Cats Need Annual Wellness Visits: The District Vet

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Hispanic woman working in modern vet clinic talking to bengal cats owners while palpating its body

Over the past two years we have noted a marked decrease in wellness visits for our feline friends. While it is true that dogs seem to have a knack for getting into more trouble than cats, this does not mean that cats are immune from Father Time. But cats are somewhat shy when discussing aging or discomfort issues with their people.

As pet parents/guardians/servants (we are talking cats, after all), our main duty is the comfort and happiness of those in our charge. Feeding a nutritious diet, along with providing shelter, exercise and environmental enrichment, are essential, as is a physical examination by a veterinarian.

We humans are recommended to see a physician annually, with a full physical examination, annual lab tests and a questionnaire about our overall health and well-being. (More on human medicine later: it’s terrible.) The same should be for your cat! Considering the average domestic feline lives 14-18 years, it ages much faster than us, necessitating more frequent exams as they age.

Simply being an indoor housecat does not negate the need for preventive medicine. Many cat parents feel that since their cat is indoors, it does not need to be examined unless a problem emerges. This philosophy is false. Consider that people who spend much of their time indoors age and develop arthritis, diabetes and cancer. The cat may not encounter other cats, decreasing the incidence of certain infectious disease or bites, but simply being indoors does not insulate them from the usual ills of aging.

Like grass growing, small incremental changes are virtually imperceptible, especially over time. This is where an unbiased and outside observer is essential. We veterinarians may see your cat a few times per year, but we do not see them daily. A two-pound weight loss, if achieved over a period of a few months, most likely will be missed by the pet parent but will be obvious to the veterinarian. Such a scenario is common in the examination room, with clients being surprised that their cat had lost weight, especially if the client was not aiming for such a reduction in pounds.

At a veterinary examination, the doctor or staff member will ask a variety of questions, attempting to glean how your cat is feeling and performing overall. While the client may believe that after 10 years the cat finally learned not to jump on the counter, the veterinarian may conclude that the cat simply can’t do it anymore! There’s no learned behavior, arthritis has set in, and this can be helped.

During an appointment, the veterinarian will perform a physical examination (cat willing),
listening to the heart and lungs, palpating the
abdomen, examining the oral cavity (dental disease is very common and quite painful), feeling limbs for arthritis, assessing the skin for lesions and so on. Yes, our examination is much more thorough than the one you just received from your own physician.

A thorough history and questioning is also essential, but the cat can’t tell us that something is a bit off or that they are urinating more than normal. We humans can explain potential changes in our well-being, habits, pain-tolerances or whatever, but the cat cannot. This is where annual lab testing helps fill in gaps from the history and physical examination.

Early detection of problems leads to better outcomes. If we can catch kidney disease, diabetes or hyperthyroidism before they result in massive weight loss, we can formulate a plan to extend the life and quality of life of our friends.

Being indoors or simply being a cat does not negate the need for routine care. Waiting until a problem is readily apparent, unless a sudden illness, is waiting too long. Annual or even semi-annual examinations will lead to a happier and longer human-cat relationship.

Dr. Teich is the medical director for District Veterinary Hospitals in Navy Yard, Eastern Market and Brookland. Visit www.districtvet.com for more information.