Veterinarians are seeking to learn more about aging in cats and how to give them better quality of life during the geriatric years
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
Your geriatric cat is as healthy as a 17-year-old cat can be, but she looks like skin and bones. Is there anything wrong with her? The answer is "yes and no."
Whether we're talking about elderly humans, dogs or cats, what's called "frailty syndrome" will eventually occur: a decrease in function reserve that can accompany advancing age. Animals with frailty syndrome lose weight, even if they're eating normally; lose muscle mass; stumble more frequently; walk less and slow down.
"We call them the 'weak and wobbly,'" says veterinarian Sheilah Robertson, medical director of Lap of Love in Gainesville, Florida. "They're just not as robust."
In partnership with human gerontologists and the University of Florida's Institute on Aging, Robertson has been studying frailty in cats. Thanks to better medicine and longer lifespans, frailty is becoming more of an issue in the care of senior pets. The senior cat care guidelines issued last year by the American Association of Feline Practitioners address the newly emerging concept of frailty and how it affects aging cats.
One aspect of frailty is immunosenescence: a decreased ability of the immune system to cope with infection or stressors. Cats aren't able to bounce back from illness the way they might have when they were younger.
"If they lose fluids or if they bleed or they're stressed or exposed to infection, they have less of a reserve to call on," Robertson says. "It really affects their ability to combat all the stressors of daily life, so they have higher vulnerability to adverse medical outcomes."
Besides looking at an aging animal's weight, activity level, limb stride, limb strength, or walking ability and speed, veterinarians can also evaluate muscle condition. Loss of muscle mass and strength is common during aging -- as you may have discovered, to your own dismay.
It's not currently commonplace, but Robertson would like to see veterinarians score a pet's muscle condition when they first see the animal, then track it as the animal ages. That could allow them to intervene earlier, recommending exercise or nutrition changes to help slow the deterioration of muscle mass.
Why is this important? People love their senior pets and want to give them the best care.
"When I do a show of hands at meetings, 40 percent-plus of every appointment is an older pet now," Robertson says. "Not a puppy, not a new kitten. It's the older pets."
In humans, a frailty index is an accurate predictor of how well a person will rally after a catastrophic event such as a broken hip and the surgery required to repair it.
Currently, veterinarians don't have a frailty index for pets the way gerontologists do for humans, but veterinarians such as Robertson, Tony Buffington, DVM, and Elizabeth Colleran, DVM, are working to develop one for cats.
"We are at the beginning of studying what constitutes frailty in cats," Colleran says. "It's been studied in people as sort of a condition for about 15 years now. I think we have a lot to learn from the work that's been done in humans."
One thing that she and Buffington are looking at is the role of environmental enrichment in treating older cats. Humans who are more active and who spend time with friends typically have lower pain scores. The vets hope to discover whether that's true for cats as well.
For now, Buffington says about feline aging: "Based on the data that I'm aware of in other species, environmental enrichment, a good diet and good medical care are, to my knowledge, the best preventive strategies that we have so far."
Q: My daughter is getting two rabbits, and she wants to keep them in a cage in her bedroom and train them to use a litter box. My husband wants to build a hutch outside. What do you advise?
A: Your daughter has done her homework. Rabbits thrive with proper care and attention, providing quiet companionship punctuated by periods of delightful silliness. They can and do use a litter box, and indoor living is safest and best for them.
Visit the website of the House Rabbit Society (rabbit.org) for the best information on caring for rabbits. These tips will get you started:
-- Housing. Rabbits need a small indoor pen or large cage containing food, water, toys and a litter box. Fill a plain cat litter box with a shallow layer of recycled paper or wood pellets covered with a layer of fresh grass hay. Change it completely, every day. Broken woven baskets, cardboard boxes and other items make good chew toys.
-- Nutrition. Bunnies need fresh water available at all times. While commercial pellets are fine, it's just as easy and often less expensive to feed your rabbits yourself. Grass hay (cheaper by the bale, if you have a dry space to store it) should always be available, complemented by green vegetables such as bok choy, broccoli greens, kale, mustard greens, romaine lettuce and carrot tops.
-- Health care. Get your rabbit spayed or neutered. In addition to keeping your rabbit from reproducing, you'll have a better pet. Unaltered rabbits can have behavior problems such as aggression and urine spraying. Your rabbit will also need a wellness check, just as a cat or dog would, and a good rabbit vet will help you catch little health problems before they become big ones. Find more about living with rabbits here: uexpress.com/pets/pet-connection/2021/09/20. -- Dr. Marty Becker
Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.
Org helps people
find lost dogs
-- Is your dog lost? Dog tracker Babs Fry of Jamul, California, started a nonprofit organization, A Way Home for Dogs, that offers free tracking and recovery advice to help people find missing pets. In a Los Angeles Times story, Fry says she receives up to 50 calls a day from people in the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia. Her website, awayhomefordogs.com, shares success stories as well as tips for finding lost dogs. Her best tips: Contact dog shelters immediately, post flyers, share photos and information about the dog on social media to alert the community, and advise people not to chase the dog.
-- Feather picking in birds is often attributed to boredom, but it can also signal other problems. Medical causes can include allergies, parasitic infections, bacterial infections, abnormal growths in the feather follicle, and vitamin deficiencies. Homes with low humidity can also contribute. Many birds come from extremely humid environments, and dry air can cause them to feather pick. Feather picking is often an outlet for stress. Some birds exhibit feather-damaging behavior when they are seeking attention or are upset by something that has happened to them. Take your feather picker to the veterinarian as soon as you notice the problem to rule out medical or nutritional problems. If your bird gets a clean bill of health, seek advice from an avian behavior expert.
-- Cats use scent to identify what belongs to them, and their "belongings" include their people. Sebaceous glands attached to their hair follicles play a role in the feline territory-marking system by secreting sebum, a scent marker. These glands are largest and most numerous on the cat's lips, chin, base of the tail and scrotum. When your cat rubs up against you or a piece of furniture, she's claiming you as her own. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker, founder of the Fear Free organization and author of many best-selling pet care books, and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. Joining them is behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.