Helping our Senior Cats age Gracefully
Senior cats make wonderful companions but often require more care than their younger counterparts.
How old is my cat in human years?
Cats age about four human years to their one year. This is what makes regular checkups so important! A lot can happen in 4 human years. Cats are considered to be ‘seniors’ when they are between 11-14 years and are the equivalent of a human ‘senior’ between the age of 60-72 years old. Cats over 14 years of age are considered to be ‘geriatric’ and are comparable to humans that are 76-100 years or more!
Why do older cats need special care and attention?
Age is not a disease, but many changes happen as cats age, and these changes can result in different diseases or disabilities.
- Decreased taste and sense of smell cause older cats to become finicky eaters. They also have a reduced sensitivity to thirst resulting in a higher risk of dehydration.
- Vision and hearing can also be impaired causing anxiety or reactive behaviors if the cat does not realize she is being approached.
- Just as in humans, as cats age, both muscle mass and bone mass decrease.
- As they age, cats are not able to digest their food as well resulting in increased nutrition requirements. If their nutrition does not meet their requirements, they will lose muscle mass resulting in the ability to easily feel the bones of their spine and hips when petting them.
- Their immune function declines reducing their ability to fight infections.
- Their skin becomes thinner, loses elasticity, and has decreased blood circulation making it more susceptible to infection and injury.
- Cats can have cognitive decline and may display similar symptoms as people with dementia, causing many behavioral changes including:
- inappropriate elimination outside the litter box,
- aimless wandering, staring, and crying,
- altered sleep-wake cycles such as night-time waking or increased anxiety, irritability, or restlessness.
Isn’t my cat just getting older?
Yes, but while the aging process cannot be stopped, it is important to recognize and manage the illnesses that can occur as our cats age:
- Dental diseaseis one of the most common diseases affecting all cats. It is a painful condition that if left untreated can cause organ dysfunction, possibly thromboembolic events (strokes), and may contribute to a poor appetite.
- Osteoarthritis painaffects the majority of senior cats causing reduced activity, less playing, less drinking, aggression, and urination and defecation outside the litter box.
- Kidney diseaseis very common, resulting in increased drinking and urination and can cause urinary tract infections, hypertension, as well as urination outside the litter box.
- Thyroid diseaseis also commonly seen resulting in weight loss despite a great appetite and energy level.
- Vision changescan result from cataracts or retinal changes caused by hypertension.
What can I do to help my senior cat have the best quality of life?
Cats are extremely adept at hiding illness so close observation is key. The earlier a problem is detected and identified, the more successful treatment is likely to be.
Is your cat following her normal pattern and taking naps in many areas of your home? Cats who are not feeling well do not move around as much and only have a few sleeping areas. You can monitor your cat's muscle condition as you pet her, noting how easy it is to feel the bumps along her spine and the bones of her hips. These should not be palpable (felt) on the average healthy cat. As well as feeling her muscle, you can also feel lumps in your cat while you are petting her and let your veterinarian know what, when, and where you felt them.
Brushing your cat’s coat daily can help you evaluate her coat quality – How soft is it? Are there any knots or mats of hair? Are there any fleas or lesions on the skin? Brushing her coat daily can help with her own grooming, especially in places that she may have difficulty reaching due to arthritis. Daily brushing also helps stimulate blood circulation to the skin which further increases skin health. Nails should be checked weekly as older cats can develop thick nails which do not shed normally and can grow right into their pads.
Hopefully, teeth brushing is already part of your routine, but even if it is not, you can still look at your cat’s teeth by gently lifting her lips while she is relaxed. While having a look at your cat’s teeth, you can also assess the colour of her gums as well as her hydration – a cat that is well hydrated will have pink moist gums, but a dehydrated cat will have gums that feel sticky and they may be pale.
If teeth brushing is not part of your daily routine, gradually introduce pet toothpaste, then a toothbrush into the routine until your cat will let you brush the outsides of her teeth without becoming upset. This process can take several weeks or more. Your veterinary team can help you develop a training plan for your cat.
Does my senior cat need a special diet?
Talk to your veterinary healthcare team about best nutrition for your cat. Every cat has different nutritional requirements based on their age, body condition, and any medical conditions so your veterinarian’s input is valuable. Some older cats need help losing weight, others have medical conditions such as kidney disease or diabetes which need to be managed with special diets. Some cats have trouble digesting an average cat diet and require a diet that has been formulated for their particular needs. You and your veterinary healthcare team should work together to find the best diet for your cat.
Is my senior cat stressed?
Older cats do not handle change very well. Try to avoid sudden changes to your cat's routine but if you have to make a change, try to give her more attention and affection to reduce her stress. If you have to leave your cat for a long period of time, she may do better with a trusted pet sitter. If you have to board her in a kennel, be sure to bring lots of her familiar belongings including her favourite bedding and special toys.
How can my veterinarian help?
Regular veterinary examinations and discussions about your cat’s behaviors at home (your cat’s history) will allow your veterinarian to provide recommendations on how to keep your senior cat healthy. These visits are often recommended more frequently than once a year as problems occur more quickly in older cats, especially if they have a chronic disease such as kidney disease or arthritis.
Laboratory tests including blood, urine, and fecal tests are recommendeded at least once yearly to detect changes to organ function before cats show signs of disease or to monitor the progression of organ disease. Weight and body and muscle condition will be evaluated as part of a complete physical examination. All of this monitoring allows you and your veterinarian to detect disease earlier, to provide more effective management and treatment, which will ensure a good quality of life for your cat.