I am the first to admit it, but I am somewhat of a geek, especially when it comes to blood pressure problems, or hypertension. I was first drawn in when I learnt in my physiology lectures about the Reverend Stephen Hales (shown in the picture), measuring arterial pressure for the very first time in the 18thcentury. His technique involved placing a glass tube in a horse’s carotid artery. This was a ‘one off’ measurement, as I don’t think he replaced the blood back into the horse!
Thankfully we now use indirect or non-invasive techniques to measure blood pressure in conscious cats. It appears that hypertension is quite common, especially in older cats, and is very treatable. I recommend that cats over 12 years be screened annually, as part of their wellness screen, as often cats show no signs until something serious happens. In humans, hypertension is called the ‘silent killer’ for similar reasons.
My patients are usually very tolerant of having their blood pressure checked, using a cuff on their front leg or tail and a Doppler probe to pick up their pulse. I usually ask their human to stay close by to give cuddles and support, and to reduce the so called ‘white coat’ effect where the blood pressure is higher than normal due to the stress of being at the clinic.
As the chilly weather continues, my cats are spending more time indoors and making lots of use of their toys and scratching posts. I can still tell they’re cross about the snow in THEIR garden and seem to hold me solely responsible for their confinement. Apart from this change in their routine, my cats, like most of yours, lead a very low stress life; they eat a healthy balanced diet, appropriate for their age and lifestyle, low in salt, they don’t smoke or drink alcohol and they’re not obese. So why should cats suffer from high blood pressure? It turns out that unlike in humans, the majority of cats have an underlying disease that causes their high blood pressure, the most common being kidney disease and an overactive thyroid. When I find a cat with hypertension, as well as treating him or her, I will always take some blood and a urine sample to look for these diseases, which can be treated in their own right. Similarly, cats under my care with diseases such as hyperthyroidism have their blood pressure regularly checked, to make sure they are not developing hypertension.
Untreated hypertension damages the heart, the kidneys, the eyes and the brain although every organ is affected. We often see no signs at all until a dramatic event, such as sudden blindness or seizures occur. Owners often describe their cat yowling at night, and behaving in a disorientated fashion or signs attributable to underlying disease, such as weight loss or lethargy.
Like most things, prevention is better than cure, and early treatment can prevent devastating consequences as well as reducing the progression of organ damage. Blood pressure monitoring is part of our geriatric preventative health plan as we feel passionately about screening for hypertension in our older pussycats.
Read more about hypertension in cats.