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.
Q: Why does my cat seems unusually thirsty?
A: Is his water bowl convenient? Always keep fresh, cool water available, not only beside his food bowl, but in the yard and on each floor of your home. Diabetes, a fairly common ailment of old age that also increases appetite, could be the culprit.
Q: Why does my cat toss and turn at night?
A: Give your cat a soft bed. Arthritis and other conditions will make it harder for your cat to sleep soundly. Orthopedic cat beds are available.
Q: Why does my cat nap more than ever?
A: Your pet may not respond to stimuli as rapidly or in the same manner as when he was younger. It is not uncommon for older cats to spend more time sleeping and have more difficulty being roused. You may notice your older cat sleeping more than usual. Cats may sleep normally from 16 to 18 hours per day. If your cat is 10 or older, add about 2 to 3 hours to that estimate.
Q: Why has my cat has started bumping into things?
A: Your cat’s visual acuity may decline, or he may experience other vision-related problems. Failing eyesight is a bane of old age, but cats learn to compensate. Make your home a safe environment with clear walkways. If you need to rearrange furniture, lead the cat around until he gets a feeling for his surroundings. Always greet him with a gentle voice before touching or petting him. Block entrance to stairs so he doesn’t fall. Don’t let him leave home without a human companion. Better yet, keep him indoors.
Q: Why won’t my cat come when called?
A: Deafness is the most probable reason. If that is the cause, you can teach him hand signals. Some deaf cats learn to respond to hand signals similar to those used in distance control of dogs. And, since many deaf cats are sensitive to vibrations, clapping hands or stomping on the floor may also get his attention.
Arthritis, which makes moving painful, may be another reason he’s unwilling to respond, along with more serious medical conditions, such as heart disease. If your cat has trouble seeing or hearing, it’s still important that he exercise and play. On days when he prefers sleep and inactivity, spend time petting him and talking with him. Massage is an excellent way to keep his joints working and muscles warm and limber.
Q: Why did my gentle cat scratch at me/my child?
A: Senior cats display aggression for several reasons. Does your cat have vision problems? Is he hard of hearing? If so, you may have surprised him. The physical and mental symptoms of aging also increase your cat’s stress level. Because of arthritis or other movement restrictions, he may not be able to remove himself from an annoying situation as he once could. Changes – moving, a new family member, a high noise level, the quick movements of children – can be frightening, adding to his stress and its resulting aggression. Don’t leave your own child or a visitor alone with an aggressive senior cat, even though there hasn’t been a problem in the past.
Q: Why doesn’t my cat groom as much as he used to?
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.
Q: Why has my cat forgotten her house-training?
A: 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.
Q: Why is my cat constipated?
A: Constipation is common in elderly cats due to dehydration, poor muscle tone in the large intestine (called megacolon) and lack of bulk in the stool. If dehydration is a factor, the stools will be dry, hard and crumbly. If the stools are very small, you may need to increase the fiber in the diet to help move food through the intestines. You may also need to feed him smaller meals more frequently.
Q: Why does my cat like being with me?
A: Your cat may become more clingy as she 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. As a cat ages, he loses his ability to adjust to changes in temperatures. His drier skin and thinner hair offer him less protection and his metabolism makes him less resilient. If his vision and hearing are not as sharp as they once were, he may be frightened of being out in the open.