Help Senior Cats Adjust

CatChannel behavior expert Marilyn Krieger discusses how to help welcome a senior cat into shelters and into your life.

Q: We run a home environment Siamese and related breed Cat Rescue with very high medical and cleaning standards. We have rescued 7,112 and placed 6,644 since our inception 13 years ago. The seniors that we accept from “Owner Release” are more inclined to develop what we call “Caregiver Change Depression.” These kitties, between 8 and 15 years or older, have lived most of their lives with one family. They have lost their homes and their “humans.” We try hard to help them adjust, with people petting them six hours a day seven days a week. Some also need to be force-fed and given fluids. Despite all of our attempts, some of these elderly cats don’t do well — they crawl into a corner, shut down their systems and die.

These are very sensitive kitties. If you have any good ideas about how to circumvent the problem, we are all ears. We get very close to them and it is heartbreaking when we lose them.

A: As a cat ages, it becomes increasingly more difficult for them to adjust to major life changes. It is tragic when cats who have bonded so tightly to the people in their lives and their homes are abandoned or surrendered into rescue. It is not uncommon for abandoned elderly cats to grieve for their companions and their home, to quit eating and some, as you noted, to become depressed and die. You can take steps to help lessen the effects of abandonment, making the transition as stress-free as possible.

Many senior cats are surrendered by people who are as heartbroken as their kitties by the situation. Others come into rescue as orphans. Some people are caught in circumstances beyond their control and want to help their cat adjust to the new situation. Before they surrender their cats, encourage them to help with their cat’s transition. They can start by making the carrier experience as stress-free as possible for the cat. Ask them to open the carrier and place it in an area where the cat likes to hang out. It needs to become a permanent fixture until the day the cat leaves. The people relinquishing the cat need to place a soft towel in the carrier and feed the cat his regular meals and treats in the carrier.

If possible, the items the cat loves should be surrendered with the cat. If the cat has favorite toys, scratchers or little beds to sleep in, transfer those with the cat. Transfer, the cat’s food and litter, too; if possible, his litter box should accompany him to the new location. Ask the former owner if they will sacrifice an old shirt for the cause, sleep in it and then place it in the carrier on the day of the transport.

Ideally, when the senior is in his new home or rescue facility, he should be put in a small, comfortable, quiet room with all of his familiar things. His space needs to be free of other animals. If there are windows, darken the room by pulling the curtains or shades. Provide him with places he can go to start regaining his sense of security. Boxes facing the walls, paper bags with their handles cut off and cloth igloos and tunnels will help him feel safe. Some of these kitties do well with a SnuggleKittie, a soft stuffed animal with a heating element and a heartbeat. In the event that it’s impossible to give him a safe room, then place him in a large cat condo or cage that has no other cats in it. A safe retreat area in a condo can be as simple as a paper bag without handles. Hanging a towel over three sides of the condo will also increase his feelings of security. Eating and drinking is a priority. Treats he loves, baby food or canned cat food flavored with a little tuna juice sometimes jump starts a cat’s appetite. It is normal for insecure cats to only come out of their hiding places at night to eat. Playing classical music such as Mozart and Chopin can also help reduce stress.

Don’t force the cat to interact with people. Forcing the cat to socialize can stress and further traumatize him. He needs to first feel safe and secure in his new environment. Depending on the cat, this may take a few days or weeks. Volunteers can help with this process. Instead of petting the newly surrendered senior, ask volunteers to sit on the floor in the cat’s room, or next to the condo, talking or reading softly to the cat. They can also toss a little treat into the cat’s hiding area every time they visit him. When the cat starts to relax, he may be more open to socializing with the volunteers who have been caring for him. Instead of reaching for the cat, the volunteer should offer the cat the opportunity to socialize by formally greeting him with an index finger extended toward him, at cat-nose level. If the cat wants to say hello, he will approach the volunteer’s finger and touch it with his nose.

Consistency can also help the senior cat adjust to his new situation. Feed him every day at the same times. Try to schedule the same volunteers to sit with the cat. The senior kitty will become familiar with the volunteer’s voice and smell, eventually anticipating the treats and the comfort of familiar people.

Older cats make great companions. For those readers who are thinking about bringing a new cat into the household, please consider adopting a senior cat. Shelters and rescue groups have affectionate senior cats of all breeds looking for new loving homes.   

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