Much like in people, high blood pressure in cats can lead to a host of serious problems, including strokes, blindness, and dragging of one or both hind limbs. Yet high blood pressure, known medically as hypertension, often goes unchecked — and untreated. Most veterinarians do not routinely perform blood pressure measurements during wellness exams, says the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP). That’s why the organization has released a Hypertension Educational Toolkit. It emphasizes that the routine assessment of blood pressure in our pets is vital to feline preventive care.
The new push comes none too soon. Just like in people, there are often no early signs or symptoms of feline hypertension. You can’t see high blood pressure. An anxious cat may have blood pressure in the normal range, and a calm cat can have blood pressure that’s abnormally elevated. The only way to know is to check the number with a blood pressure cuff during a doctor’s visit.
Measuring feline blood pressure
Whereas a physician measures your blood pressure by placing an inflatable cuff on your arm, a veterinarian will place the cuff around one of your cat’s limbs or his tail. The cuff will inflate and then deflate, just like it does for you, and a number will pop up on a screen that “translates” the pressure with which blood travels through your pet’s arteries.
The higher the number, the more pressure the blood exerts against the artery walls as it courses through the body. It’s that pressure against the walls of those blood vessels that leads to their degradation and subsequent damage in four main body systems: the heart, brain, kidneys, and eyes, specifically, the retina.
Think of water going through a hose. If it gently trickles through, there’s no undue exertion on the rubber. But if you consistently send water gushing through at high pressure, you strain the hose’s integrity. Of course, with a cat’s blood, there’s no spigot that can be turned on and off; the flow is constant.
A veterinarian should confirm the presence of hypertension by taking a second blood pressure measurement on a follow-up visit. Being handled in the doctor’s office can raise a cat’s blood pressure in the moment, and the vet will want to make sure that she’s not mistaking white coat hypertension for ongoing hypertension that requires treatment. A calm, quiet environment is important for correct readings.
The cat should be free to explore the exam room for 5 to 10 minutes first and then allowed to rest on his own bedding or a warm towel. If the cat remains stressed, the doctor should take a break and even possibly reschedule, advises the AAFP.
If high blood pressure is diagnosed, it may have a specific cause, such as hyperthyroidism. Once the doctor treats the cause, the blood pressure should come down. But often, the hypertension is idiopathic, meaning no cause can be identified. Idiopathic hypertension accounts for up to one in five cases of feline high blood pressure.
Fortunately, there are effective medications to control a cat’s blood pressure, including Amlodipine (a calcium channel blocker) and Benazepril, Enalapril, and Ramipril (ACE inhibitors). The aim is to get blood pressure down to normal, or at least much closer to normal.
What might take some patient effort on your part is getting your cat used to swallowing a pill every day — potentially for the rest of his life. But it can be done — sometimes with edible pill pockets, sometimes with rewards.
With ongoing attention to the situation, your pet will have a much better chance of reaching old age without avoidable health complications.