Common Illnesses in Older Cats

I wanted to show some love to our furry feline friends this month, so this column will be devoted to cats! In particular, I’d like to write about some common health problems that we see in older cats. Thanks to better preventative care, our cats are living longer than ever. These senior cats have their own special health needs and problems. By knowing what to watch for, we can catch these problems sooner and help keep our friends happy and healthy even longer.

First, let’s start by discussing important things to watch for as your cat gets older. Weight loss can be very important, since it can be associated with many health conditions. Other common signs of illness include drinking and/or urinating more, vomiting, or changes in appetite (either eating more or less). If your cat is showing any of these symptoms, it’s time to load up the cat carrier and take a trip to the vet.

Kidney Disease

One of the most common problems in older cats is kidney disease. What causes it? Most of the time, we don’t really know. A previous injury or an infection in the kidney could lead to kidney disease later in life, or it may be age-related degeneration that causes it.

Typical signs of kidney disease in cats include a progressive lack of appetite, weight loss, drinking and urinating more, and vomiting. Keep in mind that not all cats will show all of these signs. Kidney disease can be tested for using blood and urine tests. The severity and progression of kidney disease varies quite a bit. Some cases are mild and can take years before becoming a serious problem, while others may progress more rapidly. Treatments for kidney disease include special diets, fluid therapy, and medications to help control nausea and improve appetite.


Another common problem in older cats is hyperthyroidism, which is a disease caused by an over-active thyroid gland. Once again, the cause of this illness is a mystery. Theories abound, but none have been proven. Cats with hyperthyroidism typically drink and urinate more, vomit, and lose weight. They usually have ravenous appetites and may be hyperactive. This condition can be tested for with blood tests.

There are a number of different treatment options for hyperthyroidism. They include a single treatment with a specially treated iodine compound, long term medications (with pills or a gel rubbed on the ear), or a special prescription diet made with very low levels of iodine. Each option has pros and cons that your veterinarian can discuss with you. Most cats with hyperthyroidism respond well to treatment and can live for years with the condition.


Most of us are familiar with diabetes since it is a common disease in people. It is much more likely in overweight or obese cats, so keeping your cat nice and trim can help prevent diabetes. Cats with diabetes will drink and urinate more. They will gradually lose weight even though their appetites are usually good. Diabetes can be diagnosed with blood and urine testing.

Treating diabetes typically requires inulin injections. A diet change may also help. A few lucky cats actually go into remission after being on insulin, meaning they no longer require insulin injections. Unfortunately, this is rare. All cats with diabetes require close monitoring and regular checkups to keep them well regulated.


Lymphoma is probably the most common cancer in older cats. It typically affects the stomach and intestines in cats, although it can show up almost anywhere. Weight loss is the main sign, which is often accompanied by vomiting and/or diarrhea. It usually takes advanced testing such as ultrasound or intestinal biopsy to diagnosis. Various types of chemotherapy are used to treat lymphoma. The prognosis varies widely, with some cases responding well to treatment and progressing slowly while others are more severe.

What about some of the less serious health issues in older kitties? We definitely see dental disease in older cats. Food and saliva stick to the teeth and can lead to calculus buildup, sore gums, pain, and loose teeth. A professional dental cleaning and home dental care like teeth brushing or dental chews can help manage dental problems. Arthritis is another health problem in some older cats. Keeping your cat at a healthy weight can do wonders to prevent and manage arthritis.

Keep in mind that all of these different health problems can be treated or managed, and it is always easier to treat health problems when they are detected early. By knowing what to look for, we can help keep our feline friends happy and healthy in their golden years!

Keith de la Cruz is an associate veterinarian at AtlasVet. He is a DC area native and the Treasurer/Secretary of the Virginia Veterinary Medical Assocation.