The Special Needs of the Senior Cat
These images were provided by the Cornell Feline Health Center and the American Association of Feline Practitioners.
Cats, like humans, are living longer lives than in the past. In fact, the percentage of cats over the age of six has nearly doubled in just over a decade, and there is every reason to believe that the “graying” cat population will continue to grow.
So how old is my cat, really?
Cats are individuals who, like humans, experience the passage of time in their own distinct ways. Many cats begin to show signs of age-related physical changes between the ages of seven and ten, with the majority showing signs by the age of twelve. The widely held belief that each “cat year” is equal to seven “human years” is incorrect.
A one-year-old cat is physiologically equivalent to a 16-year-old human, while a two-year-old cat is physiologically equivalent to a 21-year-old human. Following that, each cat calendar year is typically equivalent to four human years. A ten-year-old cat is the same age as a 53-year-old person, a 12-year-old cat is the same age as a 61-year-old person, and a 15-year-old cat is the same age as a 73-year-old person, according to this formula.
Advancing age is not a disease
Aging is a natural process. Although aging causes many complex physical changes, it is not a disease in and of itself. Although many conditions affecting older cats are incurable, they are frequently treatable. Identifying and reducing potential health risks, detecting disease as early as possible, correcting or delaying the progression of illness, and improving or maintaining the health of the body’s systems are the keys to ensuring your senior cat’s best possible health and quality of life.
What happens as my cat ages?
Aging causes numerous physical and behavioral changes:
- Older cats’ immune systems are less capable of repelling foreign invaders than younger cats’. Chronic diseases, which are frequently associated with aging, can impair immune function even further.
- Dehydration, which is a common side effect of many diseases that affect older cats, further reduces blood circulation and immunity.
- The skin of an older cat is thinner and less elastic, has decreased blood circulation, and is more susceptible to infection.
- Grooming older cats is less effective than grooming younger cats, which can result in hair matting, skin odor, and inflammation.
- Aging cats’ claws are frequently overgrown, thick, and brittle.
- In humans, aging brain changes contribute to memory loss and personality changes, also known as senility. Elderly cats exhibit symptoms such as wandering, excessive mewing, apparent disorientation, and avoidance of social interaction.
- Hearing loss in older cats is common for a variety of reasons.
- As people age, their eyes undergo numerous changes. A slight haziness of the lens and a lacy appearance of the iris (the colored part of the eye) are both common age-related changes, but neither appears to significantly impair a cat’s vision. However, several diseases, particularly those associated with high blood pressure, can seriously and irreversibly impair a cat’s vision.
- Dental disease is common in senior cats and can make eating difficult and painful.
Although many diseases can cause a loss of appetite, a decreased sense of smell in healthy senior cats may be partly to blame. However, dental disease-related discomfort is a more likely cause of food aversion.
- Kidney failure is a common disease in older cats, and its symptoms are extremely varied.
- Arthritis, also known as degenerative joint disease, is common in senior cats. Although the majority of arthritic cats do not become visibly lame, they may have difficulty accessing litter boxes, food and water dishes, and other items, particularly if they must jump or climb stairs to get to them.
- Diabetes mellitus, inflammatory bowel disease, and cancer are all examples of conditions that, while seen in younger cats, become more common in older cats.
Is my cat sick, or is it just old age?
Owners of senior cats frequently observe behavioral changes in their cats, but they dismiss these changes as an unavoidable and untreatable part of aging and fail to report them to their veterinarian. Failure to use the litter box, changes in activity levels, and changes in eating, drinking, or sleeping habits are all examples. While veterinarians believe that ageing cats’ declining mental abilities cause some behavioral issues, it is incorrect to attribute all such changes to old age. Indeed, the possibility of an underlying medical condition should always take precedence. Diseases of almost any organ system, as well as conditions that cause pain or impair mobility, can all contribute to behavioral changes. As an illustration:
- A fearful cat may not become aggressive until it is in pain (such as from dental disease) or becomes less mobile (e.g., from arthritis).
- Increased urine production, which is common in aging cats due to diseases such as kidney failure, diabetes mellitus, or hyperthyroidism, may cause the litter box to become soiled sooner than expected. Cats may seek out a more appealing bathroom due to the increased soil and odor.
- Many cats that do not mark their territory with urine may begin if a condition such as hyperthyroidism develops.
- Cats with painful arthritis may struggle to reach a litter box, especially if stairs are required. Climbing into the box may be painful for such cats, causing them to urinate or defecate in an inconvenient location.
- Older cats may be more sensitive to changes in the household because their ability to adapt to unfamiliar situations diminishes with age.
What is the main point to remember? Never assume that changes in your senior cat are the result of old age and thus untreatable. Because most diseases are more successfully managed when detected and treated early in their progression, senior cat owners must carefully monitor their feline companions’ behavior and health.
How can I help keep my senior cat healthy?
Close observation is one of the most important tools you have to help keep your senior cat healthy. You should conduct a mini-physical examination once a week. Request that your veterinarian demonstrate how to perform the procedure and what to look for. Making the exam a natural extension of how you normally interact with your cat will make it go more smoothly. Older cats who must be boarded for an extended period of time should be given special consideration. Similarly, by lifting the ear flaps, you can examine the ear canals. You can check for abnormal lumps or bumps and assess the skin and coat’s health by stroking your cat’s fur.
Daily brushing or combing of your hair removes loose hairs, preventing them from being swallowed and forming hair balls. Brushing improves skin and coat health by increasing blood circulation and sebaceous gland secretions. Because older cats may not use scratching posts as frequently as younger cats, nails should be checked and trimmed on a weekly basis.
As cats age, many of them become obese. If your cat is overweight, talk to your veterinarian about changing his or her diet so that he or she can regain normal body condition. Other cats, it appears, become overly thin as they age as a natural part of the aging process. However, serious medical conditions such as kidney failure, cancer, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, liver disease, hyperthyroidism, and others can cause progressive weight loss.
Weight fluctuations are frequently the first sign of disease; ideally, weigh your cat once a month on a scale sensitive enough to detect such minor changes. Maintain a weight log and notify your veterinarian if it changes significantly. Choose a nutritionally balanced and complete diet that is formulated in accordance with the guidelines established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials to ensure proper nutrition (AAFCO). Certain dietary changes may be necessary for cats with certain medical conditions. Your veterinarian can be a huge help in determining the best diet for your senior cat.
Exercise is important not only for losing weight but also for overall health. Older cats frequently become less agile as arthritis develops and muscles begin to atrophy. Regularly engaging your cat in moderate play can improve muscle tone and suppleness, increase blood circulation, and aid in weight loss in overweight cats. During exercise, keep an eye out for labored breathing or rapid tiring, which could indicate a disease. To prevent elderly cats from eliminating in inappropriate places, litter boxes may need to be relocated to more accessible locations. Buying a litter box with low sides, cutting down high sides, or building a ramp around the box may make it easier for older cats to enter.
Because older cats are less adaptable to change, it is critical to reduce environmental stress whenever possible. While rubbing your cat’s head or scratching its chin, for example, gently raise the upper lips with your thumb or forefinger to examine the teeth and gums. A familiar object, such as a blanket or toy, may keep the cat from becoming too distressed in an unfamiliar environment.
A better option is to have a neighbor, friend, or relative care for the older cat at home. Introducing a new pet to an older cat can be a traumatic experience and should be avoided whenever possible. Moving to a new home can be just as stressful. However, some stress can be reduced by lavishing more affection and attention on the older cat during times of emotional upheaval.
Cats are natural concealers of illness, and elderly cons are no exception. It is common for a cat to have a serious medical problem and not show any symptoms until the condition has progressed significantly. Any changes in your cat’s behavior or physical condition should trigger a call to your veterinarian.
Please contact your veterinarian as soon as possible if you cannot answer “yes” to all of the following statements.
- Is behaving normally; appears active and cheerful; does not tire easily with moderate exercise; and has no seizures or fainting episodes.
- Has a normal appetite, no significant weight change, a normal thirst, and drinks the recommended amount of water (about an ounce per pound of body weight per day, or less) (about an ounce per pound of body weight per day, or less)
- Does not vomit frequently, does not regurgitate undigested food, has no difficulty eating or swallowing, and appears to have normal bowel movements (formed and firm with no blood or mucus) (formed and firm with no blood or mucus)
- Without difficulty defecates
- Urinates in normal amounts and at regular intervals; urine color is normal\surinates easily, always uses a clean litter box, and hasn’t developed any new offensive behavioral tendencies (such as aggression or urine spraying) (such as aggression or urine spraying)
- Has pink gums with no redness, swelling, or bleeding does not sneeze and does not have nasal discharge
- Has eyes that are bright, clear, and discharge-free
- Has a full, glossy coat that is free of bald spots and mats; no excessive shedding is visible
- Has skin that is not greasy and does not have an offensive odor is free of fleas, ticks, lice, and mites and has no persistent abnormal swellings
- Has no sores that do not heal, no bleeding or discharge from any body opening, clean and odor-free ears, and does not shake its head or scratch its ears
- Hears normally and reacts normally to its surroundings walks without stiffness, pain, or difficulty has healthy feet and claws of normal length breathes normally without straining or coughing
How can my veterinarian help?
Regular veterinary examinations, like your observations, can aid in the early detection of disease. Your veterinarian may advise you to evaluate your healthy senior cat more frequently than a younger cat, such as every six months rather than once a year. If your cat suffers from a medical condition, more frequent examinations may be required.
The veterinarian will collect a complete medical and behavioral history from your cat, perform a thorough physical examination to evaluate every organ system, check your cat’s weight and body condition, and compare it to previous evaluations during the examination. Certain tests, such as blood tests, fecal examinations, and urine analysis, will be recommended at least once a year. Disorders can thus be detected and treated early, and ongoing medical conditions can be evaluated. Both are required to keep your senior cat in the best health possible for as long as possible.
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