Getting old is hard. Just ask my cat. She’s about 85 in human years. Certainly a delicate age but not an extreme one. I love her dearly but dealing with her healthcare is challenging.
We tend to want for our pets what we want for ourselves. Dignity and comfort are a priority. I want to live vigorously, with minimal intervention from healthcare, and then expire suddenly at the age of 140. The actual age is negotiable, more so than the involvement of modern medicine1.
Similarly, I want as few visits to the veterinarian, and as few medical procedures, as possible for my pet. I want her to be where she feels safe and comfortable (on my bed, apparently). But, I don’t want her to suffer needlessly, or miss a simple remedy that would make her life easier.
Most medical interventions for elderly humans don’t seem to me to make life easier1. Many treatments, or worse monitoring the situation, make life more complicated with ongoing testing, meds and uncertainty. They do extend life and perhaps make it more comfortable.
Back to pets – how to minimize visits to the vet and maximize what modern medicine can provide. Cats aren’t great at describing their symptoms (they all sound like meow), so invasive approaches (by human standards) like blood sampling and MRIs are the standard in veterinary care.
I’m impressed with the recent advances in veterinary medicine but wonder where the balance is for an older cat. How much discomfort and stress is worth it for:
- diagnostic procedures (which humans put up with because we think something useful will come from it),
- that may or may not reveal an underlying condition (humans find value in knowing there is nothing wrong, cats only know the discomfort of the test),
- that may or may not be improved by an intervention of perhaps additional invasiveness.
For humans, the internet provides some guidance on whether a symptom is of concern. For yourself or another human, it’s easy to eliminate stuff when you recognize details that don’t apply. It doesn’t work so well for your pet, because they can’t additional information that could immediately classify the problem as mild (e.g. when does it hurt the most – sitting or standing, morning/night) .
Searching for answers to pet health questions, most threads lead to: go the vet. Exactly what I’d like to avoid. I know they are professionals with lots of wisdom and compassion, but I still find the advice ‘go to the vet’ unpleasant. We don’t want to. Me and the cat find the experience highly stressful. I’m leery of the value I get.
Then there’s the question of distinguishing between natural ageing and medical problems. There is a medical intervention for just about everything now. Should there be? Humans are equipped to decide how much is enough. How do we make that decision for our pets? We all, humans and pets, must end at some time.
What is natural ageing? How does one die of natural causes? We call deteriorating kidney function kidney disease. And thyroid dysfunction, hyper or hypo-hypothyroidism. Pancreatic shutdown – diabetes. Degenerated joints – arthritis. And the dreaded cancer is generally a side effect of ageing. Which of these (and many others) are natural and which are aberrant? A tiny Google tells me that the definition of death by natural causes means no acute trauma, so all of the above qualify as natural causes.
When is it appropriate to label our physical condition disease rather than ageing? Certainly, a youth suffering from something common in old age is unwarranted and needs an intervention. Do we draw the line for people – at 60, 70, 90? for cats -at 16, 17, 19? The person chooses, although it may not be an easy decision. Trying to make the decision you think your pet prefers is even harder.
An interesting anecdote:
A regular visit to the vet for vaccinations: I was told that the supplement I gave my cat from the human drug store wasn’t formulated for cats. Perfectly understandable, I’m sure it wasn’t.
The latest and greatest of veterinarian medicine for the same condition is a monoclonal antibody injection – a rational approach, with verified scientific evidence. Kind of. Online, the manufacturer declared the product had a 77% success rate, but the placebo control had a 66% success rate. The treatment costs about $100 monthly. Importantly, the cat and I would have the trauma of going to the vet every month. With only a marginal improvement over the placebo, it didn’t seem of great value.
Purchased a supplement for cats at the pet store. After a few months of this, my cat was inactive and limping more than ever.
I went back to the human formulation because it was logical that the formulation was innocuous. The first night back on this, the cat was climbing furniture like an explorer.
The morals of this story are a bit vexing, because they’re contradictory:
1. Be sceptical of the latest product with a big price tag.
2. Don’t give up on finding ways to make your older pet’s life better.
While I’m failing to come to a conclusion about the right thing to do, I do know the right thing to do. Fretting, or mulling over a decision, is normal when the decision has important consequences. I find strength in this, because looking back, I have sought medical help when it’s clear there is a serious issue, human or feline. I’ve learned to trust my intuition, not the marketing guilt meter, or the promise of miracle cures for old age.
I’m going to hug my healthy-for-her-age cat now 😺
1Modern medicine is too intrusive, temporary and indecisive. Intrusive – the vast majority of diagnostic procedures are at least uncomfortable, many painful, all inconvenient, many disruptive, some terrifying, and most degrading and embarrassing (anything that involves a hospital gown). Temporary – test needs to be repeated in [two weeks, six months, a year…]. Indecisive – would you accept the phrase ‘inconclusive results – tests should be repeated in six months’ from your auto-mechanic or electrician?