Recent advances in veterinary care help our cats live longer on average than ever before. With many cats living well into their teens and even beyond, it’s important to understand the challenges of caring for their special needs. Read on for tips on providing the best care for your older cat.
Like humans, each cat’s aging process is individual. “Some cats are physically and mentally active into their 20s while others have serious health problems at 10, with their mental health mimicking the decline in their physical health,” says James Olson, DVM, feline specialist at Cat Specialist Clinic in Castle Rock, Colo. “A good start with a healthy, well-adjusted kitten combined with a quality, balanced diet, good preventative health care and a nurturing environment are essential for longevity.”
Closely observe older cats for behavioral changes, as these often provide clues to the cat’s health. Older cats might become clingy or less interactive due to a decline in sight or hearing. Pain, commonly originating from arthritis, or malaise from chronic kidney disease, can also alter behavior.
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“Changes in eating patterns and appetite may occur,” says Margie Scherk, DVM, feline specialist in Vancouver, Canada, and editor of the ”Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery.” “Generally, older cats are more picky about their food, which could reflect a decreased or altered sense of taste, oral dental pain or not feeling well.”
Some older cats start noticeably drinking more water, which could indicate kidney disease or diabetes. Even dehydration itself is a critical factor in a cat’s well-being, Scherk says. “Older cats are often dehydrated and in a state of metabolic acidosis, the combination of which in humans we call a hangover,” she says. “Understandably, cats may be less interested in eating, may feel nauseous, be grumpy and seek solitude.”
Increased water consumption could ease these symptoms. One way to encourage drinking is to provide an in-bowl water fountain. Aerated water is often more palatable to cats than stagnant water.
Other behaviors sometimes seen in older cats are changes in elimination, increased vocalization at night and alterations in grooming, either a decrease or increase. As a general rule, don’t assume that it’s normal for an older cat to simply become less active. “Less physical activity is not directly associated with aging,” Olson says. If you notice a new behavior or the absence of a normal behavior, schedule a veterinary exam to rule out physical causes for the change.
Assessing the home environment is a simple way to meet your older cat’s changing needs. For example, arthritic changes in an older cat might make getting to the litterbox difficult.
“Degenerative skeletal disease may cause greater difficulty in getting to, or into, the litterbox, resulting in the cat creating alternative locations, or may result in elimination directly outside or beside the litterbox as the reduced flexibility of the spine prevents rounding of the back,” Scherk says. Place litterboxes near sleeping areas and use boxes with low sides so your cat can easily get in and out, she recommends. Larger boxes might help keep the bum in the box despite decreased flexibility.
Arthritic changes can hamper more than a cat’s ability to properly use the litterbox. “Jumping and climbing become more difficult,” Olson says. “It’s often helpful to provide steps or some other way for the senior cat to break up the overall height of the jump to an elevated perch or bed.”
Also consider the location of food and water dishes. Placing these bowls in multiple rooms for an older cat’s easier access is often helpful. “Resources should be more readily available and accessible,” Scherk says.
Multicat households can present unique challenges to a senior cat, especially if an older cat shares his home with younger animals. Pay attention to social dynamics, which could be a potential source of stress for the older cat.
“A cat family of different ages requires thinking about the space that is needed to give everyone a good quality existence,” Olson says. “Older cats need areas for undisturbed sleep, feeding and using the litterbox. Play areas, window perches, vertical perches, and many types of toys and safe areas where individual cats can relax will help keep peace in the family.”
One particular challenge in a multicat household is feeding arrangements. Senior cats might be bullied by younger cats during mealtime, or simply might be unable to eat fast enough to compete for food. “If eating habits become a problem then feeding individual cats in separate rooms or at different times might be a solution,” Olson says.
Another option is to install a microchip-activated door to a senior-cat-exclusive room somewhere in the house, explains Scherk. If the older cat has a microchip, this door is activated only by the older cat, allowing private entrance to a room with a litterbox, food and water designated solely for the older cat.
Just because older cats might be less likely to play does not mean they require less interaction from their owners. “An older cat will still appreciate contact with the caregiver,” Scherk says. “Try to figure out what your cat enjoys. By being observant, you will be able to figure out what your older friend wants and likes.”
As with younger cats, individual preferences strongly dictate the forms of human-cat interaction. For some older cats, grooming is enjoyable, but for others, merely sitting beside you while you read or work on the computer is enough to maintain the human-animal bond.
“Be attentive to the wishes of your senior cat,” Olson says. “If he wants lap time, bed time or just private time with you, make that happen.”
Environmental enrichment can also keep older cats mentally stimulated, an important aspect to an indoor cat’s well-being no matter what the age. “Opportunities to engage in window bird watching, exercising at a scratching post, creative playtimes, petting and grooming, and being close to their favorite humans keeps cats young at heart,” Olson says.
Physical interaction with an older cat is also imperative so you can continually assess the cat’s health. For example, weight loss can be indicative of many health problems and you might not notice, especially in a longhaired cat, unless you touch the cat and feel bony protrusions. Frequent petting and grooming can catch other lumps and bumps as well.
Cats age much faster than humans. According to the American Association of Feline Practitioners, an 11-year-old cat is the equivalent age of a 60-year-old human and a 15-year-old cat is equivalent to a 76-year-old human. Given this, cats older than 8 years should receive comprehensive physical exams twice a year.
Blood work, urinalysis and blood pressure should be tested annually between the ages of 8 and 13 years, and bi-annually after the age of 14, Scherk says. Additionally, veterinarians strongly recommend that X-rays be taken at least once a year to check for the presence of urinary stones and degenerative changes in the skeleton.
Contrary to the belief that older cats no longer require regular vaccinations, “I believe that not vaccinating is a very poor idea,” Olson says. In fact, an older cat’s immune system begins to deteriorate with age, as it does in humans. The term for this natural change is immunosenescence.
“As with younger adults, after the one-year booster immunization, three-way vaccines against panleukopenia, feline herpesvirus and calicivirus should be continued every three years,” Scherk says. “Rabies should be given based on regional legislation. Feline leukemia vaccination should be given to cats that are at risk, with risk being defined as access to outdoors, living with known feline leukemia-positive cats, or living in a multicat environment where the status of all cats is not known.”
Vaccinations for feline panleukopenia, herpesvirus, calicivirus and rabies are considered core vaccines by the AAFP. Your veterinarian should evaluate the continuation of any non-core vaccines for your cat on an individual basis.
Dental care is another factor in maintaining a senior cat’s health. Your vet will examine your cat’s oral health during routine physical exams to assess the need for thorough dental cleaning performed under anesthesia. “Like humans, cats have varying mouth chemistries,” Olson says. “Some will need a professional cleaning every six months, some annually and some even less frequently. The critical defense here is to ensure that the teeth are clean, because ‘as goes the mouth, so goes the body.’” In other words, dental health has an impact on the health of other vital organs. Poor dental health causes pain and can lead to other illnesses.
Tartar buildup and gingivitis can be addressed during dental cleanings, as can more invasive procedures such as tooth removal. “Older cats are not at greater risk for the adverse effects of anesthesia if standard perioperative care measures are taken,” Scherk says. This is true at any age. Studies have shown that age alone is irrelevant for safe anesthesia. As long as standard perioperative care and monitoring is conducted (heart rate, respiration, blood oxygen levels, blood pressure, etc.), age is not an issue.
Today, veterinary science has acknowledged the longevity of the cat by dividing an older cat’s life into not one category but two; the AAFP categorizes senior cats as 11 to 14 years of age and geriatric cats as 15 years and older. As our feline companions remain in our lives and households for longer periods, our care must mimic their physiological changes.