Making the Golden Years Truly Golden: How to Care For a Senior Cat

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If you’re like many cat owners, or if you're thinking about adopting an older cat, your feline companion ranks as one of your closest friends — and the good news is that you can expect to spend a long time with your cat companion.

November is Adopt a Senior Pet Month. Adopting an older cat is a great choice, since 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 or as late as 10 (most experience change by age 12 at the latest).

Most cats age gracefully. Nevertheless your cat is depending on you to make her golden years truly golden.

So if you're going to be adopting an older cat, or already have an aging feline friend, here’s what you need to know to do just that.

Physiological and Behavioral Changes to Be Aware of When Adopting an Older Cat

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.

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.

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, again, your cat’s old age will require special consideration from you to make it enjoyable.

Normal Aging Changes vs. Cognitive Dysfunctions

Like people, older cats become less active mentally and physically. Part of the reason for this is aging changes that take place in the brain, but physical factors, such as joint stiffness, may also play a role.

Normal aging changes include:

  • Being less active
  • Playing less
  • Sleeping more
  • Reacting less to surrounding events
  • Grooming less
  • Eating less heartily

All these signs are a result of progressive mental slowing that results from a decreased number of functioning central nerve cells and actual physical shrinkage of the brain.

Some cats, like some people and some dogs, age poorly. In affected individuals, slowing of their mental processes causes them significant impairment in their everyday lives. Although some of the signs of age-related cognitive decline are similar to those of “normal aging,” it is the extent and nature of the deficits that distinguish true cognitive dysfunction from simple age-related slowing down.

Typical signs of feline cognitive dysfunction are described by the acronym DISH.

D = disorientation. This means that the cat may wander aimlessly and appear lost or confused at times. He may also fail to recognize family members.

I = reduced social interactions. Affected cats may no longer greet people warmly or seek their attention as often.

S = changes in sleep-wake cycle. The cat may sleep more during the daytime but wander aimlessly at night, perhaps crying out.

H = loss of housetraining. Breakdown of housetraining appears to occur because your kitty forgets where the litter box is or is no longer concerned about personal hygiene.

The prevalence of cognitive dysfunction increases with age so, for example, if at 13 years of age 10 percent of cats may be affected, 50 percent by age 16, and 90 percent (plus) at age 20.

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