With improved veterinary medicine and nutrition and so many more cats being confined to either indoors or indoors with an outside enclosure, cats are living longer than ever. With age comes special requirements to ensure your cat maintains and quality and comfortable standard of living. It is not unusual for a cat to reach 20 years of age, although the average lifespan is around 15 years.
By nature, cats are stoic and it is often difficult to know when there is a medical problem. It is up to you, the cat’s carer to be observant of your cat and if you notice any signs of sickness, pain or behavioural changes to seek veterinary care immediately.
Having said that, the goal is to ensure your cat is well cared for in his/her older years and preventative medicine is of the essence. Most young cats will see a veterinarian once a year for their annual vaccinations and a general physical examination. When your cat becomes older it is advisable you make more frequent visits to the veterinarian. Remember, your cat can’t tell you if there is something troubling them, so you have to act on their behalf and that includes looking out for their physical well-being. Remember, with regular veterinary checkups, many diseases associated with ageing can be diagnosed early, which increases your cat’s chances of either a recovery or longevity.
When is a cat considered elderly?
Many people will state that a cat ages 7 years per year but this is, in fact, incorrect.
Cats are considered elderly from around 10 – 12 years of age. They may well still have a spring in their step and no medical problems but around this age, it is time to be aware that your cat is getting along in years and keep an extra watchful eye on their health.
Effects of ageing on cats
Ageing causes wear and tear. The vital organs begin to lose efficiency, the immune system becomes less effective and hair falls out.
- Muscles shrink and lose strength and flexibility.
- The metabolic rate slows down, often making it more difficult to keep off excess weight.
- Vital organs begin to lose their efficiency.
- Bones lose calcium, which leads to weakening.
- Hearing and vision also decline with age.
- Skin is thinner and loses elasticity.
- Hair becomes more sparse.
- Joints stiffen.
- Cognitive abilities decline.
- Sleeps more.
- May develop grey hairs around the muzzle.
- Decreased tolerance to cold and hot.
What medical conditions are elderly cats prone to?
There are too many possible medical conditions which senior cats are more prone to, some of the more common ones include:
- Kidney failure – Kidney failure is a common disease seen in senior cats. There is no cure but it can be managed through medication and diet.
- Dental disease – Dental disease becomes a greater problem in senior cats. This has a run on effect of causing pain when your cat eats, therefore a senior cat may be reluctant to eat, and it also has an impact on the kidneys.
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Poor appetite – On the other hand, cats may have a decreased sense of taste and smell, plus older cats often have dental problems. Both of which can result in a reluctance to eat
- Hyperthyroidism – Most commonly caused by a benign tumour of the thyroid gland.
- Vision – Cats can develop cataracts in their senior years, although they are fairly uncommon. Degeneration of vision is a side effect often encountered in senior cats.
- Hearing – Loss of hearing can develop in their senior years. This comes on gradually. Cats with a loss of vision or hearing can still lead a full and happy life although adaptations will be necessary. Deaf or blind cats shouldn’t be permitted to roam outdoors unless they are in a harness or in an enclosure.
- Tumours – As the cat ages, the chances of developing cancer increase.
- Senility – Older cats may lose their cognitive
- Liver disease – The liver is susceptible to tissue degeneration, plus a diminishing of the bile secretions and a tendency for scar tissue formation. These can all result in liver disease.
- Heart – Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is the most common heart problem in older cats and can lead to congestive heart failure. Feline hyperthyroidism is often associated with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
- Skin problems – Irritations and wounds are slower to heal due to a less efficient immune system.
- Constipation – Senior cats may develop constipation with age.
- Claws – Claws become thickened, overgrown and more brittle with age and it may be necessary to regularly clip them.
- Increased vocalisation – This may be the result of a loss of vision or hearing, also an older cat may lose some cognitive function which can cause increased vocalisation
Feeding a senior cat
There are special diets on the market specially designed for senior cats. If your cat has a medical condition such as diabetes your veterinarian may recommend a prescription diet to help manage it.
Older cats can also lose their sense of smell and taste, so a highly palatable diet may be necessary to encourage eating.
Your veterinarian is the best person in regards to what is the best diet for your cat and his own specific requirements. Never attempt to change your cat’s diet without consulting your veterinarian first.
What other special needs to elderly cats have?
Joints often become stiff and painful in old age, therefore, it is recommended you make your cat’s life as and pain-free as possible.
Place litter trays and food bowls in an easily accessed area which doesn’t require any climbing or jumping. If your cat has been going to the toilet outside, consider providing it with an indoor litter tray.
Bedding – Cats are less tolerance of cold and a warm bed, slightly raised off the floor, and in a draft free spot will be greatly appreciated by your senior cat. In the warmer months, make sure your cat is able to find a cool spot to sleep.
Exercise – Exercise in older cats is still of great importance. This will help with muscle tone and blood circulation. During exercise, watch for signs of laboured breathing or rapid tiring and don’t over exert your cat.
Mental stimulation – Just as physical exercise is important to the senior cat so is mental stimulation.
Vaccinations – The older cat’s immune system isn’t as efficient as was and it is important to maintain a strict vaccination regime to protect it from disease.
Regular veterinary care – With regular visits to the veterinarian any age-related conditions can be picked up early and treated. Many diseases afflicting older cats can’t be cured but they managed. Your veterinarian will perform a thorough physical examination of the cat and want to run some tests, some of which include:
- Complete blood count
- Stool exam
- Depending on your cat’s health status, additional tests may be required
Grooming – As cats age, they may find grooming becomes more difficult, especially if they suffer from arthritis. Daily grooming is recommended in older cats, and this provides the carer with an excellent opportunity to examine the cat at the same time.
Tender loving care (TLC) – All cats need physical and emotional contact with their carers and this definitely includes elderly cats who need to feel safe, secure and loved.
Stress – Minimise stress in the household. Older cats don’t cope as well as younger ones and stress
Routine – Senior cats aren’t as adaptable to change as younger cats and routine is important to them, so try to stick to the same routine as closely as possible.
Boarding – Senior don’t cope with change as well as younger cats and are more prone to stress. If you go away a gentler option is to have a friend, family member or pet sitter visit your house once or twice a day to care for your cat. If you do have to board your cat, send along a familiar blanket or bed for your cat to be comforted with while you are away.
Monitoring your cat
Every pet owner should be observant of their cat’s behaviour, physical well-being and routine. This way, if a change is noted veterinary attention can be sought immediately. In the older cat some things to watch for include:
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Increased thirst and urination
- Change in appetite, eating more or less
- Change in bowel function (constipation, diarrhoea, blood in stool)
- Any lumps or bumps
- Change in behaviour
- Any discharges
- Bad breath
- Blood in urine
- Straining to go to the toilet
- Change in behaviour such as grumpiness, aggression when touched or hiding
- Difficulty or reluctance to jump
- Limping or stiffness, especially upon waking
If you notice any of the following symptoms, book an appointment with your vet. Some age related conditions can be cured, others may be managed to relieve symptoms and slow down progression of the disease.
Eventually, there will come a point where your cat has little or no quality of life and it will come upon you, as the cat’s carer and spokesperson to make a decision to have them euthanised. This is a heart-wrenching decision but the cat’s comfort and well-being must be the number one priority.
Euthanasia involves giving your cat an overdose of anaesthetic. It is a fast and painless end.
Finding support can sometimes be difficult if friends and family aren’t pet lovers. Sometimes people just don’t fully understand how a pet can be a member of the family, but we all know that a cat is every much a part of the family as the rest of us and when it’s time to say goodbye it is an extremely sad period.
Do seek out comfort and support of others, be it a sympathetic friend or family member. There are many online support groups for animal lovers on the internet. If you are having trouble coping with the loss, a pet loss councillor may be of assistance to you. Do allow yourself to grieve, though.