How to keep your elderly cat healthy so they live long, happy lives

Bridget L. Hickman, DVM Veterinarian, Adjunct Faculty, and Member of the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association (VVMA) Roanoke Animal Hospital; Adjunct Faculty, Blue Ridge Community College
How to keep your elderly cat healthy so they live long, happy lives

Did you know that domesticated cats that are well cared for by their owners can live into their late teens to early twenties? In fact, my oldest “patient” on record lived to be 23! Elderly cats make wonderful pets, but they do have unique needs due to age that may not be apparent to many cat owners. If you have an elderly cat, or are considering adopting one, the following tips will help guide you in providing proper care.


Do

Do take your cat for more frequent veterinary visits

Elderly cats, classified as either senior (11 to 14 years) or geriatric (15 years or more), need to be taken to their veterinarian for wellness visits more often than younger cats. It is recommended that visits be scheduled at least twice a year in order to keep elderly cats happy and healthy. While at these checkups, your veterinarian will compare your cat’s current weight to their previous weight. The examination will include: a complete oral assessment (tongue, teeth, gums); lymph node and thyroid palpation; heart and lung auscultation; skin and coat inspection; joint flexion and extension/pain evaluation; abdominal organ palpation; and eye and ear inspection. This is also a time where veterinarians will continue with traditional core vaccines based on individual patient lifestyle and risk factors. In addition, your veterinarian will perform blood, urine, and blood pressure screenings (elderly cats have an increased risk of high blood pressure). Other issues to discuss with your veterinarian during wellness visits include any mobility concerns, pain concerns, and behavioral changes. Behavior changes could suggest cognitive dysfunction, similar to dementia in humans.

Do pay attention to special dietary needs

You should feed your cat a balanced diet, while remembering that some elderly cats may have special dietary needs based on underlying health conditions. Your veterinarian may recommend pet food designed specifically for elderly cats, often labeled as a “senior” diet. If your elderly cat has been diagnosed with a health condition such as chronic kidney disease, a prescription diet may be utilized. Also, vitamin B12 injections may be helpful if your cat has a gastrointestinal disorder like inflammatory bowel disease. In general, it is more natural to feed all cats small, meals multiple times daily in order to avoid overwhelming their gastrointestinal tract. Also, provide easy access to fresh water at all times, as hydration is essential to overall health.

Do keep track of your cat’s health and behavior

Cats are masters of hiding illness – they may look okay, but truly have health problems. It may sound simple, but your cat should maintain normal behavioral patterns and routines throughout their life. There are several subtle changes in routine to consider when screening for signs of illness at home. For example, do you have to change your cat’s water more frequently? Are you scooping urine clumps out of the litter box more often? Is your cat hiding or not interacting with humans like they normally would? Are they visibly losing or gaining weight? Are they vomiting more than the occasional hairball? Has their appetite diminished? Is your cat drooling? Has your cat stopped grooming itself? These could all be signs of health issues that should be immediately addressed with your veterinarian. Be sure to keep track of any signs or symptoms and take action if you sense something is wrong. Even if you notice a small behavioral change that you think may not be harmful, it is still a good idea to talk with your veterinarian to avoid any potential problems.

Do make changes to keep your cat safe and comfortable

As cats get older, they may have trouble moving and getting around the home, just like many elderly humans. If your cat has mobility problems, it is helpful to get a shallow-lipped litter box they can easily access. Proper litter box accessibility will also help avoid potential accidents. If your cat has a favorite, elevated resting spot, you may want to look into buying moveable steps or ramps to help them up and down. Also, since a proper diet is necessary for optimal health, make sure your cat can reach easily its food and water bowls. Elderly cats, especially those suffering from arthritis, may have trouble jumping up onto elevated feeding surfaces. It is best to keep bowls on floor level. As always, remember to keep your cat inside and away from environmental dangers as much as possible. In addition, it is important to provide elderly cats with their own personal place to relax and escape from any noise or chaos in your home (examples: rough-housing dogs and hyper children).

Do check out available resources on elderly cat care

There are many great resources available to elderly cat owners. Be sure to check with your veterinarian for helpful printed guides and Internet resources that will help you become an informed pet owner. The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) has developed a wonderful, free resource on its website outlining cat life stages and specifically, caring for elderly cats.


Don't

Do not give your elderly cat over-the-counter medications

If you notice changes in your elderly cat’s behavior, or think they might be sick, don’t give them over-the-counter medications to make them feel better! Human medications like Tylenol are very toxic to cats, and can even be deadly. If your cat is sick or showing any sort of signs of illness, schedule a veterinary visit and consult with your veterinarian on the proper course of action and medications that are safe for your cat.

Do not bring new, rambunctious pets into the home

While many elderly cats may interact well with other pets and humans, this is not always the case. Don’t quickly introduce new, rambunctious pets into the home. Introducing an active, playful, younger animal can disrupt your elderly cat’s routine and increase their stress level. Kittens and puppies may become a nuisance to your elderly cat. The energy level and strength of a younger pet may cause them to unintentionally overstep their boundaries and hurt your cat. Any time you introduce a new member of the family to your elderly cat (pet or human), be sure to consult with your veterinarian on the best ways to make the introduction. If you are considering the addition of a new pet, consider adopting another pet with similar energy levels (maybe another middle age or older cat). Better yet, consider fostering a shelter pet for a week to see how your current cat reacts to the furry houseguest.

Do not ignore signs of illness

If you feel your cat may be ill, don’t ignore any signs or symptoms, even if they are small ones. Being sick can have more devastating effects on elderly cats compared to younger cats, and you don’t want to wait too long to take action. It is helpful to keep a log of your cat’s health and make note of anything you notice that is out of the ordinary. This is very useful when you need to communicate with your vet about how to best care for your cat.

Do not dramatically change your elderly cat’s diet

Don’t dramatically change your elderly cat’s diet, as cats are notoriously finicky in their eating habits, and changing their diet overnight can cause gastrointestinal problems. A proper diet is very important for cats at all life stages, and following your veterinarian’s dietary recommendations will make a world of difference in their overall health and wellbeing. Introduce dietary changes very slowly to avoid problems like diarrhea and vomiting. Canned food is a great option for elderly cats, due to its high water content. Water is especially important for elderly cats, as they are prone to conditions that predispose them to dehydration, such as chronic kidney disease. If your cat won’t eat canned food, try freezing tuna juice or low-sodium meat broth in ice cube trays and adding these, daily to your cat’s water to encourage them to drink more. Alternatively, since some cats prefer running water, consider adding a filtered, flowing water fountain designed for pets. Remember to wash food and water bowls with warm, soapy water regularly.

Do not be afraid to address end-of-life care

End-of-life care is never an easy topic to address, but it is important to discuss with your veterinarian to provide the best care possible for your elderly cat, especially as they may begin to develop multiple medical conditions. This is a very difficult process, as cats don’t normally pass away in their sleep without a lot of discomfort first. Talk to your veterinarian about the end-of-life process, including hospice care. Your veterinarian can help you make the most sound decisions regarding end of life comfort. To judge quality of life in your elderly cat, ask yourself the following questions: Is my cat able to get to its food/ water/favorite resting place? Is my cat having more good than bad days? Is my cat still seeking to interact with others? Does my cat seem happy? Can I manage any pain and mobility challenges? If you can answer these questions in a positive manner, it is reasonable to continue to care for your cat with the assistance of your veterinary team. Pawspice is a great resource for end-of-life care and provides a quality of life scale than can help in your decision making process. Though end of life issues are tough to contemplate, these questions are worthwhile considerations for responsible elderly cat owners.


Summary
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Your elderly cat is an important part of your life and a valuable member of your family. As such, awareness of their special needs will allow you to provide the best care for them for as long as reasonably possible. With proper care, your cat can remain happy and healthy for many years, continuing to provide you with fulfilling interaction and companionship. By following guidelines for elderly cat care and making your veterinarian a partner in this process, you can easily achieve this goal.


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Bridget L. Hickman, DVMVeterinarian, Adjunct Faculty, and Member of the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association (VVMA)

Bridget L. Hickman, DVM, is a member of the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association (VVMA), a professional organization of veterinarians dedicated to preserving and enhancing the quality of human and animal life through veterinary medicine. Dr. ...

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