Newt, my sweet black cat with sparkling green eyes, turns 11 this year.
How the time flies…
According to the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP), cats reach middle-age at 7, become seniors at 11, and geriatric from 15 on. As Newt prepares to transition from mid-life to her senior years, I’ve been focusing on how to help her age well, to age with grace, dignity, and joy.
Isn’t that what we all want?
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How to Care for Your Senior Cat: From the first signs of aging and beyond
As mammals age, we all–whether cat, dog, human, horse, or rhino–share a few things in common: general wear-and-tear of muscles and joints, diminishing eyesight and hearing, and declines in the body’s functional capacity (for instance, you’re less likely to run a marathon at 75 than at 25). While we’re focusing on our feline friends here, it’s helpful to contextualize how your cat might be feeling in terms of your own experience. And, from our own human experience, there are a handful of factors we know that make the aging process a little easier. Those include: diet, exercise, and lifestyle choices. The same factors apply to our cats, plus a few more.
Let’s dig into each topic as we think about how to help our cats age gracefully!
Food and Water
This seems like a solid place to start because it impacts all the other facets of your aging cat’s overall wellness. How? Cats thrive at a healthy weight, even into their golden years. Obese cats struggle to get that all-important exercise, which diminishes quality of life, and the other impacts of being overweight include everything from osteoarthritis to diabetes to cardiovascular health to hip dysplaysia… and many more.
How many calories does a senior cat need?
Your cat’s diet plays a major role in his overall weight. This starts with getting the right amount of calories each day, though it’s not as cut-and-dry as senior cats = less calories like it might be in humans.
According to VCA Animal Hospitals, “Similar to humans, energy or calorie requirements in cats initially decrease in their senior years but unlike humans, energy requirements start to increase around 11 years of age. This is because, as cats age, they have difficulty digesting fats, proteins, and energy.” Since geriatric cats require more energy, they may actually need more calories. Before you’re tempted to switch your cat to a senior formula, check in with your vet to chat about your cat’s specific caloric needs.
How much should I feed my aging cat?
Calories are only one piece of the nutrition puzzle. Portion control is another big one. Don’t rely on the suggested serving size printed on the bag or can. Take into account your cat’s energy level, age (for caloric needs, as mentioned above), and recent blood panels. Your vet can help you figure out the daily needs per day, then divide that by however many meals you feed. Then, keep an eye on your cat’s weight and adjust as needed. For Newt, we feed wet food for breakfast and dinner, and dry food for lunch. After a bout of illness and a change to a novel protein prescription diet, we discovered she lost almost a pound–and for a 9-pound cat, that was a lot! So, we adjusted her portion–which does not match what’s on the can–and now she’s resting at a healthy weight. Be prepared to experiment and adjust, as needed, and don’t forget to take into account any treats you might feed each day!
How much water should my cat drink?
Since kidney function can deteriorate with age, hydration becomes even more important–and we all know how important it is already. If you haven’t fed wet food, consider offering a little or mixing it in with dry to give your cat more moisture with meals. Monitor your cat’s preferred drinking behavior. If she likes running water, like sipping out of a tap, consider a fountain. In our house, we have this pagoda fountain in an upstairs room and this zen fountain downstairs. Newt seems to prefer the pagoda, while Ripley, who is 5 years old, prefers the zen. With both available, everyone can choose. We also have a raised water dish (similar to this) for Cooper, and the cats often perch on the edge to lap up his water. If you have multiple cats in your home, or a combination of cats and dogs, place water dishes in a variety of spots so your senior cat doesn’t feel like she can’t access her preferred watering hole.
First things first: If your aging cat is having accidents, head to the vet. There are a lot of underlying medical causes of inappropriate elimination, and you want to rule those out–or treat them–first. Cats are experts at masking pain and symptoms, so a vet visit must be your first step.
Assuming nothing is medically wrong, or if your cat isn’t having accidents, assess your litter box situation. As cats age, they may have difficulty on stairs. Make sure each floor of your home has a litter box. If your cat isn’t quite making it on time, consider adding more boxes so he always has one nearby.
Litter boxes should be easily accessible, too. That means no big jumps or maneuvers should be required to enter or exit. This is something I’m thinking about in our home right now. All three of our litter boxes are this box. Does Newt struggle to gain access? No. Might she in the future? Absolutely. I can’t imagine any of them will need to be replaced anytime soon–they’re actually really fantastic boxes–but we may add a walk-in box now in another location, just to lay the groundwork.
As for the litter, unless you absolutely have to, try not to make any changes. Older cats, just like older humans, can feel set in their ways. An unnecessary disruption might add stress, and unless there’s a need, stick with what works.
Senior Cat Behavior
While some behavior changes as our cats age, it’s a mistake to assume all behavior changes are a result of aging. Older cats might move slower or play less… or that can be a sign of arthritis. Older cats might seem disoriented when you purchase a new sofa… or that might be an early warning sign of cognitive dysfunction.
Watch for shifts: if your litter-box-trained cat starts peeing on the carpet, or your fastidious kitty stops grooming herself, or your cat-tree-climbing cat suddenly starts staying grounded, it’s time to call in reinforcements. Your vet is your partner in investigating strange cat behavior. There may be a medical cause to the sudden change that can be treated–or, at least, managed–to improve your cat’s quality of life.
Overall, though, some key steps to take to support your senior cat’s behavior include:
- reducing overall stress in the household
- maintaining consistent routines
- encouraging your cat to play (even if it’s slower!)
- providing lots of mental enrichment to keep your cat’s brain in shape
- visiting the vet at least once but ideally twice a year for senior wellness exams
Grooming and Body Care
While cats are notorious for keeping themselves neat and tidy, the aging process may introduce more challenges. There are three big areas to focus on to help your cat age gracefully:
Skin and Coat Care for Senior Cats
Just like in humans, aging cats’ skin loses elasticity. This makes it more susceptible to injury and infection. Plus, cats who are struggling with arthritis or degenerative joint disease may find grooming painful. So, dirt and dead skin can build up, loose hair may get stuck, long hair can get matted. All that to say: Brush your aging cat! If it’s not currently in your routine, that’s okay. You can start with small strokes with a soft brush when your cat is already relaxed, then build up to a daily practice over time. Once the routine is in place, you’ll notice any cuts, scrapes, or dry spots before they can become full-blown infections. And, as an added bonus, this little bit of daily grooming can build a stronger bond between you and your cat. (This is extra important if you’ve adopted your cat as a senior–more on that below!)
Do you brush your cat’s teeth? If so, keep it up! If not, then you are in the vast majority. The Atlantic reported that less than 5 percent of cat owners brush their cat’s teeth. That same article also reported that periodontal disease in pet cats can exceed 80 percent. Yikes. But, let’s be real: It might be too stressful to start up a new dental care routine for your geriatric cat. There are water additives available, along with dental treats. Like many things, though, the best place to start is with your vet. Newt recently underwent a fully-sedated dental cleaning, which I wanted to do now while she’s still super healthy and while we had recent blood panels completed. Thankfully, her teeth were in pretty great shape because, I must confess, I’m among the 95 percent of non-brushers. However, our vet recommended some dental treats to keep tartar buildup at bay, so we’re adding that to her overall grooming routine.
Easier said than done, I know, but you need to trim your elderly cat’s nails. Unfortunately, many cats’ nails go for too long, especially as they get older and perhaps harder to trim, but the result is painful. Nails can curve under and press into your cat’s pads. Why is this especially true for older cats? Well, many older cats climb less and scratch less, so their nails don’t shed as much naturally. Start a nail-trimming routine, even if it’s only one nail per day. We have a solid nail trimming routine for both Newt and Ripley, and I’m happy to share the secret to our success: squeeze cheese. We spray a line of canned cheese along the bathroom counter and trim away while they lick it up. Now, when we get down the can of cheese, the cats dash to the bathroom, excited for what’s to come. Give it a whirl and let me know how it works for you!
Special Considerations for Aging Cats
Changes in Sensory Acuity
Aging cats can lose visual and auditory acuity. They might not become blind or deaf, but one or both of those senses may diminish as your cats age. If you suspect your cat is losing her hearing, take precautions not to startle her. Stomping the floor when you enter a room is one good way to notify her of your presence. If your cat’s sight is worsening, it can be helpful to leave small lights on in the dark. The goals for loss of either sense is to, first, prevent her from injuring herself in a fall and to prevent scaring your cat by startling her, which can also sometimes cause an injury–even if it’s an emotional one.
Warmth and Padding
Aging cats may lose muscle mass and could really benefit from soft, cushy surfaces for snoozing. Cat mom confession: I just added this one to my cart for dear Newtie.
Cats with arthritis might need a bed that combines a soft surface with a firm internal padding, something like this bed, so that they’re cushioned and supported at the same time.
Older cats, just like older humans, have trouble regulating their body temperature, so access to warm spaces away from drafts can be comforting. If you can supervise your cat resting on a heating pad set on low or a super cute warming pad, he might enjoy that too, especially if he suffers from degenerative joint disease or arthritis.
General Senior Cat Health Concerns
Aging isn’t a disease.
Aging isn’t a disease, but aging makes our cats more susceptible to disease. Most of what we’ve already covered here provides a solid foundation for overall health and wellbeing for senior cats. However, unfortunately, no food or bed or toothpaste can prevent our cats from succumbing to age-related illnesses.
Some of the more common diseases our older cats face include:
- kidney disease
- heart disease
- dental disease
And the big one: cancer.
Regular checkups can catch disease–paws crossed–before it’s too out of control to treat. Blood work should become part of your senior cat’s routine wellness checks. Urine tests can be added if there are concerns.
Hopefully by now you’ve picked up on a common thread: Your vet is your partner in helping your cat age with grace and dignity. (By the way, if you don’t feel like your vet is your partner, it’s never too late to shop around for a new practitioner. You and your cat deserve to feel seen and heard.)
Adopting or Fostering a Senior Cat
Older cats are often overlooked at animal shelters. But if you’re looking to add a feline friend to your family, don’t pass by the seniors! They’re often calmer than kittens and many are already litter box trained. Plus, many shelters offer “Seniors for Seniors” programs where human seniors can adopt feline seniors for a reduced–or even free–adoption fee. Senior cats can live many long, joyful, happy years, and the kindness and compassion of adopting a senior is sure to make those years even sweeter.
Ultimately, how best to care for your senior cat relies on your love and compassion.
Our cats fill such a special role in our lives, and as difficult as the senior years can be, they deserve nothing but grace, dignity, love, and compassion through every moment. I plan on monitoring Newt’s health with twice a year vet visits and regular weigh-ins. I plan on continuing to spoil her, Ripley, and Cooper because they are my lovies who deserve no less, no matter their age!
Do you have a senior cat in your life? We’d love to meet him or her in the comments! 🙂 If your cat isn’t yet a senior, what steps are you taking to support your cat as time passes?
Photo credits: 1st Photo by Pietro Schellino on Unsplash, 2nd Photo of Newt by my husband, and 3rd Photo by ModCatShop on Unsplash