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Elderly Cats

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Cats are living much longer now than was the case 20 years ago, thanks to better nutrition, veterinary and home care.

In recent years, feline ages and life-stages have been redefined, cats are considered to be elderly once they reach 11 years with senior cats defined as those aged between 11 and 14 years, and geriatric cats 15 years and upwards.

The effects of ageing

With increasing age there are many changes to a cat’s physiology, behaviour and vulnerability to particular illnesses. Physiological changes include reduced ability to smell and taste food, reduced ability to digest fat and protein, reduced hearing, immune function, skin elasticity and stress tolerance.

Behavioural changes

As cats age their behaviour alters too, often as a direct result of the physiological changes taking place. The elderly cat adapts gradually to these changes and it may not be apparent unless you are specifically looking for signs of ageing. Older cats hunt less, spend less time outside, are generally less active and sleep for longer periods. They can have a reduced or fussy appetite, be less keen to play or groom and be more vocal. They also tend to become more insecure and therefore potentially more dependent on you.

Other behavioural changes can be seen as a direct result of disease, for example, increased thirst or appetite or aggression associated with pain.

Home care for the elderly

This is the time, more than any other, when your cat needs some essential care. As cats get older they will find it more difficult to maintain their own cleanliness and checking your cat regularly will enable you to detect problems that need to be tackled straight away.

Claw trimming

Elderly cats are less able to retract their claws and they may get caught in furniture and carpets. They can also overgrow and stick into their pads. Regular trimming will be necessary, this routine task can be performed either at the surgery, or we can provide guidance for trimming your cats nails at home.

Grooming

Your old cat is less able to groom efficiently so you may need to wipe away any discharge around their eyes or nose. You may also need to brush your cat using a soft brush and fine comb but care should be taken to ensure you are gentle, as older cats tend to be thin so vigorous combing can be painful. Matting frequently occurs on the lower spine and hindquarters as older cats are less flexible and therefore unable to reach these areas to self-groom.

Hairballs

Hairballs are a common problem in older cats as they often have sluggish digestion and hair ingested during grooming may cause complications such as chronic vomiting or constipation. Special supplements or foods can be purchased to assist with hairballs should this become a problem for your cat.

Toilet habits

Even if your elderly cat has access outdoors it is wise to provide an indoor litter facility as there will inevitably come a time when your cat just doesn’t feel inclined to toilet in cold, damp conditions outside.

Dental checks

Old teeth and mouths can cause problems so check your cat regularly for signs of any growths, reddening of the gums or evidence of dental disease. Halitosis (bad breath), drooling, a ‘chattering’ jaw, loss of appetite and pawing at the mouth may all be signs of dental disease, if in doubt please contact the practice for advice.

Regular health checks

The frequency of health checks may vary dependent on age and general health of your cat. Although it’s good to know your cat will be regularly examined it shouldn’t prevent you from being a little more vigilant at home to spot the first signs that all is not well. There are a number of general warning signs that merit attention:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Drinking more often or drinking a larger amount per day
  • Stiffness, lameness or difficulty in jumping up
  • Lethargy
  • Lumps or bumps anywhere on the body
  • Balance problems
  • Toilet accidents or difficulty passing urine or faeces
  • Disorientation or distress
  • Uncharacteristic behaviour, such as hiding, aggression, excessive vocalisation

Encouraging appetite

Your cat may have less of an appetite as it gets older as its sense of smell and taste diminishes or there may be occasions when your cat needs a little encouragement. There are various ways that you can stimulate appetite:

  • Offer food little and often
  • Consider the type of bowl used to offer food
  • Offer food at room temperature, gently warming food to just below body temperature can increase palatability
  • Experiment with the consistency of the food offered. Some elderly cats, especially those with dental problems, prefer soft food to lumps or dry biscuits
  • Experiment with bowl height, it may be more comfortable for an arthritic cat to have the bowl raised slightly
  • Avoid leaving uneaten wet food out for more than an hour and don’t be tempted to leave a range of different foods out as this can be overwhelming
  • Sitting with your cat while talking and stroking can increase appetite, you may even want to try hand feeding

Drinking

Elderly cats are more vulnerable to becoming dehydrated, especially if suffering from medical conditions such as chronic kidney disease, so always make sure that a variety of water bowls are available in the home in accessible areas away from the normal places where food is eaten. Water bowls, like food bowls, may be more comfortably used by the older cat if you raise it off the ground.

Scratching

Elderly cats are less likely to use the tall activity and scratching posts as the stropping action on vertical surfaces can put strain on arthritic joints. Offering similar horizontal surfaces can satisfy those that still enjoy scratching and the action provides important exercise for the muscles of the forelimbs.

Litter trays

Litter trays should normally be located well away from other resources, such as food and water but for the very elderly or those cats suffering from cognitive dysfunction it is appropriate for all its resources to be located in easy reach to avoid confusion.

The trays should probably not be the covered variety as these can be difficult to negotiate. Open trays with low sides are ideal and they should be firmly fixed to prevent them from being tipped up if your cat is clumsy when using a tray. Polythene litter liners should be avoided as they can catch in your cat’s claws and any indoor trays should be cleaned regularly.

Beds

Many favoured locations for sleep are on raised surfaces, such as your bed or a window sill, so it may become difficult with time for your elderly cat to access these special places. The positioning of ramps, steps and platforms will enable it to reach the area in gentle stages rather than giving up due to stiffness or weakness in the joints.

If your cat uses your bed, chair or sofa you may wish to provide a thermal blanket that is warm and washable. Ideally elderly cats should be encouraged to use secure or wider surfaces for sleep.

Cat flaps

Some elderly cats will reduce the frequency of excursions outside as a result of difficulty negotiating the cat flap. It may be helpful to build a step, inside and outside, to make it easier to use but eventually it is almost inevitable that the cat flap will be replaced by escorted trips into the garden via the back door. When this occurs, if no other cats in the household are using the flap, it would be advisable to block up or remove the flap to prevent invasion from other cats outside, which would be distressing for your cat.

Holidays

If your cat has always gone into a cattery when you are on holiday then there is no particular reason to change the routine. However, older cats don’t cope particularly well with changes to their routine so there may come a time when your cat may prefer to stay at home with someone visiting, or staying over, to provide the necessary care. Ideally the cat-sitter should be someone with whom your cat is familiar.

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