SPECIAL CARE FOR ELDERLY CATS
by Joelle Steele
When I first wrote this article in 1991, I was living with a little old lady. Her name was Twinkle, and at fifteen years, she was an elderly feline of about seventy or so cat years. Twink was not my first geriatric cat. Before her there were Puff, Whisper, and Candy, all of whom lived well into their golden years. My brother's cat Lucky lived to be nineteen. And when Twinkle died at the age of 18 in 1993, four of my other feline companions continued to age and eventually passed on at the ages 18 and 19.
Most cats now live an average of fifteen human years given proper vaccinations, neutering, and prompt medical attention when needed. With indoor cats, life may be further extended to the age of twenty or more. I had a friend whose Siamese cat was 22 when he died, as was my cousin's cat Furrari. Technically, it is possible for a cat to live to the age of thirty, though this is rare. Living to be a healthy feline at the age of fifteen years or so requires more than just good genes or luck. It requires special and regular care and attention from you and your veterinarian.
That's me at left with my cousin's cat Furrari, age 20, in 2009. Furrari was in her 22nd year and still quite frisky and sociable when she passed away on June 4, 2011.
The cute, playful kitten you brought home may still be cute at fourteen years, but he may not be as frisky as he once was. He may prefer to spend his days dozing on a soft pillow in a warm window ... alone. While some elderly cats may prefer a quiet, peaceful, and secluded existence, they still require human contact for their own well-being. When a cat keeps to himself, avoiding his human companions, any symptoms of possible ailments may easily go unnoticed.
It is a good idea to keep close tabs on your feline by visiting with him for a few minutes each day during which time you can give him the love and affection he needs but may not actively seek. Doing this at the same time each day will make him look forward to the extra attention. For example, I always spent extra "cuddle time" with Twinkle in the mornings. This was the most convenient time because she slept on my bed and was awake and relaxed when I got up. I brushed her and we played, stopping when she knew she had been adequately exerted.
Daily brushing is a good preventative measure against bezoars or hairballs which are often bothersome to older cats. For some elderly felines a brushing may be accompanied by additional cleaning with a warm damp cloth, particularly valuable if the cat is not able, or is unwilling, to fully groom himself. Sometimes your cleaning efforts will inspire him to take over the job himself. But, if he doesn't, you may have to give him a full bath occasionally. When doing so, be sure that the room is warm and draft free, and try to make the process as quick as possible as this is even more stressful for mature cats than it is for younger ones, especially if you never regularly bathed them when they were younger.
Daily attention is an absolute necessity, but once a month this activity should be expanded to include a thorough in-home examination, in which you check your cat's ears, eyes, mouth, skin, etc., for any signs of problems that might require veterinary treatment; and, clip his nails and clean his ears.
Cats are creatures of habit. They keep their own routines and schedules, sometimes merging them with those of their human companions. As they get older, their routines tend to become more fixed and rigid. Therefore, any deviations from their usual behavior should be taken very seriously since they could be indicators of potential physical problems.
Disruptions in routines and lifestyles can cause stress in elderly cats. Many times those disruptions are not apparent to the humans who create them. For example, rearranging the furniture even slightly may be a disorienting experience for a cat whose eyesight is poor or who just doesn't like to have his own personal environment tampered with. The death of a human or fellow-feline can be very upsetting, even if the elderly cat was not that close to the deceased. If you change jobs and are now going to bed and getting up at different hours, this can be disruptive to a feline set in his ways. More obvious stressors include the addition of a kitten or puppy, Aunt Martha staying in the guest room, or a new baby. The greatest disruption of all is a move to a new home.
In all these cases, special attention should be given to the older cat so that he will not feel neglected. If Aunt Martha is going to stay in the room where your cat likes to sleep, perhaps you should consider relocating his bed a few days before she arrives, giving him some time to make the adjustment before the excitement starts. And, while she's visiting, be sure to spend some extra time with him. New babies or small visiting children often result in the untimely demise of an elderly feline who feels neglected, becomes depressed, stops eating, and crawls away to die. The same scenario is frequently repeated when a family relocates and their beloved cat disappears. This can happen with much younger cats, but it is far more likely to occur with an elderly one who is more dependent on an established routine in familiar surroundings.
Some people believe that adding a new cat to the home may perk up an older cat. This may or may not work, depending on the disposition of the older cat in question. If an elderly feline is part of a multi-cat household he may be only temporarily stressed, but if he is very old and used to being the center of attention, a new kitten may be traumatic. I introduced my cat T'ai to my three elderly cats when he was only 5 weeks old. They washed him, let him sleep cuddled up against them, let him play with their tails, and made it crystal clear to him when they'd had enough. But I've had a lot of cats and none every rejected a newcomer, not even an adult newcomer.
Boarding can also be a mistake for the elderly cat. In addition to the heightened exposure to disease, kennels are often noisy, hectic places — just the sort of place in which an elderly cat would feel the most frightened, uncomfortable, and vulnerable. Boarding an elderly feline should not be your first choice if you must go out of town for an extended period of time. Instead, consider having a friend or neighbor stop by your house and feed and otherwise attend to the needs of your cat. In some cities there are services that specialize in such in-home pet care.
Disruptions in routine can result in stress-related illnesses such as "nervous bladder" conditions, eating and sleep disorders, depression, or the reoccurrence of physical ailments which are aggravated by the stress-weakened feline constitution. Stress is not to be taken lightly. In fact, nothing should be taken lightly when it comes to geriatric cases. They are just not as resilient as younger cats.
Elderly felines may express behavioral changes that appear to be signs of senility. They may "forget" to use their box, leaving their calling card in the middle of the kitchen floor or behind the sofa. Many such behavioral changes are due to physical problems associated with their advanced age. For instance, when Twinkle stopped using her box I tried everything to get her to use it again. I changed to a different brand of litter, I moved the box, I took the cover off the box. She still went on the floor outside the box. Then, one day I noticed that she simply could not lift her right rear leg (weakened from surgery years before) high enough to get into the box without falling down once inside. A much shallower box did the trick.
Not all litter box problems are solved as easily. A cat who goes outside his box could be frustrated and expressing his displeasure at household changes. He could even be sensitive to the changing of seasons or it could be the box itself. He may not like the new litter, or the room where the box is located may feel too chilly for his old bones. In some cases the box may simply be too far away for him if he doesn't move as fast as his bowels and bladder do. Changing the litter or moving the box may be all that is necessary to remedy this unpleasant behavior problem.
Incontinence or any urination outside the box might be due to senility or to any of the aforementioned reasons. But, it is more likely indicative of cystitis or some form of weakness in the urinary tract and your veterinarian should be consulted to be safe.
Other changes in behavior may come in the form of crankiness and irritability. Once again, this could be due to his displeasure over household changes or it could be a defense mechanism. With the latter, he may simply be deliberately overcompensating for his physical infirmities by putting on a fierce face designed to keep other cats or people away from him since he knows he is at a physical disadvantage should he need to defend himself. He may not necessarily be ill, just not as quick on his feet. And, if any of his senses are less acute he may automatically hiss or growl as a warning to those who approach him.
Twinkle had spondylitis (arthritic calcium spurs on the backbones) and a weak rear leg followwing surgery on her knee (which looks more like a hip than a knee). It took her forever to stand up and she moved like a turtle. If a stranger came too close or anyone moved towards her too suddenly, she bared her fangs, hissed and growled. This strategy worked since some people, particularly young children, were actually afraid of her, and my other two cats deferred to her at all times. While such a grouchy old cat may seem unfriendly or even unpleasant, there is still a loving little creature underneath all that bravado. And, a spunky cat, however grumpy he or she may be, is in a far better state of mind than a depressed, withdrawn feline who is victimized by other cats or people.
An older cat may sometimes appear to want seclusion when he really does not. For example, an elderly cat with muscular weakness (most often found in the legs) may shake or tremble when rising from a nap and he may be unable to jump up on the bed or sofa or into his favorite window perch. He may retreat to a sheltered corner of the floor as he attempts to find a warm, comfortable spot out of the way of household foot traffic and drafts. This can make him appear socially withdrawn when he is really just trying to find a safe, comfortable spot that he can reach. With Twinkle, I made two small ramps out of wide pine shelving covered them with carpet and put them next to the bed and sofa so that she could walk up and down from her favorite spots.
DIET AND NUTRITION
Some of the most common problems in older cats are related to their diets. They may decide to turn up their nose at what used to be their favorite food. This could be due to boredom or it could signal a less acute sense of smell. Substituting a stronger, more aromatically pleasing food will often do the trick. With cats who have bad teeth or gum disease, the hard, crunchy foods may be difficult, if not impossible to manage and dental care is a must. Or, a cat who is missing several teeth may swallow his or her dry food whole and then throw it up a few minutes later. Semi-moist food and occasional soft canned food solved that problem for Twinkle. Since I have always had a multi-cat household and she couldn't jump up, I could still put the dry food on top of the counter for my other cats.
Some elderly cats may acquire food allergies. They may be unable to digest their regular diet, may vomit it up, have frequent diarrhea or constipation, experience bloating, or have a dull, coarse coat. Usual alternatives to the standard cat food fare include lamb and turkey instead of meat and fish, and rice and farina in place of wheat and corn. Other foods which may offer variety and nutrients include boiled eggs, cottage cheese, and garbanzo beans. Diets which are high in meat content increase the workload of the liver and kidneys, and weak kidneys are common in cats receiving more protein than their bodies can handle. Your veterinarian can recommend special diets that include all the vitamin and mineral requirements necessary for the good health of the mature feline. I cooked for my cats for many years, and I wrote a small book about it called Cooking for Fluffy: Healthy Home-Made Feline Diets.
While finicky eaters abound in the ranks of the geriatric set, more significant problems revolve around drinking habits. Sudden changes in fluid intake are to be taken very seriously. A cat who does not drink his water or who does not appear to be urinating regularly, could be in danger of dehydration. This is serious at any age, but in an older cat it should be treated immediately as dehydration involves the loss of minerals such as sodium and potassium. If your cat drinks more than usual and is urinating more frequently, he may have a urinary tract disease or uremic poisoning (kidney failure). As with dehydration, any potential urinary problems require immediate veterinary intervention.
Most felines, eating top quality cat food formulated for their needs, do not require vitamin or mineral supplements. But, B-vitamins are lost in the urine if a cat has diminished kidney function and the absorption of vitamins in the intestinal tract decreases as cats age. If you feed your cat from your own dinner table or if you suspect that his nutritional needs may not be met by his current regime, it is best to consult your veterinarian for dietary recommendations.
Weight loss is serious matter, especially with elderly cats. It usually occurs as a result of kidney disease though it could also be a result of cancer or periodontal disease. If your cat appears to be thinner or dehydrated, a trip to the veterinarian is in order.
With obesity, the problem is no less severe. But, it is preventable and should be attended to at once as the excess weight can complicate such ailments as arthritis, heart, and kidney disease. Older cats require far less calories than do younger felines. If you continue to feed your geriatric kitty the same way you have fed him since he was three, six, or even ten years old, he may be gaining weight and putting an added strain on his organs. If he is not particularly active and leads a sedentary existence, he requires even fewer calories but still needs all the nutrients offered in a well-balanced diet.
Cats rely heavily on their senses for survival. If one of their senses fails, they have others to fall back on to keep them safe and mobile. But, when they grow older, they may gradually lose more than one of their senses simultaneously, making their lives a little more stressful and a bit more complicated. A cat of any age who is sensually impaired should be kept indoors.
Loss of sight is difficult to determine since the other senses are so acute and can make the vision problem almost undetectable. The bluish haze that forms over the eyes of elderly cats is not a cause for alarm and is not an indication of blindness. It is called nuclear sclerosis and is caused by the aging of the lens. Cataracts, which are opaque spots on the lens, are not common in cats, even elderly ones. When they do occur they are usually found in cats who are also diabetic. Surgery is not usually advised unless the cat is experiencing very severe problems as a result of impaired vision in both eyes. However, cats can have congenital cataracts and no diabetes. My cat T'ai had cataracts when I first took him to the vet at age 5 weeks. The vet told me this and said, "This cat is eventually going to be blind." As of 2014, T'ai is 12 years old, and we go to the veterinary ophthalmologist once a year. He can still see, but his left eye has worsened in the last year or so.
Deafness or any aural deficiency is not usually apparent before the ages of twelve to fourteen. If you suspect that your cat's hearing is not what it should be, you should make sure that the problem is not due to a something as simple as ear mites or as serious as a blockage of the ear canal or a tumor. Otherwise, deafness is not usually a serious problem. A deaf cat should always be kept indoors, especially a senior kitty.
One of the most serious losses is that of smell. Cats need food smells to stimulate their appetites and they may refuse to eat what they are unable to smell, even if they are very hungry. Giving a cat foods which are highly aromatic foods may activate his waning sense of smell and encourage him to eat.
Older felines are susceptible to the same diseases and disorders affecting their younger counterparts, but they may be less able to resist them (particularly in times of physical or emotional stress) or to recover fully from them. Some seemingly minor ailments, such as an skin abscess, may even result in fatality if left untreated in an elderly cat. Normal bodily functions also tend to become impaired with advanced age. In many cases they can be treated with proper diet or medication. But, they must be identified first.
Skin disorders are common in elderly felines. These are most often found when the cat is not grooming himself properly and his human companion is not attending to that need for him. Examine your cats coat regularly and look carefully for rashes, redness, swellings, growths, lesions, etc. If you find anything unusual, a trip to the veterinarian is in order.
The first organs to go in elderly cats are usually the kidneys followed by the liver. With kidney disease, a cat may drink heavily and urinate more frequently than normal. These are also signs of diabetes and are cause for veterinarian treatment in any event. Liver function can decrease making it difficult for an elderly cat to detoxify his body, particularly with medications such as anesthetics. Before having your elderly feline cat anesthetized for any treatment, tests should be made to determine both liver and renal function. As a rule of thumb, anesthetics should be avoided in non-surgical treatments such as teeth cleaning.
Reduced bowel activity is common in cats who do not receive a lot of exercise, have an inadequate diet, do not drink much water, or have weak abdominal muscles. Constipation and hard, dry stools are the result. Diarrhea is also common in elderly cats and can often be controlled by proper diet and medication if it is due only to old age and not due to a chronic condition such as cancer or pancreatic disease. Straining to urinate can be due to cystitis or to urethral blockage, or other urinary tract disease. Since this could be an emergency situation, you should consult your veterinarian immediately.
Abnormal discharges containing pus or blood or smelling bad, and emanating from such bodily orifices as eyes, ears, nose, mouth, penis, vagina, etc., suggest infection, possibly cancer. Again, these are cause for immediate veterinarian attention.
Anemia is a deficiency of red blood cells symptomized by pale mucous membranes (such as the tongue and gums) where there is insufficient oxygen in the blood and tissues. There are several causes of anemia such as iron deficiency, internal parasites, or internal bleeding. But anemia in elderly cats is usually a result of liver or kidney disease or cancer. Only your veterinarian can make this diagnosis and recommend the proper treatment.
Diseases of the mouth can be painful and can making eating difficult. A cat with periodontal disease or gingivitis (which are very common in older cats) may eat poorly and lose weight suddenly and rapidly. They may also have very bad breath and may drool. Dental care is important for elderly cats. Prevention is always best when it comes to a cat's teeth. They should be examined regularly and cleaned regularly by your veterinarian, especially if your cat is one that is prone to plaque accumulation. I have found that all five of my gray-and-white tabby females had this problem, and it always resulted in having teeth pulled at some point.
An aging feline has no business being outdoors without a human companion. Even the most experienced cat is subject to danger from the great outdoors. With diminished senses, slower reflexes, or even mental debility, an elderly cat can fall prey to the local cat-bully, the neighbor's dog, playful children, and speeding cars. The territory he once knew so well may become a veritable obstacle course. He may have difficulty navigating the fence or may become confused and unable to find his way home from as close as two doors away.
Even taking your cat outside for a few minutes a day can present problems if he is in a weakened state and cannot tolerate an autumn chill or damp heat. If you accompany him outdoors be sure to keep a close eye on him. Some elderly cats decide to wander off, sometimes getting trapped under a house or locked in a neighbor's garage when they become scared and disoriented or cannot get out fast before a door closes. My brother's cat Lucky actually took to napping in the middle of the street in his old age. Fortunately he lived through it, but not every cat lives up to his name the way Lucky did. Training your cat to a harness and leash at a young age will be very helpful to him when he is older and wants to go out and experience nature up close and personal. My last six cats were trained to harness and leash as kittens.
When our cuddly little kittens grow up, they remain kittens in our hearts forever. They give us so much in their short lifetimes and they ask so little in return. But, though they are only teenagers in human years, they are adults, senior citizens of the feline world, and they want and need our love, support, and constant care to help them survive. By taking the time to give them some extra attention we can help them live out their remaining time in good health and comfort.
This article last updated: 10/08/2009.
The articles on this Web site are informational only and are not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice or treatment. Cats are not "one size fits all." They are different in terms of breed, age, health, lifestyle, and tolerance for different foods and other substances.