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Show Some TLC: How to Help Your Geriatric Cat Thrive

Having a geriatric cat can be new territory for many cat owners, and knowing what specific care your older cat needs can be difficult to understand. With new problems popping up and a higher risk for more serious problems, geriatric cats need an informed owner in order for them to live their best lives.

Old age happens to the best of us — even our cats. And as our cats enter into the golden age, they may have specific needs or problems that must be addressed. The aging process brings about a gradual decline in a cat’s physical and sometimes mental abilities. Becoming aware of these issues allows an owner to provide the best possible care.

Not all cats age at the same rate. A cat’s biological age depends upon genetic background, the quality of his diet, his general state of health, and the quality of his living conditions. Research estimates that old age for cats begins somewhere between the 8th and 9th birthday.

Caring For the Geriatric Cat

Ideally, caring for the geriatric cat should focus on preventative measures. Whenever possible, it is better to prevent a problem from occurring, rather than to wait for a problem to develop. Detecting diseases in the early stages greatly improves the outcome. Different cats have specific risk factors that influence the diagnostic approach to geriatric medicine. Risk factors are characteristics of the breed, genetics, environment and lifestyle of your cat that may put him or her at greater risk of developing a particular disease or other age related changes.

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.

Eating Right

Providing the proper diet is very important in the care of an aging cat. However, there is no best food to feed a geriatric cat; the best food depends on the specific problems or nutritional requirements of the individual animal. Most foods for older cats are lower in protein, sodium and phosphorus to help their aging hearts and kidneys. Increased amounts of certain vitamins have also been found to be beneficial in the senior cat.

Obesity is a very common problem of older animals and should be taken seriously. It directly correlates to a decreased longevity, and may contribute to other problems. For the best health care, provide your older cat a good quality food that is appropriate for his specific needs, and do not allow your cat to gain excessive weight. Try not to give table scraps, and stick with a consistent diet.

The Vaccination Question

As pets age, questions about vaccinations arise. Common questions are which vaccine does my senior cat need and how often should he 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.

Signs of illness may show up first in your cat’s litter box, so monitor his use of the box daily to detect problems early.

If your cat has a condition that requires constant monitoring, keep him separated from other pets and household disturbances. Cats as a general rule don’t like change, and this will be especially true of an ill or aging cat. Stress can weaken your cat’s immune system and make him more susceptible to disease, so keep changes to a minimum. If you must travel, have a reliable friend, relative or responsible pet sitter come to your home to care for your aging cat in his own environment.

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

Resources for Understanding a Geriatric Cat

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