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Hyperthyroidism in Cats

What is it and how is it Treated?
Your cat, just past his twelfth birthday, has begun to show some unusual behavior in the past few months. He eats more, meowing for food often, but doesn’t seem to be gaining any weight; if anything, he has lost a pound or two. Normally a pretty sedate guy, he has begun showing some extra energy and friskiness, but has had a few bouts of diarrhea and vomiting as well. In addition, he has been drinking water like it’s going out of style and urinating more as a result. What is causing this behavior?

Hyperthyroidism is an increasingly common condition that affects around 2% of all cats, usually those in their middle to older years, and can manifest itself through a variety of symptoms, from weight loss to frequent urination. While it can be fatal if not treated, hyperthyroidism can be controlled easily once diagnosed.

If your cat is getting on in years or has begun to show some of the symptoms listed above, it’s important to learn more about the symptoms and effects of hyperthyroidism and the various treatment options available. Listed below are a few frequently asked questions on hyperthyroidism to get you started. However, if you think your cat may have this condition you should see your veterinarian as soon as possible.

What causes hyperthyroidism?
Hyperthyroidism affects the thyroid gland, located in the throat. It can appear in humans and cats alike, and typically begins with a small, non-cancerous tumor called an adenoma. The adenoma, or mass of extra cells in the thyroid gland, causes the thyroid to kick up the production of the thyroid hormone thyroxine.

The condition doesn’t seem to favor one type of breed over any other or appear more in either male or female cats and the only known risk factor is age. It is speculated that since cases of hyperthyroidism in cats seem to be steadily increasing every year that some environmental or dietary factors increase a cat’s chances of developing the condition, but scientists are still actively working on this problem. It is currently estimated that 2% of all cats will eventually develop hyperthyroidism.

How serious is this condition?
Hyperthyroidism, while chronic, isn’t normally fatal with proper treatment. However, if left undiagnosed, it can lead to heart or kidney failure. While researchers have not yet found any effective ways to prevent hyperthyroidism, you can help keep your cat healthy by making regular yearly appointment for physicals, especially if your cat is eight years old or older.

How is hyperthyroidism diagnosed?

When diagnosing felines with hyperthyroidism, veterinarians look first for clinical symptoms and then run blood tests for confirmation. Some of the symptoms that veterinarians commonly look for include:

  • Increased appetite with no corresponding weight gain

  • Gradual or rapid weight loss

  • Increased thirst and urination

  • Higher than normal levels of energy

  • Occasional vomiting or diarrhea

  • Enlarged thyroid gland

Symptoms that are less common, or occur later in the progression of the disease, include:

  • Loss of appetite

  • Weakness or lethargy

  • Panting

  • Increased heart rate

  • High blood pressure

  • Blindness

If your veterinarian suspects your cat of having hyperthyroidism, he or she will normally check to see if the thyroid is enlarged. This isn’t always conclusive, however, so the next step involves analyzing a blood sample to check for raised levels of the thyroid hormone thyroxine, or T4.

What kinds of treatment options are available?
If your cat is diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, there are several different types of treatment available. The most common treatment of hyperthyroidism involves the prescription of the drug methimazole. This form of treatment is inexpensive in the short term (one pill per day at about $25.00 per month), but on the downside, costs can add up as the treatment is needed every day to keep the condition under control for the duration of your cat’s life. Most cats tolerate the drug well, but some may have side effects or difficulty adjusting to the daily pill-taking routine.

Some veterinarians recommend surgery as a more permanent solution. This form of treatment is quicker and more thorough, as it involves removing the affected cells, but may cost much more in the short term. In addition, your cat must be a good candidate for surgery and healthy apart from the hyperthyroidism.

The third most common type of treatment is called radioactive iodine therapy. This approach is chosen less often because of the higher cost, quarantine time necessary and limited facilities, however, it eliminates the need for daily medication and cats with the rarer form of hyperthyroidism caused by cancerous cells typically respond better to the treatment.

If your cat is like many and develops hyperthyroidism in their later years, don’t immediately assume that he or she is doomed to a shortened lifespan. Apart from a brief surgery and short recovery time, or the addition of a pill to their daily routine, your cat can remain your companion and enjoy his or her golden years with you in comfort and happiness.

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