There are some simple recommendations when it comes to caring for your cat:
- Provide a safe environment (keep them indoors).
- Provide high-quality nutrition (e.g., meat-based proteins).
- Think preventative care (e.g., annual physical exams, clinical exams, relevant vaccinations)
- Give them plenty of love and exercise
By following these basic tips, you can keep your four-legged cunning friends healthy – for decades, if probable. But, as cat caregivers, we also need to be aware of the five “silent” causes of cat deaths. If you know what the most common silent killers are, you will know what clinical signs to watch for. The sooner we can recognize the clinical signs of many of these diseases, the sooner we can treat them as veterinarians.
Chronic kidney disease
One of the silent killers of cats is serious kidney disease (also called chronic renal bankruptcy or chronic kidney disease). Any of these terms are semantically the equivalent and mean that 75% of both kidneys are useless and not functioning. Clinical signs of CKD include
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Excessive urination
- Large lumps in the sandbox
- Weight loss
- Bad breath (due to accumulation of toxins in the bloodstream and ulcers in the mouth, esophagus, and stomach)
- Hiding from the world
- Fortunately, with proper treatment, cats can live with CKD for many years (unlike dogs, in which CKD usually progresses rapidly). Chronic treatment includes a low-protein diet, periodic blood tests, increased fluid intake (e.g., using a water fountain or feeding canned food), medications, and even subcutaneous infusions (which many well-trained pet caregivers perform at home).
Hyperthyroidism is an endocrine disorder in which the thyroid gland produces excessive amounts of thyroid hormone. It is seen in middle-aged to geriatric cats and has clinical signs similar to chronic kidney disease, including
- Excessive thirst
- Increased water intake/micturition
- Weight loss
- However, hyperthyroidism increases the cat’s metabolism, resulting in the characteristic signs of lack of appetite despite weight loss. The following symptoms may also appear
Increased heart rate
Severe hypertension (leading to acute bleeding, neurological symptoms or blood clots or strokes)
Secondary organ damage (e.g., heart murmur or renal impairment).
Fortunately, treatment of hyperthyroidism can be very effective and may include medication (called methimazole), surgical removal of the thyroid gland (less common), a special prescription diet called y/d® Feline Thyroid Health) or radioactive iodine I131 therapy. (less common), or I131 radioiodine therapy. The sooner hyperthyroidism is treated, the fewer side effects and organ damage the cat may suffer.
Another well-known silent killer of cats is diabetes mellitus. Many cats are overweight or obese, which puts them at increased risk for diabetes. In diabetes, the pancreas does not produce enough insulin (type I diabetes) or there is insulin resistance (type II diabetes). Insulin is a natural hormone that brings sugar (i.e. blood glucose) into the cells. As a result of the lack of glucose in the cells, the body produces more and more glucose, resulting in hyperglycemia (i.e. high blood sugar levels) and causing many of the clinical symptoms of DM. Normal clinical symptoms of DM are comparable to those of chronic kidney disease and hyperthyroidism and include
- Excessive urination and thirst
- Large clots in the toilet
- Overweight or obesity with muscle weakness (especially in the spine and back) and weight loss
- Decreased appetite or lack of appetite
- Lethargy or weakness
- Abnormal breathing (e.g., acetone breathing)
- Abnormal gait (e.g., lying on the floor)
Treatment of DM is expensive because it requires subcutaneous insulin injections twice daily. It also requires a change in diet (to one with more protein and fewer carbohydrates), frequent blood glucose checks, and frequent veterinary visits. With supportive care and chronic treatment, cats can do sensibly well, but once diabetic difficulties develop (diabetic ketoacidosis, hyperosmolarity, hyperglycemic syndrome, etc.), DM can be deadly.
Heart disease is a very frustrating condition for both cat owners and veterinarians. This is because dogs almost always have a loud heart murmur (a heart murmur that can be heard with a stethoscope) indicating heart disease, while cats often have no heart murmur at all. It is estimated that 50% of cats with heart disease do not have an audible heart murmur. Clinical signs of heart disease include
- Heart murmur
- Abnormal heartbeat (e.g., abnormal beats or rhythm)
- Increased heart rate
- Fainting (e.g., syncope)
- Increased breathing rate
- Shortness of breath
- Gums turn blue
- Open-mouth breathing
- Sudden, sharp paralysis (e.g., typical hind limb paralysis)
- Coldness or pain in the hind limbs
- Sudden pain
- Sudden limp
- Sudden death
Once heart disease is diagnosed (usually based on a physical examination, chest X-ray, Cardiopet® proBNP test, an echocardiogram of the heart), treatment consists of oxygen therapy, diuretics, blood pressure control, and emergency treatment with heart medication. Since heart medication does not cure heart disease but prevents it from worsening, the long-term prognosis is not good. The exception is when the heart disease is caused by hyperthyroidism, which usually improves when the hyperthyroidism is treated.
As dogs and cats live longer, veterinarians are seeing more and more cases of cancer. The most common type of cancer in cats is cancer of the gastrointestinal tract, often caused by lymphosarcoma. Clinical signs of cancer can include
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- breathing difficulties
- Swelling or fullness in the abdomen
- Decreased physical strength
- General malaise.
- Once a person is diagnosed with cancer, the prognosis is poor. Therefore, the sooner clinical signs are recognized, the sooner diagnosis and treatment can begin.
Other common emergencies can cause cat death, such as trauma, urinary retention, and poisoning. To keep your cat safe, follow these five simple tips
- keep your cat indoors to avoid trauma (being run over, dog attack, accidental poisoning, etc.).
- Try to keep your cat’s weight down. This will help prevent costly problems caused by obesity, such as diabetes.
- Make an appointment for an annual visit with your veterinarian. This is especially important to detect any physical abnormalities earlier.
- you can skip some vaccinations (do it once every three years), but don’t skip tests.
- Keep the bathroom clean. This sounds simple, but you should clean the litter box daily and often. Not only will it alert you to potentially life-threatening emergencies, such as a blockage in your cat’s urinary tract, but it will also help you notice if your cat urinates more or less than usual, so you can detect medical problems earlier.
And it can help you detect medical problems earlier. See your veterinarian as soon as you see any clinical signs.
For the sake of your cat’s health, you need to know about these common silent killers. The sooner you notice the signs, the sooner we can run blood tests to determine the medical problem. The sooner the diagnosis is made, the sooner it can be treated.
If you have any questions or concerns, contact your veterinarian or give us a call.