Special Concerns for Senior Cats
Advances in veterinary medicine, especially in the areas of preventive medicine, diagnostics, nutrition, and cutting-edge specialty medicine, have led to better care and a prolonged life expectancy for our feline friends. To ensure that your older cat lives a long, happy life, it is important to be vigilant about your cat’s health and take steps to prevent illness.
General Care for Your Older Cat
Regular veterinary checkups are essential to maintain your older cat’s health. Examinations should be performed every six months, so that health issues can be identified and intervention can occur as soon as possible.
Appropriate vaccines may be even more important in older cats. As animals age, their immune systems may not function at the level that they once did, and thus their response to disease is impaired. Vaccination decisions should be made with the cat’s disease risk and health status in mind.
Good nutrition is essential for senior cats. Many diets currently are marketed for older cats that are designed to provide extra antioxidants, fatty acids, high quality protein, and joint health supplements. They also are purported to maintain ideal urine pH. Not every food is appropriate for every cat, though, and diet decisions should be made on an individual basis. Your veterinarian can help steer you in the right direction based on your individual cat’s nutritional needs. Ultimately, it is most important that senior cats consume adequate calories and nutrients. Due to their decreased senses of smell and taste, this can mean trying different types of food, adding water to the food, or warming the food.
Cats often develop tartar and gingivitis as they age, which can lead to infections and oral pain. Many cats require regular dental cleanings under anesthesia. If they have dental problems that were ignored in the past or that dramatically worsened with age, they may need to have oral surgery, including extraction of diseased teeth. No cat should live with a painful mouth, and when the diseased teeth are removed, the pain is eliminated. Cats generally adjust quite well to losing teeth, and most will continue to eat normally — including dry kibble — even after having lost multiple teeth. Regular teeth brushing can help to prevent problems but can be painful when the gums are inflamed or the teeth are loose, so see your veterinarian before beginning any home care regimen. Oral cleansing solutions, water additives, and/or plaque prevention gels also may be used to help slow the progression of dental disease. See your veterinarian right away if your cat is pawing at her mouth, clearly chewing only on one side, or refusing food— all these are signs of dental problems. Unfortunately, many cats tend to live with or hide pain, and you may never see any signs that your cat’s mouth hurts, so regular dental exams are critical.
Baseline blood values, taken while your cat is healthy, allow your veterinarian to know what is normal for your cat. They also provide a reference point for later treatment if those values change as the cat ages. Routine diagnostics can detect a problem early on, before the cat is showing any symptoms of illness. This can lead to more effective and rewarding treatment for the senior cat.
Signs you should take your older cat to the veterinarian
Knowing your cat and monitoring her for changes so that problems can be detected early can help prolong a healthy and comfortable life. It is important to note that aging itself is not a disease. In cats, behavior changes, including subtle changes, may be the first indicators of illness, pain, or discomfort. Guardians who know their cats well, and specifically their cats’ normal behaviors, will better be able to detect significant changes. Simply getting older is not a reason for your cat to experience weight loss, difficulty walking, etc. The following signs, as well as those listed in the article Feline Health Issues and Symptoms, may indicate disease and should be discussed with your veterinarian.
This is often the first (and sometimes only) sign that your older cat may be having a problem. This can indicate almost any geriatric disease, so it is important that you either weigh your cat at home or schedule regular veterinarian checks to keep track of her weight.
This is very important, as these are symptoms of diabetes, kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, uterine infections, and bladder infections.
Alone or together, these can indicate a variety of problems.
Poor vision can be a sign of retinal degeneration, cataracts, or sudden blindness caused by detachment of the back portion of the eye, called the retina, from untreated high blood pressure.
This may be an indication of arthritis, diabetes, infection, or a metabolic problem, such as a mineral deficiency. For more information on arthritis and diabetes, see Feline Health Issues and Symptoms.
Decrease in appetite
Any time a cat does not eat for more than a day there is cause for concern. It is important to meal feed your cat rather than leaving food out all day (see Feline Diet and Nutrition for more information), so you can more quickly notice any loss of appetite in your older cat.
Bloody or greenish discharge can indicate severe dental disease or oral/nasal tumors.
It’s normal for cats to sleep more as they get older. However, a dramatic change in activity over a short period of time is a cause for concern.
A cat who seems to forget family members, walks into objects, stands in the center of a room and vocalizes, or awakens in the middle of the night and vocalizes for no apparent reason may be demonstrating signs of feline cognitive dysfunction. These also may be signs of hearing and/or vision loss as well as other diseases, including hyperthyroidism, in the senior cat.
Your cat may be constipated if she is straining in the litter box, eliminating less frequently, vomiting while defecating or attempting to defecate, or eliminating outside the box. Another sign of constipation is small, pebble-like, unusually firm pieces of stool. A common cause of constipation is a lack of water intake, so it is important to feed moisture-rich canned food and make sure your cat has easy access to water bowls. Many older cats also need stool softeners to alleviate the discomfort associated with constipation.
Your older cat, whether you have had her since kittenhood or adopted her as an adult, is an important part of your family, and she has given you years of companionship and unconditional love. Please return the favor by providing the essential care and attention that your older cat so desperately needs.
Older cats and litter box problems
If your older cat is eliminating outside the litter box, having trouble making it downstairs or upstairs, or is avoiding stepping into the litter box, she may have arthritis. Easy potential solutions to this problem include adding litter boxes to each level of your house, particularly to the area where your cat spends most of her time, and purchasing litter boxes with lower sides, so your older cat can have an easier time entering the box. You also might want to consider removing the litter box cover, as your older, visually impaired cat may not like stepping into a dark box. For more information on litter box problems, turn to Litter Box 101.
Coping with the loss of a pet
Losing a pet can be a heartbreaking, isolating experience, and many pet guardians do not know how to ask for help or who to reach out to for support. To help pet guardians understand and deal with the potentially crippling effects of grief, Tree House created the Pet Loss Grief Support Group. It is a group where people who are dealing with the imminent or recent death of a beloved companion animal can share their thoughts and feelings in confidence. The group is led by two trained counselors and meets once a month. For more information on the Tree House Pet Loss Grief Support Group, call 773-784-5488 ext. 227 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.