Your cat has been a constant in your life, making your house feel like a home for many years. But recently, you’ve noticed some changes.
As cats enter their teenage years, they will begin to show signs of aging. For example. metabolic changes can develop and negatively affect their quality of life—and weight loss is a common symptom that can signal something more serious than just the passage of time.
It can be challenging, however, to distinguish between normal symptoms that senior pets experience and symptoms that indicate something much more serious.
So how do you know when it's getting close to say goodbye? There are a few signs your cat is approaching the end of their life, and we'll review the most common below.
As cats digest their food, protein is broken down into nitrogen, and then ammonia. Healthy kidneys function to filter these toxic waste products out of the blood stream. At the same time, kidneys work to keep the body hydrated by concentrating these toxins into as little water as possible which is then expelled as urine. It is these concentrated waste products that give urine its usual odor and color.
When kidneys begin to wear out with age, this isn’t accomplished as efficiently, so more water is lost and toxins start to get left behind, making the urine more clear. While it might seem that when the kidneys are failing that you would expect less urine, it really means that the amount of urine increases. Over time, these cats start to feel sluggish because of the toxins that are building up, and the increased water loss causes dehydration, worsening the toxicity. Now your cat won’t eat and starts losing weight. They might be spending more time at the water bowl or seeking water from the faucet, and eventually there is vomiting.
Blood testing will tell you about kidney function. While there is no way to reverse this process, and the speed at which this degeneration progresses can vary, there are things your vet can suggest that will help your cat feel better. The primary recommendations are aimed at reducing protein in the diet (to slow the production of toxins) and increasing the water in the body (either by encouraging oral water intake or by injections of electrolyte fluids, something many cat parents learn to do at home).
Another common problem that causes weight loss in older cats is a hyperactive thyroid gland. When too much thyroid hormone is produced, it causes the entire metabolism to speed up, and like revving your car’s engine too high by stepping on the gas, this accelerates the aging. Now, your cat will be always hungry but losing weight, and can be restless, pacing, and crying. Over time, this can damage their heart because it is beating too fast.
Blood testing will tell you about thyroid function. There are medications cats can take to fix this imbalance available in many different forms like pills, liquids, flavored chews, and more—because we all know it can be tough to give cats oral medications long term.
Overweight cats are at increased risk of developing diabetes, recognized by sudden weight loss and increased thirst and hunger. This is a disorder of the pancreas, an organ that helps digest fat and control blood sugar by secreting insulin. Insulin moves sugar from the bloodstream into the tissues. If the pancreas gets irritated by too much rich food or fat, it can stop secreting insulin. Now, sugar stays in the bloodstream. And just like when you add sugar to water, too much sugar in the bloodstream can make it thick and sludgy, causing increased thirst. And since the sugar isn’t making it into the tissues, the cat is always hungry and loses weight. When the metabolism can’t make use of the sugar, it starts producing toxins called ketones that add to the discomfort.
Blood testing will tell you if there is diabetes. The treatment most commonly includes a special diet and insulin injections (which are actually very easy to do with tiny needles that cats don’t even notice), but this condition can be very complex to deal with and may involve other complications. It requires dedication, consistency and a lot of follow-up with your vet.
Cats that seem to experience vomiting and diarrhea without an apparent cause are often labeled with a presumptive diagnosis of “Inflammatory Bowel Disease” (IBD). Cats with this kind of history have an increased risk of developing cancer in their intestines—“Lymphosarco” (LSA). Why? Because cancer often develops in tissues that are repeatedly traumatized. Human smokers tend to get lung cancer because they irritate their lungs. Human athletes get more bone cancer because they pound their joints. People who sunbathe get skin cancer because they repeatedly burn their skin. In this same way, those cats with chronic GI symptoms can develop cancer, and suddenly their symptoms worsen and they lose weight.
Unfortunately, blood testing will not tell you about this. The only way to truly diagnose this is with biopsies of the GI tract. Depending on the specifics of an individual cat’s case, there may be other ways to handle this possibility with an eye towards improving their comfort and quality of life.
While all of the above are most common in older cats, all of them can also occur in younger ones as well, creating serious health concerns.
Here are a few other emergency conditions to watch for with cats of any age—if you see these signs, you should consult with a doctor immediately.
About 10% of all cats will produce tiny crystals in their urine, making it feel like they are peeing sand. In females, this can mimic all the symptoms of a common urinary tract infection (peeing in odd places like your sink or bed, peeing only small amounts, straining, sometimes showing a pinkish tinge to the urine.) However, in male cats this can create a urinary blockage, because the tube that urine passes through in males is thinner and longer. You might notice all these same symptoms, but more severely. This can become life threatening in a matter of hours.
Cats can be fascinated by string, yarn, and ribbon, but it can be dangerous if swallowed. The muscle of the gastrointestinal tract moves food downstream with accordion-like expansions and contractions. Different sections move at different speeds, and if a piece of string trails between different sections, it can begin a kind of tug-o-war that will bunch up the intestine like a hair scrunchie, creating a blockage. This can cause pain and vomiting and often requires surgery.
Asthma is inflammation of the airways that can create difficulty breathing, sometimes very suddenly, like an allergic reaction. Asthma makes it difficult to get air out, so the lungs become over-inflated, a sign that can be recognizable on x-rays. And because of the difficulty getting out air, the most common symptom the cat shows is coughing as they try to expel air. The panic often associated with difficulty breathing can quickly escalate into an emergency.
Cats are generally very independent, and as solitary predators in the wild, will try to hide any symptoms of weakness. The better you know your feline's normal patterns, the sooner you can pick up on these potential emergencies or signs your cat is dying. If you have any questions or concerns about your cat's health, the team at Pawp is here to help 24/7.