This photo is my patient, Jake, celebrating his 18th birthday which is approximately 86 in cat years. But Jake is not my longest-lived patient, Sparky, an orange gentleman at 18 and a half takes that prize. Weezer, a stripey spring chicken is the runner up at nearly 16 years. What do these three elderly cats tell us about aging in our feline companions?
Many diseases, one cat
Research stemming from a Swedish pet insurance database indicates that cats like Jake represent the typical older feline patient. In the Scandinavian cohort of cats, cancer, kidney disease and intestinal disease increase in frequency as cats age. Medically speaking, Jake has intestinal lymphoma, recurrent kidney infections, heart disease, pancreatitis and an occasional flare up of diabetes, all of which are currently under control. Older cats, with a myriad of medical conditions, need a plethora of carefully titrated drugs to keep their problems well controlled. From my veterinary viewpoint, these cases are incredibly challenging because one disease may need a medication like steroids while another disease like diabetes can flare up with steroid therapy.
One diagnosis common to all three of these cats is cancer. Jake, Sparky and Weezer all have lymphoma and for that matter, the same form of lymphoma, gastrointestinal small cell lymphoma. This little fact should give you hope since all three cats have exceeded the reported average lifespan of cats which is 14 years, despite a diagnosis which is expected to send their owners into a blue funk. Gastrointestinal small cell lymphoma has become the most common form of lymphoma diagnosed in cats and carries a good prognosis when treated early. The take home message here is if your cat has a cancer diagnosis, despair should not be your first emotion.
Good news, cats are living longer
Sparky, Weezer and Jake reflect a new trend in cat lifespans. Information from the Swedish pet insurance database I mentioned above suggests that cats are living longer. For example, between 1998 and 2002, 58% of Birman cats lived on average 12.5 years and between 2003 and 2006 68% of Birman cats lived 12.5 years. An increase in longevity was seen across the spectrum of cats including other purebreds and domestic cats. The reason for this increase is currently a mystery.
How can you get your cat to live like Weezer, Sparky and Jake?
To have a geriatric cat, you first need your young cat to be healthy. Some very simple lifestyle modifications will help that happen. Neutering has been shown to be associated with an increased lifespan. Since trauma is a big killer of young cats, make your cats indoor ones.
Another killer of young cats is infectious disease. Keeping your cat indoors will help protect your favorite fur person against contracting an infectious disease like FeLV and FIV, but vaccinations are another important component of protection against infectious disease.
Finally, feeding the right food will also help your cat grow old, but not too much, since overweight cats have a truncated lifespan.