Pets: Catch killer before it's too late

THERE are many health problems that affect our four-legged friends as they age; arthritis, heart disease and senile dementia are just a few. Most of these serious conditions have obvious symptoms which can alert owners to a problem, but hypertension (high blood pressure) can go undetected.

Hypertension can affect both cats and dogs. Some show no symptoms at all, apart from perhaps appearing depressed and withdrawn, which makes it difficult to diagnose. In many pets, owners don't realise there is anything wrong until the problem affects a pet's vital organs.

Andrew Hogg, a vet with Edinburgh's PDSA hospital, explains: "It is something that is part and parcel of a couple of fairly common conditions that we see in cats, a symptom rather than a cause. It is linked to diabetes and kidney diseases, but it can then have negative effects of its own."

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But in serious cases, hypertension can lead to dramatic problems. Raised blood pressure can cause bleeding into the eye from burst blood vessels and may result in detachment of the retina which can lead to impaired vision or even permanent blindness in cats. It is also a contributing factor to kidney damage and may, in the case of renal failure, make the condition much worse.

A cat's brain and nervous system is also vulnerable to hypertension. High pressure in the brain can cause spontaneous bleeding which may lead to weakness, collapse and fits.

In some cases, high blood pressure can put strain on the heart. When the blood pressure is too high, the heart has to work doubly hard to pump blood. It may cause thickening of the walls of the heart chambers which, left untreated can lead to heart failure.

As the effects of hypertension can be life-threatening, early detection is vital. PDSA senior veterinary surgeon Sean Wensley says: "If owners notice any changes in their pet's routine or behaviour, they should contact their vet for advice. Pets should have regular check-ups to keep them fit and healthy throughout their lives, but these should become more frequent as pets grow older so any health conditions can be detected, and treated, as early as possible."

Diagnosis of hypertension is made by measuring the cat's blood pressure. The equipment used is similar to that used to test blood pressure in people, with an inflatable cuff placed around one of the front legs or the tail.

Andrew explains: "If we are planning to check the cat's blood pressure, we would normally organise a separate appointment so that the experience is calm and there is nothing to get it stressed out. Then we take the blood pressure calmly, much like you would do with a human and we can diagnose whether it might be a problem."

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Once hypertension is diagnosed your vet will deal with the condition on two fronts. They will reduce the cat's blood pressure using anti-hypertensive drugs and, crucially, deal with the underlying disease causing the symptom. Andrew says: "There are treatments that we can administer in tablet form that help to bring the blood pressure down, but the most important thing is to deal with the underlying conditions. If we can deal with them then the cat's blood pressure should come down naturally."

Feeding a low-salt diet and making sure the cat has regular exercise may be of value but should not be the sole treatment.