What happened? It seems like only yesterday my cats were young, playful, and ready to take on the world. Now even Little, the baby of the bunch, is going on 10. Big Red, the stray I rescued at age 4 to 5 is now thought to be older than we surmised, putting him up around 12. Tinkerbelle was 10 when she came to me – never a kitten though thoroughly kittenish in spirit – but that was 5 years ago and now she’s turning 15. They all qualify as senior cats, and as such, require a different regimen of care.
I am a senior, too, and have a lot of sympathy for the concerns of the elderly (of any species). As we age, our bodies don’t work as well as they used to. We get diseases such as diabetes and kidney problems; we have pain in our joints. Some of us have dental issues. And let’s not forget those pesky bowel issues: diarrhea and constipation – if we don’t have one, we probably have the other.
As humans, we make the choice to go to the doctor, take our medication, get our prescribed exercise (usually), and age as best we can. For our kitty companions, we need to do it for them. Cats are stoic. Often they don’t show signs of an illness until it is far advanced. Yearly or twice-yearly vet visits are strongly suggested because a vet can see the symptoms that our cats are so good at hiding.
Caring for senior cats is essentially the same as caring for any cat – pet, love, play, make them happy – but you may find that keeping them healthy and comfortable becomes increasingly hands on.
Food: As cats age, they can get picky about their food. A change in appetite may be a sign of illness or dental problems, or just a new formula snuck into your customary cat food. (Purina doesn’t tell you when they switch up the ingredients in your old tried and true.) There are many tricks to get kitty interested in eating again: new food, a different food station, or petting as she eats, to name a few. There has been some success with acupuncture, and appetite stimulants may be available through your vet if things get dire. Though different illnesses call for different diets, the most important thing is for kitty to keep eating.
Water: Changes in water consumption are very common with aging cats. Drinking a lot of water can indicate a problem such as diabetes, hyperthyroidism, or kidney disease. Vomiting and diarrhea take moisture from the body, requiring compensation in the form of water intake. In all those cases, a trip to the vet is in order. Though canned food provides some needed moisture, fresh water should always be readily available for our cats. You don’t need a fancy fountain, but it’s good to have more than one place for kitty to get water since the bowl by the food may be overlooked in favor of the meal. We have a set of Mexican glassware on the coffee table for our cats. Snazzy!
Exercise: Aging kitties still need to get their heart racing once in a while. Even Tinkerbelle with her heart murmur is better off having a good run with her sister than just lying around all day. One of the best sources of exercise is another cat, but it’s easy to be a stand-in. Ten minutes a day with a string toy or chaser such as Da Bird is all it takes. Providing toys for kitty to play with on her own gives her resources for both entertainment and exercise.
Comfort: An elderly cat deserves to be comfortable. Besides health, she may need a few little extras to make her a happy cat.
Warming: There are several types of heating pads and heated beds you can get for your cat. (Since most are electric, make sure that it’s from a reputable maker) Besides being cozy, heat helps ease arthritis and stiffness. Put the pad somewhere with a nice view and watch the ahhh!
Grooming: An elderly cat may not groom as much as a young one. It may be lack of mobility – if you’re over 56, the human equivalent to a 10-year-old cat, you try bending around backwards and see how far you get! Daily brushing will help your cat stay clean. Combing out or removing any mats in the fur will make her more comfortable, too. For longhaired cats, a “sani-cut” (trimming around the anus) may be helpful, but don’t do it yourself – this area is very sensitive and should only be clipped by a trained professional.
Litter pans: As cats age, they may not be able to step over high-sided litter pans, or once in, to squat as proficiently as they used to. A low jumbo pan will give them more space; a pan made from a tote with an entrance hole cut into the front keeps urine from spraying outside if kitty can’t squat.
Stairs: A set of steps or a ramp to the couch, bed, or other favorite hangout can make a big difference in quality of life. If your cats are as adamant about sleeping on the bed as mine, you need to make sure they can safely get up there. When I got my set of pet steps, I was worried my cats wouldn’t use them, but I was wrong! It took a little while and some catnip rubbed into the fleece covering, but now all 3 use the steps. You might consider adding the steps before the cat really needs them to give time to get used to the new object in the house.
This is only a brief overview of things you can do for your senior cat. You know your cat best, and different cats have different needs. But when kitty’s pushing the double-digit years, the time of taking your cat’s comfort for granted are behind you. Louise Mesher, DVM says: “Most senior and geriatric cats are hiding something that can be addressed to make them feel better or to enjoy their lives more… There is nothing better than a sweet old cat!!!”
- Kitten, from birth to six months
- Junior, from six months to two years
- Prime, from three years to six years
- Mature, from seven to ten years
- Senior, from eleven to fourteen years
- Geriatric, from fifteen years and older
Read Part 2 of LIFE STAGES, a Cat Writers’ Association Award Winning series, WHEN YOUR KITTY GETS SICK