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Caring for Your Senior Cat

As a Certified Cat Friendly Practice, we are happy to be able to share articles regarding your cat, her behavior and her health.  Our friends at the American Association of Feline Practitioners have a huge library on a wide variety of topics.  Keep your eyes on our blog for new articles from AAFP!

Caring for your Senior Cat

We all want to grow old with grace and dignity.  And we want the same for our cats. As the companion who cares for your cat every day, there’s much that you can do to keep your cat healthy and happy. Check out AAFP's top 10 tips for caring for your senior cat.

1.  Schedule Regular Kitty Check-ups

Feline experts agree that cats should see their veterinarian more often as they age.  Every 6 months is a good guideline for checkups, even if your cat appears healthy.   Six months is roughly equivalent to 2 years for a person – a lot can change in that time.  Develop a close relationship with your cat's veterinarian while your cat is still healthy.  In order for your veterinarian to do their absolute best, they need to get to know your cat.  Your veterinarian will periodically recommend testing in addition to a thorough physical examination, such as sampling blood and urine and measuring blood pressure. Read more about your Senior Cat’s Health in Friend for Life: Caring for your Older Cat.

2. Set Your Senior Cat Up for Success at the Vet

Reduce the stress of veterinary visits by acclimating your cat to its carrier in advance of the appointment and making the carrier comfortable with soft, familiar bedding. Leave plenty of time to arrive so you are unhurried and calm.  Prepare a list of questions or concerns to ask your veterinarian at your cat’s regular check-up. Other tips from the AAFP to reduce stress associated with the visit can be found hereFind a veterinarian who is a member of the American Association of Feline Practitioners or part of its Cat Friendly Practice Program.

The AAFP created the Cat Friendly Practice program in 2012 to increase the standard of care provided to cats. These practices have taken extra steps to assure they understand a cat’s unique needs, have implemented feline-friendly standards, have made changes to decrease stress, and provide a more calming environment. Veterinary staff have also been trained in feline-friendly handling and understanding feline behavior. 

3.  Know Your Cat's Habits and Pay Attention to Changes

Cats are masters at hiding illness.  Signs are often subtle and easily missed.  If you notice a difference in behavior, such as sleeping more or hiding, don't ignore it!  Speak up and tell your vet.  It can be helpful to keep a “kitty diary” to track events such as appetite, vomiting, and bowel movements.  Also, make sure to tell your vet about any changes in your cat’s behavior because, after all, you know your cat and its routines better than anyone, making you an important member of his or her healthcare team. 

4. Beware of Changes in Weight

Both weight gain AND unplanned weight loss require a visit to the veterinarian.   While weight gain in mid-life can predispose to chronic diseases and shortened life span, weight loss in advanced age is usually a sign that something is amiss.  Some of the most common diseases causing weight loss – hyperthyroidism, intestinal disease, and diabetes – occur with a normal or even increased appetite.  Don't assume that because your older cat is eating normally they're not losing weight. They can be. Gradual changes in weight are hard to notice and monitoring your cat's weight is one of the most important reasons for routine examinations.

5.  They're Not Just “Slowing Down”

Most owners assume that slowing down is an unavoidable part of aging, but "slowing down" is often a sign of underlying discomfort or pain. Arthritis, or degenerative joint disease, is present in the vast majority of older cats and appropriate treatment can help them remain active and engaged. If you cat has difficulty going up or down steps, does not jump like it used to, or isn't using the litterbox, tell your veterinarian. ALWAYS consult your veterinarian about arthritis treatment or if you think your cat may be in pain. Medications used for humans and dogs can be deadly for cats.  Dental disease is another common cause of pain that your cat's veterinarian will examine.

6.  Look When You Scoop

Are your cat's stools becoming softer, harder, or changing color?  Is he or she not defecating daily?  Constipation is a common yet under recognized sign of dehydration in older cats, but if attended to early, your veterinarian can help get your kitty comfortable again.  Has the amount of urine in the litterbox changed?  Increased urine output can signal some of the most common illnesses in elderly cats – from diabetes or an over active thyroid gland to kidney disease and high blood pressure.

7.  Take a “Cat's Eye View” of the Litterbox

Even cats that have never “missed” the litterbox may start to have “accidents” when they are older.  Medical causes typically contribute to house-soiling and a veterinary evaluation is a very important first step.  Urinary infections, constipation, arthritis, and muscle weakness are just a few of the reasons an older cat can develop litterbox issues.  Your veterinarian can evaluate the various medical issues and address environmental concerns that may be contributing to the change in behavior.  Is the litterbox easy for your elderly cat to get into (i.e. there isn't a high step into the box)?  In a location that is not hard to access such as up or down stairs? Is it quiet and protected from other pets that may startle or frighten your older cat? Is it being scooped and cleaned often enough to keep up with that increased urine output? Is the litter gentle on your kitty's paws? These are just a few things to think about and discuss with your veterinarian. Read more information about designing the optimal litter box. 

8.  Know That Your Cat's Needs Will Change

The household environment will likely need to have some adjustments made for your senior cat. As cats grow older, they often need extra padding and warmth for comfort, so be sure to provide soft sleeping places.  Make their preferred sleeping and resting spots easily accessible by using stepping stools, ramps, and other ways to assist. 

9.  Know How Much Your Cat is Eating

Nutritional needs change with chronic diseases, and for some healthy older cats as well.  Discuss nutrition with your cat's veterinarian and get recommendations for each individual cat. Owners are often unaware of how much their cat is actually eating on a daily basis, especially in households with multiple cats.  Monitor food intake so you know immediately if your cat is eating less.  This helps your veterinarian intervene sooner when problems are easier to address.

10.  Enjoy Your Special Bond

Bonds with our older companions are special and we rely on our cats as much as they rely on us.   Elderly cats often crave more attention than they had earlier in life.  Continue to provide physical and mental stimulation by petting, playing, and interacting in your special ways.  Help out with grooming by gently brushing or combing, and keep nails from becoming overgrown with regular nail trims.  The nails of older arthritic cats sometimes overgrow into the paw pads, and this is painful. Most owners aren't aware this can happen. 

Submitted by: Jeannie Pittari, DVM, DABVP (Feline)