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.

Common Disorders

Someone once said that cats don’t age; they grow more refined. Either way, as time progresses certain illnesses can develop. By being aware of some concerns regarding older cats, you can be a more educated and prepared guardian for your aging companion. It’s important that your elderly cat receive routine veterinary care and periodic exams to keep him healthy.

Here are some of the most commonly diagnosed illnesses known to afflict older cats:

Nutritional Concerns. Obesity is a very common and serious concern in the older cat. It directly correlates to a decreased longevity, and may contribute to other problems. Overweight cats are more likely to become diabetic, suffer from liver disease (hepatic lipidosis), or feline lower urinary tract disease. Proper nutritional management is an important part of the care for your senior cat, especially since it is something that you can control.

Dental Disease. Dental disease and gingivitis (inflammation of the gums) are common findings in the elderly cat. Untreated dental disease leads to tooth loss, and may serve as a reservoir of infection for the rest of the body, posing a risk to other body systems.

Kidney Disease. Kidney disease is a very common finding in the older cat. With early detection, special diet, and treatment, many cats can do well. Kidney disease is one of the primary reasons veterinarians recommend screening blood tests in older cats.

Hyperthyroidism. Hyperthyroidism is another common disease of older cats. The thyroid gland becomes overactive, often due to a tumor, and the cat becomes quite ill. There are several treatment options available that can help your cat regain his health and live a longer life.

Diabetes. Unlike people, most diabetic cats cannot be maintained on diet changes alone. Daily insulin injections are typically necessary. Occasionally, oral medications and diet can improve the blood sugar level, without the need for injections.


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To Vaccinate or Not?

As pets age, questions about vaccinations arise. Common questions are “Which vaccine does my senior cat need?” and “How often should she be vaccinated?” Unfortunately, the absolute answers to these questions are not known but there are several recommendations. The major concern about repeated vaccinations in cats is the issue of feline vaccine-associated sarcoma. This is a cancer that develops near the vaccination site. The incidence varies widely, from as high as one in 1,000 cats to as low as one in 10,000 cats.

Despite the well-known benefits of vaccination, the practice of vaccinating senior cats annually is controversial. Some veterinarians believe that annual revaccination is a critical part of preventative health care. Some research indicates that the immune system of older animals is not as effective as younger animals. This suggests that older cats may be more susceptible to diseases and therefore require annual vaccinations. Others suggest that there is little scientific information to suggest that annual revaccination of older cats is necessary for some diseases because immunity to many viruses probably persists for the life of the animal. For this reason, many veterinarians do not think that annual vaccination is worth the risk of allergic reaction, vaccine-induced sarcoma, or immune diseases.

The one thing that many veterinarians agree on is that cats should only be vaccinated against those diseases for which they are susceptible. For example, if your cat is indoors and not exposed to stray cats or new family feline additions, vaccinating for feline leukemia and feline infectious peritonitis is not recommended. If your cat is at risk for feline infectious peritonitis, many feline veterinarians recommend that a blood test be performed to see if the cat has been exposed to coronavirus. If the coronavirus titer in the cat is elevated (indicating exposure), the vaccination will not be effective and should be avoided.

Rabies should be given based on local laws. In some areas, rabies vaccination must be given every year. In other areas, local law allows vaccination to be given every three years.

The foremost recommendation is to discuss the vaccination program with your veterinarian. If you're adopting an older cat, be sure to get her vaccination records. And, don’t hesitate to ask questions about the pros and cons of vaccinations.

Resources for Caring For Your Senior Cat

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