Taking Care of a Senior Cat

November 15th 2019

By Dr. Tara Pugh

When are cats considered a senior pet?

In most cases, cats can be considered senior when they are between seven and 10 years of age, however, there are a number of additional factors to consider when distinguishing between “senior” and “geriatric” cats. While a cat may be old enough to be considered senior, it’s likely to be healthy or just beginning to show signs of aging. Geriatric animals are at the older end of the spectrum and tend to have more health-related issues.
Cat’s age at varying rates depending on their overall health, diet, breed, weight and lifestyle.

How often should a senior cat see a vet?

We recommend semi-annual checks (at least) for your senior cats. Some geriatric patients of ours have more health issues and need a vet visit every three months. These comprehensive veterinary examinations often would include bloodwork, urine analysis and we may recommend annual dental cleaning, depending on the status of your cat’s oral hygiene.
As we humans become senior, we are expected to visit our doctor at least once a (human) year. Then, considering that our pets age so much faster, these biannual check-ups with your veterinarian become vitally important! The earlier we can detect a change in organ function or a slight deterioration, the earlier it can be treated. This can have a drastic impact on the quality of your cat’s life and even its lifespan.

What should I feed my senior cat?

As cats age, they tend to become less active and may start to gain weight if they are fed incorrectly. Senior cats generally require fewer calories and higher fiber diets, with less fat and extra nutritional supplements and should therefore be fed a senior diet.
Senior diets can vary if your pet has specific ailments and veterinarians frequently recommend a change in diet to promote wellness in senior pets. Senior cats tend to drink less water and may develop constipation and/or hairballs. Adding a wet meal to their diet can indirectly increase their water intake.
If your cat is developing some joint stiffness, your veterinarian may recommend a diet with specific supplements that offer joint support, have natural anti-inflammatories and may help to improve mobility. Overweight cats tend to develop arthritis and mobility issues a lot faster with more severe symptoms, so it is important that your cat maintains a healthy weight.
If your cat has chronic kidney disease or heart disease, a change in diet can help to delay progression of the disease. The prevalence of developing organ dysfunction is also increased in overweight cats.
Conversely, if your cat is underweight, this may be a sign of underlying disease and you should consult with your veterinarian as soon as possible. Some diseases can result in weight loss, such as the end stages of kidney disease and some cancers. In these cases, we, as veterinarians, may advise a higher caloric diet with differing amounts of protein, carbohydrates, fats, as well as other nutrients, depending on your cat’s needs.
These are some reasons why diet and weight are so important. Please consult your veterinarian regularly to ensure your cat is maintaining a healthy weight and is eating the correct diet according to its individual needs.

What are the most common ailments of senior cats?

Like humans when they age, you may notice certain changes in your cat’s moods or behavior. As your cat’s guardian and caregiver, it is important that you are aware of these changes, especially since cats are not able to tell us themselves. We need to try and understand why their moods are changing and what we can do to help them.
Dulling of senses
An older cat that starts to “ignore” you, may actually be starting to lose some of its senses. As with humans, our cats’ senses start to dull as they age and they may not be able to see the ball that you threw or hear you so well when you call them. Your cat may start to show signs of aggression if a person comes up behind them quickly and startles them. Aggression may also be a sign of pain in the area that you touched them.
In the cases of hearing loss, your cat may still recognize vibrations and you may be able to call them by clapping your hands or knocking on a hard surface.
With loss of vision, your cat may become clumsier, even though he may still have a great sense of smell and spatial awareness. It is recommended that the floors are kept free of clutter and familiar things like food and furniture be maintained in the same position. Pools or stairs or other potentially hazardous areas should be coordained off.
Older cats are not as capable of maintaining their body temperature, and may seek warmer areas of the house, especially in winter. Just because your cat could handle the cold when he was young, does not mean he is necessarily as comfortable now that he is older. Helping keep your cat warm will also help to minimize joint stiffness and help to stave off disease. Please be ready to provide, extra blankets or even heated blankets when winter comes around.
Joint stiffness
Aging cats have a tendency to develop arthritis, especially if they have had an injury previously. Joint pain can be debilitating, preventing your pet from getting up and down the stairs, jumping on and off of furniture, standing up after lying for a while and may even reduce their appetite.
Adding joint supplements or feeding a prescribed joint diet can help to improve the signs of arthritis and slow the deterioration of the joints as your cat ages.
It is important to maintain regular veterinary visits to ensure that joint pain is prevented or controlled with the addition of appropriate medication or alternative therapy.
Confusion and anxiety
Aging often leads to a loss of cognitive disfunction and your cat may forget behaviors or tricks that he has known for a long time. Your cat may become easily disorientated and struggle to navigate around obstacles. This may lead to anxiety, and any changes to routine could potentially cause stress.
It is important to gauge your cat’s individual reaction to different changes like visitors, noise phobias and separation anxiety if left alone. Keeping a consistent routine is important, as well as frequent exercise and playing games such as food puzzles to stimulate their mental activity.
Above all, please be patient with your elderly cats. Their aging may be frustrating for you, but it is also frustrating and sometimes scary for them.
Extra grooming
Older cats, like humans, experience changes in their skin, coat and nails. Their coat may become dry, dull and coarse and their skin may become thinner. Nails may get very long due to lack of wear during exercise and may even become brittle and break. Good dental routines that are implemented from an early age are important to maintain healthy teeth and prevent gum disease.
Many senior diets have the necessary extra nutritional supplements required to maintain healthy skin and coat. If you have any questions regarding your cat’s diet, please consult with your veterinarian.

Signs to watch for as your senior cats age

Beyond your regular veterinary visits, it is important that you keep a watchful eye on your cat and ensure that he does not develop any signs of disease. If any of these signs occur, please contact your veterinarian as soon as possible to book a consultation. Even if you have recently been to your veterinarian some diseases develop quickly, and these signs do need to be addressed promptly:
  • Vision loss or other eye problems
  • Increased thirst or urination, strained urination or urinary incontinence
  • Bad breath, bleeding from mouth, drooling, dropping of food
  • Coughing or struggling to breathe, exercise intolerance or fatigue
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Lumps or bumps
  • Weight gain or loss; increased appetite or reduced appetite
  • Decreased mobility or joint stiffness, reduced activity levels
  • Behavior changes

If you live in Calgary and have questions or concerns about your aging cat please call (403) 615-8016 to make an appointment with one of our caring and compassionate veterinarians. 

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