As much as we try to resist it or ignore it, we simply cannot deny that our cats age quicker than we do. Their needs and habits progressively shift, so our challenge as pet parents is to recognize change and helping our cats adapt. We want to keep them healthy and comfortable, just as we’d do for any of our beloved family members. The American Association of Feline Practitioners has developed new medical guidelines for senior cat care, which you can check out at AAFP.
The AAFP classifies our aging pets as "mature" or middle age (7-10 years), "senior" (11-14 years) and "geriatric" (15+ years). To help out, two AAFP vets have offered their advice to make cat parents as senior-savvy as possible as Kitty edges toward her Medi-cat years. Read on to learn these invaluable tips for caring for a senior cat.
10 Tips for Caring for a Senior Cat
1Make Vet Visits a Priority
Feline experts recommend aging cats—even healthy ones—see the vet more often, at least every six months. Jeanne Pittari, DVM, DABVP says that six months for a senior cat is roughly equivalent to two years for a person.
"A lot can change in that time," she says. "Getting to know a cat and its owner facilitates a strong working relationship, allowing me to do my absolute best to meet the needs of each individual patient."
Your vet may schedule blood, urine and blood pressure tests periodically in addition to a thorough general exam. Prepare questions for your vet, including concerns about behavioral changes.
"You know your cat and its routines better than anyone. If your cat has difficulty going up or down steps, does not jump like it used to, or any other changes, we want to know in order to make recommendations," explains Ilona Rodan, DVM, DABVP.
You might also want to consider a cat-friendly vet during this time in your pet’s life. Even if you’re happy with your current vet, your kitty’s needs may eventually require additional, specialized care. Those vet practices have taken extra steps to assure they understand a cat’s unique needs, with kitty-friendly standards and changes designed to decrease stress and offer a more calming environment.
2Watch Their Weight
Any weight changes—whether an increase or unplanned loss—means Kitty needs a trip to the vet. Dr. Pittari says that weight gain in mid-life can predispose chronic diseases and a shortened life span, and weight loss in advanced age is usually a sign that something is amiss. Common diseases that cause weight loss, such as hyperthyroidism, intestinal illness, and diabetes, can happen with a normal or even increased appetite.
"Don't assume that because your older cat is eating normally, he’s not losing weight," Dr. Pittari says. "Gradual changes in weight are hard to notice and monitoring your cat's weight is one of the most important reasons for routine examinations."
3Know Your Plates
Is your aging cat chowing down or just nibbling? Dr. Pittari says that owners often don’t realize just how much their cat eats daily, especially in multi-cat homes.
"Monitor food intake so you know immediately if your cat is eating less," Pittari says. "This helps us intervene sooner when problems are easier to address."
And don’t automatically switch to a 'senior' food. Your vet can advise whether your cat needs added protein or specific vitamins, and a cat food labeled ‘senior’ may not always be the right choice. Feline nutritional needs change with age, for both healthy older cats and those with chronic illnesses, so discuss your cat’s best diet options with your vet. If you have more than one cat, you’ll need detailed recommendations for each.
4Noticing New Habits
One of the marvels of felines is their skill at hiding pain or illness; signs can be so subtle, you’ll easily miss something. Notice your cat sleeping more than usual or hiding? Don’t hesitate to take action.
"When owners think they’re overreacting by bringing their kitty to see me, I tell them 'You can't overreact with a cat'," says Dr. Pittari. "I'd much rather find nothing too serious than have you wait and bring me a very sick kitty."
5Look When You Scoop
It's a yucky topic, but a crucial one. Are your aging cat’s stools softer, harder or changing color? Is she going less often?
According to Dr. Pittari, "Constipation is a common yet under-recognized sign of dehydration in older cats. But if it’s attended to early, your vet can easily get your kitty comfortable again."
If you notice the amount of urine in the cat litter box changing, Dr. Pittari says that "increased urine output can single some of the most common illnesses in elderly cats, from diabetes or an over-active thyroid gland to kidney disease and high blood pressure."
So talk to your vet immediately about any stool or urinary changes, and always be certain your cat has plenty of fresh drinking water available.
6Avoid Accidents, Litter-ally Speaking
Aging cats who’ve never had litter box issues may start having accidents.
"Your first step is evaluating any medical cause of house-soiling," says Dr. Pittari. "Urinary infections, constipation, arthritis, and muscle weakness are just a few of the reasons an older cat can develop litter box issues. Your vet can evaluate the various medical issues and address environmental concerns that may be contributing to the change in behavior."
Be sure the litter box is easy to get into, in a quiet, accessible spot, shielded from other pets that may scare or startle your cat. Scooping or cleaning regularly, and using a litter that’s gentle on your cat’s paws, will make her litter box experience more comfortable.
7Take Proper Steps When It Comes to Staircases
While healthy cats can benefit from the exercise of going upstairs and downstairs to use a litter box, for aging and arthritic cats or those experiencing other pain, a staircase can be a mountain of dread.
Many cat parents may not detect signs of pain or arthritis and so don’t realize what a huge, unhappy factor stairs can be. Navigating a flight to reach his litter box can cause a cat so much discomfort that he’ll avoid the climb and begin having accidents.
Keeping litter boxes, as well as food, water, even bedding, in areas that are not elevated, will transform a feline obstacle course into a senior support system.
Older cats often need more warmth and padding to stay cozy, so your home environment may benefit from some adjustments.
- Layer soft blankets or flannel sheets in fave napping spots, and add a folded sweatshirt or old sweater to plump up her cat bed.
- Consider step stools, ramps, or other boosts toward places that Kitty may suddenly find out of reach.
- If your cat enjoys looking out the window, place a squishy pillow or two on the windowsill for additional cushioning.
- Aging cats love to snuggle under bedspreads or quilts, so give yours a roomy fleece covering of her own.
- For travel, especially vet visits, make her cat carrier extra-comfortable with soft, familiar bedding.
9Slowing Down? Proceed With Caution
While older cats are not as energetic as kittens, Dr. Pittari says that most owners incorrectly assume that slowing down is an unavoidable part of aging.
"Slowing down is often a sign of underlying discomfort or pain," she notes.
Dr. Pittari says arthritis is present in the vast majority of older cats and appropriate treatment can help them remain active and engaged. Absolutely always consult your vet about arthritis treatment. And never self-medicate your cat: Medications used for humans and dogs can be deadly for cats.
Another common cause of pain in your cat can be dental disease, whether from gum issues or tooth pain. Your vet will get Kitty to say, "Aaaah!" and determine how to ease her dental woes.
10Strengthen Your Bond
Both Dr. Pittari and Dr. Rodan remind cat parents that the bonds with our older companion pets are special and that we may rely on our cats as much as they depend upon us. Cats often crave more attention than they asked for in their younger years, so it’s crucial to provide physical and mental stimulation.
Petting, playing with her and helping with grooming will all keep her purring. Gently brush or comb her fur, and regularly examine her claws to keep nails from becoming overgrown by carefully trimming them.
"The nails of older, arthritic cats sometimes overgrow into the paw pads," Dr. Pittari cautions. "Most owners aren’t aware this can happen."
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