Keeping Senior Kitties Well

tortoiseshell cat in autumn leaves
"Aha," Cookie says, "the season has finally come around to coordinating with me."

Last year at this time Cookie, at 19, had a little health issue that I knew was more serious than in appeared, and indicative of her overall condition in hyperthyroidism and general old age. It’s at this age, considered geriatric, that you need to be the most observant of your cat’s physical appearance, eating habits and activity level because things can change at any time.

Happily sunning herself in a patch of sunlight on the leaf-covered ground, Cookie approves of the season and how it coordinates with her fur color and pattern.

But Cookie had a little health issue this week, perhaps a minor thing for a younger cat but at age 19 anything can become serious. It turns out she had an abscess under her chin which may have originated in her mouth—her teeth have always been a problem—or may have been an infection on her chin itself.

Cookie and I enjoyed our morning visit to the back yard on Tuesday, November 1, but while I was photographing her in the autumn leaves (the “Autumn Leaf Queen”) I kept studying her face; something wasn’t right. Most of us will notice when something familiar is different even if we can’t identify the difference. Artist that I am, I am always grateful for the ability to remember details, especially when it comes to my cats and their health. I’ve been looking at Cookie for 19 years, and though she’s been changing more rapidly in the past two years with age finally taking its toll on her muscle mass, hyperthyroidism and mild chronic renal failure changing her body’s shape, how she moves, how she talks, I still know her face pretty well from one day to the next. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that I photograph her multiple times each day so I actually have a record as well.

closeup of Cookie's face
Closeup of Cookie's face.

But I decided that Cookie’s face wasn’t shaped the same as usual, and the change was rather sudden. I looked closely at her muzzle and lower jaw, and, yes, her chin was easily twice as big as normal. Cookie usually has a tiny little chin that is mostly black but with a clear area of pale orange that slips down from her whisker pad, but I saw much more of her chin than usual. The photo at right is the best I got that day; she is so short that I would have to lie down on the ground to see her face-on, and then she thinks I’m there for her to walk on so she doesn’t hold still.

tortie cat on steps
Cookie waiting for me.

Her whisker pads looked a little more full than usual as well, and I could see too that her mouth was not closed all the way. I was actually concerned at first that she might be breathing through her mouth. Her thyroid is a little bit of a problem now and then and she coughs and also has a little breathing difficulty, and even with medication her heart rate is still a little higher than we’d like it. I turned her head and looked at her chin from the side. Definitely not Cookie’s profile. The photo at left is more representative of her face on a typical day.

But she had eaten a good breakfast and was as active as she normally was, so I wasn’t ready to run her off to the hospital. Instead, when we went inside I gave her a little mini-exam, checked her heart rate and respiration, took her temperature, all normal, and called her veterinarian.

Even though I felt we’d just be observing Cookie, I prefer to call my veterinarian when I see signs of potential problems, as this was. Minor now, but an infection anywhere on the face can become deadly if it travels, and even if it doesn’t travel, it can be difficult to clear up in an older cat, and the level of discomfort can also destroy their appetite—even Cookie’s—long enough to cause metabolic issues. In other words, it can spiral out of control unexpectedly, I’ve seen it happen, and I was going to be on this one.

My veterinarian described pretty much where and how Cookie’s chin was swollen, calling it “chin edema”, an infection probably beginning in her mouth with the swelling falling to gravity and ending up in the lowest part of her face, in her chin. I would observe it to see if it changed, especially growing larger, and check her temperature especially, making sure she continued eating.

By Wednesday morning it was clearly larger, swelling all the way back to her neck, and she missed breakfast, not even eating much after a quick visit out to the yard. I called her vet and we agreed she would start on antibiotics immediately. From years of caring for senior and geriatric cats and from fostering, I keep a small stock of antibiotics on hand so that if my vet suggests I should start them for any reason I can do so immediately rather than trying to coordinate a pickup—she is a house call veterinarian and both of us have odd schedules so this can be difficult to arrange. When beginning an antibiotic, time is often of the essence, so I’m always glad when I can hang up the phone and immediately begin the medication.

Get to know your little companion’s face, body and habits

Cookie did eat on Wednesday, but Thursday morning she was clearly uncomfortable, a little lethargic, but still no temperature. This is where I will mention, especially, the importance of knowing your companion’s physical appearance and habits as Karen Sable has been stressing in her articles about wellness. Because of what I do as an artist I am a little more observant, I’ve treated a parade of senior cats and know things can develop quickly and what things are likely, so I probably noticed this a few days before another person would have. But cats hide things so well that even on Thursday morning when Cookie was a little lethargic and wasn’t interested in breakfast, it would have been hard to tell anything was wrong because she just wasn’t acting all that ill. This is where an infection can become life-threatening before you even know it’s an issue, especially with a senior cat.

Jelly Bean keeps watch over Cookie.

I decided she needed to be babied, and that meant baby food, which I always keep on hand just for times like this. She lapped it up but even with that she wasn’t too eager to eat. I also decided that she was likely having trouble drinking because she was visiting the water bowls frequently, and I noticed that her mouth was rather swollen inside when I gave her the antibiotic and her dose of Tapazole. I always have a bag of fluids on hand, so I gave her a 100cc dose; she’s always tolerated them well, and even if she wasn’t dehydrated yet it certainly couldn’t hurt. The Fantastic Four kept an eye on her as well; one of them was with Cookie at all times.

I was up late Thursday, late meaning it was a few hours into Friday morning when Cookie was sleeping on the counter in the middle of the kitchen, but there was this awful smell…had she stumbled in the litterbox and had something on her fur? I checked her over and found something dried in her fur near her neck and began wiping to wash it off, then found newer goo under her chin and realized it was actually the abscess draining. I was glad for this, but I think only actual rotting flesh smells worse than what comes out of an abscess. I continued gently wiping away at it with wet paper towels until the brown goo turned tan, then red, meaning it had drained what it could; in this case, a little fresh blood is a good sign.

I cleaned Cookie up and decided it was finally time for bed, giving her and Kelly their little before-bed snack of canned food in the bathroom while I showered. I could tell Cookie felt better already, but when she wanted to get under the covers with me…well, only because I love her so much and I was concerned she felt cold, but I wasn’t thrilled to have that smell lingering.

Cookie, the Autumn Leaf Queen

Friday morning and day there was still a little swelling but no more draining, the smell disappeared, and by Saturday there was only a scabbed area left under her chin.

And Cookie is back, and when Cookie is back Cookie is everywhere. She gets up on my lap from the floor and walks across my keyboard on her way to the window to look out and yell about something, then she goes in the kitchen to sit by the door just in case I decide to go out, she naps a bit, then comes back to me. I am so accustomed to her spending all her time with me, and I had noticed she hadn’t been with me as much lately, so I guess this was brewing for a while.

But there were two things that really let me know Cookie was back. Out in the back yard yesterday I was down on all fours to photograph frosty leaves in the grass, and Cookie cleverly climbed up on my back and walked around and purred most pleased with herself. Then I got out my favorite enamel pan to make an apple crisp and Cookie decided it was just the right size and shape for her and stepped right into it. Back to Cookie’s Kitchen Escapades! I’ll post that next and link it.

Cookie was “back” then, and animals have always amazed me with recovering from things as quickly as they do. But the abcess returned again a few weeks later though we cleared it up again, an inidication of her immune system’s slow failure. After that it was one little thing after another related to her hypothyroid condition; I lost her a little less than three months later.


All images used on this site are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used without my written permission. Please ask if you are interested in using one in a print or internet publication. If you are interested in purchasing a print of this image or a product including this image, check my Etsy shop or Fine Art America profile to see if I have it available already. If you don’t find it there, visit Ordering Custom Artwork for more information on a custom greeting card, print or other item.

Bernadette

From health and welfare to rescue and adoption stories, advocacy and art, factual articles and fictional stories, "The Creative Cat" offers both visual and verbal education and entertainment about cats for people who love cats, pets and animals of all species.

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