Caring for Old Cats
Clare Hemington DipCAPBT
At the time of writing, according to Guinness World Records the world’s oldest living cat is a Siamese called Scooter who in May of 2016 reached an astounding 30 years of age.
Whilst we don’t currently expect all cats to achieve this feat, it’s certainly true to say that the life expectancy of our family feline is on the rise, but how do we know when our cat is officially ‘old’?
Generally speaking a cat aged between 11 and 14 years is classified as ‘Senior’ whilst cats over 15 years of age fall into the ‘Geriatric’ category which is 70 plus in human years. If you are lucky enough to own an elderly statesman (or woman!) of the cat world there are a number things to be aware of.
Cats age in a very similar way to us humans. Their hearing, eyesight, sense of smell and taste can deteriorate and they can develop other age-related conditions such as arthritis, high blood pressure, senile dementia, cancer, hyperthyroidism (hyperactive thyroid), dental problems and kidney disease. Their immune system may start to function less efficiently making them more susceptible to disease. For this reason some vets recommend twice yearly checkups as standard. This is a good idea, not least because cats are very good at hiding the signs of illness and quite often we don’t realise there’s anything wrong.
Nutrition also plays a vitally important role in ensuring our elderly cats remain as healthy as possible. As cats get older they don’t absorb all the nutrients from their food, so feeding them a life stage diet specifically for elderly cats will allow them to metabolise nutrients better.
As well as understanding their health considerations, there are other things we can do to help to make life as comfortable as possible for our elderly felines such as adapting our homes to cater for their special needs.
Stiff joints may mean that they are no longer able to jump up to their favourite spot on the sofa or owner’s bed, so providing half way stepping stones to these favoured spots will certainly be appreciated. These could be padded footstools, a carpet-covered storage box or even their own set of carpeted stairs comprising 3 steps. Raising their food and water bowls will also help with any discomfort they may feel when lowering their heads to eat and drink.
Likewise, elderly cats may find it difficult to groom themselves, so a regular gentle groom with a soft brush will not only help prevent their coat matting and becoming greasy , but will also give you an opportunity to check for check for any lumps and bumps. When grooming try and avoid areas where bones are prominent.
Most cats tend to be heat seeking missiles, but this is especially true of the senior citizens of the cat world. As they age they lose the body fat which helps keep them warm. Providing them with a low voltage heat pad under their favourite bedding will not only provide them with a welcome source of heat, but can also help to ease any discomfort from aching joints.
Replacing a vertical scratching post with horizontal scratching mats or cardboard scratchers will encourage elderly cats to maintain their claw health without the challenges that using a vertical scratching post may pose. If you think your cat’s claws are getting too long, giving them a trim will prevent them getting caught in carpets and soft furnishings.
Play is a great activity for enhancing a cat’s mood at whatever time of life. Whilst some elderly cats may have lost some of their play drive it doesn’t mean to say they don’t want to participate at all! I haven’t come across an elderly cat yet that won’t engage in play to some degree. The trick is to find the style of play and the type of toy that your cat best responds to. Eventually it’ll be worth all your perseverance!
Don’t be surprised if the area used by your elderly cat gradually becomes smaller and smaller. The world of an elderly cat shrinks until it might spend 80-90% of its time in one room or in one place, only leaving to eat and toilet. This is especially true for cats over the age of 10 years. So placing all their essential resources ie food, water, litter tray, bedding in their favoured area will help to provide them with a greater sense of security.
Some elderly cats may not feel as confident in the garden as they once did so either blocking up the cat flap on both sides or removing it completely and escorting them on trips outside may help. If they are still happy to sojourn into the garden unaccompanied and use a cat flap to do so, watch out for any difficulty them might have using it, and if necessary create a step to give them ease of access.
Be prepared for a change in your elderly cat’s toilet habits. Dehydration and/or reluctance to toilet outside or in the litter tray may make them more prone to constipation, whilst feline senility may mean they even forget where the litter tray is! Providing them with a large open, shallow litter tray containing soft fine-grain litter on each floor of your house should address any problems they have using the tray and decrease the likelihood of them using your carpet instead. However, if an accident does happen it’s important not to shout or punish your elderly cat for something he may have little or no control over. You should report any changes to your cat’s urine and faeces to your vet.
All cats, no matter what age they might be, are sensitive to changes in their routine, but for elderly cats even the slightest change is likely to be magnified. Keeping everyday life as predictable and consistent as possible will help make them feel more secure in their environment.
Unlike us, cats have no sense of their own mortality, they live in the moment and there’s much we can do to make all their moments as comfortable and peaceful as possible in their twilight years.