Caring For Senior Cats

Caring For Senior Cats

Hand in paw, through thick and thin, your cat and you have been standing together through it all. As time goes by, both you and your precious companion are slowly growing older. Fortunately, thanks to the improvements in feline health care, our favorite pets can now live much longer than ever before. Nevertheless, although many cats live well into their twenties, they are still considered feline senior citizens already around the age of 8. While many more exciting adventures are ahead for them, they still need be handled with a pinch of extra care and attention. To provide them with this, it is important to learn a thing or two about the changes they are going through.

"When I was a young veterinarian, you didn’t see older cats. But now I know a cat-only hospital in San Antonio, Texas, where, every time a cat reaches its 20th birthday, they put it up on their reader board. And there are lots and lots and lots of reader board messages. It’s like Willard Scott on "The Today Show." There are lots of people celebrating their cat’s 20th birthday." - Dr. Mary Becker for Sandy Eckstein in Feeding Your Senior Cat.

How do you know if your cat is a senior?

The feline life expectancy highly varies among cats, mainly depending on their breed and lifestyle. It is generally accepted, however, that cats become seniors around the age of 7 to 10 years old. At this point, even if your cat is not showing obvious signs of aging, "it is still important to think of your cat in her proper part of her life cycle" – points out Jean Marie Bauhaus for Hill's. "Think of it this way: even though humans are living longer these days (some into their 90s or 100s), they are still considered a senior citizen between the ages of 60 and 65." – Bauhaus evocatively clarifies.

The first aging signs you may start noticing with your companion are a few gray hairs here and there or subtle changes in their eating and playing habits. They might sleep more, lose or gain weight and have trouble reaching certain places. Additionally, senior cats are at higher risks from movement problems, hearing and vision difficulties, dental diseases and other age-related health conditions. Thankfully, advanced feline health care system and improved nutrition and lifestyle have tremendously help prolong feline lives.

"Not long ago, cats were considered seniors at eight years old. Today, it's not unusual for veterinarians to have feline patients in their twenties. Thanks to improved nutrition, living indoors, and advances in veterinary medicine, cats live longer and are now considered older at 12 to 14 years." – explains Dr. Bruce Kornreich, Associate Director at Cornell Feline Health Center, citing the observation of Richard Goldstein, assistant professor in small animal medicine at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Signs of aging and common health concerns of the age group

"Cats are weird because they’re both prey and predator, so they tend to hide things a lot longer. And they’re very light on their feet." – emphasizes Dr. Becker. Changes accompanying the aging process are occurring gradually and a lot of them can easily escape our eye. Note: not all symptoms observed in seniors are necessarily age-related. Some can indicate health issues that need veterinary attention. Here are some of the aging signs commonly observed in feline seniors:

Behavioral changes. Aging cats very often gradually become lazier and less playful. They sleep a lot and often change their eating habits too. Depending on the cat, they can start eating less or more in comparison to their younger age. Senior cats have a slower digestive system than younger cats, which is why it's recommended to feed them smaller and more frequent meals in order to prevent constipation or other digestive issues. Older cats also handle stress more poorly, which is why they should be provided with safe and predictable routine and environment. If suffering from certain medical issues, senior cats may stop using the litter box. Seniors may become cranky or grumpy too, often because of fear or pain. Veterinarians might be able to determine the cause for this behavior and help eliminate it.

Going gray. Just like us and many other mammals, cats often start going gray as they age. The graying typically starts on the muzzle area and around eyebrows and nose. Going gray is completely normal and shouldn’t worry you.

Movement problems. Older cats often undergo problems moving around. They may start walking slower or more stiffly, and avoid jumping and running. You might therefore notice your cat having difficulty reaching their favorite nap spots. A veterinarian can provide your cat with pain medications which can help them move around easier. Commonly it is arthritis that causes the joint pain, and movement issues. Dr. Becker explains how to recognize this common feline condition: "Arthritis is a major problem in cats that we didn’t really know about. You’ll see an unkempt appearance. They won’t jump on the high places. But it’s subtle. They’ll have problems jumping into and out of the litter box. When cats get older, you don’t want a great big tall litter box that’s hard for them to get in and out of." a – explains Dr. Becker.

Changes in the eyes. Some aging cats may go through changes in their eyes. This is more commonly among cats of lighter-colored coats, and normally isn't related to vision. Their eyes start appearing "moth-eaten" or cloudy near the pupils. This cloudiness should appear blue and is completely normal, does not affect the cat's vision and is not a cause for alarm. It is important to distinguish this from cataracts – a serious condition observed as opaque and white cloudiness.

Loss of hearing. Some senior cats may suffer from hearing loss. The severity of this greatly varies, and it does not happen to all cats. In some cases, humans don't even notice a change while in other cases cats may go completely deaf. If your cat shows signs of hearing loss, it is important to consult with a vet as this doesn't have to be age-related and can occur due to other possible causes too.

Other signs.Other signs of aging include weight changes, strange lumps or bumps, appetite loss, diarrhea or constipation, incontinence or lack of urination, lethargy, forgetfulness, excessive vocalization, runny nose and eyes, excessive blinking etc.

Common medical issues. Dr. Becker stresses that the most common medical problems in older cats include "overactive thyroid, intestinal problems, sometimes cancer, pancreatitis, diabetes, and renal disease."

How should I care for my senior cat?

There are many things we can do to help our furry seniors enjoy their golden years to the fullest. Even if they haven't started showing any visible signs of aging yet, providing them with care appropriate for their stage of life can go a long way in terms of their comfort, health and life expectancy.

Nutrition. High-quality nutrition is vital for cats of all ages, including the golden years. Seniors should be fed with diet specifically designed for older cats which will address all of their needs and their particular health status. Appropriate diet can help reduce risk of joint and dental issues too. It is recommended to consult with the veterinarian who will be able to suggest which cat food will support your pet the best. Due to common digestive issues among older felines, you may want to consider dosing their daily food in smaller but more frequent meals. Don't forget to encourage your cat to drink more water by giving them semi-moist food and always keeping plenty of fresh and clean water that is easily accessible. Cat fountains can also be a great tool to encourage cats to keep hydrated.

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Health checks. Senior cats are recommended to be taken to at least two regular health checks per year. This will help detect potential issues before they become life-threatening. Senior cats are at a much higher risk from many conditions, and it is vital to keep a close eye at any possible symptoms and changes and report them all to the vet. Dr. Becker explains why it's so vital to provide your pet with regular check-ups: "They age much faster than humans, they can’t tell you where it hurts, and they hide illness. There’s a period of grace for many illnesses. If you catch it early on, it’s usually less expensive, and treatment is much more successful. We do these routine tests -- blood tests or urinalysis -- where we can pick up the very earliest signs of kidney problems, diabetes, hyperthyroid in its early stages, or an elevated white blood cell count."

Dental care To avoid dental problems, it is important to maintain appropriate dental at home dental hygiene and to take your cat for regular dental check-ups and cleanings.

Easy access. Seniors often need help reaching their favorite spots. Provide them with steps or ramps to get on the couch or to the window. You may also want to consider giving them a softer bedding and a litter box that is easier to climb in and out. If your cat is having problems with vision and/or night vision, considering leaving a light on and keep the cat's belongings (litter boxes, food bowls, beddings etc.) as stationary as possible.

Gentle grooming. Grooming goes a long way for cats of all age. It helps keep the coat clean and untangled, tones the muscles and you can keep an eye on the skin condition and parasites. But it is even more important to groom the senior, as they often can't keep as good of a care of their coat as they used to. This is particularly important for long haired cats. By keeping your cat clean, untangled and soft, you are keeping it comfortable and happy too.

Socialize. Make sure to spend enough quality time with your senior and provide them with a pinch of extra cuddles and tenderness. Play-time and cuddling will not only help you keep your bond with the cat strong, but it will make a big difference in their happiness and health.

Exercise. Encourage your senior to move and play as much as they can. Never push them outside their comfort zone, especially if they show signs of pain. Nevertheless, they can still benefit from regular exercise.

Other tips. Dr. Becker advises to heat their food up to release the aromas if they are losing appetite. He also suggests the use of pheromone treatments like Feliway, a synthetic version of the feline cheek pheromone. "As pets get older, they get more anxious. You can spritz it around their bedding and stuff. It’s like giving them two glasses of wine after coming home from work. It really relaxes them."

FACTORS THAT IMPACT A CAT’S LIFE EXPECTANCY

Lifestyle. The longevity of the cat is highly influenced by their nutrition, health status, exercise and living conditions. For example, indoor cats have been found to have a higher life expectancy than outdoor cats. This is because they are less exposed to parasites, illnesses and accidents. Dr. Marty Becker notes: "Indoor cats live a lot longer than outdoor cats. There was a study done at Purdue a few years ago that said indoor-only cats live 2.5 times longer than outdoor cats or indoor/outdoor cats. That's because they don’t come across poisons and infectious diseases or disagreements with other cats, dogs, or Cadillacs."

Breed predisposition. While the longevity of the cat mainly depends on its lifestyle, different cat breeds do have differently estimated lifespan expectancies. For example, the breeds with the longest life expectancy of 15-20 years are American and European Shorthair cats. On the contrary, American Wirehair has the life expectancy of 7-12 years. Sam Bourne has created a neat breed-by-breed chart of the longevity of cats on PetCareRx.

Cats are our friends and families, our life companions. This is why we want them with us as long as possible and as happy and healthy as they can be. We hope that the few tips and tricks we collected above can help you and your kitty enjoy the feline golden ages to their fullest. How old is your cat now?

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Further reading

1. Feeding Your Senior Cat" by Sandy Eckstein for WebMD.

2. Loving Care for Older Cats by Dr. Bruce Kornreich, Associate Director at Cornell Feline Health Center.

3. Senior Cat Problems: What You Should Know About Aging Cats by Jean Marie Bauhaus for Hill's.

4. 6 Signs Your Cat is Aging by Jet Perreault for Petful.

5. The 3 Stages of Your Senior Cat's Life and What to Expect of Each by Dr. Karen Becker for Healthy Pets.