As a part of celebrating Peaches’ 100th Birthday, I am reprinting this article, Part One in a two part series exploring Senior Cat Care that was first published in Cat Chat on My Three Cats in 2006; Part Two, appearing tomorrow on The Creative Cat, will give you tips on optimizing your senior cat’s environment and information about senior illnesses and palliative care.
Bogey dares you to guess how old he is. He knows you’ll be wrong, because he knows that cats have a unique way of hiding aging from even the most attentive owners. Once cats reach three to four years of age they can go well into their teens before they show signs of physical weakness, arthritis, failing eyesight and hearing and other common ailments of an aging body of any species.
And even then they can often get along just fine with a good diet, lots of love, and a little something extra from their people. Just like senior humans have special needs befitting the physical age of their bodies, our cats will benefit from an appropriate diet and exercise, regular health checks and even some palliative care you may not give to a younger cat.
Definition of “Senior”
“Senior” is as loose a term with cats as it is with humans, and feline aging is not the equivalent of canine aging.
We used to assume that dogs and cats both age, over the course of a lifetime, an average of seven “human” years for every year the animal is alive. Cats, however, tend to live a little longer than dogs, so while dogs are still averaged at seven “human years” for each “dog year”, cats average only five “human years” for every “cat year”.
In addition, the age considered “senior” for an animal was, and still is in some cases, only seven years old. More recently, though, other authorities and perhaps even your own veterinarian, differ in opinion, especially for cats, varying from eight to twelve years of age.
Cats are living longer and longer, and while reaching the double digits in age used to be quite a milestone, reaching the second decade isn’t unusual. This is why older cats need different care from younger cats as they age.
From kittenhood, Tabby should see the veterinarian yearly as part of her regular care even if there’s no apparent health issue, as a benchmark from one year to the next. If a health problem arises, our cats can’t say to us, “Hmm…I think it was in January that I first noticed that…,” but an observant veterinarian will know if a lump, bump or symptom was present at the previous yearly examination. If you’ve been lax when Tabby was young, and unless your veterinarian indicates any chronic conditions developing, tighten up your schedule when she reaches about ten years of age.
In addition to this yearly checkup, and because health symptoms are that much more likely to arise in an older cat, consider a “senior exam” for your cat between ten and twelve years as well. Many veterinarians and clinics offer these as a matter of course, but be cautious what they include, which is sometimes no more than a regular yearly exam with a basic blood test, but the cost is triple the charge for a regular annual exam.
The purpose of the senior exam is to determine baseline data on the cat’s major health indicators at an age when everything appears normal. Find an exam that lists not only the procedures but also the conditions or symptoms for which tests are performed: a CBC, or complete blood count, does not include the T-4 or thyroid test, and in some cases does not include measures for BUN and creatinine, the indicators for renal failure, two very common chronic illnesses in older cats. So in addition to the usual exam of eyes, mouth, ears, weight, heartbeat and temperature, a geriatric exam should also check your pet’s blood, urine, blood pressure and/or radiographs for problems such as kidney disease, hyperthyroidism or arthritis. None of these conditions may be present, or only the earliest symptoms, but later if you do begin to see changes in Tabby’s lifestyle you have a record of her body when she was healthy and your veterinarian has a much more clear starting point for diagnosis.
If you haven’t already, start reading labels. Tabby may tend to fill out around the middle as she gets older, or she may be a little chubby to begin with. Also, while maintaining the proper weight balance is critical as cats age, be careful with weight loss and management.
Cats are “obligate carnivores”, meaning that they must eat protein to maintain their body tissue. While many senior foods may advertise reduced protein content because it’s assumed to be better for an older cat, the only content that should be reduced is calories, just like a human diet or senior program. If protein is changed at all it should only be made more easily digestible, but should still be animal protein, not vegetable protein.
One other change in the food content should be an increase in fiber, obviously necessary as the cats’ digestion changes, also aiding in hairball prevention.
If you currently feed only dry food or leave dry food available all the time, you may also consider feeding an increased amount of wet food. It has a stronger smell to attract her, is easier to chew and swallow, and the increased moisture content is always a benefit. If you feed at specified times, consider feeding an extra meal in between; just like senior people, Tabby will eat less at each meal and her digestion can only handle a certain amount, but she needs just as much food through the course of a day.
Feeding at specified times instead of leaving food available all the time is a good idea all through Tabby’s life. For one reason, the food is always fresh, and sense of smell is what prompts a cat to eat; with aging this becomes critical. More importantly, monitoring Tabby’s dining habits is important as she ages, and a change in her consumption or even her attitude toward mealtime and her food can often be the first early indicators of a health problem.
Tabby may still be racing to the top of the cat tree and running laps in the middle of the night at age 15, but at some point she’ll slow down in either speed or frequency. While it has always seemed that she could sleep 18 hours a day and eat whatever she wanted and still stay in prime physical shape, she may need a little encouragement as she grows older.
Physical activity not only helps to keep her muscles toned, but it also keeps her heart and lungs and circulatory system in good condition, helps with digestion and elimination and even appetite if that starts to wane. If you don’t already play with her on a regular basis, find some toys that get her excited to leave around, and some interactive toys so that you can see she gets her exercise.
You can find plenty of references for care for older cats around the internet from CatChannel.com to The Cornell Feline Health Center to the American Association of Feline Practitioners and in books such as Complete Care for Your Aging Cat.
I’m proud to say that part two of this series won a Muse Medallion in the Cat Writer’s Association’s 2007 Communications Contest and the Hartz Mountain Everyday Chewable Vitamin Award for the best article on senior cat care in the same contest. That’s when I joined the Cat Writer’s Association and it’s been one of the best associations I’ve made in my career for both writing and learning.