Cats are the most popular pet in the United States, so you’d think veterinarians would be seeing and treating a greater number of cats than dogs. Yet, statistics from the American Veterinary Medical Association show that of the cats that do see a veterinarian, they average 26% fewer visits to their veterinarian than dogs do. Here is one pet owner’s story of how an annual examination may have saved her cat’s life.
Cats are often viewed as being more self-sufficient and not as dependent on people for a lot of things, including health care. Dr. Melissa Mustillo with AAHA-accredited practice A Cat Clinic in Boyds, Md., says, “Unfortunately cats are very good at hiding illness and most only see a veterinarian when they are sick. Cats tend to be independent and do not seek out their owners when they are not feeling well as compared to dogs. Also, it can be stressful for some owners to bring their cat into the clinic; therefore they only seek out care when absolutely necessary.”
Cats may be receiving less care than dogs because 60% of cat owners say that their cat doesn’t like going to the veterinarian and 38% of cat owners report that they themselves get stressed just thinking about taking their cat to see their veterinarian. Training your cat to be comfortable in their carrier and taking them on car rides for fun can go a long way in making a trip to the veterinarian easier. Many resources focus on techniques for making this task easy and pain free.
Cats do not show signs of illness or disease like dogs and people do, and that may be because if they showed signs of illness or injury in the wild, they would be preyed upon. For this reason, it’s even more important for cats to have regular examinations and testing with their veterinarian.
Michelle Armstrong of Golden, Colo., has two 6-year-old Siamese mix cats she adopted from a rescue group when they were kittens. She recalls, “They were both pretty sick when we first adopted them. We had to hand feed them and they were both being treated for pneumonia.”
Early last summer, Armstrong took the cats into her AAHA-accredited veterinary practice, Mesa Animal Hospital in Golden, for their annual examinations. Kukak, the male cat, had put on a couple extra pounds, so he’d been eating a restricted-calorie diet food. During his annual examination, Dr. Christine Horst recommended blood work and a urinalysis. When the results came back abnormal for kidney functions, Dr. Horst recommended that Kukak come back in 2 weeks to have the tests rerun. Sometimes stress from visiting the veterinarian can cause high test results, but when the tests were rerun 2 weeks later, the blood urea nitrogen (BUN), creatinine and urinalysis showed even higher results.
Kukak was admitted to the hospital and started on IV fluids right away, and it was determined that he was experiencing early kidney failure. After 3 days, he was released from the hospital and sent home for care. Armstrong and her husband did subcutaneous fluids twice a day at home in addition to administering medications. After changing his food to a therapeutic kidney diet and continuing with medications, Kukak’s lab values slowly began to improve. His treatment continues and his lab values have improved significantly. He still goes to the hospital for routine blood and urinalysis tests to make sure he’s responding well to treatment.
Armstrong believes she learned two critical lessons from Kukak’s illness: she realized the importance of getting your cats used to being handled and treated at an early age; if they hadn’t spent so much time with Kukak when he was a kitten—hand-feeding him, getting him used to having his nails trimmed, etc. — they wouldn’t have been as successful providing the in-home support care he needed after his stay in the hospital.
The second critical lesson was the importance of the annual examination. “I have no doubt that if we hadn’t discovered Kukak’s problems during his annual examination, he probably wouldn’t be with us today,” Armstrong says.
Kidney disease is becoming a more common disease in senior cats, but it is uncommon to see this condition in a cat of Kukak’s age. While they may never know what caused this disease at his age, early identification probably saved his life.
Dr. Mustillo says that when cats are over 1 year of age, she generally sees them once a year as long as they are healthy. ”Obesity, dental disease, dermatitis, and lower urinary tract disease (cystitis) are the top health problems I see on a routine basis. Since we are a feline exclusive practice, we also manage a large portion of older cats with kidney disease, elevated thyroid hormone (hyperthyroidism), and inflammatory bowel disease.”
Good nutrition and preventive health care for cats is important to helping them live a healthy life. Dr. Mustillo says, “Once cats are older than 10 years, they are considered seniors. We offer a senior wellness visit and encourage this visit every 6 months. At this visit, I perform a complete physical exam. This exam is very important, as I may be able to notice subtle changes such as weight loss or the loss of normal muscle mass.”
An annual examination also helps your veterinarian get to know your cat and his or her nuances. Oftentimes a cat can lose or gain weight so gradually that the owner doesn't notice it. But a 1-pound weight loss for a 10-pound cat is 10% of its body weight. So, even a small amount of weight loss can be significant in a cat.
Dr. Mustillo says, “Sometimes this is the only symptom I find and this subtle change may indicate a serious medical issue. The second part of the physical examination includes blood pressure measurement and lab work based on the cat’s medical needs. The lab work usually consists of blood and urine tests. Cats over the age of 10 are more likely to develop kidney disease, an elevated thyroid hormone, or various types of cancer. A cat’s health can change quickly, and it is easier to treat and possibly cure a medical disease if it’s detected early. We may also be able to extend the length and quality of the cat’s life with proactive and preventive care. Cats change and age very rapidly compared to humans. The sooner we catch problems, the easier it is to treat and hopefully extend their quality of life.”
Early detection is the key to identify potentially serious issues and to treat them successfully, slow the progression or cure them. By the time a problem is identified, the illness can be pretty well established, which makes it much more difficult to treat and/or cure. And, preventing disease is less expensive and much more cost effective than treating disease.
Dr. Mustillo says, “Our philosophy is to promote and support overall wellness and well-being of your cat. We stress client education and one of our big points is preventive care. We start educating our clients early. Whether I am seeing you for the first time with a kitten, or senior cat, I will tailor a preventive care plan for your cat and take the time to explain its importance.”
Obesity is a problem many veterinarians are seeing. The Association for Pet Obesity Prevention reports in their fifth annual veterinary survey that 53% of adult dogs and 55% of cats are classified as overweight or obese by their veterinarian.
“Unfortunately around 50% of our patients are overweight,” Dr. Mustillo says. “With obesity, there is an increased risk for diabetes mellitus. Overweight and obese cats are also prone to urinary issues, arthritis, poor skin and coat quality, and they make poor anesthesia candidates.”
She’s also seeing an increase in the number of cats that have heartworm disease, a disease that’s preventable but not treatable in cats. “Sadly, the most common presentation for heartworm disease in cats is sudden death,” she says. “We had two patients with confirmed heartworm disease a couple years ago, and unfortunately this was diagnosed upon autopsy. Heartworm disease is transferred by the bite of a mosquito and even indoor cats are at risk. All it takes is one mosquito sneaking into your home, or if your cat spends a few minutes sunning out on the balcony, they are at risk. With increased year-round temperature, and with the relocation of dogs, heartworm disease is prevalent in most of the United States and Canada. There is no treatment for heartworm disease in cats. All we can do is prevent the disease by using a monthly prescription product.”
Dental disease is another area where prevention can go a long way. It’s estimated that 85% of pets have dental disease, which can lead to kidney disease, liver disease, diabetes and hyperthyroidism. Pet owner choices can help delay the effects of dental disease. Dry food is considered better for cat’s teeth than canned food, and there are more options today for foods, toys and treats that help stimulate gum tissue and reduce tartar build-up.
Remember that your cat may not show signs of sickness or illness like dogs or people do. Cats can live long, healthy and happy lives if they receive preventive care and treatment to help them stay healthy. When you consider that each year of a cat’s life is equivalent to 5 to 7 “human” years, an annual examination is conservative. If your cat hasn’t been to their veterinarian in the last year, consider calling and making an appointment today.