Stomatitis is a specific type of dental disease that creates swelling and ulcers in the mouth. As you can imagine, it’s quite painful. Stomatitis can prevent your cat from eating and may cause hypersalivation. Unfortunately, the cause of this disease isn't completely known. While some plaque and tartar may be present on the teeth, the swelling and ulceration are out of proportion. It's thought that there may be a problem with immune regulation in this condition. Treatment options range from steroids (prednisone) to anti-inflammatories and antibiotics, to tooth removal. Your veterinarian can recommend the best course of treatment.

The good news about dental disease, though, is that you can help prevent many of these painful problems! Regular dental cleanings and at-home tooth brushing will help. There are cat toothbrushes and flavored toothpaste to help make this task a little easier. If your cat won't tolerate at-home tooth brushing, there are a number of dental treats on the market that can help keep your cat's teeth healthy, as well. You can check out our online store to see some of those we recommend, or you pick them up here on your next visit! (Keep in mind, though, that neither at-home tooth brushing nor dental treats can replace regular veterinary dental care!)


The dreaded “C” word... Cancer is an insidious disease, and it's estimated that 1 in 5 cats will develop cancer in their lifetimes. While there are many different types, one of the most prevalent forms in cats is lymphoma which causes the lymph nodes to swell. Other common feline cancers include soft tissue sarcomas and squamous cell carcinomas. While cats can get any kind of tumor (lung, mammary, liver, etc.), they are less common.

If you feel unusual/new lumps or bumps when you pet your cat, these could be signs of cancer that your veterinarian needs to check out. A few other possible signs of cancer include sores that don't heal, unexplained weight loss, loss of appetite or difficulty eating/swallowing, vomiting, lameness or stiffness, and difficulty urinating or defecating. Just like with human cancers, the earlier cancer is detected, the better the prognosis. So if you notice any of these signs in your cat, it's a good idea to bring him/her to the vet. 

Treatments for feline cancer are similar to those for humans and include surgery, chemotherapy, and (rarely - and generally only from specialists) radiation therapy. Surgical interventions are important for removing lumps, bumps, and growths and can help prevent the cancer from spreading. While chemotherapy sounds scary, because the amount and concentration of drugs used in pets are much lower than in humans, the side effects are minimal. (Pets don't tend to lose their hair or suffer from the other terrible side effects we associate with human cancer treatments.) 

Of course, you can see that these common health problems facing senior cats share a lot of similarities in terms of symptoms. Additionally, once the symptoms are pronounced (for any of the diseases), it's much harder to effectively treat the condition. That’s why you want to make sure you get your senior cat in to see the vet twice a year for regular monitoring and share any behavioral changes you may have noticed. The quicker you or your vet detect a health problem, the better your chances of slowing (or halting) its progress and increasing the number of years you have with your cat.

If you'd like to make an appointment to bring your cat in to see us, give us a call or fill out our online form