Extra Care for the Senior Cat

Age-related changes can be hard on a pet and also her owner. Here are some tips to make sure your cat's golden years are as happy and healthy as possible.


older cat

Believe it or not, there was a time when cats were considered “seniors” when they reached the age of seven or eight years old. As a result of the major breakthroughs in veterinary care — along with the many advances in feline nutrition — cats are now considered “elderly” at twelve, “seniors” at age fourteen and “geriatric” at the age of fifteen. Today, some cats can even live up into the upper teens and into their twenties.

As our cats grow older, there are perceptible and significant changes in their brains and bodies. Cats who are advancing in years will start slowing down, and become more reactive to subtle changes in their schedules and surroundings. Older cats often develop medical conditions, such as arthritis, that cause mobility challenges. They can have difficulty getting in and out of their litter box and have “accidents,” or they may appear to wander aimlessly throughout the house.

The aging process in cats

Aging cats may also lose the ability to easily leap up onto the sofa or bed. They may be more sensitive to the cold and hot weather. In order to help them feel more comfortable, older cats will need some extra care and attention with adjustments to their health care, diet, exercise and environment.

“Age related changes can be hard on both cats and their owners,” says Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM, head of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts. “Behavioral changes can mean that their cats are not feeling well. These changes are often due to a medical condition that requires veterinary attention. There are significant changes in cats’ brains as they age, and while cats don’t get Alzheimer’s disease per se, they can develop a condition called Feline Cognitive Dysfunction, which is very similar to Alzheimer’s.

“While we still don’t know precisely what causes feline cognitive dysfunction, some of the elements that may contribute to this disease may be the buildup of amyloid plaques in the brain, trauma, tumors, metabolic disease or tissue inflammation. Genetic factors may also play a part in cats who develop this condition. The older the cat, the greater the risk for them to develop feline cognitive dysfunction.”

According to Dr. Borns-Weil, “symptoms of dementia can be long periods of blankly staring at walls or out into space, loud yowling and vocalizing in the middle of the night, appetite loss, lack of interest in playing, irritability, high anxiety, pacing and wandering aimlessly, appearing to be confused, changes in sleeping or waking cycles and inappropriate elimination or defecation — not using the litter box.”

Consult your veterinarian

“Since these symptoms are also signs of other underlying medical conditions, before assuming that the cat has dementia, cats who are showing any of these symptoms should be quickly evaluated by a veterinarian,” says Dr. Borns-Weil. “There are medications today that can help slow down the process of dementia.”

While any changes in their ordinary routines can cause cats to become anxious, even small departures from their ordinary schedules may easily unnerve older felines. Since aging cats may be dealing with multiple health issues, hearing loss and failing eyesight, Dr. Borns-Weil advises owners, “To help avoid or minimize any stress, it is extremely important to adhere to their familiar routines. Older cats feel safe and comfortable when a regular feeding, sleeping and playtime schedule is maintained.”

Because many older cats suffer from some degree of arthritis, “Ramps and stairs can make a huge difference in the life of a senior cat. Cats can be taught to use these devices by tempting them with food, treats and verbal encouragement. Older cats may have difficulty accessing high-sided or covered litter boxes. For easier entry, provide low sided litter boxes, or for cats that urinate standing, simply cut down one side for easier entrance or buy one ready made.”

And because it is often difficult for aging cats to get to the litter box in time, it is a good idea to add additional litter boxes in convenient locations around the house to prevent accidents.

older cat

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Ways to detect pain

Because cats are notorious for hiding their pain as a survival strategy, aging cats are especially at risk for suffering from serious, painful medical conditions. Cats in pain may even scratch and bite their owners. Touching a sensitive or painful body area can evoke aggression. The heart and pulse rate of a cat that is hurting may increase.

Painful cats may hide, have an accelerated or shallow breathing pattern, dilated pupils, changes in energy and mobility. To learn more about dealing with cats in pain, Borns-Weil suggests asking your veterinarian or vet tech to show you how to monitor and measure your cat’s heart, pulse and breathing rate.

Although cats purr when they are content, they also may purr (even loudly) when they are stressed or in pain as a self-soothing behavior. Cats that are hurting often lose their appetites, and pain symptoms can be very subtle. If you suspect that your cat is in pain, you should contact your veterinarian promptly.

Bi-annual exams are suggested

“Since older cats are at greater risk for developing serious medical conditions, it is important that they get at least one annual wellness exam, including blood work, X-rays, urine testing and dental care. However, considering that physical changes can develop suddenly, bi-annual wellness exams for older cats are strongly recommended,” stresses Dr. Borns-Weil.

Exercise and environmental enrichment are an essential part of feline care, and older cats are no exception. Since cats are intelligent, predatory animals by nature, it’s important to try to prevent boredom and depression in the aging cat. “Providing the ‘No Bowl Feeding Systems’ or ‘Kitty Kong Feeding Stations’ can nurture their hunting instinct, and playing in paper bags or in low sided boxes can be fun for them,” says Dr. Borns-Weil. “Taking older cats into the great outdoors safely confined in a cat stroller can be stimulating and can help to avert monotony.”

Aging cats are certain to relish having a temperature-controlled enclosed “catio” in which they can lounge in a snuggly cat bed or stretch out on easy-to-reach shelves. The “catio” should also include a litter box, a scratching post and their favorite toys. Having access to a cushioned window box featuring an intriguing view, a nearby birdfeeder or a variety of wildlife can also be extremely entertaining. Watching fish swimming in an aquarium, or viewing a DVD designed just for cats, can be engrossing, as well.

Feeding your aging cat a high-quality diet is essential. That said, it can sometimes be difficult to get older cats to eat because they often suffer from medical conditions that cause inappetence, or their sense of smell has declined. It is important to remember that cats, particularly overweight cats, cannot safely go without eating for more than a couple of days or they are at risk for developing hepatic lipidosis (commonly known as fatty liver disease).

Some tips for mealtime

“When cats are young and more flexible, it is a good idea to provide them with a varied diet. This is particularly important because as cats age and develop medical issues, it may be necessary to transition them to a wet diet, and this can be difficult if all they have been fed is kibble,” explains Dr. Borns-Weil. “Additionally, feeding them their daily calorie requirements in smaller amounts several times a day, when possible, can be very helpful.

“There are many things that owners can do to spark an older cat’s diet. Flavor enhancers can be sprinkled over the food, additives and supplements can improve appetite, and heating the food for several seconds in the microwave can bring out the aroma. Feeding ‘smelly’ and/or novel foods can also be helpful. Many times this nicely does the trick to whet a faltering appetite. Hand feeding is another trick that can prime the appetite pump.”

However, if the cat seems nauseous and is absolutely refusing any food, it is essential to promptly schedule a visit to the veterinarian. In some cases, the veterinarian may prescribe an anti-nausea medication, which can be followed with an appetite stimulant.

Older cats thrive on regular schedules, tasty, nourishing food, gentle exercise and mental stimulation. Being able to share your life and love with a cat for many years is a blessing and a very special gift indeed. — Jo Singer


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