They say cats have nine lives, and eventually that ninth life comes along. Senior cats may show some gray hairs around the eyes and mouth, the lens of the eye clouds over, and they may think twice and walk away instead of jumping onto the kitchen counter.
The average life expectancy for cats is 10 to 15 years, although some live into their late teens or even 20s. Cats are considered mature at 7 to 10 years of age, senior from 11 to 14 and geriatric over the age of 15.
“This can vary a lot between cats depending on their breed and health status,” said veterinarian Matthew Kornya, who practices at the Cat Clinic in Hamilton, Ontario. “In humans, some 70-year-old people are healthier than some 50-year-olds, and the same is true for cats.”
Fortunately, you can take steps to ease your cat into her golden years – and possibly even extend them.
“Cats are already living significantly longer than they were just 10 years ago,” said veterinarian Drew Weigner, a feline practitioner in Atlanta and president of the Winn Feline Foundation. “Advances in treating many diseases seen in older cats, such as kidney disease, diabetes and thyroid disease, have led to not only increased lifespan, but also increased quality of life.”
Keeping weight off is key. By now we’ve all seen the videos of Cinderblock, the 25-pound cat bewailing her time on the water treadmill. Excess weight stresses joints, leading to painful osteoarthritis. It’s better if your cat never packs on the pounds in the first place. Measuring food, hiding small amounts around the house so she can hunt for it and scheduling three to five minutes of playtime a couple times daily are all ways to help cats stay active throughout life.
Some aging cats have the opposite problem, losing lean body mass with age. Smaller, more frequent meals and a fountain to encourage water intake can help them to maintain good body condition.
Senior cat dietary needs vary by individual. Some become less able to digest fat, while others have a decreased ability to digest protein. Cats with chronic kidney disease can benefit from therapeutic foods to help manage their conditions. Other diet-sensitive conditions include cognitive dysfunction, diabetes mellitus, hyperthyroidism and osteoarthritis. Your veterinarian can help you choose the best food for your cat, but in general, a highly digestible, nutrient-dense diet is a good choice.
Evaluate whether you need to make changes to your cat’s environment. Putting his food dish on top of the washing machine to keep it out of reach of the dog may have worked well in his younger years, but it may be time to rethink that.
“Make sure cats can easily get to food and water or their litter box without it being a stressful climb or difficult place to get to,” says veterinary technician Harmony Peraza at Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine.
Don’t smoke around your cat. Exposure to secondhand smoke dramatically increases a cat’s risk of lung cancer and other diseases such as asthma.
Take your cat to the veterinarian if you notice behavior changes such as drinking more water, eating less, not using the litter box, producing only small amounts of urine, prowling or yowling late at night or grooming less thoroughly.
“Arthritis commonly affects older cats and may lead to reduced mobility, inability to groom themselves and difficulty using the litter box,” Kornya said. “Minimizing arthritis pain can dramatically improve quality of life. Dental health is also of crucial importance, as many older cats suffer from tartar, gingival disease and oral infections that cause chronic pain and may lead to systemic disease. A healthy older cat is free of pain and infection, well-groomed and has a healthy body condition.”
Read more about caring for senior cats at FearFreeHappyHomes.com.
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Marty Becker and journalist Kim Campbell Thornton of Vetstreet.com. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker.