Caring for the Senior Cat

There are now more pet cats than dogs in the North America. Improved nutrition, prevention of infectious disease and advances in veterinary medical care have resulted in pets living longer and healthier lives. In North America, over the last ten years there has been a 15% increase in cats over ten years of age and the proportion of the feline population aged fifteen years or older has increased from 5% to 14%. It’s a great time to be a cat!

Why should we treat old cats differently to young cats?

  1. With advancing age body functions change.
    As cats age, all of their body systems are affected:

    Reduction in exercise may result in reduced muscle tone, which may further reduce the cat’s ability to jump, climb or exercise. This may also lead to a stiffening of the joints and arthritis.

    When coupled with reduced activity, common in older individuals, this lack of exercise can result in a fall in energy requirements of up to 40%. If a cat maintains a good appetite, its daily food intake must be reduced to prevent excessive weight gain.

    Inappetance or lack of desire to eat may develop in some senior cats since the senses of smell and taste become dull with age and periodontal disease is common.

    Gut function and the ability of the intestines to absorb nutrients are reduced in many older animals. Thirst is also decreased, causing an increased risk of dehydration, especially when combined with concurrent renal insufficiency, a type of kidney disease common in older cats. Most specific nutrient requirements are not yet determined for senior cats. However, it is often assumed that older cats have some degree of subclinical or underlying disease, particularly of the kidneys and liver, hence a diet with moderate protein restriction is usually recommended.

  2. With advancing age, any medication must be given carefully.
    Changes in physiology not only affect food and nutrient absorption, they also affect the way many drugs are metabolized. Liver and kidney disease occur commonly in older cats. When coupled with mild dehydration, these can result in reduced drug clearance rates and marked elevations in drug concentrations circulating within the blood. When treating geriatric patients, the dose and dosing intervals of some drugs may need to be altered.

Does my senior cat still need to have regular booster vaccinations?
Although little is known about the feline immune system, it is generally assumed that with age immune function may deteriorate. This may in turn result in a reduced ability to fight infection or destroy neoplastic (cancer) cells. Most older cats are more sedentary and therefore are at a reduced risk for contracting diseases like feline leukemia or rabies which are spread by direct contact with other animals. Our veterinarians will determine the appropriate vaccination program for your cat based on its physical condition and lifestyle.

My senior cat becomes very distressed when we try to medicate her. Should we keep trying when it upsets her so much?
This is something you should discuss with your veterinarian. There is no simple answer to this question; it depends on whether the treatment may lead to a cure, or whether it is aimed at controlling clinical signs. It also depends on how ill the cat is, and on the specific disease for which it is being treated. Older cats are often poorly tolerant of excessive physical handling or environmental change, so while veterinary medicine may be able to offer complex therapeutic options, it is important that each case be assessed individually. Treatment should not be attempted where it will be poorly tolerated for medical or temperamental reasons. Once the patient’s quality of life can no longer be maintained it is important that euthanasia is performed as compassionately as possible, in order to prevent the cat from suffering.

What diseases do senior cats commonly get?
The major health risks seen in older cats are:

  • Obesity Hormonal disorders such as hyperthyroidism and diabetes mellitus
  • Kidney disease
  • Liver disease
  • Neoplasia or cancer
  • Infections such as feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV)
  • Periodontal disease
  • Heart disease
  • Osteoarthritis

It is important to remember that while young cats usually have only one disorder at a time, this is often not the case in older patients, where diagnosis and treatment may be complicated by the concurrence of multiple interacting disease processes.

While it is true to say that “old age is not a disease”, it does merit special attention. This is important so that if your cat develops disease, we can recognize and treat it as early as possible, thereby maintaining its quality of life for as long as possible. What can I do to make my senior cat as happy as possible?

Most cats age gracefully and require few changes to their general regimen. Since older cats do not generally respond well to change, it is important that any changes are introduced slowly.

Elderly cats should have easy access to a warm bed, situated where the cat can sleep safely without fear of disturbance. Because they may stop sharpening their nails, their nails may overgrow and will need regular trimming every 2-4 months. They often stop grooming themselves and may develop matts that require brushing or shaving. Many owners prefer to have their long haired cat shaed every 4 months to prevent fur balls and matts.

They can have a tendency towards anemia, and fleas will be more stressful for them. It is strongly recommended that even indoor cats receive a flea preventative once a month.

It is strongly recommended that you feed your older cat a premium brand senior diet. They should always have easy access to fresh drinking water.

As cats age, some will experience a reduced ability to control urination and defecation. To reduce the risk of “accidents”, it may be necessary to allow access to multiple litter boxes.

My veterinarian mentioned a Senior Care Program. What does this involve?
The aim of any senior care program is to maintain the quality of the patient’s life and to slow the progression of age-related disease. Because most of the chronic diseases we see in senior cats are slow to progress, early recognition is usually only possible through diagnostic tests. The earlier we can diagnose a disease, the more the likelihood that we can slow or reverse its process and maintain a longer period of high quality of life for your senior cat. Our senior program includes a thorough, biannual physical examination, blood and urine screening, testing for feline leukemia virus infection (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), blood pressure monitoring, dental care, and whole body radiographs every 2 years. Body weight should be recorded regularly and booster vaccinations should be given as determined by your cat’s lifestyle.

As our pets age, they develop health problems that may not be detectable without blood, urine, and other tests. About 30% of our patients will have abnormalities that can only be diagnosed and treated as a result of these tests. In order to do this, we make the following suggestions.

Comprehensive physical exams every 6 months
Your pet ages more quickly than people. Giant dogs are considered to be geriatric at 7 years of age. Larger dogs are considered geriatric at about 8 years, and smaller dogs and cats at about 10 years of age. A checkup every 6 months will allow earlier detection of disease that will improve the quality of life for your animal companion, and allow you the opportunity to discuss the aging process of your pet with your veterinarian. It is common to find that changing the diet or correcting undetected dental issues, for example, will provide an older pet with a more comfortable and longer life.

Laboratory Tests: Blood Panel and Urine Analysis every 6 months
Blood and urine tests are invaluable for our geriatric patients in many different ways. Often older pets are on a variety of medications. Sometimes these tests will detect early side effects of medications on an organ allowing us to adjust the dose or regimen. In addition, these tests can provide us with information that alert us to impending signs of health problems, so that we can suggest lifestyle changes or medical treatment options that may have a profound benefit for your animal friend. And lastly, normal tests can provide us with a baseline by which we can monitor health trends as your pet ages.

Blood pressure measurement every 6-12 months
Just like us, older pets can develop hypertension (high blood pressure) a serious “silent disease”, which can adversely affecting their vision and potentially lead to blindness, heart disease, and organ failure. Hypertension is often linked to other common geriatric diseases such as kidney, heart, and endocrine diseases, and if your pet is diagnosed with one of these conditions, the blood pressure should be checked every 6 months. Hypertension is generally very effectively controlled by diet, medication, herbal remedies, or correcting the underlying cause.

Survey chest and abdominal radiographs every one-two years
The first radiographs can serve as a baseline for future comparison, as well as detect areas in the body that need to be monitored or handled with care. For example, sometimes spondylosis of the spine is found. We can show you where on your pet’s body this degenerative process is occurring, so that you can be more careful of this area. Our digital radiographs can easily be shared with specialists by email or with you at home on your own computer.

Weight check with every exam
Discussing your pet’s weight is an important part of every exam and consultation. Keeping your pet trim and active will allow them to negotiate stairs and furniture well into their old age. Even moderate weight gain has been linked with arthritis, liver problems, diabetes, constipation, as well as a shorter life span.