Comfort and Care for the Aging Cat

Today's cats can live well into their teens with proper care from their owners.

CatCats are living longer lives. An 8-year-old cat was considered a senior 15 years ago. Today, many veterinarians wait until ages 10 or 12 to classify a cat as senior. And more and more cats are living into their 20s. Along with longer lives, however, come increased health concerns. A few adjustments to your cat’s daily routine will improve her well-being and quality of life well into the golden years.

Lifestyle Changes
Indoor-only is the way to go for your older cat, even if it went outdoors as a youngster. Indoor cats have less exposure to disease and parasites. This lifestyle also protects cats from trauma, such as automobile injuries, vicious animal attacks and unscrupulous human treatment. As your cat’s vision and hearing become less acute, the indoors offer your pet an abundance of safety and security.

Re-examine your senior cat’s diet. Have you noticed a reduction in activity level? Ask your veterinarian about reducing your cat’s calorie intake to prevent obesity. Gradually adjust the diet according to your veterinarian’s recommendation: Abrupt change can cause serious liver damage and even death. Maintain top quality protein in your cat’s diet so it continues to receive those important amino acids available only in animal protein.

Older cats often need special diets for their medical conditions, says Betsy Arnold, DVM, a veterinarian and Siamese breeder in Rochester, N.Y.

In addition to a dietary change, you may need to assist your cat with its grooming tasks. Your consummate groomer may develop arthritis, which makes thorough grooming a challenge. The nails can become brittle and some cats experience trouble removing the old, outer sheaths. Check your cat’s nails twice a week and trim them as needed. Use a slicker brush on your shorthaired cat or a wide-tooth comb on your longhaired cat to keep its coat shiny and clean. Regular grooming also provides valuable bonding time for you and your cat.

Your senior cat will especially appreciate creature comforts. Senior cats cannot tolerate temperature changes as well as they did in their younger years. Provide cool places for your cat to lie in the summer and a warm, soft bed for the cold winter months. If climbing is a challenge, offer step stools or ramps, or move a bed to the floor. If arthritis becomes a problem, provide warm, comfortable beds and encourage regular exercise. Ask your veterinarian about safe pain medications and food supplements that can help keep your cat’s joints supple.

Some senior cats become a bit forgetful or lose their orientation. Many cats cry at night or wander around the house as if lost. Usually talking to them, holding them or even leaving a nightlight on can help.

Health Concerns
Older cats need regular checkups; twice yearly is ideal. Expect your veterinarian to periodically run bloodwork to check for changes in liver or kidney function, along with looking for anemia, diabetes and hyperthyroidism. You may also want to request a urinalysis to detect diabetes and kidney problems. Some veterinarians will check your cat for high blood pressure and do an X-ray or ultrasound to check for signs of heart problems or cancer. Early detection often means more successful and less expensive treatments.

Many older cats become less active and quieter, but some cats suddenly seem to rejuvenate. If your cat is active, hungry all the time and losing weight, it may be hyperthyroidhaving too much thyroid hormone. Possibly caused by thyroid cancer, this disorder leads to an increase in metabolism. A blood test offers the best method of diagnosis, and several treatment options are available.

Increased hunger may also be caused by diabetes. A diabetic cat tends to drink more and urinate frequently. Veterinarians normally diagnose diabetes with a blood test and urinalysis. Most cats are treated with insulin injections and dietary modifications.

If your cat suddenly drinks more water than usual, get it checked for kidney failure as well as diabetes. Cats with kidney problems are often not hungry, just thirsty, while diabetics are hungry and thirsty. Most kidney diseases cannot be cured, but many cats improve with extra fluids and dietary changes.

Dehydration can be a problem in older cats, especially if their kidneys aren’t 100%, says Nancy Freeboro, DVM, a veterinarian in Syracuse, N.Y. Having fresh water available at all times, [and] mixing water in with canned food can help.

Cancer can show up in a wide range of disguises. Obvious growths are one way, but subtle weight loss, decreased activity and a decrease in appetite can all warn of a malignancy. Again, routine checkups are invaluable. Caught early, some cancers are curable and many can be controlled for some amount of time.

Dental problems and some tooth loss is common for senior cats. Starting a kitten on regular dental care will help prevent some of this. Take your senior cat in for a veterinary dental cleaning, followed by more regular care. If your cat experiences tender teeth and gums, feed it room-temperature or slightly warmed food. Remember that cats can get oral cancer, too. Be vigilant to any changes in eating or chewing behavior, and follow up immediately with your veterinarian.

Age eventually catches up with us all, and you are your cat’s best health advocate. If you detect changes in your cat’s behavior, eating or elimination, take it to the vet for a checkup. Your careful attention and lifestyle modifications, along with your veterinarians sound advice, make a great health-care team for your aging cat.

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