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Looking for advice on caring for an older cat? Here’s our guide to elderly cats.

Growing old gracefully

Though your beloved cat may still feel like a kitten at times, eventually they’ll start to slow down. Older cats often need a little extra care and attention as they enter their twilight years, and there are lots of ways you can help your cat continue to be healthy and happy.

In this guide, we’ve covered some of the most common questions around how to care for elderly cats, including elderly cats’ behaviour, the best food for elderly cats and what to expect, such as whether older cats sleep more and changes you can make to your home to make sure they’re comfortable.

The ageing process

As your cat gets older, you might start to notice a few changes, such as:

  • a decrease in activity levels and muscle tone
  • changes to their appetite and how much water they drink
  • a change in vision or hearing, as they may start to deteriorate
  • needing the toilet more or less as their bowel and urinary systems change
  • their immune system may weaken
  • they might sleep more, but overall sleep less deeply
  • a change in coat condition as your cat may be less able to groom thoroughly
  • age-associated illnesses such as arthritis, diabetes and hyperthyroidism

You may also notice some psychological signs of aging and associated behavioural changes such as aggression, confusion, forgetfulness, an increased dependence on you or being louder than usual. You might notice that your cat seems confused or forgets where the litter tray is.

How old is an ‘elderly’ cat?

With the constant improvements in veterinary care, the life span of cats is much longer than it used to be. A cat used to be considered elderly at the age of 12 years or more, but it’s not now uncommon for your cat to reach the ripe old age of 18!

Some people prefer to choose an elderly cat for adoption. Older cats can be less energetic than younger cats, and they tend to spend more time at home purring in your lap, making them wonderful companions.

How old is my cat in human years?

Ever wondered how old your cat is in human years? Here’s our quick guide to helping you calculate their age.

Preventative healthcare for older cats

In their golden years, you can help your cat by carefully monitoring any changes in your elderly cat's behaviour and their overall wellbeing. Simple things like checking their eating, drinking and toileting habits haven’t changed will help you identify any issues quickly. Any changes should be reported to your vet as they may indicate an underlying health condition.

As part of elderly cats’ care, you should factor in a need for more frequent vet visits, especially if your cat has any age-associated diseases. Regular weight checks are important, as are booster vaccinations to support your cat's immune system.

Discuss with your vet how regularly your cat needs a check-up, some vet surgeries may run special geriatric clinics for older cats.

What to feed your older cat

 As your cat gets older, it’s a good idea to feed them a diet made specifically for senior cats. Many popular brands provide special food for elderly cats, tailored to meet their precise nutritional needs, including higher levels of good quality protein. Your vet can advise on the correct diet for your cat.

You might notice your cat has less of an appetite as over time, their sense of taste and smell can diminish. Because of this, they might appreciate a little encouragement from you.

Here are a few things you can do to encourage your cat to eat:

  • feed little and often – Four to six small meals a day is a good starting point, if they seem reluctant to eat their usual food it’s worth trying different flavours to tempt them
  • warm it up – Try gently warming food as this can make it more appealing to your cat
  • try different consistencies - If your cat has dental issues, they might prefer softer food in jelly or gravy to hard biscuits, you could also try adding a small amount of water and mashing it up with a fork
  • spend some time together – Your cat might like to make an occasion of it with you, sitting with them and talking or stroking can encourage them to eat
  • make mealtimes fun – Puzzle feeding is a great way to help your cat feel younger by keeping their brain active!

 Overall, try to keep an eye on how much your elderly cat eats and drinks in a day, as any significant change in appetite or thirst could indicate an underlying health condition that should be checked out by your vet.

Find out more about your cat's diet

Food and water bowls

A big part of how to care for elderly cats involves making sure they’re eating and drinking enough. Older cats may have achy joints and stiffness, and having their food and water bowl in easy access can help encourage them to visit them more often. Try placing water and food bowls in a few different easy-to-reach spots around your home, both upstairs and downstairs. This will make it easier for your cat to access them whenever they need them.

Another way you can make things more comfortable for your cat is to place food and water bowls on a higher level. Some elderly cats may struggle to bend their necks, so place a bowl on a box or a raised surface to make it more accessible.

Grooming your older cat

As your cat gets older, they might find they’re not as flexible as they used to be! This can make it difficult for them to take care of their coat. Help your cat stay fresh and clean by brushing them regularly, gently wiping any discharge around their eyes with a damp cloth, and for long-hair cats, keeping an eye out for mats in the fur which can be uncomfortable.

Gentle grooming keeps their skin healthy and provides the perfect opportunity for you to carefully check for any lumps, bumps, or sores that might require a vet trip. It’s also a lovely way to bond with your cat, plus stroking your cat is a great de-stressor for you!

If you find your cat’s coat is looking increasingly unkempt, it may be a sign of a pain associated with the joints or with the mouth. If you are concerned about your cat’s lack of grooming, contact your vet for advice.

As part of your cat’s grooming routine, you should consider trimming their claws every two to four weeks. This will decrease the chances of getting their claws stuck in furniture or carpets, and prevents long claws damaging their paws. Your vet will be able to give you tips and training to do this safely.

Find out more about grooming

How to adapt your house for an older cat

The good news is you don’t need to make huge changes for your cat to be comfortable in your home. Little things make a huge difference to your cat’s quality of life and can help manage any aches or pains they might experience.

Though your cat may still seem – and act – like a kitten, things that used to be easy for them such as jumping or climbing can be much harder for them.

If your cat struggles with things like climbing stairs, it may be better to keep all their essential items on one level for ease. You can also do small things like place rugs on laminate or wooden floors, to make them less slippery for your cat and give them somewhere comfortable to rest.

Beds suitable for an older cat

Caring for an elderly cat often involves allowing them to rest and relax as needed. It’s well known that older cats sleep more, so your cat will appreciate having a variety of cosy, well-padded beds in places that are easy to reach.

The best cat bed for elderly cats is one that is warm, comfortable, and placed somewhere quiet in your home for optimal snoozing. Hammock-style radiator beds are especially warm, which older cats may appreciate.

High perches

Just because they’re getting on in years, doesn’t mean they’re afraid to scale great heights! Many elderly cats love to sit in high places, but they might struggle to climb up the way they used to, especially if they’re suffering from an age-related disease.

You should encourage this natural behaviour but be aware that older cats can struggle to calculate the height of surfaces and are more likely to fall. Help your cat reach their favourite high perches by providing a ramp or a piece of furniture to act as a stepping stool, you could cover this in carpet to provide extra grip.

It is also a good idea to create a crash mat underneath the perch in case your cat falls! Cushions under windowsills make perfect crash mats for uncoordinated or wobbly cats.

If your cat enjoys the great outdoors but is spending less time there, you might like to place a perch near a window, so they can keep an eye on the local wildlife from the comfort of the cat tree.

Litter trays and toileting

The best litter box for elderly cats is one that is large, giving your cat plenty of space to move around as they do their business. It should have low sides so they can easily climb in and out. Some litters may be too rough for an elderly cat, even if they were fine when they were younger. Don't make any sudden changes, but provide additional trays with 3cm of soft, fine litter that will feel more comfortable under their paws.

Always provide several litter trays in the house, even if your cat has toileted outside all their life. There will be times when an older cat needs an indoor litter tray, such as when it's raining, or if the usual toileting site is frozen, or if they feel intimidated by neighbouring cats. Place the litter trays in quiet areas of your home so your cat feels safe.

Though it’s usually best to keep litter trays away from food and water, your cat may prefer it closer, especially if they’re particularly elderly or suffering from an illness that makes them less steady on their feet. Keeping the litterbox in an accessible place will reduce accidents.

Older cats are less able to defend themselves and their territory, so they can become more anxious and more dependent on their owners. By going outside with your cat, you may help them to feel protected against neighbouring cats. If your cat still prefers to toilet outside, provide a newly dug-over border as close to the house as possible and maintain it regularly.

Find out more about toileting

Scratching posts

As with many things, your older cat will still want to scratch and sharpen their claws, but they may find it difficult to use standing or wall-mounted scratch posts.

You may wish to provide a horizontal scratching surface or one with a softer material, such as carpet, to help them scratch more easily. As part of your grooming routine, make sure to check their claws for any damage.

Keeping your older cat safe outdoors

Is your cat microchipped? Older cats may get lost or go missing due to being confused and unsteady on their feet.

Microchipping your cat will improve your chances of being reunited with your pet if they wander off.

If you’re worried about a cat with an illness that requires medication or a more senile cat disappearing, you can make your garden safer for them – and minimise disputes with neighbourhood cats – by fencing in your garden.

Some cats may stop going outdoors as much as they have difficulty using a cat flap. Placing steps inside and outside can be helpful, but you may prefer to escort your friend outside.

Find out more about microchipping your cat

Playing with your older cat

Most of the time, elderly cats still love to play as much as they did when they were little, and regular exercise can do wonders for their mental and physical health.

Elderly cats’ behaviour when playing may be slightly less high octane, so try using toys that are unlikely to intimidate them, such as a feather attached to a string that you slowly move past them. You should experiment with different toys to see what captures their attention. Any interaction – even just watching – provides useful stimulation.

Kick toys are particularly effective for older cats, encouraging them to exercise their potentially stiff hind legs and allowing them to lie down while playing! They may also still love playing with cardboard boxes, you can make them fun without the strain of hopping in and out by placing a box on its side for easy access.

The importance of routine

If you’ve lived with cats for many years, you’re probably familiar with your pet waking you up promptly for breakfast. Cats love routine and as they get old, they really appreciate familiarity and predictability.

You can put them at ease by serving meals at the same time each day, keeping things calm at home and avoiding moving furniture around wherever possible, so the home environment remains familiar and easy to navigate.

Health issues affecting older cats

Elderly cats are more vulnerable to a variety of age-related health conditions. Cats are known to hide pain, so you will need to be alert to subtle clues that your cat is not right. You may notice things such as changes to their movement, a loss or increase in appetite, excessive thirst, or problems sleeping or toileting.

Some of the most common age-related illnesses are:

  • arthritis
  • constipation
  • deafness
  • diabetes
  • kidney issues

Catching problems early can help you minimise suffering and could extend their life for years to come. If you’re concerned at all, you should contact your vet.

As your cat reaches old age, they’re also more likely to require regular dental care. As part of your grooming routine, check regularly for any signs of dental disease. Things to watch out for include any growths in the mouth, redness in the gums, bad breath, drooling, a loss of appetite or your cat pawing at their mouth.

Find out more about health issues in elderly cats

Thinking about when to operate on your older cat

If an operation is necessary, your vet will carry out a thorough health check first, which may involve a blood test.

While veterinary surgery is never without its risks, vets today use advanced drugs and specialised monitoring equipment, meaning surgery is now safer than ever for our pets.

Your vet will take time to explain any risks associated with the operation prior to the procedure going ahead.

How to care for your cat after an operation

Vet care for older cats (and when to say goodbye)

Many cats live long, happy lives, providing great comfort and companionship to their owners. You should discuss with your vet how frequently your cat should be examined, as well as staying up to date on their vaccinations and annual check-ups.

Many health conditions affecting older cats are treatable and you should always visit your vet if you have any concerns about your cat's health, as they may be able to recommend treatment to help your cat get more enjoyment from their twilight years.

Eventually, you may notice your cat is less able to get around comfortably, or perhaps they’re no longer eating or drinking as they should. We love them as much as any member of the family and when they get seriously ill, it can be hard to consider letting them go.

You’ll need to make the right decision for you and your beloved pet. Choosing to have your cat euthanased is one of the most difficult decisions you'll face, but it is often kinder to give your pet peace and dignity in their final moments with you by their side.

Letting go is a decision that isn't made easily. If you feel you need support or someone to listen to your worries, get in touch with our Paws to Listen grief support line.

Find more support on grief and loss

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