Our aging cat population – how to manage their specific needs
Cats over 10 years are considered senior which is equivalent to 56 in human years. Cats over 15 years are considered geriatric which is equivalent to 76 in human years. There are about 3.6 million senior cats in the UK.
Aging changes are progressive and irreversible; they are influenced by genetics, activity, and nutrition. Just like humans, each cat is an individual and some cats look older at 10 than others do at 20.
Cat carers recognise a number of signs as their pets age but they can make simple changes to assist them.
- Food & Water. Older cats tend to drink more water usually because of chronic kidney disease. In this instance owners should encourage their cats to drink to maintain their hydration. This is best achieved using multiple pet fountains around the home so that water is never far away. Older cats usually benefit from life-stage senior diets. Owners need to ensure that older cats, which perhaps have mobility issues, can easily access food. Warming a feed increases it aroma and taste, so encouraging reluctant feeders.
- Beds. Older cats sleep more, typically 12-18 hours per day, they seek out warm places to sleep and often have altered sleep-wake cycles. If they sleep near a source of heat, care must be taken to ensure that they don’t burn themselves because of senility, reduced mobility, or the fact that older cats tend to sleep very heavily.
- Litter Trays. Many older cats have toileting accidents; this may on occasion be due to disease, but is often due to reluctance to go outdoors because of inclement weather or the presence of aggressive cats. Owners should provide multiple shallow litter trays that are easy to step into and that are never too far away to avoid accidents. Some cat litters are more comfortable than others to walk on for arthritic feet.
- Resource management. As cats age, their resources within their environment need to be moved closer – their world needs to get smaller. This is because their ability to quickly and easily move between them is reduced. Normally their bed, food, water, and litter tray all need to be separated; however, older cats need to have these facilities closer to ease movement between them. It may be necessary to have a complete set of amenities on each floor of a house, in case a cat becomes trapped on one floor. Access can be an issue for older cats particularly if they suffer with arthritis. Consideration needs to be given to how the cat will climb on to their bed, armchairs, and litter trays. Some cats may have difficulty climbing in and out of the cat flap. That said older cats will spend more time within the home and less time outside. This is because as their senses and agility deteriorate, their ability to hunt and protect their territory suffers and they become more tolerant to other cats entering their territory.
- Carer-Cat relationship. The majority of cats become more affectionate as they age and may become very demanding, and frequently very vocal, utilising ‘solicitation purring’. Increased vocalisation can also be seen in deafness, high blood pressure, and increased thyroid function. Harsh night-time vocalisation should be investigated by a veterinary surgeon.
- Play. Older cats tend to play less and if they do play they are certainly less boisterous. Some experts suggest that play will stimulate an elderly cat’s mental agility and slow the onset of senility. However once significant symptoms of senility have developed, attempts at environmental enrichment may actually have a negative effect because they will cope poorly with change and become stressed. Owners should avoid excessive exertion by elderly cats because it could aggravate arthritis, heart disease, and cause previously harmless clots to move and become a problem.
- Grooming. Older cats are less able to groom themselves, often resulting in mats particularly over the lower back. An older cat’s skin can be fragile and can tear easily, so care must be taken when grooming particularly over bony prominences. Owners should occasionally wipe discharges away from around the eyes, nose, and anus with cotton wool moistened with water. Senior cats are less able to maintain their claws which can result in them over-growing potentially into their own digital pads! Equally, they are less able to retract them so they become caught in carpets.
- Identification. It is important that elderly cats have some form of identification, particularly if they are showing some signs of senility. Much loved, well cared for, skinny, old, senile cats often wonder off from their homes and become lost. Some times they are picked up and taken to welfare organisations or vets where initial examinations are often of concern. They have poor body condition, and they are often dehydrated but the fact is this is just how they are. It’s not ideal, but they manage and they have a good quality of life. Disastrous premature euthanasia can be avoided if the cat is easily identified with a microchip or a ‘break-away’ collar with a tag.
- Disease. Unsurprisingly many older cats suffer with chronic diseases such as arthritis, heart, and kidney disease which may need medication. It is rarely simple to medicate cats, but it is more challenging in older cats because it is difficult to restrain a cat with a delicate constitution. If possible, medication should be hidden in feed or treats, some of which are designed for the purpose. Only over-the-counter supplements formulated specifically for cats should be given and then only if the cat is healthy. If the cat is unwell, or under veterinary care or on medication, supplements should only be given after veterinary consultation. Annual health checks are essential for senior cats, but despite their weaker immune system the vet may not consider it necessary to give annual vaccination boosters.
- Routine. Old cats thrive on routine and changes in routine cause them anxiety and stress; this is worse if they have significant symptoms of senility. It is now recognised that cats can suffer with senility, also known as Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS). Moving home, the loss of a feline companion, decorating, new furniture, parties, and house guests can all cause anxiety. Owners should routinely use friends or employ professional house sitters to look after the cat when they go on holiday, unless it is used to frequent stays at a boarding cattery.
By giving cats consideration to their specific needs and ensuring they have regular visits to the vet, they can live a happy and long life, providing many years of companionship.
David Chamberlain BVetMed., MRCVS.
Veterinary Consultant to PetSafe®