The feline difference lies in their unique ability to conceal what ails them. Behavioral evidence of weakness, pain and/or disease is not compatible with survival...

Among my first memories is one of my first cat, Marsha. She was a Siamese foundling—adult already—who ambled into our house with a frayed collar and made herself at home. While my mother was pregnant with the prenatal me, she would lie on the bulging belly, purring, in a way that irrevocably endeared her to the entire household.

When I finally emerged and was placed in a bassinet next to my parents’ bed, Marsha would cuddle me possessively, returning again and again each time she was discharged from her post.

A few days after my return from the hospital she surprised everyone with a litter of kittens, delivered overnight while she cuddled me in our little crib. (My mother swears she never looked pregnant, merely happily well fed.) Every time Marsha and her kittens were removed from our dedicated space, she would find a feline way to reunite us all again.

Family lore dictates that my career in veterinary medicine was predetermined neonatally by Marsha’s ubiquitous presence.

In spite of our early years together, when I think of Marsha I first recall her to memory as a geriatric cat, primarily (I think) because she spent so many years as an older girl. She lived seventeen years beyond her initial appearance and only rarely suffered any health concerns worthy of a vet’s attention.

Sometimes cats are like that. They seem indestructible. They emerge from the bushes in the back yard and integrate themselves into our human homes only to surprise us with their amazing ability to live beyond the 13-15 year lifespan of the average house cat. Who knows why some manage so well? The nine-lives feline mythology didn’t come from nowhere.

But if my memory serves, Marsha suffered the typical geriatric issues any modern cat does. And though her lifespan would unlikely have been altered by veterinary ministrations (she died of incurable abdominal cancer), given the benefit of hindsight and an education in veterinary medicine, I know we could have done more to make her geriatric years more comfortable.

Cats like Marsha may seem to go on forever without concern for the typical ailments that accompany our own human lives but, just like us, their senior years are riddled with the typical ailments of any geriatric: Their joints hurt, they become disoriented, they lose weight, their vision dims, their hearing subsides and they begin to depend increasingly more on others. In short, they’re just like us. But the feline difference lies in their unique ability to conceal what ails them.

That’s when their barely suppressed instincts begin to inform them of what all wild animals know well: behavioral evidence of weakness, pain and/or disease is not compatible with survival. Our housecats are not so removed from their non-domesticated cousins that they’ve forgotten how to conceal most signs of physiological distress, which includes the eventual outcomes that accompany the aging process.

When my clients arrive with extremely ill elderly cats whose first ever symptom worthy of concern they claim to have witnessed only very recently…I believe them. Cats are masters of subterfuge, and it’s incredibly common for owners to miss the very subtle signs of aging and/or age-related illness their cats will display if they know how to spot them.

That’s why the approach to feline aging is twofold:

1. Learning to identify the common, if subtle, signs of aging and/or illness, which cats are unlikely to evidence overtly, and

2. Approaching the aging of cats in measured steps - well in advance of their golden years. Prevention is, after all, the key to outsmarting nature.

Though the signs of feline decline may be slight and its progress apparently restrained in many an otherwise-invincible house cat, identifying disease early - and working hard to prevent it in the first place - is the key to minimizing the discomfort our cats inevitably suffer as they age.

With the benefit of hindsight, I now realize that Marsha’s increasingly slow, hunched gait was evidence of arthritis and not the inevitable “slowing down” we accept so readily in our aged cats. Her altered vision was likely the result of operable cataracts. Her horrible breath was the harbinger of lost teeth and probable pain.

It was another era, I know. Back then we considered feline dentistry and other geriatric niceties an ill use of family resources, but everything’s changed now. Our cats are our family and we know that anything we can do to prevent, identify and treat them is worthy of our attention.

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