caring for your elderly cat

With improved nutrition and veterinary care, more and more cats are living to greater ages. In the USA, over the past decade there has been a 15% increase in cats over the age of 10 years and this picture is likely to be seen here in the UK. Cats aged over 10 are considered ‘senior’ and those reaching 15 years old are considered to be ‘geriatric’, although many live well beyond this age.

Effects of ageing
As with people, old age brings a number of changes to how the body works.

  • As old cats are often less active, their muscle tone tends to reduce which may further reduce their ability to run, jump and climb. Lack of exercise contributes to the stiffening of joints.
  • Frequently older cats suffer from a poor appetite as the senses of taste and smell often deteriorate with age. Teeth problems are common and can discourage eating.
  • Reduced vision and hearing may mean that your cat is easily startled and may take longer to adapt to changes in its home environment.
  • Bowel function may deteriorate with age, causing problems such as reduced ability to absorb food nutrients. This can lead to weight loss. Some elderly cats suffer from constipation.
  • Elderly cats often have an increased water requirement due to reduced kidney function, but reduced mobility and reduced appetite may result in reduced water intake, putting them at risk of dehydration. This is particularly dangerous in cats with kidney problems.
  • With increasing age the immune system can become less efficient, leading to increased susceptibility to infection.
  • Older cats tend to sleep less heavily but more frequently.
  • Old cats often have poor coats which may make them less resistant to the cold and wet.

Preventive health care
Regular health checks become more important when cats approach 10 years old. Many veterinary surgeries have clinics for older cats specifically for this purpose (often called ‘geriatric’ clinics), where a thorough clinical examination can be performed, checking for teeth, thyroid, heart and other problems. Some clinics also perform blood tests for kidney, liver and thyroid disease, test for infections, and check the white and red blood cell count and blood pressure.

Regular booster vaccinations are still advised in old cats. Although unproven, it is thought that the immune system deteriorates with age, increasing the cat’s vulnerability to infections such as cat flu. Boosters stimulate the immune system and help the cat to fight these infections.

As they age cats may have weight problems. Some become fat in middle age but most tend to become thin in advancing years. Regular weighing is therefore important.

Feeding tips
As older cats often have increased water requirements, a tinned diet with a high water content is preferable. In addition the cat should have easy access to fresh drinking water. Provide multiple bowls that are easily accessible. In cats particularly fond of dry food, a few biscuits can also be offered. This may help to reduce the build up of tartar on the teeth. Offer small, more frequent meals. Warming food may encourage reluctant feeders to eat.

In some medical problems, feeding specially designed prescription diets may be of benefit. For example, kidney failure is common in elderly cats and a diet restricted in protein and phosphorus may be recommended if your cat suffers from this problem.

Creature comforts
While many cats age gracefully and do not need special treatment, most will appreciate extra considerations for their comfort. Elderly cats should have a warm, comfortable bed in a draught-free area where they can sleep safely and not be disturbed. Older cats often like to stretch out and bean bags and hammock beds on radiators are very popular. The cat may need help to jump onto chairs using cushions or stools as ‘steps’. Electric heated pads can also be used to create a warm bed for those elderly cats that really feel the cold.

Some older cats may need help using their catflap; for example, tying the flap open or having a step up to it. It is sensible to put a collar (ensuring you choose a safety collar) with your name and address on in case your elderly cat gets lost, and worthwhile alerting your neighbours if you think this is a possibility.

Particular attention should be paid to the older cat’s nails. These are less able to retract and therefore more likely to get trapped in the carpet, or if overgrown, actually to stick painfully into the pad. Your veterinary surgeon will be able to advise you on how and when to clip claws safely. With increasing age, cats are less able to groom themselves effectively and may need to be groomed by you. This will also allow you to check for any lumps or parasites such as fleas which you might otherwise not notice. It may be necessary gently to wipe away any discharge around the eyes, nose or anus using cotton wool moistened in warm water.

Elderly cats usually like to rest quietly away from the hustle and bustle of the busy household. They should be given somewhere to get away from children, dogs and other cats. They may not enjoy the attentions of a new cat or kitten in the house and any new introductions should be made carefully.

It may be helpful to provide a litter trays indoors as some control of bladder and bowel movements can be lost with age, and reduced mobility may result in a reluctance to have to walk too far to toilet. Use big, shallow trays with shallow sides for easy access. A soft litter (eg, sand, fuller’s earth) will be more comfortable to stand on than litters like wood pellets.

Handle your cat carefully and gently as it may be arthritic and sore.

Common health problems
Kidney failure is one of the most frequently diagnosed conditions of the elderly cat. Other important geriatric diseases include hormonal problems like hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid gland) and diabetes mellitus (sugar diabetes), hypertension (high blood pressure), cancer, periodontal disease (disease of the teeth and gums), arthritis and infections such as feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV).

Older cats often have more than one problem at a time which may complicate diagnosis and treatment. Early recognition of disease and prompt treatment is especially important in the older cat so that a good quality of life can be maintained for as long as possible.

Medicines and the older cat
Liver and kidney disease can affect the old cat’s ability to cope with medicines. Most drugs are broken down and eliminated from the body by the liver and kidneys, so diseases of these organs can result in accumulation of drugs in the bloodstream, potentially reaching toxic levels. This is especially a problem if the cat is dehydrated. These factors may influence the choice of drug and dose regime, when treating the geriatric patient.

Giving tablets to some cats can be traumatic or even impossible if they resent it. If this is the case your veterinary surgeon may be able to change the therapy to one with less frequent dosing or provide an alternative method of treatment.

Treatment is often aimed at alleviating a condition rather than curing it. Treatments should not be continued if they are causing unacceptable side effects or if dosing is upsetting the cat severely. Quality of life is the most important factor and once this can no longer be maintained, euthanasia should be considered.

How old is your cat ?
Your cat may still look youthful but may actually be getting on in years:

cat age human age cat age human age
1 15 11 60
2 24 12 64
3 28 13 68
4 32 14 72
5 36 15 76
6 40 16 80
7 44 17 84
8 48 18 88
9 52 19 92
10 56 20 96

©This information sheet is produced by the Feline Advisory Bureau