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Table of Contents:
- Nutrition for Senior Cats
- Activity and Engagement
- Pain Management
- Veterinary Care
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In the last decade, improvements in small animal medicine have led to cats living longer lives. The days of barn cats living to an average age of 10 are gone, and it’s not uncommon for a cat to live past 20 years of age in the 21st century. Since the golden years have been extended for our feline friends, here are ways to help your cat age gracefully.
Nutrition for Senior Cats
Most cats live indoors these days and no longer have to hunt for their food. While it’s very easy to leave out a bowl of dry food and allow your feline to free-feed, this is not ideal. Free-feeding makes it more difficult to manage weight and many cats, like people, have difficulty avoiding an unlimited buffet. First of all, it is important to maintain a healthy, lean body weight and, second, many commercial dry foods are high in carbohydrates. Cats are carnivores, thus a diet containing high-quality protein is preferred in order to maintain health and muscle. As your cat ages, start to add in a high-quality wet food in small amounts twice daily.
The added benefit of feeding wet food is that it naturally has a higher moisture content than dry food. Proper hydration becomes more important as cats age, since kidney disease can become an issue. Encouraging water intake by feeding wet food and providing fresh water (maybe via a pet water fountain) can help keep both the body and kidneys in good shape as your kitty ages.
Activity and Engagement
The adage “age is not a disease” certainly applies to cats. It’s still important to keep your cat active and mentally engaged in their senior years. Granted, an indoor-only cat won’t be going on long, outdoor walks, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be physically and mentally stimulated indoors.
Here are a few ideas to keep your kitty fit and young at heart within the comfort of your home:
Cat food toys and puzzles are commercially available, but it’s not worth spending money on a toy your cat might not use. Take an empty toilet paper roll or a small box, fill it with kibble or treats, tape up the ends, cut some holes into it, and you’ve got an easy homemade toy that your cat will love.
Check out your local pet store for motorized “chase & catch” interactive games (like this one from Smarty Kat) or battery-operated mice, so your fur baby can let loose their inner wildcat.
Install a kitty shelf or cat tree near a window, so that your cat can be mentally engaged by birds and wildlife outside. Maybe even consider a bird feeder. No windows? No problem – a fish tank (with a secure lid) can do the trick.
Cat television or apps
Many streaming services offer pet channels for hours of entertainment, typically showing footage of birds or fish to your cat’s delight. Check out free iPad apps like “Cat Fishing” and “Jitterbug,” but make sure your kitty doesn’t get access to your iTunes or Amazon password!
Fun fact: A cat’s response to catnip is genetically determined. If your cat is in the pro-catnip camp, why not treat them with a catnip-infused toy or blanket? It will provide hours of enjoyment and fun for your feline friend.
As our kitties age, small improvements to their environment can make a big difference.
If you have slick flooring, such as wood or tile, consider adding area rugs to provide some traction for furry feline paws.
The simple act of jumping to a window or to the back of the couch to perch becomes far more difficult as a cat ages, due to decreased muscle mass and underlying pain and/or disease processes. Assist your kitty by providing a small pet staircase, sturdy box, or ramp to aid in getting to higher ground for perching.
Just as it is difficult for kitties to reach higher places, such as windows and the bed, the seemingly simple act of stepping over a 3-inch litter box side can be a painful challenge. Ideally, a litter box should be large enough for kitty to turn around in and should be 1.5x the length of the cat. Most commercial boxes do not satisfy this recommendation. Plastic containers meant for under-the-bed storage or slightly taller Rubbermaid® containers with a portion cut out as an entrance can help solve this problem easily and cost effectively.
A little bit of warmth helps soothe sore joints. There are commercial beds that can provide warmth, but throwing a towel into the dryer for a few minutes can also be helpful when a sunbeam is not accessible.
Saying that cats hide degenerative joint disease and arthritis well is an understatement. Their pain is well hidden because cats aren’t as active as their canine counterparts, and lameness isn’t evident due to joint disease commonly presenting on both sides of the body. Many pain management options for cats are available, thus there is no need for a cat to suffer in silence. Listed below are a few suggestions that may help provide comfort for your cat. Please note: never start a medication or supplement without discussing it with your veterinarian.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories are beneficial for aching joints. Many NSAIDs labeled for feline use in other countries are considered off-label in the U.S. With careful monitoring, small doses every few days can provide tremendous relief, while also being protective of kidney and liver function. These medications are not over-the-counter, but can be prescribed by your veterinarian.
Joint supplements are an easy way to adhere to a multi-modal approach to joint disease. There are two options available for cats, either in chew or capsule form, which can be sprinkled on food. A joint supplement can be helpful without causing harm.
Gabapentin works along the pain pathway and complements anti-inflammatory medications. For cats with chronic kidney disease that cannot tolerate an NSAID, gabapentin can be used on its own for pain relief. There are many formulations to choose from (capsule form, flavored liquid, chews, or flavored powder), which may make it suitable for picky palates.
Targeted pulsed electromagnetic field therapy is an excellent adjunct for pain control. It is something that can be administered at home by the pet parent. Additionally, it is very well tolerated with no side effects. The electromagnetic field increases blood flow and helps with pain relief. For more information, click here.
Cannabidiol (or CBD) helps with pain management by attaching to the body’s endocannabinoid receptors to affect pain. Cats are not small dogs, and their dosing and absorption differs from canine counterparts, thus, it is imperative to discuss CBD administration with your veterinarian if you plan to add this to your cat’s pain regimen.
As your cat ages, it becomes more important to be mindful of their grooming habits. Stiffness, pain, and body condition can make it difficult to groom, leading to matted fur and additional pain, as the mats can tug at the skin. Daily brushing will help prevent matting and the ingestion of hair, which can lead to hairballs. Maintaining a clean area under the tail and near the rectum is important for hygiene and to aid in prevention of urinary tract infections. Additionally, regular nail trims are essential, as nails become thick and brittle with age and may grow into the pads, leading to pain and possible infection.
It is important to schedule more frequent veterinary visits starting at around 11 or 12 years of age, since 6 months in a cat’s life is equivalent to 4 human years physiologically. Your veterinarian may recommend more frequent assessment of laboratory tests to monitor the kidneys, liver, and thyroid function. Early intervention is key, as there are many diseases that can afflict older cats. However, if caught early, these conditions can be easily managed.
Long gone are the days when the cat lives in the barn to keep the rodent population at bay. Cats are now indoor, beloved family members. Thanks to advances in veterinary medicine, cats are living much longer. Adding in some of these small changes can make a huge difference and keep your kitty feline purr-fect in their senior years.