If a healthy cat’s life span is 18 years, by definition geriatric status is attained when 75 percent of that life span has elapsed, or after 13 years of age. Some early geriatric cats are still doing very well at the age of 13 or 14 years while others are already beginning to show pronounced aging changes.
During your cat’s senior years, you’ll probably observe gradual or sudden changes in health and behavior. Your veterinarian will help determine whether these changes are due to illness, a reaction to medications, or the natural aging process.
Here are some questions that owners commonly ask about the health, habits and behavior of their older cats.
Question: How will medication affect my cat?
Answer: Medications can cause weight loss or gain, vomiting, depression, lethargy, loss of balance, increased thirst, drooling, shivering or other symptoms that mimic minor or major illness. Ask your veterinarian about common side effects of any medication prescribed for your cat. Be sure to tell him if your cat is already taking another drug, since a combination of drugs can cause side effects. If you think medication is having a negative effect on your cat, call your veterinarian for advice.
Q: Why is my cat gaining weight?
A: An aging cat gains weight more easily because of a slowing of metabolism due to hormonal changes. Your veterinarian can recommend food that is high in fiber and lower in fat, so that your cat is eating his accustomed amount of food, but fewer calories. As digestion worsens, she might do better with smaller, more frequent meals.
Conditions such as diabetes, arthritis, heart or liver problems also call for special nutritional plans. Changes in metabolism occur so they require less food. Cats, in general, have a more sedentary lifestyle, and older cats, specifically, are usually less active. Medications may also add extra girth.
The lack of exercise contributes to reduced muscle tone and strength, further adding to the potential of obesity. The aches and pains of old age may prevent your cat from moving as freely as she once did. She may have developed a touch of arthritis or stiffness in the joints. Play with your cat daily. You’ll have to engage her in gentler activities than when she was young, but she still needs her exercise.
Q: Why is my cat losing weight?
A: Is she eating? Are her teeth strong and mouth and gums healthy? Is her neck arthritic? She won’t eat if it’s a painful process. Age or medications can reduce her senses of smell and taste, which, of course, decreases her appetite. Metabolic disorders and heart or liver trouble can cause weight loss, regardless of how much she eats.
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. 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.
Try feeding the cat a veterinary-prescribed diet in frequent, smaller meals. Feed on a little and often basis, dividing the daily food allowance into two to four small meals. Warm the food gently, to just below body temperature, and leave the food down for about 10 to 15 minutes and then remove it. Your pet is more likely to eat fresh food. Make sure your pet has a quiet, undisturbed place to eat his meals. If his memory or eyesight is failing, be sure to put his food and water bowls in the same place every day. To prevent strain on his aging spine, elevate the bowls to the level of his head.
Q: What if my cat has more than cat breath?
A: Cats have their natural smells and cat food can linger on their breath, but a change in breath to the point that it becomes strong or offensive can signal various illnesses.
Tooth or gum disease, accompanied by bumps on the gums or tartar on the teeth, are the most common reasons for extreme cat breath. If you don’t brush his teeth regularly, ask your vet to show you how. You’ll probably need to do it daily.
An unusually foul smell, accompanied by lack of appetite and frequent vomiting, could indicate liver disease. Kidney disease adds a hint of urine to the breath. Very sweet or fruity breath could indicate diabetes, especially if he’s been drinking and urinating more than usual.