Senior Cat Care


Your Cat Can Shine in its Golden Years

By Cherie Langlois

Moonshine 2, streaks through the house as if hounded by wolves. His coat gleams and his muscles ripple as he leaps onto a stair-climber with feline grace.

What a difference 15 years makes.

Pillsbury, at 17, prefers to warm his owner's lap or nap in his beanbag chair. His coat has thinned and his muscles have atrophied. His sofa-shredding days are long gone, along with the robust health of his youth.

Improved veterinary care and nutrition have helped lengthen our cats' lives to an average of 15 years. That's good news because we can enjoy their companionship longer than ever before - in some cases 20 years or more. A longer life span has its price, however. It makes cats prone to age-related conditions like kidney disease and arthritis.

Aging is a natural process that brings changes in metabolism, hormone balance and other bodily functions, not to mention physical appearance and behavior. You can't stop it, but with the help of your veterinarian you can give your cat optimum health and happiness in its senior years.

Don't Be a Stranger to the Veterinarian

Regular veterinary visits are vital because physiological changes make your aging cat more susceptible to diseases. That goes for vigorous seniors, too. Cats hide illness and pain better than humans.

"Compared to a younger, healthy cat that can usually get by with an annual exam, more frequent exams are necessary for older cats," says James Richards, DVM, director of the Cornell Feline Health Center at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

The regularity of the visits depends on your cat's medical problems, says Jane Brunt, DVM, of the Cat Hospital at Towson in Baltimore, Md. "If it has no problems, every six months may be adequate. Quarterly is even better."

You probably know the checkup routine by now: Teeth, weight, heartbeat, temperature, followed by vaccinations if needed. During a geriatric exam, the veterinarian may also monitor your pet's blood work, urine, blood pressure and/or radiographs for problems such as kidney disease, hyperthyroidism or arthritis.

Because cats age at different rates, use your judgment along with your veterinarian's advice to determine the frequency of checkups. "Some cats may show signs of advancing age as early as 7 years," Dr. Richards says. "Surely by 10, 11 or 12 years, your cat should be seeing the vet every six months."

Watch for Changes

Stay alert for changes in your senior cat's appearance or behavior that could indicate a health problem. Watch for weight loss, alterations in litter box habits and stool consistency, an increase or decrease in appetite or thirst and changes in activity level, Dr. Richards says.

Different conditions can produce similar symptoms, so bring unusual behavior to your veterinarian's attention. Increased thirst can be a sign of kidney disease or diabetes. A reluctance to eat could mean your cat has a dental problem or a more serious condition like oral cancer. Dr. Richards also recommends owners keep an accurate scale to check their cat's weight each month. "A weight change of half a pound in a month is significant and should set off a flare," he says.

Cathie Williams, a former veterinary technician in Olalla, Wash., observed weight loss despite a voracious appetite in her son's cat and suspected hyperthyroidism. After a blood profile and urinalysis, however, the veterinarian diagnosed 9-year-old Hemingway with diabetes. Now Williams gives the cat his daily insulin shot while he's busy eating a canned treat.  "It's much easier than I thought it would be," Williams says. Hemingway doesn't even know he's getting his shot. Now he's gained weight and seems to feel good."

Choose the Right Diet

Your senior cat requires a complete, balanced diet in the right amounts to keep it in a healthy condition. Dental problems, some diseases, like hyperthyroidism, and a diminishing sense of smell can affect your pet's appetite.  "Owners should focus on maintaining optimum body condition. An overweight cat might need a diet lower in calories while a cat that's too thin may need a diet higher in calories," Dr. Richards says.
Your pet may require a diet change if it has dental disease or diabetes. "Depending on the problem, your cat might need a diet developed specifically for that condition like a renal diet for kidney insufficiency or a different one for constipation," Dr. Brunt says. Again, ask your veterinarian.

Make Simple Changes at Home

Even if your teen-age cat acts like it's lapped from the fountain of youth, these strategies will keep it healthy and comfortable as it ages.

1. Provide an accessible, abundant supply of fresh water. Older cats are prone to dehydration. "Use a wide, shallow dish. Cats seem to prefer this over a deep dish," Dr. Richards says. Some people actually flavor the water to encourage their cats to drink." Try freezing canned shrimp or tuna water in cubes and put them in the bowl to melt.

2. Help maintain the health of your cat's coat and teeth. Dental problems, changes due to old age or arthritis can make it difficult for your pet to groom itself efficiently. "Daily grooming helps keep your cat's coat in good condition and reduces hairball problems," Dr. Brunt says. Regular teeth cleaning also promotes good health.

3. Make sure litter boxes are clean and accessible. "Litter box lapses can occur if the box is located upstairs or downstairs," Dr. Richards says. "The stairs might be harder to handle." Also, some health conditions may increase urine output, and if an owner cleans the litter only twice a week, the cat may avoid the box because it's too dirty.

4. Make sure your senior cat exercises moderately. Watch for labored breathing or other difficulties. They've slowed down some, but Williams' four cats, ranging in age from 9 to 11 years, enjoy play time with each other and their owners. "They still come take a shot at the peacock feather," she says.

5. Minimize household stress. Senior cats tend to be less adaptable to adjustments in their environments. New pets and places, like boarding catteries, can be stressful.

|6. Pamper your cat. If it seems stiff, install steps or a ramp to its favorite perch. If a thinning coat makes it more susceptible to cold, give it a warm bed to snuggle in.  Give extra hugs and kisses, Dr. Brunt says. Your loving attention, along with regular veterinary care and a proper diet, will go a long way toward easing your cat happily into its senior years. Savor this mellow stage in its life.

Head-to-Toe Body Changes

Cats age at different rates and in their own ways depending on genetics and health care. Your cat will change in appearance,
metabolism and organ function. Here's a look from head to toe.
  • The ability to see, taste, smell and hear declines.
  • Eyes may appear cloudy and, in very old cats, the irises take on a lacy look as they atrophy.
  • Tartar build-up on teeth commonly leads to dental problems.
  • Muscles atrophy, muscle tone and strength decreases. This may give your cat a flabbier appearance.
  • Bone and joint strength decline and arthritis inflammation of joints can become a problem.
  • Weight gain or loss, depending on any disease at work, may occur. The spine and hips could protrude with weight loss.
  • The coat thins and can become matted, flaky or oily because your cat grooms less often. Graying is less common in cats than dogs.
  • The body's metabolic rate declines.
  • Wounds heal more slowly and the body is less resistant to disease. Organ function becomes less efficient, especially the kidneys.
  • Constipation may occur because of an aging, less motile digestive system.
  • Nails often require more frequent trimming as your cat becomes less active.

Common Health Problems of Older Cats

Disease Symptom Treatment
Chronic Kidney Disease Increased thirst and urination, weight loss, reduced activity, appetite loss, vomiting, hypertension, anemia, dehydration. Incurable but can be managed with special diets, extra fluids and medications.
Dental Disease Bad breath, appetite and weight loss, drooling, tarter build-up on teeth. Regular teeth cleaning.
Hyperthyroidism Increased appetite and thirst, weight loss, vomiting, diarrhea, hypertension, hyperactivity. Lifelong medication, radio-iodine therapy or surgery to remove affected thyroid lobes.
Arthritis Stiffness, decrease in activity, lameness, posture changes. Check with your veterinarian about appropriate medications to relieve pain and inflammation.
Cancer (Neoplasia) Abnormal swellings or lumps, weight loss, appetite loss, vomiting, bowel changes, breathing difficulties, bleeding or discharge from body openings. Removal of tumor an/or chemotherapy.
Diabetes Increased thirst and appetite, weight loss, increased urine output. Some cats can get by with oral medication, but the majority require daily insulin shots; dietary management.
Mega colon (enlarged colon) Constipation, straining. Feline-specific enema given by your veterinarian, dietary management.
Heart / Circulatory Disorders Lack of energy, appetite loss, resting flat on breastbone, panting, paralysis of rear limbs Medication, dietary management
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