Vision in old cats

Sight with old cats. © Victoria Kondysenko | Adobe Stock

For cats, which control their movements and coordination mainly through their eyes, since they do not have such a strong sense of smell as other animals, the eyes and their health are of immense importance. Nonetheless, cats behave similarly to humans: In the later course of life, the visual acuity can decrease. This can be problematic at the beginning. In addition, in many cases it is also avoidable, provided that there is an underlying disease and it is recognized and treated in time.

Because although even blinded cats can reliably find their way in their environment, it is still a great loss of the cat’s ability to. In addition, researchers have found out that cats (as the third animal group at all besides monkeys and dogs) can communicate with humans via eye contact. It was tested to what extent cats can follow human glances and thus find their way to hidden feeding places. Therefore, a decline in natural vision in old age is associated with some limitations. But how does it come to this?

Decrease of vision in old cats often consequence of other diseases

Contrary to popular belief, poor eyesight in domestic cats is often not due to the cat’s age alone. Rather, it is very often a concomitant of other diseases or changes in the organism. A common cause is high blood pressure as a result of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). This is one of the most commonly diagnosed heart diseases in cats.

HCM is a primary cardiomyopathy in combination with a hypertrophic, non-dilated left ventricle. This occurs in isolation without other systemic or cardiac abnormalities to which HCM could be attributed. In contrast to dogs, in which this form of heart defect can become noticeable through coughing and other symptoms, in cats it is mainly shortness of breath and loss of appetite that occur. Another possible underlying disease that can lead to deterioration of eyesight is chronic renal insufficiency.

High blood pressure as a possible consequence of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy

Hypertension can have serious consequences for vision in cats. The increased blood pressure can cause bursting of the very small and delicate vessels in the back of the eye. Therefore, as a veterinarian, you should always inspect the back of the eye during examinations of high blood pressure in order to be able to detect possible damage at an early stage. In acute cases, cats show dilated pupils and appear confused. This is an emergency, which can lead to blindness of the cat if left untreated. Alert cat owners to these symptoms.

Chronic renal failure as another cause of eye damage in cats

Another very common cause is chronic renal insufficiency (CNI), which statistics show occurs in up to 30% of older cats. CNI does not develop acutely, but gradually over a long period of time. Since the damage to the kidney is no longer reversible and the first signs are not seen until approx. 70 % destroyed kidney tissue, it can often be difficult for you to make a timely diagnosis.

If left untreated, CNI is fatal. Therefore, it is advisable to have regular check-ups after a certain age of the cat. Finally, CNI can only be reliably detected by a blood test. Signs of HCM include lethargy, loss of appetite, weakness, weight loss, dental and gum disease. However, other symptoms may also indicate CNI. These must be checked in the medical history.

As with HCM, CNI very often leads to high blood pressure, which can be very harmful to the eyes and vision of the animal.

Various eye diseases as triggers of visual impairment

If the eye itself is directly affected by a disease, this can also lead to deterioration of visual performance. Here changes of the retina as well as cataracts (cataracts) or. Glaucoma in the foreground.

Cataract is a grayish clouding of the lens that can become almost whitish as the disease progresses. Although painless, this development causes the animal’s vision to continue to decline. Cataracts are often a sign of aging in cats, as in humans. However, this can also be a sign of diabetes in the cat.

Glaucoma is an elevated intraocular pressure that causes the pupil to dilate and not contract as it normally would, even in direct light. The increased pressure inside the eye also already causes impaired vision. If left untreated, the eye socket will eventually give way and the eyeball will become severely enlarged. In addition, there is a clouding of the cornea, which ultimately leads to blindness of the cat.

Visual impairment in cats in old age

It should be noted in principle that visual impairments in older cats often do not occur "just like that", as we know it from humans. Much more often other underlying diseases are responsible and the decrease of vision (up to blindness) of the cat is only a kind of symptom resp. Consequence of these various basic diseases. It can be said that cats in the later part of life should also be taken to the vet regularly for preventive checkups with special attention to visual performance.

Especially with regard to HCM, CNI as well as the most common eye diseases, you as a veterinarian should carry out regular preventive examinations in order to maximize the chances of curing or treating the disease. Minimize the effects of the disease early to maximize. This is especially true because some diseases, which can lead to impaired vision when the cat is old, can show symptoms only very late in life. A full medical history is therefore essential to detect hidden causes of vision loss in older cats.

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