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Living with A Senior Cat

By: Karen Commings

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If you're like many cat owners, your feline companion ranks as your closest friend. And the good news is that you can expect to spend a long time with your cat companion. Cats are living longer than ever. The average life span of a cat ranges from 14 to 16 years although some cats have been known to live into their 20s.

But cats are like people. Each is unique and not all of them age at the same rate. Your cat may begin to experience changes in his body and behavior as early as 7 years of age but as late as 10. Most do experience change by age 12. A 7-year-old cat is about the equivalent of a 44-year-old human. A 12-year-old cat is the equivalent of a 64-year-old human. Most cats age gracefully, and your cat will depend on you to make his senior years as enjoyable as his youth.

Physical Changes

Your cat will experience physiological changes as he ages just as you will. The changes in your cat's internal organs and body systems will occur without you being aware of them.

Aging cats may have weakened immune systems and be more susceptible to disease and infection. Keeping your cat indoors will lessen his risk of contracting a contagious disease. Regular checkups that involve periodic blood tests become important to detect problems such as diabetes or kidney failure, so the condition can be treated early. A health problem in an aging cat does not carry the same grim outlook for his future as it once did. Most problems can be managed, and your cat will likely have a good prognosis for a long, happy life.

The first visible signs of aging you may notice is that your cat's skin sags a little as his skin loses elasticity. His muscles will begin to atrophy resulting in weight loss.

Because his sensory perception may decrease, your cat may be unable to appreciate the same things he did as a youngster. If your cat cannot smell or taste as well, he may not enjoy his food as much and may appear finicky. It may take more creativity on your part to provide him with food that he finds palatable. Your cat's visual acuity may decline, or he may experience other vision-related problems. He may lose some or all of his ability to hear resulting in unresponsiveness to your call or meowing more loudly. Sudden noises or touches may startle your cat and make him react more strongly if he is disturbed.

If your cat has lost some of his teeth or experiences other dental problems, he may no longer be able to chew dry cat food, so you may have to substitute canned or moist food in his diet.

Behavioral Changes

Changes in your cat's behavior will naturally occur as he ages.
Be aware that changes such as increased thirst or inappropriate urination or defecation may indicate the onset of health problems. Visit the veterinarian to determine if the changes are simply behavioral or the sign of illness.

You may notice your older cat sleeping more than usual. Cats may sleep normally from 16 to 18 hours per day. If your cat that is 10 or older, add about 2 to 3 hours to that estimate.

If bending or moving due to arthritis or another condition is difficult for your cat, he may wash himself less often. Expect to offer increased assistance in the grooming department to help him maintain a clean, soft coat. Your cat may be less able to cough up hairballs, so regular brushing will help keep them from forming. If your cat resists being combed or brushed due to decrease in muscle mass or skin elasticity, use a soft-bristled brush or grooming glove. Pet wipes will help keep his coat clean. If your cat uses his scratching post less often, clip his nails to keep them from becoming ingrown.

Your older cat may not enjoy being picked up as often if he is experiencing pain or if his joints or muscles are stiff. As a result, he may seem more aloof. If your cat suffers from a condition that decreases his ability to move or defend himself, he may react aggressively if confronted by other family pets.

Or, your cat may become more clingy as he ages, wanting to be with you every moment of the day or night. If your cat has lost some of his sensory perception, being with his human companion may be a stabilizing influence in his daily life.

Your cat may have more difficulty jumping up to places he likes to go such as a favorite window sill or his multi-level cat tree. You may have to provide a ramp or steps so that your cat can continue to do the things he enjoys as he ages.

In spite of mobility problems, it will be important for your cat to continue to exercise. Continue interactive play sessions, but increase their frequency and reduce the time length of each one. For example, if you played twice a day for 20 minutes, play four times a day for 5 or 10. If your cat exhibits panting or labored breathing, stop the play. Have him examined by a veterinarian for a potential heart condition. If your cat does not see as well, roll a ball with a bell for him to chase. If your cat enjoys catnip, provide catnip toys for him to kick and toss whenever the spirit moves him.

Problems associated with age may make your cat avoid the litter box. Mobility problems may prevent him from descending the basement stairs to get to the box or getting into the box, so you may have to place the box in a more accessible location or find one with lower sides. Various illnesses such as diabetes or kidney problems may cause your cat to urinate more often which requires that you clean the box more frequently than before. If your cat has diarrhea, for example, he may deposit his wastes without covering them.

Signs of illness may show up first in your cat's litter box, so monitor his use of the box daily to detect problems early.

If your cat has a condition that requires constant monitoring, keep him separated from other pets and household disturbances. Cats as a general rule don't like change, and this will be especially true of an ill or aging cat. Stress can weaken your cat's immune system and make him more susceptible to disease, so keep changes to a minimum. If you must travel, have a reliable friend, relative or responsible pet sitter (see How To Find a Good Pet Sitter for Your Cat) come to your home to care for your aging cat in his own environment.

Occasionally, the personality of cats changes as they age. Although it is uncommon, your cat may suffer from memory loss or dementia. He may appear forgetful, pace, or wander from room to room as if he is disoriented. If your geriatric cat appears to want more attention, give it to him. If he wants to spend more time alone, allow him to. Old age
is not an illness, but your cat's old age will require special consideration from you to make it enjoyable.

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