5 Ways To Care For Your Older Cat

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The percentage of cats over six years of age has nearly doubled in just a decade, according to the Cornell University Feline Health Center. This seems reasonable because just as humans are living longer lives, our cat’s indoor environments combined with advances in veterinary medicine may be contributing to longer lives for our furry friends. 

calico cat on bed
An older calico cat can comfortably reach her bed on the floor without having to jump or climb

Through my work as an assistant at a sanctuary for older and special needs cats, I’ve seen firsthand how endearing and deserving of our utmost attention and care many older pets can be. Just as our own bodies and minds begin to undergo changes that signal our attention as we age, animals experience the same thing. However, it’s less likely that they’ll be able to tell us what is happening and as a result, that they might be experiencing some challenges. This is why it’s important to know what to look for in your aging cat to help their golden years to be as good as possible. 

Here are my five ways to care for your older cat:

1. Nutritional Wet Food (+ Water) And Supplements 

As your cat ages, it’s important to notice any changes in their behavior towards food. Are they not eating? Paying attention to this can signal when they are not feeling well and in need of veterinary attention. If you’re not experiencing any issues with your cat’s appetite, making sure that they have at least one serving of wet food in their diet each day will be a big help for them as it’s 1) easier to chew and swallow for cats with dental issues and 2) contains more water than dry food.

Dry kibble food is more calorically dense and has very little moisture. It’s easy for cats to become dehydrated with a 100% kibble diet which is why I’m a proponent of giving wet food to all cats, regardless of age. Supplements for older cats can also be added directly into the wet food to enhance their nutritional intake.

A few supplements for cats include:

  • Glucosamine for bone and joint health, you can sprinkle one serving directly on your cat’s wet food and mix it into the food
  • Missing Link can be given as an all-around multi-vitamin supplement
  • Probiotics can be given to help improve digestion and maintain a healthy stool consistency 
  • Fish oil can also help with their coat and brain health
Flame point cat
Supplements can help to enhance your cat’s diet as they age

2. Regular Attention To Your Cat’s Coat, Skin, Claws and Teeth 

As cats age, their ability to groom themselves can suffer as they develop stiffness or arthritis in their spine, neck, and/or elbows. Helping them to keep their coats healthy through regular, gentle brushing will help to distribute healthy oils and improve circulation. In addition to brushing, using a wash cloth to give your cat a quick wipe down can help to keep them feeling clean and refreshed.

If your cat has mats, NEVER use scissors to remove them. Always use an electric razor to carefully shave off the portions of fur that contain mat. A cat’s skin is normally very thin and elastic and you can puncture it easily if you use scissors to remove mats. A cat’s skin becomes thinner and less elastic with age, making it more prone to accidental scissor snips.

Continue regular nail clipping with your older cat, you may notice their nails becoming overgrown, brittle and thick. Keeping their nails at a healthy level is important to prevent them from snagging on blankets and bedding. 

Also checking your cat’s teeth regularly can give you insight into whether they are in need of dental care and potentially, extractions.

3. Comfortable, Accessible Beds

Because your pet may have difficulty with mobility due to stiffness, sore joints, and/or arthritis, it’s important to have a variety of comfortable beds available to them in at least two locations, preferably more than two, that are easy for them to access. As your cat ages, you may need to lower the beds to floor level and/or give your cat steps to get up to their usual sleeping places. 

Gray cat laying on a bed
An older gray cat lays on her bed that’s up on a table but with steps that allow her to safely reach it.

4. Being Aware Of The Signs That Your Cat May Not Be Feeling Well 

It’s crucial to be able to tell when your cat is not feeling well or acting themselves.  You should know what your cat’s stool looks like on a regular basis. Healthy cat stool is firm and log-like. If it’s loose (pudding-like), or watery you need to pay attention to what they ate or if they have any other symptoms which could signal they are sick and in need of urgent veterinary attention. 

Other signals your cat may be sick and require veterinary attention include:

  • Lethargy – appearing “out of it”, laying around, not moving and lacking energy. Take this seriously and see your vet if they aren’t acting their usual self.
  • Mood changes – Irritability or aggressiveness can signal the animal is experiencing pain and should be considered by your vet. 
  • Vomiting – Vomiting can signal sickness and should be assessed by your vet right away.
  • If your cat is not eating or drinking – this can signal serious sickness and you need to see your vet.
  • ** These are just some of the signals that your cat may be sick. If you see any of these or any other abnormal signs, please take your cat to the vet ASAP. 

5. Being Aware Of Quality Of Life Measures For Elderly Cats

As our cats age, it’s important to pay extra close attention to their needs, just as we would with our aging loved ones. The Quality of Life Scale was developed by Dr. Alice Villalobos, a renowned veterinarian oncologist specializing in terminally ill pets. She created the scale in conjunction with an animal hospice program called “Pawspice” that is based on the human hospice model of palliative care.

Dr. Villalobos identifies seven key quality of life factors that can be used to assess the overall quality of life of your pet. These include hurt, hunger, hydration, hygiene, happiness, mobility and “more good days than bad.”  The model has a 0-10 scale, with 0 meaning bad and 10 meaning ideal. With seven factors and an average score of five on each factor, a score of 35 is considered sufficient quality of life to justify continuing hospice care to an animal.

This scale provides a framework of what to consider when living with an older pet and especially one that may be experiencing a terminal illness.

Two cats laying in their bed

Here are some details on each of the seven factors:

  1. Pain – what level of pain is the animal is? Pain control must be effective and given preemptively. Breathing ability is also of utmost importance.
  2. Hunger – Is the animal eating on their own or do they need assistance or hand feeding? Malnutrition can quickly develop in animals that refuse to eat.
  3. Hydration – If caring for an older cat, you should do the pinch test on the scruff of the neck to assess hydration levels. Fluids can be given subcutaneously if your cat is dehydrated. 
  4. Hygiene – Cats should be kept clean and wiped down after elimination if they have issues grooming themselves. 
  5. Happiness – Is your cat happy? Or are they bored, restless, anxious, lonely or depressed? A nice way to give attention to your cat is to groom them or play with them (light play with a laser pointer or batting a toy) as well as moving their bed to be closer to the rest of the family to help them feel more integrated.
  6. Mobility – Is your cat able to get up and move around enough to satisfy their normal behaviors? If they are having difficulties, you can help them get into their litter box and/or with going outside. Medication can also help. 
  7. More good days than bad days – The cat’s quality of life is compromised when they have more bad days than good days. Bad days can include frequent experiences with vomiting, diarrhea, frustration, falling down, weakness, seizures or physical discomfort.

For more information on The Quality of Life Scale click here for the general scale and the feline specific scale.

If your cat is approaching the end of their life, using these seven factors can be helpful in assessing the overall quality of life they may be experiencing and whether you’ll need to consider humane euthanasia in the near future. 

Regardless of the age of your pet, knowing what to look for when they are not seeming themselves as well as changes in terms of their food, bedding and grooming behaviors is helpful to know so that when they do enter their golden years, it will be the most loved years of their life. 

Aging animals are special and deserve our respect and care for all the years of companionship and love they provided to us. I hope this article provided some tips on caring for your older pet. 

Source:

The American Association of Feline Practitioners and the Cornell Feline Health Center. (2006.) The Special Needs of Senior Cats [Brochure]. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.

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