Comfort and Care for the Aging Cat

Today's cats can live well into their teens with proper care from their owners.

By Debra M. Eldredge

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CatCats are living longer lives. An 8-year-old cat was considered a senior 15 years ago. Today, many veterinarians wait until ages 10 or 12 to classify a cat as senior. And more and more cats are living into their 20s. Along with longer lives, however, come increased health concerns. A few adjustments to your cat's daily routine will improve her well-being and quality of life well into the golden years.

Lifestyle Changes
Indoor-only is the way to go for your older cat, even if it went outdoors as a youngster. Indoor cats have less exposure to disease and parasites. This lifestyle also protects cats from trauma, such as automobile injuries, vicious animal attacks and unscrupulous human treatment. As your cat's vision and hearing become less acute, the indoors offer your pet an abundance of safety and security.

Re-examine your senior cat's diet. Have you noticed a reduction in activity level? Ask your veterinarian about reducing your cat's calorie intake to prevent obesity. Gradually adjust the diet according to your veterinarian's recommendation: Abrupt change can cause serious liver damage and even death. Maintain top quality protein in your cat's diet so it continues to receive those important amino acids available only in animal protein.

Older cats often need special diets for their medical conditions, says Betsy Arnold, DVM, a veterinarian and Siamese breeder in Rochester, N.Y.

In addition to a dietary change, you may need to assist your cat with its grooming tasks. Your consummate groomer may develop arthritis, which makes thorough grooming a challenge. The nails can become brittle and some cats experience trouble removing the old, outer sheaths. Check your cat's nails twice a week and trim them as needed. Use a slicker brush on your shorthaired cat or a wide-tooth comb on your longhaired cat to keep its coat shiny and clean. Regular grooming also provides valuable bonding time for you and your cat.

Your senior cat will especially appreciate creature comforts. Senior cats cannot tolerate temperature changes as well as they did in their younger years. Provide cool places for your cat to lie in the summer and a warm, soft bed for the cold winter months. If climbing is a challenge, offer step stools or ramps, or move a bed to the floor. If arthritis becomes a problem, provide warm, comfortable beds and encourage regular exercise. Ask your veterinarian about safe pain medications and food supplements that can help keep your cat's joints supple.

Some senior cats become a bit forgetful or lose their orientation. Many cats cry at night or wander around the house as if lost. Usually talking to them, holding them or even leaving a nightlight on can help.

Health Concerns
Older cats need regular checkups; twice yearly is ideal. Expect your veterinarian to periodically run bloodwork to check for changes in liver or kidney function, along with looking for anemia, diabetes and hyperthyroidism. You may also want to request a urinalysis to detect diabetes and kidney problems. Some veterinarians will check your cat for high blood pressure and do an X-ray or ultrasound to check for signs of heart problems or cancer. Early detection often means more successful and less expensive treatments.

Many older cats become less active and quieter, but some cats suddenly seem to rejuvenate. If your cat is active, hungry all the time and losing weight, it may be hyperthyroidhaving too much thyroid hormone. Possibly caused by thyroid cancer, this disorder leads to an increase in metabolism. A blood test offers the best method of diagnosis, and several treatment options are available.

Increased hunger may also be caused by diabetes. A diabetic cat tends to drink more and urinate frequently. Veterinarians normally diagnose diabetes with a blood test and urinalysis. Most cats are treated with insulin injections and dietary modifications.

If your cat suddenly drinks more water than usual, get it checked for kidney failure as well as diabetes. Cats with kidney problems are often not hungry, just thirsty, while diabetics are hungry and thirsty. Most kidney diseases cannot be cured, but many cats improve with extra fluids and dietary changes.

Dehydration can be a problem in older cats, especially if their kidneys aren't 100%, says Nancy Freeboro, DVM, a veterinarian in Syracuse, N.Y. Having fresh water available at all times, [and] mixing water in with canned food can help.

Cancer can show up in a wide range of disguises. Obvious growths are one way, but subtle weight loss, decreased activity and a decrease in appetite can all warn of a malignancy. Again, routine checkups are invaluable. Caught early, some cancers are curable and many can be controlled for some amount of time.

Dental problems and some tooth loss is common for senior cats. Starting a kitten on regular dental care will help prevent some of this. Take your senior cat in for a veterinary dental cleaning, followed by more regular care. If your cat experiences tender teeth and gums, feed it room-temperature or slightly warmed food. Remember that cats can get oral cancer, too. Be vigilant to any changes in eating or chewing behavior, and follow up immediately with your veterinarian.

Age eventually catches up with us all, and you are your cat's best health advocate. If you detect changes in your cat's behavior, eating or elimination, take it to the vet for a checkup. Your careful attention and lifestyle modifications, along with your veterinarians sound advice, make a great health-care team for your aging cat.

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Connie    Fairfield, CA

11/19/2014 2:50:13 PM

We have a 15 year old cat who has always been rather anti-social. He would hide in cubbards and under furniture, beds, etc. BUT recently he has taken on a whole new lifestyle. He hid under one of our recliner chairs.......and he would under NO circumstance come out. Eventually I decided I should feed him there, as he wouldn't even come out to eat. I put his placemat a little out of reach, hoping he would come out to eat.....rather he figured out that he could reach out with one paw and drag the food to him. It was comical, but the really sad part is that he would pee and poop right there where he lay..... even on the placemat I put his food and water on. He hissed and growled when we tried to touch him. After a while I was able to grab him by the scruff of his neck and pull him out. This cat sent me to the hospital once because of a bite. He never was a cuddly kitty except on his terms. I tried to touch him to see if I felt any lumps or bumps, but hurrying down the hall with a large squirmy cat, did not allow me much access. We decided that putting him in our bedroom would be the best bet. We let our other 2 cats in there with him. Anyway, he has been under the bed for a week, and still pees and poops on or near his placemat with his food and water on it. There are 2 litter boxes near him, but will not use them.

Is he senile??? Is he "happy"? We can't take him to the vet because we can't even readily pick him up without risk of bites or scratches. We have a wonderful vet who tries to help, but without seeing him she can't really tell us anything. We could drug him and take him to the vet, but I worry that it might be too much for him. He eats and drinks well. He is even moving closer to the edge of the bed where I can reach out and touch him. He licks my hand and purrs, but if I make a move to pet him, he scoots away. I know this is long, and I'm sorry. We did have 10 cats (all rescued). But one by one they have made that last trip over the rainbow bridge. I even have the ashes of all of them. We love our cats, but can't always help them when they need it most.

As for your article, it was very good. It got me to thinking that maybe a trip to the vet, drugged or not is the thing to do. I am at a loss. It breaks my heart to see him isolate himself so much...and his litter box habit has gone by the wayside. I cry and crawl on the floor to the detriment of my own health.
Thank you for letting me vent a little.

Galadriel    Lothlorien, ME

11/29/2013 11:33:45 PM

Some good things and some bad things. It is totally cruel to take a cat that's been allowed to go outside all its life and then ban it to a boring life inside for the rest of its days. Not only does the cat have to deal with health issues resulting from ageing but it will be traumatized by its sudden lifestyle change.

CatChannel Editor    Irvine, CA

3/8/2013 1:24:13 PM

Bob -- That is something to ask your vet. It's possible that other age-related issues keep your cat from properly using the litterbox. Arthritis, for example, could make eliminating in the box uncomfortable. Get your cat's health checked and you will find the proper way to treat this condition.

Bob Frattarola    yorktown Heights, NY

3/3/2013 12:15:12 PM

great information on older cats...but do you have an opinion on a cat with cataracts that doesn't always urinate in litter box? Can this be associated with cataracts and/or old age. (My cat is 20 years old)

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