Caring for Senior Cats

Many animal experts agree that thanks to improved home care, nutrition, and veterinary medicine, cats are now living much longer than was the case twenty years ago. Now instead of the average lifespan of cats being about ten, it’s not unusual for a cat to live to be sixteen or older, which is about the equivalent of 84 in people years. For that reason, it’s important for us as pet owners to pay close attention to the signs that our cats are getting old.

Senior cats may undergo both physiological and behavioral changes as they change. Their abilities to smell and taste food, see and hear, and tolerate stress and illness tend to decrease. They often become less keen to groom themselves, play and stay active, and climb to their favorite places. As their health changes, our cats may also become more insecure and therefore more dependent on us.

While cats often age more gracefully than dogs, they still age. As they do, there are ways we can help make their lives more comfortable. Below is a detailed description of the most important ones.

APPETITE
Lucy_FoodJust like people, the ability for cats to smell and taste food might decrease as they grow older, which will result in them having less of an appetite. Hence, there might be times when we’ll need to encourage our cat that food is still a good part of life. Animal experts suggest the following ways pet owners that can stimulate appetite.

  • Provide small and frequent meals, from four to six meals per day as a starting point.
  • Offer food at room temperature, warming food to just below body temperature to increase palatability.
  • Vary the consistency of the food offered by adding a small amount of water to the food and mashing with a fork. Cats with dental problems especially prefer softer food.
  • Avoid leaving uneaten wet food out for more than an hour, as it’ll dry out.
  • Experiment with both familiar and unfamiliar foods to tempt appetite, but don’t overwhelm your cat by leaving out a range of different foods.
  • Keep food and water bowls within easy reach. For cats suffering with osteoarthritis in the neck, raise their food bowl onto a box to make it more comfortable for them to eat.
  • Use shallow food dishes.
  • Choose a quiet area so that your cat isn’t distracted by noise and activity.
  • Stroke and talk quietly to your cat during meals to increase appetite. For those extra finicky cats, you may even want to hand feed.

Making sure older cats have easy access to the things they enjoy and/or need is critical. We remember to give them medications, but we tend to forget about addressing food, water and litter box issues.

Emily Levine, DVM, animal behavior resident

WEIGHT

Directly tied with appetite is weight. Geriatric cats can suffer from either extreme, being too thin or too fat, when it comes to their size. Owners are advised to weigh their cats on a monthly basis. One vet was quoted on Cat Channel as advising, “A weight change of half a pound in a month is significant and should set off a flare”.

Body condition is considered crucial to determining whether a cat is under, over, or at an ideal body weight. For that reason, especially for older cats, the recommendation is to ask for a body condition evaluation even during routine vet visits. Cat owners can also ask their vet to show them how to evaluate a cat’s body condition at home.

Whether a cat is overweight or underweight, a vet consultation should be the first step. A cat’s weight might be a sign of an underlying illness or diseases. In that case, a prescription diet will more than likely recommended, along with perhaps medication. If sickness is ruled out, then a cat should be treated in the ways I describe below.

Second Chance Info refers to studies which reveal that 50% of geriatric cats are underweight. This weight loss may just be due to a reduced sense of smell and taste or decreased intestinal absorption, in which case it’s important to try to entice the cat to eat. Also, seek out cat foods that are high in calories, which means avoiding “Senior Diets” because many of these actually have fewer calories than those marketed for midlife. Weight loss could also be due to bad teeth or a side effect of one of the common chronic diseases of older cats. In that case, as noted above, a trip to the vet is in order.

Obesity is also considered a common problem in older cats. Second Chance Info advises that a serious diet requires the use a scale, a diary, and careful observation. Reducing a cat’s weight through increased exercise will of course be beneficial. However, Second Chance Info stresses that exercise alone will almost never be sufficient to return a cat to a healthy weight. Diet modifications will also be needed. Try cutting the volume of food by 15% and replace with water or pureed vegetables. Alternatively, change to a diet that is higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates.

All additions or changes to a pet’s diet should be gradual. First, sudden changes in diet might cause diarrhea, flatulence, or bloat. Second, cats that abruptly reduce their food intake are susceptible to hepatic lipidosis, which can be fatal.

SUPPLEMENTS

The average cat food should provide all the nutrients that cats need. Pet owners shouldn’t have to supplement it with vitamins or minerals. However, as long as a vet who knows your cat personally is consulted, animal experts also say that this is an owner’s choice. Second Chance Info says that if you feel your cat might benefit from anti-oxidants, Omega-3, or glucosamine/chondroitin supplements, it is okay to give them in doses proportional to their body weight. Fortifying a senior cat’s diet with fatty acids such as DHA and EPA has been shown to be useful for cats with mobility issues due to arthritis or other joint diseases. Cats that do not eat properly, suffer from digestive problems, or are otherwise in decline might also benefit from supplements.

WATER

LucyWaterOlder cats are more prone to dehydration than younger ones, due to being unlikely to seek out water and may have weakened organs that don’t tolerate dehydration stress well. Another often-mentioned problem by experts is chronic dehydration, a condition that is thought to occur when cats eat primarily dry cat food and don’t drink enough water. Thin cats are also at high risk because much of the cat’s body water is stored in muscle. Finally, aging cats often have weakened kidneys that don’t conserve water well.

What are some solutions? Foremost, always make sure that a variety of water bowls are available in easily accessible areas away from the normal places where food is eaten. The type of container can also be experimented with, as can the type of water. Types of containers might include ceramic or glass bowl or a drinking fountain, which is what my husband and I brought for our first cat when she needed encouragement to drink. One vet was quoted on Cat Channel as observing that cats seem to prefer wide and shallow dishes over deep ones. Some people will even flavor the water by freezing canned shrimp or tuna water in cubes and putting them in their cat’s water bowl to melt.

GROOMING

Elderly cats may lack the energy and flexibility to keep well-groomed without help. Pet owners ideally should have been brushing their cats all along, but as they enter old age it will be necessary to make some tweaks. For starters, use a soft comb or brush. Also, take care to be gentle, as older cats tend to not have much padding on their bones and so vigorous grooming can cause them pain.

Second Chance Info notes that short-haired cats will need only thorough grooming if their fur is matted. This can occur on the lower spine and hindquarters, where cats become less able to reach as they lose flexibility. In addition, Second Chance Info states that longhaired cats might benefit from their coat being trimmed around the anus, underside of the tail, and back legs to avoid soiling and matting.

Older cats rarely if ever need a bath. However, they may benefit from having eyes, nose, and anus being wiped clean of any discharge. Use separate pieces of moistened cotton wool or soft clothes for each area. This would also be a good time to check for bumps, lumps, and sores that might need vet attention.

HAIRBALLS

Most cats will suffer from hairballs at some point in their lives. They’re particularly common in elderly cats, who often have sluggish digestions. Hair ingested during grooming can cause chronic vomiting or even constipation. If this happens, take advantage of the special supplements or foods available on the market to assist with hairballs.

CLAWS

Many habits, such as brushing a cat and cleaning his teeth are best started at an early age. Cutting her nails falls into this category too. If you haven’t already started learning how to trim nails, you might find yourself faced with the task when your cat is a senior. Older cats are less able to retract their claws and may get them caught in furniture and carpets. Claws can also overgrow and stick into our cats’ pads. International Cat Care warns that regular trimming may be necessary to avoid eventual surgery.

EYE CARE

As cats age, they may develop what is called sclerosis of the lens. This condition shows up as a bluish haze in the pupil area, but it does not appear to affect vision. Another common change of elderly cats is iris atrophy, or a thinning of the iris, where cats may become more sensitive to light. Increased pigmentation in the iris may indicate a risk for malignant iris melanoma or a tumor and should be checked by a vet. As should a white and opaque appearance because this could indicate cataracts, which do effect vision. Finally, cats with hypertension often have irreversible changes in the rear interior portion of their eyes that might lead to blindness.

For those cats who develop eyesight problems, nightlights will help them navigate in dark areas and at night. Should our cats lose their sight all together, the best way to help them is try to keep the environment as consistent and as stationary as possible. Dr. Levine, an animal behavior specialist at Cornell University, recommends calling cats before approaching them and not picking them up unless required.

EAR CARE

When our cats stop responding to everyday sounds, don’t respond to their name, and frequently meow, they may be going deaf. Petful says that deafness in older cats is caused by a combination of nerve damage and the fusing together of the bones of the inner ear. Age-related deafness in cats is not reversible, but we can help our senior cats adjust by approaching from the front, talking with our eyes by blinking at cats, and clapping our hands to get their attention.

If you notice your pet’s appetite has changed, if you notice its bathroom habits have changed, vocalizations have changed, his activity level has changed, something’s probably wrong. They don’t fake it like we do for sympathy.

Dr. Marty Becker

TEETH CARE

Lucy_TeethPeriodically having a cat’s teeth cleaned by a vet will slow down dental issues. At the same time, as cats age so will their teeth, and regular monitoring of what’s going on inside the mouths of our cats will become crucial. Bad breath, drooling, pawing at the mouth, a ‘chattering’ jaw, and reddening of the gums may all be signs of dental disease. As can a reluctance to eat and a loss of weight.

Dental care is not simply a matter of basic hygiene either. A heavy build-up of tartar can become a constant source of inflammation and discomfort. This might lead to difficulty with eating and an avoidance of meals. Moreover, bacteria that surrounds the base of the teeth can move to the kidneys and the heart valves, and cause irreparable damage.

Second Chance Info suggests that because general anesthesia in elderly cats is not without risk, if an old cat has developed severe dental disease all severely affected teeth should be extracted rather than cleaned repeatedly. Cats do fine with few teeth, as my own Cinder proves to me every day as she cleans out her food dish despite having lost all but two teeth to stomatitis.

BATHROOM NEEDS

Bathroom issues are a common problem in geriatric cats. The first thing to do is separate a behavioral issue from a health issue. Some cats lose litter box training because they are old, stressed, or ill. The first two can be accommodated with some changes, while the latter will require blood and urine tests to rule out digestive tract disturbances and metabolic problems such as diabetes or hyperthyroidism.

As for the modifications we can make to help our aging cats deal with bathroom needs, open trays with low sides are ideal for litter boxes. They should be firmly fixed to prevent them from being tipped if a cat is awkward while using the tray. In addition, while litter trays should normally be located well away from food and water, older cats may benefit from a closer arrangement of these necessities.

CONSTIPATION

Many factors can cause constipation in senior cats: decreased intestinal motility, dehydration, and arthritis. Constipation can usually be managed by increasing the amount of water consumed and the amount of dietary fiber. The latter can be achieved by adding a small amount of bran or unsweetened canned pumpkin to the cat’s food. When these changes aren’t enough, Second Chance Info suggests giving periodic hair-ball remedies containing petrolatum or administering lactulose. If a cat is bloated or cannot pass stool, make a vet appointment.

MOBILITY

In order to make activity and movement more comfortable for our senior cats, we should consider some special accommodations. Laminated, tiled or wooden flooring can be slippery and difficult for older cats to negotiate. Carpet can catch on the claws of older cats that overgrow easily and remain protracted as the muscles weaken. Both situations discourage older cats from being active. International Cat Care therefore recommends providing cut pile runners throughout the home.

Sadly, mobility issues may also impact the ability of cats to do activities which otherwise come natural to them such as: scratching, climbing, and playing. Vertical scratching posts can put a strain on joints, making them less appealing to arthritic cats. International Cat Care advises that offering similar horizontal scratching surfaces should satisfy cats that still enjoy scratching, and provide important exercise.

Many favored locations for a cat to sleep are on raised surfaces, such as our bed or a window sill. When these special places become difficult for our geriatric cats to access, provide them with platforms, ramps, or steps. International Cat Care notes that it’s also wise to place a soft padded object underneath elevated perches to prevent injury as many older cats have impaired balance and could easily fall.

Lucy_PlayWhile it is easy to be tempted to stop playing with a cat that has slowed down and shows less interest in toys, environmental enrichment is important for cats of all ages and shouldn’t be abandoned for senior cats. Rather than placing cardboard boxes with the opening at the top, they should be placed sideways so older cats can walk into them rather than jump. International Cat Care notes that the larger toys can be useful to encourage aging cats to lie on their side, grab the toy with the front paws and kick with the back legs. This gives great exercise for stiff hind limbs. Finally, Dr. Levine, an animal behavior specialist at Cornell University refers to gentle ways we can encourage our older cats to play by encouraging them to chase pieces of dry food or by taking them for a walk inside our homes.

PetMD names one study where roughly 90% of cats over the age of 12 years were noted to have radiographic evidence of arthritis. Needless to say, with arthritis comes pain and mobility issues. When our cats become less active, are reluctant to jump on areas that they used to frequent, and prefer to defecate next to the litter box, arthritis might be the culprit. If you manually over-flex or extend their legs, they may also meow or nip or otherwise show irritation or pain.

While diseases are beyond the coverage of this article, the warmth of an electric heating pad used as a cat bed-liner can be helpful as can a gentle massage. Although cats don’t tolerate common pain medications well, there may also come a time to use them with the advice of a vet. Cats can tolerate these medications for quite some time when the dose is cautious, intermittent, and the cat is closely monitored for the side effects all steroids cause.

PHYSICAL COMFORTS

Lucy_BedOlder cats sleep more and are thinner, so provide comfy bedding to help them stay warm. Make sure their favorite resting places aren’t in drafty areas. Cats who use our bed, chair, or sofa will no doubt appreciate a washable thermal blanket. International Cat Care predicts that especially on colder days they might also enjoy the home thermostat being set higher or a low-wattage heated liner that is warmed to approximately 100° F. Exercise caution when providing extra heat: too much heat can potentially burn less mobile cats.

BEHAVIOR CHANGES

Body changes that physically affect senior cats can also negatively impact their behavior. Sometimes they’ll cry in the middle of the night, act confused, or won’t relate to family members in the normal way. These can be signs of physical or mental diseases, with Alzheimer’s being an example of the latter, but can also simply mean our cats are growing old.

Second Chance Info says that many elderly cats have changes in their sleep-wake cycles. It is common for them to be up more at night, yowling, pacing, wandering aimlessly, or otherwise restless. Others might withdraw into themselves, playing less and sleeping more. Playing soft music or keeping our cat awake and active until we retire might help with any of these behavior changes. A synthetic version of the feline cheek pheromone, Feliway, is another option that some owners find work for their anxious old cats.

LAST BUT NOT LEAST

Throughout this entire guide to caring for senior cats, I have frequently mentioned that we should involve our vet in decisions related to the care of our aging feline companion. The general rule of thumb is to take elderly cats in for check-ups every six months. Pets age much faster than we do, can’t easily tell us where they hurt, and will often hide pain symptoms. PetWebMD says, “There’s a period of grace for many illnesses. If you catch it early on, it’s usually less expensive, and treatment is much more successful. We do these routine tests — blood tests or urinalysis — where we can pick up the very earliest signs of problems.” Some of the most common diseases for cats are: cancer, diabetes, kidney failure, intestinal problems, overactive thyroid, and renal disease. These health problems often appear between 9 and 10 years of age. By the age of 12 they are common.

Cats may be living longer than was the case twenty years ago. This doesn’t mean we can predict what health issues they’ll have, or when they’ll get them. For that reason, it’s important that we as their caretakers educate ourselves as much as possible about how to give our cats extra tender loving care in their twilight years. They deserve to be comfortable and loved in appreciation for all the years of companionship they give us. This article should serve as a starting guide.

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