With improved veterinary medicine and nutrition and so many more cats now kept inside 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.
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 you should make more frequent visits to the veterinarian. Remember, your cat can’t tell you if something is 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 recovery or longevity.
When is a cat considered elderly?
Many people will state that a cat ages seven 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.
Signs of aging in cats
Ageing causes wear and tear. The vital organs begin to lose efficiency, the immune system becomes less effective, and the 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.
- Spends more time asleep.
- 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:
Feeding a senior cat
There are several diets specifically designed for older 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 specific requirements. Never attempt to change your cat’s diet without consulting your veterinarian first.
What other special needs do 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 that 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 tolerant of cold and a warm bed, slightly raised off the floor, and in a draft-free spot will be much appreciated by your senior cat. In the warmer months, make sure your cat can find a cool place to sleep.
Exercise: Exercise in older cats is still of great importance, which will help with muscle tone and blood circulation. During exercise, watch for signs of laboured breathing or rapid tiring and don’t overexert your cat.
Mental stimulation: Just as physical exercise is essential to the senior cat so is mental stimulation. Take him for walks in the garden, provide perches to watch the birds and talk to him.
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 can be 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
- Biochemical (chemistry) panel
- Stool exam
- Other tests may also be ordered depending on your own cat’s situation
All cats over the age of seven should have their blood pressure checked during their bi-annual health check.
Grooming: As cats age, mobility declines and they can find grooming becomes more difficult. Find time to groom your cat, pay attention to the claws which can overgrow, and the genital area which can become soiled. Check for lumps and bumps.
Tender loving care (TLC): All cats need physical and emotional contact with their carers, and this includes elderly cats who need to feel safe, secure and loved.
Stress: Keep stress to a minimum and maintain a routine. Older cats don’t cope as well as younger ones and stress
Maintain a regular 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 cats 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.
Monitor your cat
Every pet owner should be observant of their cat’s behaviour, physical well-being, and routine and notify the cat’s veterinarian of any changes. Watch for the following:
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Increased thirst and urination
- Increased appetite
- Change in bowel function (constipation, diarrhea, 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 the 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 decide 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 anesthetic. It is a fast and painless end.
Finding support can sometimes be difficult if friends and family aren’t pet lovers. Many people don’t fully understand how a pet can be a member of the family, but we all know that a cat is very 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 counsellor can help. Do allow yourself to grieve, though.