Cats are living longer and healthier lives, thanks to improved veterinary care, better nutrition, and the fact that most pet cats are indoor cats. The definition of an older cat is usually preceded by the term “senior” or “geriatric.” Cats are considered senior between the ages of 11 and 14, and geriatric over the age of 15. Aging is a slow and gradual process, and there are things you can do to help keep your senior cat happy and healthy well into her golden years.
Regular veterinary care
Regular veterinary care is important at any age, but becomes especially important once your cats becomes a senior. Most veterinarians recommend annual visits for cats up to 6 or 7 years of age, and bi-annual visits for older cats. Depending on their health status, senior cats may need even more frequent visits.
Help your cat maintain a healthy weight
Due to their reduced levels of activity, senior cats may gain weight. Obesity can lead to numerous health problems, including diabetes. Increased weight will also aggravate arthritis. On the flip side, some cats, especially once they reach the geriatric years, may start to lose weight and will need to have their food intake monitored closely.
Weigh your cat regularly
Your cat’s weight can be a good indicator of her health – but only if you keep track of it. Gradual weight loss or gain can be difficult to recognize in cats. Consider that the average cat weighs 10 pounds. Weight loss of only 6% of a cat’s body weight is considered a clinical sign – that’s less than ten ounces. Depending on the size of your cat, visible changes to her weight may be too subtle to notice without actually weighing her. While you can weigh your cat by weighing yourself on a human scale, then weighing yourself while holding your cat, and subtracting the difference, your results will not be accurate enough. Your best bet is to purchase an inexpensive digital scale designed for babies. These scales measure pounds and ounces accurately.
Watch for signs of arthritis
Recognizing and treating arthritis, a condition that affects as many as 1 in 3 adults in the early stages will considerably improve your senior cat’s quality of life. Arthritis develops when the cartilage within joints wears down, leading to inflammation and pain. As the condition progresses, the friction can wear down to the point where it damages the bones themselves. This kind of arthritis is most common and causes the most pain in the weight-bearing joints like the shoulders, hips, elbows, knees, and ankles.
Modify your senior cat’s environment
If your cat can no longer jump up on beds or other favorite sleeping spots, consider getting a ramp or steps to make it easier for her. Make sure that your cat has easy access to the litter box. Some litter boxes may be too high for older cats to get in and out of comfortably.
Watch for behavior changes
Any deviation from your cat’s regular routine, no matter how subtle, can be an indicator of a health problem. Changes such as increased vocalization, problems with elimination, different sleeping patterns, or increased thirst or urination can all be indicators of medical problems and will require veterinary attention.
Feed a species-appropriate diet
The nutritional requirements of senior cats are unique when compared to those of humans and dogs. Elderly cats require more energy to maintain their body weight, in part because their fat and protein digestion is impaired. To compensate for impaired nutrient absorption, senior cats need to eat more food relative to their body weight than younger cats. While there are plenty of “senior diets” on the market, often advertised as “light” and lower in calories, they are high in carbohydrates and too low in protein. Feed a healthy raw or grain-free canned diet, and make adjustments in the quantity you feed as needed.
Maintain good oral health
Your senior cat’s bi-annual vet exams should include a thorough examination of your cat’s teeth and mouth. Good dental health is one of the most important health issues for cats, especially as they get older. Dental disease not only causes pain and decreases quality of life, but it can result in damage to other organs such as kidneys and heart.
Keep vaccinations to a minimum
Work in partnership with your veterinarian to evaluate risk, and determine whether there is a need for continued vaccinations. Consider blood tests in lieu of vaccinations to determine protection levels.