Published by: Ingrid King. Last Updated on: May 2, 2023 by Crystal Uys
Written by Amy Shojai
Older cats that become ill typically try to hide how they feel. They also tend to become more seriously ill more quickly, and take longer to recover. “The earlier we see these animals, the more we can do something for them,” says Sheila McCullough, DVM, an internist at the University of Illinois. It is vital to pay attention to your cat as she ages, to catch problems before they turn serious.
A good way to keep in mind the special needs of your aging cat is simply to use the acronym L.O.V.E. That stands for Listen With Your Heart; Observe for Changes; Visit the Veterinarian; and Enrich the Environment.
Listen With Your Heart
Never discount that odd “feeling” that something’s different, not right. Listen with your heart and your cat will shout louder than words how she feels. That’s when you make the extra visit to the veterinarian and explain your concerns. “It’s more of an intuitive thing,” says Susan G. Wynn, DVM, a holistic veterinarian in private practice in Atlanta. Because of the love and close relationship you share, you have an advantage when it comes to “knowing” when something’s wrong.
A change in behavior is the number one way your cat tells you she’s feeling bad from either a physical problem or an emotional upset. Changes in behavior may be sudden and obvious, or may develop slowly and subtly over time.
Think of these changes as a feline cry for help. You need to have a good grasp of what’s normal for your cat in order to be able to recognize this shift in the status quo. That includes regularly observing your cat for changes.
Regular veterinary visits are a must. Any time you have an intuitive feeling or a more concrete observation that something’s not quite right, validate your concerns with a veterinary visit.
Finally, the environment your cat lives in impacts everything about her. When she begins to age, you have to make appropriate enrichments to her nutrition, exercise, grooming needs, and home life. Don’t forget to enrich her mind as well as her body. Follow the L.O.V.E. plan to keep her healthy and happy throughout her golden years.
Observe for Changes: Home Health Alerts
Healthy aging cats see the veterinarian only a couple of times a year. You live with her every day, and you know your cat best. In almost all cases, you will be the first to notice when something is wrong.
Close proximity to your pet allows you to immediately notice any changes that can point to a potential health problem. The major disadvantage to this closeness is that you may overlook subtle changes, or those that have a slow, gradual onset. Veterinarians call sudden problems “acute” and those are the easiest for owners to spot. But conditions that develop slowly over a long period of time, called chronic problems, are more insidious. Changes of a chronic nature creep up on you, day by day, in such small increments that you aren’t likely to notice anything’s wrong. By the time a problem becomes obvious, the disease may have been simmering for months or even years, and the damage may be permanent.
“The classic emergency I see is the 12-year-old cat that is feeling badly, and deteriorated over the last 24-48 hours,” says Steven L. Marks, BVSc, an internist and surgeon at North Carolina State University. “The assumption is that the pet has become sick in the last two days when in fact, chronic renal failure has been going on for months and maybe years. Now the body can’t compensate anymore and the pet’s suddenly sick and it’s an emergency.”
One of the best ways to stay on top of things is to create a log of your cat’s normal behaviors. A home health report card provides you with baseline measures against which to compare even the subtle changes in your cat’s health. For example, monitor how much your cat weighs. “Even a small amount of weight loss, an ounce or two, will really catch my attention in an elderly cat,” says Susan Little, DVM, a feline specialist in Ottawa, Canada. Should your cat at some point in the future be diagnosed with a particular condition, a home health report card also can help you measure how well the treatment works. That in turn helps the veterinarian make informed decisions if adjustments to the therapy are needed.
Once you have your list and a benchmark description of “normal,” review the home health report card on a monthly basis to check for any behavior or physical changes. If your cat has been diagnosed with a disease for which she’s receiving treatment, a weekly or even daily check to monitor changes may be better.
Generate a list of as many of your cat’s normal behaviors as possible. The categories will vary somewhat from cat to cat. Be as specific as possible. Examples of categories follow, but don’t limit yourself to my suggestions. If your cat gets in the sink every day, for example, or enjoys chasing the dog, include that as a category and describe her routine. Any changes to routine might indicate a health concern that needs attention. For instance, if she wakes you every single day at five and then suddenly lets you oversleep, perhaps her joints hurt too much from arthritis to jump onto the bed.
- Favorite Activity (games, how often, duration)
- Vocabulary (reaction to known words)
- Vocalization (increase/decrease)
- Sleep Cycles
Generate a list of your cat’s normal body functions. Be as specific as possible. Examples of categories follow, but don’t limit yourself to my suggestions. “I’d rather see a case that doesn’t need to be seen as an emergency than not see one that needed to be,” says Dr. Marks.
- Weight Loss/Gain
- Water Intake
- Urination and Defecation (color, increase/decrease, “accidents”)
- Skin, Fur And Claws (dandruff, sores, shiny fur, mats, etc.)
- Eyes (clear, watery, squinting)
- Ears (clean, smell, scratching)
This post is an excerpt from Amy Shojai’s Complete Cate for Your Aging Cat, winner of the Cat Writers’ Association HARTZ Award (for best entry on aging cats) and MERIAL Human-Animal Bond Award. The updated, revised 2010 edition is now available in paperback, and Amazon Kindle Edition with “hot links” to the experts cited in the book.
Amy Shojai, CABC is the award-winning author of 23 dog and cat care and behavior books, and can be reached at her website http://www.shojai.com
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About the author
Ingrid King is an award-winning author, former veterinary hospital manager, and veterinary journalist who is passionate about cats.