An Annual Exam Can Extend Your Cat's Life

Your cat's health needs change with each passing year. Here's a lifetime guide to veterinary visits.

By Kathy Swanwick | Updated: December 14, 2012, 12 p.m. EST

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cat and vetIt's hard enough to schedule an annual exam for yourself, much less your cat. But a health program is important for longevity and quality of life.

A feral cat is likely to die by the age of 5, the victim of disease, starvation or a car accident. A housecat, on the other hand, can share and enrich his owner's life for 17 years, or longer, if he receives good health care.

"I have seen a 28-year-old Siamese," says Ana Hill, DVM. "Cats living to be 13 to 16 years old are pretty common; 19 to 20 is not unusual."

Cats need regular veterinary care and good nutrition to achieve such ripe old ages. Now is the perfect time to chart your cat's annual health plan.

New Arrival
A cat's needs change as he grows. The first veterinary visit should take place soon after you bring your new kitten or cat home, says Jan Strother, DVM. Segregate the cat from the rest of your household until tests show him free of contagious diseases such as upper respiratory infections, which can be deadly, or worse, feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), for which no cure exists.

"Oftentimes, when people get their cat or kitten, the breeder or previous owner will say they've had their first shots, but that's probably about it," Strother says. "It's a very, very good idea to get it to the vet and see exactly what its health plan should be."

Schedule the first exam after the kitten is weaned, usually around 6 to 9 weeks of age, Strother says. Plan on a lengthy visit and make time to ask questions and voice concerns. The veterinarian should examine the kitten's heart, ears, eyes and nose and check for internal and external parasites. "A good physical exam is as important as a vaccine," Strother says.

Have your kitten tested for feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and FIV. "The kitten may be perfectly normal and yet may test positive for either of these diseases," Strother says. "Both can be devastating." Your vet may need to test for other diseases such as anemia.

Take time during this visit to discuss vaccinations; your veterinarian may decide your cat does not need all of them. The American Veterinary Medical Association revised its vaccination guidelines, determining how often vaccines need to be administered or boosted.

"We're concerned about overloading kittens and cats with too may vaccinations," Strother says.

Discuss vaccine protocol with your veterinarian, Strother says, because he or she can make adjustments and accommodations, based on your cat's needs and where you live.

Talk about your kitten's dietary needs. "In general, kittens need a meat-based diet, balanced for growth one that's been properly tested," Hill says. She recommends using foods tested according to the Association of American Feed Control Officials standards and keeping the kitten on this diet for at least four to five months, preferably six to nine months.

Address parasite control at the second visit, when your kitten receives its second series of shots. You can control fleas and ticks orally, by injection or with topical treatments. 

Consider the benefits of spay or neuter. Some veterinarians spay kittens as young as 6 weeks. Again, ask your veterinarian. Most often, kittens are spayed before they go into the first heat cycle around 6 months old.

You've made all these important decisions with your veterinarian's help. But the home-care you provide between appointments is equally essential to your cat's overall health.

Kittens need exercise and you may need to encourage it. Keep them from becoming plump couch potatoes by enticing them to chase toys. "Keep them lean and mean," Strother says.

Brushing your cat's teeth is easier if you start while he's young. Cat toothpaste comes in chicken and other flavors to make it more appealing. Tartar-control treats are also available. Before you do anything, check with your veterinarian who can examine the cat's teeth during the annual exam and schedule an appointment to remove plaque if necessary. Risks exist with this procedure because the cat must go under anesthesia, but new anesthesia is safer.

Hairballs can be troublesome for cats and their owners. Brush your cat's fur often to reduce ingestion; too much can cause a blockage. Ask your veterinarian about giving your cat a laxative if needed. He may also benefit from a hairball formula food.

Declawing is a sensitive issue. Discuss the pros and cons with your veterinarian. It is rarely necessary in most households, Strother says.

"Maybe a person in the house has a depressed immune system," Strother says. "Have a very frank discussion with your veterinarian. This is a permanent solution. There are risks involved. It's certainly not something to do because you bought a new leather couch."

Scratch toys can keep your cat from destroying your furniture and curtains. Also, keep your cat's claws clipped. Rubber nail caps are available, but some cats try to chew them off, Strother says. "It depends on the personality of the cat."

Adult and Senior Needs
Responsible care involves expense and, depending on the problems your cat may develop, you may be talking about a lot of it. Strother knows owners who save $10 each paycheck for pet care or hold a credit card for emergency veterinary care. Pet health insurance can cover a wide range of treatments, from some vaccinations to spay or neuter, depending on the plan. If you're strapped financially, your veterinarian can tell you the most necessary procedures or treatments.

As your cat settles into his adult years, continue the annual vet visits for routine exams and vaccinations. Vaccination protocols are more individualized now, Strother says, depending on the cat's lifestyle and overall health. Your veterinarian can help you determine the frequency and necessity of vaccinations for your cat.

Your vet may suggest blood work to give the cat a baseline for later comparison. "Blood work can be very important, as can urinalysis," Strother says. They can detect health conditions such as early diabetes and subtle infections.

Your cat will reach its growth potential at about 9 to12 months of age, Hill says. During the middle years, he needs less fat and protein than as a kitten, so consider a good adult maintenance food that uses AAFCO testing. A 10-pound cat needs about 300-350 calories per day, depending on its metabolism and activity level, Hill says.

Most cats become seniors when they're 8 to 11 years old. Annual exams are essential, "as these can be the cancer years," Strother says.

Senior cats may develop diseases of the kidneys and liver, or hyperthyroidism, usually caused by a tumor in the thyroid. Symptoms of hyperthyroidism include a ravenous diet, accompanied by weight loss, anxiety, pacing and irritability. Treatment options include surgery, implants to shrink the tumor, radiation and medication.

"All have complications you'll want to discuss with your veterinarian," Strother says. And each option is expensive the surgery can cost about $800.

Diabetes can strike older cats, another reason to use a diet designed for seniors. Look for an AAFCO-approved food containing omega 3 fatty acids and antioxidants. Ask your vet if your cat needs senior food.

As your cat ages, he may develop spinal or joint arthritis or cataracts, which can be operated on successfully, Strother says. His hearing may diminish. You'll get your first clue about hearing loss when he doesn't come running at the whir of the electric can opener.

Brush your senior cat more often, as his energy level drops, grooming may become more of a chore.

With cats of any age, be aware of changes in bowel movements, which can indicate health problems. Cats normally have bowel movements every day or so. Watch for mucous in the stool it may mean an irritation in the bowel. Advise your veterinarian and take a sample to the office for testing if you see any blood in the stool. Even a change in the cat-box smell maybe more sour or pungent may signal a problem.

The advice you get during annual exams will help you assess your cat's health and happiness.

 

 

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Reader Comments

Galadriel    Lothlorien, ME

11/10/2013 11:52:49 PM

True.

debby    raleigh, NC

4/25/2013 5:59:37 AM

good to know for when my cat get older

Janet    Bethlehem, PA

11/24/2012 5:58:40 AM

thanks for the info

Jenny    Monticello, MN

10/13/2012 2:11:40 PM

Very informative article.

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