VCA Animal Hospitals

My Older Cat is Losing Weight -- Should I Just Feed Her More?

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Q. My 8-year-old cat has a hard time keeping weight on even though she's always hungry. She seems healthy otherwise. In fact, she’s even more active than when she was younger. Should I just feed her more than what's recommended?

A. Before you do anything, get her in to your veterinarian. I suspect she may have a condition called hyperthyroidism, which is not uncommon in older cats. For reasons not clearly understood, the thyroid gland in these cats starts overproducing, leading to symptoms such as you describe. When a cat produces too much thyroid hormone, the metabolic rate soars to the point where he can burn off a significant amount of body weight. If thyroid production is not checked, hyperthyroidism can lead to heart failure, liver and kidney damage, and retinal detachment (blindness) as a result of high blood pressure, and the cat may die.

There are four methods for treating hyperthyroidism. The one any owner chooses after discussing the options with a veterinarian will depend on location and the overall health and disposition of the pet. Here are the options:

Radioactive iodine therapy. The benefits of this course of care are significant: a cure rate of 90 to 95 percent, with no further treatment. The cat gets one dose of a radioactive substance that kills the overproducing cells without harming any of the body's other functions. It's a one-day matter, but what follows presents a dilemma for many owners: The treatment creates a radioactive cat who must be kept on-site at a special facility for a prescribed length of time (typically two weeks), after which the animal is considered safe to be handled again.

Surgery. Another option is a thyroidectomy, the surgical removal of the offending parts of the thyroid gland, which can sometimes be done by a pet's regular veterinarian or by a surgical specialist. The problem: The surgery is delicate, with a chance that other problems may erupt as a result, such as calcium deficiencies. More significant is the age and general health of the cat, which factor into the risks of undergoing surgery.

Medication. Hyperthyroidism can be treated with medication, but some cats don't tolerate this well and some owners aren't up to the task of administering medication twice a day for life, especially to a cat who isn’t cooperative. Because of these problems, drug therapy is often used to stabilize a cat prior to the other treatments, to address the immediate health problems caused by hyperthyroidism until a long-term solution can be put into place.

Diet. One possible bright spot on the treatment front is a prescription diet available from veterinarians that its manufacturer says can help manage the disease. Because the prescription diet is new, I have yet to have any clinical experience with it myself. The prospect of managing hyperthyroidism in this manner is very exciting, however, so be sure to discuss this option with your cat's veterinarian.

The place to start, as I said, is by scheduling an appointment for your cat with your veterinarian. If your cat is indeed hyperthyroid, you and your veterinarian can go over the options so you can choose what’s best for him.


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