How to Care for a Senior Cat
Kittens and young cats are furry bundles of energy, scampering from one adventure to the next. As the years pass, the aging process in cats can be so subtle that you barely notice the passage of time. But if you observe closely, you'll begin to notice the changes as your cat ages: the glossy coat becomes a bit duller, he or she spends more time sleeping and less time playing, and the kittenish antics become a thing of the past. But if you have an older cat, don't despair! The life expectancy for cats continues to increase, and nowadays it is not unusual for an indoor cat to live past 20 years of age. The key is to take steps now to ensure your cat's senior years are happy and healthy.
In general, a cat is considered senior at around ten years of age. While the term "senior" can be scary to a pet parent, it's merely a designation of a cat's life stage and not necessarily an indicator of the cat's health status. Many senior cats are still vigorous and healthy with few signs of the advancing years.
To help your senior cat remain healthy, you'll need to take an even more active role in your cat's health care. Take time to stroke and groom your senior cat on a regular basis so you can identify any new lumps, bumps, or painful areas. As an added bonus, grooming is enjoyable for most senior cats that often become less able to groom those hard-to-reach spots. Most importantly, senior cats should have regular veterinary checkups at least every 6 months so that problems are identified and treated early. Between visits, keep a lookout for these signs of potential trouble:
- Changes in eating and/or drinking (increase or decrease)
- Weight gain or loss
- Behavioral changes
- Persistent vomiting, constipation or diarrhea
- Marked change in mobility
- Unkempt appearance
- Change in litter box behavior
If you notice any of these symptoms, don't simply chalk them up to "old age." The earlier a health problem is identified and treated, the better the outcome for your cat.
As your cat ages, some changes in behavior include increased vocalization, confusion, aggression, restlessness, reduced activity level, depression or anxiety. Since aging cats may experience physical changes such as hearing or vision loss, painful joints or other diseases, it can be difficult to determine if a behavioral change is due to a cognitive decline or is a symptom of an underlying physical condition. A cat that begins eliminating outside the litter box may do so because of a urinary tract problem, for example, or may be experiencing mobility problems caused by painful arthritic joints. If you notice a behavioral change in your aging cat, your best course of action is a trip to the veterinarian to determine the cause of the behavior and rule out any underlying disease process. If your cat is otherwise healthy, there are a number of over-the-counter supplements that can help soothe and calm an anxious cat.
As with people, cats of advancing years are more susceptible to a myriad of illnesses. Some common illnesses that are more prevalent in senior cats include:
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBS)
- Degenerative joint disease
- Dental disease
- Kidney, liver or heart disease
Unfortunately, cats are masters at hiding signs of illness, often until a condition has become quite advanced. Become your senior cat's best advocate by watching for subtle signs of illness so that your cat gets early treatment which can significantly extend the length and quality of your senior cat's life.
As your cat ages, you'll also need to watch for weight fluctuations — either unexpected weight gain or loss. While weight gain is often due to overfeeding a less active cat, weight loss can be a sign of a more serious problem such as hyperthyroidism, cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, or dental disease. Regardless of the life stage, all cats are obligate carnivores. That means they must eat a species-appropriate meat based diet, and senior cats in particular should be fed a cat food with a high-quality protein. Superior nutrition and certain supplements can actually help slow down the progression of some signs of aging in your cat. If your cat already has a medical condition such as diabetes or IBS, your veterinarian will be able to provide dietary recommendations to help manage your cat's disease.
Adequate water intake is especially important as your cat ages. Many pet guardians notice that their cat appreciates moving water such as from a tap, and you may find that your cat will drink more from a pet drinking fountain. If your senior cat is less mobile, place water bowls (and litter boxes) in several places throughout your home for easy access.
While your aging cat may be less playful, senior cats have their own special appeal. Cats in their golden years are often happy to curl up in a warm lap for hours. A mellow, mature cat provides all the affection and companionship of a younger cat without the demands for constant playtime.