Elderly Cats – Different Care Needs
Here’s a question for you – at what age do we consider a cat to be elderly?
Well, it’s changed a lot in the last few years! Have half a mark if you answered “8 years old” – that is the traditional definition, and it’s still widely used in veterinary practice. However, the current thinking is that most cats (with the exception of some pedigrees like Maine Coons) shouldn’t really be seen as old until they are 11!
Over 15 we use a different term – “geriatric” – and so some people refer to cats between 11 and 14 as “Seniors”. However, we think that it doesn’t really matter what you call them, as long as you’re aware of how to care for them properly!
What changes as a cat hits 11?
Just like people, there is a great deal of variation – some individual cats are old at 10, and others still young at 12. The 11 years thing is just a convenient cut off, not a biological rule (and with better nutrition and care, it might continue to rise in the future!). So the first rule is that any cat (of any age, but especially as they get older) needs to be treated as an individual.
However, although the rate may vary, there are a number of biological changes that cats do go through as they age. These include…
- Reduced sensory acuity – an older cat’s senses of smell, taste, and hearing (especially) are often worse than when they were younger.
- Reduced gut efficiency – an older cat may have a more sensitive stomach, and find it harder to digest some foods (especially fats and proteins).
- Reduced musculoskeletal flexibility – the older cat finds it harder to stretch, move and jump; this is often exacerbated by conditions such as arthritis.
- Lower stress tolerance – a senior or geriatric cat finds it harder to cope with stressful situations, whether that is psychological stress (e.g. changes in the environment or routine) or physiological (high or low temperatures, mild dehydration etc).
- Lowered immunity – older cats are often more susceptible to infectious diseases than an adult in their prime.
- Reduced kidney reserves – as a cat ages, their kidneys become less efficient at filtering the blood; eventually, this results in chronic kidney disease.
- Reduced mental flexibility – senior and geriatric cats generally find it much harder to respond to something new, or to sudden changes. In some cases, this may be worsened by underlying diseases such as strokes or Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome.
- Increased sleep requirements – ‘nuff said!
- Increased comorbidities – in other words, the older a cat is, the more likely it is that they will have several chronic health conditions. The most common are probably arthritis, kidney disease, cancers and hyperthyroidism; however, heart disease, strokes and dementia are also more common in older cats.
Remember, though, that old age is not a disease – it’s just a stage of life, like being a kitten or being pregnant!
So, how can we help them cope?
Each individual will need a different approach. However, there are a number of general rules which are always useful for looking after and caring for an older cat.
- Make sure they get regular health checks with one of our vets. What might seem to be just “slowing down with age” can be a sign of severe pain – arthritis affects cats but is sadly underdiagnosed. Likewise, changes in eating or drinking can indicate life-threatening problems that need veterinary management. Our vets are trained to pick up the signs before they are severe – but you know your cat better than we do!
- Keep up to date with preventative healthcare. Worm and flea treatments are just as important; and in view of their increased susceptibility to disease, it’s important that they stay up to date with their core vaccines.
- Make sure you keep them groomed and clean and tidy! Matted coats and overgrown claws are common in older cats, who often struggle to groom themselves, and don’t scratch as much to remove the shells on their claws.
- Make sure they have comfortable places to sit, sleep and sunbathe! Older cats often spend more time indoors – especially when it’s cold! They might also struggle to jump up to places they used to like, so think about providing ramps, or alternative sitting places. Oh, and don’t forget litter trays – if it’s cold and wet outside, the cat might not want to pop outside!
- Make sure they get a good diet. Senior diets are specially designed for older cats and are the best-balanced food; however, it may be that you will need to tempt them to eat occasionally – so try to choose one that’s really palatable (and that your fussy old cat likes!).
- If possible, secure your garden against intruders. Older cats are less well able to defend their patch – so give them a bit of protection and they can still enjoy going outside without worrying about who they might have to fight for it.
- Try to minimise any changes. In furniture, environment, and routine.
If you have any concerns or queries about your cat’s health, give us a ring and talk to one of our vets!