Guest Post by Peter Wedderburn
Astra was a tiny fluffy ginger kitten when she arrived in my family home in 1981. I moved away from home in the mid-eighties, and began to only see Astra when I visited my parents, perhaps twice a year. She lived until 2004, when she was 23 years old, and her later life made me very aware of the needs of an elderly cat.
When she was seventeen years old, she began to lose weight despite eating ravenously, and she occasionally brought up her dinner. Her local vet carried out blood tests, which confirmed that she had a tumour of her thyroid gland, which was producing excessive thyroid hormones. She underwent a major operation, with surgical removal of the tumour, and she recovered very well. She began to put on weight, and the vomiting stopped.
Astra seemed to be in excellent health for a while, but she then developed a peculiar behavioural problem. She started to yowl at night. She is generally a quiet cat, and this loud, drawn out yowl sounded as if she was in real pain. It started around one in the morning, and would continue until around three, by which time my parents were exasperated with their beloved pet. This time when they went back to their vet, it turned out that she was suffering from high blood pressure, which can frequently cause “abnormal vocalization”. High blood pressure is very common in older cats; it can be associated with kidney failure, heart problems and thyroid hormone problems. However, in Astra’s case, the problem was described as “primary idiopathic”, which in layman’s terms meant Astra had developed high blood pressure for no particular reason. Astra was given tablets to lower her blood pressure, and for a while, the yowling stopped. However, it began to recur with increasing frequency, until one weekend the problem was accidentally cured.
Astra had always slept in the spare bedroom on the guest bed. One weekend, my parents had a visitor who had an aversion to cats, so Astra was moved into my parents’ room for several nights. She slept deeply at the end of their bed, and she did not wake or yowl at all. When the visitor left, they continued to allow Astra to sleep on their own bed. The yowling never restarted. It seems obvious now that Astra’s high blood pressure was being exacerbated by stress. Although she had always been an independent type of cat, it was as if she had begun to feel lonely at night.
Cat behaviour experts say that this type of loneliness is common in elderly cats; over eighty percent of cats become more affectionate as they grow older, and they seem to have a particular need for reassurance at night. The “night-time yowling” problem is common in geriatric cats, and is not always so easily solved. Often it can be associated with high blood pressure and loneliness, but in some cases it can be a symptom of genuine senility; the Alzheimer equivalent of the cat world.
It can be difficult to make the correct diagnosis: it is possible to measure a cat’s blood pressure, but you can’t ask a cat if she is feeling lonely, and Alzheimer-type memory tests are clearly not applicable to cats. The best approach is often to do the routine physical tests, and then to examine the cat’s behaviour in detail. Cats with senility-type problems usually have other aspects of changed behaviour, as well as the yowling. There is no specific treatment for senility in cats, but at least if the diagnosis is made, it can be easier for owners to accept their pet’s changed behaviour.
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As far as I could judge, Astra never suffered from senility. As long as she had company, she remained a calm, quiet cat, with her yowling reserved for those special moments when she needed a little extra attention.