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Caring for an older cat

11 January 2020
Compared with some animal species, the average life expectancy of domestic cats is relatively long and, thanks to advances in veterinary medicine, is only going to increase. Many cats will live to 17 or 18, with some entering their early 20s and beyond.

A one year old cat is comparable to a 20 year old human, with every subsequent year adding four years to its human age equivalent. Therefore, a cat that is 16 years old will be developmentally the same as an 80 year old human; in fact the oldest cat on record lived to the grand old age of 38, equivalent to 168 in human years!

So, we know cats are long-lived, especially indoor cats. But, like us, they do age and undergo change. This usually happens above the age of 10, when your cat is equivalent to 56 in human years. Their metabolisms slow, their joints stiffen, their whiskers turn grey and they can no longer do, or eat, all the things they used to enjoy.

As an owner, it can be difficult seeing this change, but maturity is just another stage of development and, while it usually brings some detriment, there are ways to manage its effect for the comfort and longevity of your cat. Learning about the golden years early will help you to identify changes when they occur, so that you can distinguish what is normal from what is cause for concern.

During ageing, various changes occur. Activity levels decrease, muscle tone reduces and there may be a degree of sensory loss. Appetite and fluid intake will change, along with bowel and urinary system function, and the immune system may weaken. A cat's physical appearance, most noticeably coat condition, may also deteriorate, and behavioural or personality changes could be evident. Age-associated disorders such as arthritis, kidney disease, and diabetes become much more prevalent after 8 years of age, so it is important to be aware of these. It is also important to keep on top of vaccinations and flea and worm treatments as an ageing cat is not exempt from these problems.
While most considerations for the older cat are fairly obvious, it doesn't hurt to be reminded. Sometimes, it is little things that don’t cross our minds that make the biggest difference to a senior cat. Things like where we put the litter tray and how much we feed our cat are important as it enters its twilight years.

In the wild, cats are most vulnerable when they are eating, sleeping, and going to the toilet so having their wits about them is essential if they are to avoid attacks. As cats age, they are less vigilant to threat and cannot react with the same speed - so try to find ways to help them feel safe.

Bear in mind what your cat is eating and how much it is drinking. Cats are notoriously bad at the latter and therefore need as much moisture as they can get from their food. Elderly cats are very prone to dehydration as they have smaller appetites and therefore consume less water. As cats age, they need to keep their weight up and maintain an ideal body mass. While gradual weight loss often goes hand in hand with ageing, it can also be the first sign of a serious illness, such as diabetes, kidney disease, thyroid problems or even cancer. Any weight loss should be investigated by your vet before a diet plan is made.

If your cat is eating less through natural ageing, try to encourage smaller meals more often. Choose a quiet area to place the food bowl and experiment with familiar and unfamiliar foods to tempt your cat's appetite. Some older cats, especially those with dental problems, may prefer a softer food than regular biscuits or hard chunks. Add a little extra water to the food to help its passage through the digestive tract and keep your cat hydrated.

Most cats have a favourite spot they like to sit and observe from. Unfortunately, as cats get older, navigating these places can become impossible. Give your cat a helping hand by placing a ramp or extra step up to the sofa, windowsill or bed to assist arthritic joints and ensure your cat still gets to enjoy its treasured lookouts and chillout areas.

Also, consider where you put the litter tray, food and water bowls, scratching posts and cat toys, as elderly cats may have a hard time getting upstairs. If you notice your cat has become a bit sluggish, move these things to somewhere more accessible. If a bed is placed up high, move it somewhere lower down so your cat can rest without having to struggle. Likewise, consider horizontal rather than vertical scratching posts so your cat doesn't have to stretch.

Ageing is a completely natural process and it needn’t be traumatic. By understanding how your cat’s needs have changed, just as they did moving from a kitten to an adult, and modifying aspects of lifestyle, diet and care, you can reinforce and maximise health, whilst maintaining a good standard of living whatever your cat’s age, requirements, and personality.