Yes, cats need to see the vet every year too! But besides the routine annual exam and vaccines, older cats (aged 7 years and up) should see the vet at least twice a year (dogs too! but here we are focusing on cats). Why, you ask?
My kitty Lily is a current, perfect example of why your older cat should visit the vet at least twice a year, as well as having blood work done at least annually, if not every 6 months. Lily, a domestic shorthair torti, was a resident at the Columbus State Community College Veterinary Technology program when I was a student there in 2005-2007. Cats and dogs in the program come from shelters or rescues, spend 2 years at the college, then are adopted out, mostly to students.
I fell in love with Lily and brought her home as a 7 year old after graduation. That was 9 years ago. In that time she has been relatively healthy. She's examined twice yearly by the vet, and has blood work once a year. Several years ago, around the time she turned 12, I started checking blood work twice a year. She was showing signs of having a high thyroid, and after a few rounds of blood work, we could see that her thyroid level was indeed rising. Once it reached a certain level, we began thyroid medication.
Lily was used to being in a veterinary type environment, and was easy to do procedures on, including checking her blood pressure. Elevated blood pressure is more common than many cat owners think, especially in the presence of other disease. Because I was doing her blood pressure twice a year also, I was able to see when it went up and start medication right away.
But more than that, I've been watching her kidney values as well as treating her for what we diagnosed as IBD, or irritable bowel syndrome. Without an exploratory surgery and biopsies, this is not a 100% certain diagnosis, but we felt it was worth treating for based on her symptoms and to see how she responded (the alternative was cancer!). Lily had been responding well to treatment...until this week.
At the end of June, Lily's blood work was normal for a senior cat of 16.5 years with a thyroid condition and high blood pressure, both of which she takes daily medication for (plus prednisolone for the IBD). Twice yearly visits have also allowed me to monitor her weight, and while she's slowly lost weight over the years, it's not been drastic and her body condition has been fine.
This week, Lily suddenly stopped eating. For a cat who begs for her nightly wet food, she turned her nose away from it one evening. She'd been fine that morning, even taking treats. We ran blood work the following day which showed some changes in her kidneys, but not drastic. But now she was slightly anemic. And now, she weighed only 5 pounds 5 ounces, when in June she was 6 pounds 2.5 ounces. It may not seem like much, but when you're a small cat to begin with, that's a lot of weight to lose in 5 months.
In 5 months, her renal values increased slightly, she's now anemic, and lost 3/4 pound in weight. Those are significant changes to an almost 17 year old cat. And those changes are not always noticeable at home. Bringing her in within 12 hours of her not eating, we began treatment with fluids, anti-nausea medication, and had blood work running at the lab. Within 48 hours, we were developing a plan of medications and further diagnostics for what is very likely cancer. While not curable, hopefully catching it as early as possible will allow me to keep Lily comfortable and persuade her to eat to maintain her weight.
Let's go back and pretend I didn't bring her every year, or only brought her for her shots. Let's pretend I hadn't checked blood work on her in several years, if at all. Not eating could mean a variety of things. Let's add her occasional vomiting, loose stool, and visually she's lost a little weight over the past couple years. Without a weight in every 6 - 12 months, it's hard to say when she lost the bulk of the weight-was it gradually, or suddenly? It's hard to tell. Her symptoms could indicate any number of things including a thyroid problem, IBD, kidney disease, pancreatitis, cancer, foreign body, toxin... Blood work now would say yes, there's a thyroid problem. Now there are changes in her kidneys. We could treat those now, not realizing there's something worse going on. Since she has had recent blood work and she has been receiving medication, her thyroid level is now normal.
I know all this may sound confusing, but my advice to all senior pet owners, cats especially, is please to NOT wait until you NOTICE a problem with your furry friend. By the time older cats show visual symptoms of illness, that illness is pretty advanced, which means harder to manage if we can manage it at all by that point. It's harder to put weight back onto an older cat with an illness, even with treatment. With kidney disease, by the time your cat shows symptoms (vomiting, weight loss, lethargy, increased thirst and urination), the kidneys have lost 2/3 of their ability to function...that's a lot! And it can't be regained. Running blood work screens on a routine basis allows for the doctor to watch for trends and be able to intervene earlier and perhaps give your cat a better quality of life for longer.
We all know cats hate visiting the vet. However, a few hours of your cat being mad is worth it if we can help you help your pet live a happy life for as long as possible.