Just as people are living longer than they did in the past, cats are living longer too. Like people and dogs, they experience advancing years in their own unique ways. Many cats begin to encounter age-related physical changes between 7 and 10 years of age, and most do so by the time they are 12.
Cats tend to age more gracefully than dogs, but as the years go by their appetites wane. They sleep more. Eyesight falters. Arthritis creeps in. Kidney disease, diabetes, hyperthyroidism and cancer enter their lives. We can, more than ever before, help them sail through their golden years. Even though many conditions that affect older cats are not correctable, they can often be controlled.
The key to making sure your senior cat has the healthiest and highest quality of life possible is to:
- Recognize and reduce factors that may be health risk,
- Detect disease as early as possible
- Correct or delay the progression of disease
- Improve or maintain the health of the body's systems
This all sounds complicated, but it's not. We ask you to become a keen observer of your cat's attitude, appetite and activity level. With your observations and our examinations and diagnostics, we can stay ahead of physiologic, possibly life-threatening, changes in your senior cat's life.
What Happens as Your Senior Cat Ages?
The aging process is accompanied by many physical and behavioral changes:
- The immune system of older cats is less able to fend off foreign invaders. Routine preventative care (such as: deworming, vaccinating, heartworm and flea prevention and monitoring urine and blood for chronic disease) becomes more important than ever.
- Dehydration, a consequence of many diseases common to older cats, further diminishes blood circulation and immunity.
- The skin of an older cat is thinner and less elastic. It has reduced blood circulation and is prone to infection.
- Older cats groom themselves less effectively than younger cats, thus, resulting in hair matting, skin odor and inflammation.
- The claws are often thick, brittle and overgrown.
- In humans, aging changes in the brain contribute to a loss of memory and personality changes commonly referred to as senility or dementia. Similar symptoms are seen in elderly cats, including wandering, excessive meowing, apparent disorientation, litter box mistakes and avoidance of social interaction.
- Hearing loss is common.
- Aging is also accompanied by changes in the eyes. A slight haziness of the lens and a lacy appearance to the iris (the colored part that surrounds the pupil) are common but neither decrease vision appreciably. However, changes in blood pressure and retina atrophy (for reasons unknown) can cause sudden blindness.
- Dental disease can actually start as early as 2 to 3 years of age. By the time your cat is a senior, he or she may have already lost some teeth. Dental disease is painful, causing difficulty eating or avoidance of meals. This results in weight loss and an unkempt hair coat. The bacteria present can migrate to the valves of the heart and kidneys causing even more systemic disease
- Feline kidneys undergo a number of age-related changes that ultimately lead to impaired function. Kidney failure is a common disease in older cats, and its symptoms are extremely varied as is its treatment.
- Many diseases can cause a loss of appetite. A decreased sense of smell, the discomfort associated with dental disease, impaired kidney function, and even difficulty reaching a food bowl due to arthritis are all possible causes. However, if a cat does not eat for 3 days, we consider it an emergency. The body starts mobilizing, using its fat stored and the liver becomes impaired.
- Degenerative joint disease, or arthritis, is suffered by 90% of cats over the age of 12 years. The older cat is reluctant to jump on furniture, go up stairs and eliminates inappropriately (e.g., on rugs and clothes).
- Hyperthyroidism (often resulting in over-activity, changes in stool), high blood pressure (usually a result of kidney failure or hyperthyroidism), diabetes, Inflammatory Bowel Disease and cancer are all more prevalent in the senior cat.
How Can You Keep Your Senior Cat Healthy?
- Perform mini-physical examinations weekly. We will be glad to show you how to do this. Make the examination an extension of the way you normally interact with your cat. For example, while you are rubbing your cat's head or scratching its chin, gently raise the upper lips with your thumb or forefinger so you can check the teeth and gums. Lift the ear flaps to look at the ear canals. While you stroke the fur, check for lumps or bumps, evaluate the health of the skin and coat, notice if the ribs and spinal cord seem more sharply evident.
- Daily brushing or combing removes loose hairs to prevent hair balls and vomiting. It stimulates blood circulation and sebaceous gland secretions resulting in a healthier skin and coat. Nails should be checked and trimmed if necessary.
- Feed your cat an appropriate diet to remain an ideal body weight. Some cats actually become too thin as they get older, apparently as part of the normal aging process (loss of protein and muscle mass). However, it can also be caused by serious medical problems as discussed above (kidney failure, diabetes, hyperthyroidism, etc.) Some cats tend to become less active with age, become couch potatoes and gain weight. Obesity becomes a major health issue in cats of all ages! To ensure proper nutrition, select a nutritionally balanced and complete diet for your mature/senior cat and one that is formulated according to guidelines established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). Prescription diets are necessary for specific disease states. Nutrition is confusing and we'll be glad to help you!
- Exercise is important, not only for weight control but overall health. Older cats become less agile as arthritis develops and muscles begin to atrophy. Regularly engaging your cat in moderate play promotes muscle tone, suppleness, increases blood circulation and helps reduce weight in heavy cats. However, be alert to labored breathing or rapid tiring that may suggest a medical problem. It might also be necessary to relocate litter boxes to more accessible locations to prevent older cats from eliminating in inappropriate locations. A litter box with low sides, an even lower entry/exit area, and one that measures 1.5 to 2 times the length from your cat's nose to the base of the tail helps older cats gain entry more easily.
- Cats need stimulation and an enriched environment to help maintain mental acuity and cognitive function. This helps diminish advancing dementia with advancing years. Scratching posts, window perches and toys for playtime with you decreases boredom. These have the added benefit of burning excess calories and keeping muscles and joints healthy.
- Reduce environmental stress. Older cats are usually less adaptable to change. Think twice before adding a companion, changing diet or a litter box, even boarding in a strange environment. Moving to a new home can be equally stressful or having a family member leave for college. During these times, some stress can be alleviated by giving more affection and attention during these times of emotional upheaval.
Cats are experts at hiding illness and elderly cats are no exception. It is common for a cat to have a serious medical problem yet not show any sign of it until the condition is quite advanced. Since most diseases can be managed more successfully when detected and treated early in their course, it is important for owners of senior cats to carefully monitor their behavior and health. It is also important to have a good relationship with us, your cat's doctor!
How Can Veterinary Services of Aiken Help Your Senior Cat?
- We need to see you and your cat every 6 months. For elderly cats, every year over 12 years of age is equivalent to 15 years. A lot can happen in a year! Our veterinarians and technicians will spend plenty of time in a cat-only examination room (complete with anti-anxiety pheromones, soft fluffy towels and treats) taking your cat's vitals and history. We like to do as much as we can in the room with you. This is a stressful time for your cat and we recognize it. We'll discuss nutrition, arthritis, dentistry, cognitive function and any concerns you might have.
- Laboratory testing is essential to recognizing problems and delay disease progression. We will discuss our recommendations with you.
- We will spend extra time with you discussing your cat's mouth (dentistry) and musculoskeletal system (arthritis). Brushing teeth is ideal, but difficult. We'll guide you to consider dental treats that help keep teeth clean. Seventy percent of older cats have gum disease which causes bad breath with heart and kidney problems. However, fortification of diets with fatty acids, glucosamine and chondroitin are beneficial for those with mobility issues.
Working together, we can add years to your cat's life. Never assume that changes you see in your older cat are simply due to old age and, therefore, untreatable. If you notice any alterations in your cat's behavior or physical condition, please call us. We're always here for you and your pet!