Older cats need extra care. Grooming is sometimes difficult for them and they may appreciate regular combing.
During the last couple of decades the average life expectancy of pet cats has increased by at least two years, largely the result of better nutrition and health care. There are now more elderly cats in the feline population, and like elderly humans, they need special care.
Signs of old age
With increasing age comes a gradual deterioration in health, and while nothing can be done to stop the aging processes, it is possible to minimize their effects. So take note of the signs of old age, and give your cat the extra care it deserves.
Changes to coat and claws
Most cats don’t develop many grey hairs as they get old, but the aging process tends to cause their coat to grow longer, even in shorthair breeds. As their joints become less mobile they are unable to groom themselves properly, so their formerly smooth and sleek coat begins to look unkempt, with the fur ‘broken’ open. Their claws grow more quickly so nail trimming is required more frequently.
Another sign of old age is increasingly deeper and more prolonged sleep. Old cats are more likely to be startled if woken suddenly, and some cats may even hiss or spit if you wake them unexpectedly by touching or stroking them.
ο Allow your elderly cat to sleep peacefully in places of its choice, where it can relax in comfort.
ο Warn children in the household not to disturb it.
ο Keep other pets away as much as possible.
Changes in feeding and drinking patterns
Your older cat may experience a loss of appetite or a reluctance to eat – it could have difficulty in eating or drinking, too. These symptoms are commonly associated with gum inflammation (gingivitis), tartar formation or tooth decay, which are common problems in elderly cats.
An older cat may also experience increasing thirst. This may be a sign of developing kidney disease or some other health problem.
Old cats may benefit from an adjustment to their diet so that it is more easily digested. Many vets recommend a diet that contains lower protein levels, to lessen any stress on the kidneys. Not all vets agree, so talk to your practitioner, who may recommend a special therapeutic diet.
It is a good idea to take your cat for frequent health checks and routine blood samples to monitor its kidney and liver function.
This can occur over several months, even though the cat is still eating well, but because the weight loss is gradual, you might not notice it. One cause may be an overactive thyroid gland, a condition that can be treated.
As a cat ages, it may experience tooth or gum problems that make it difficult to chew, and its digestive system may not function as efficiently. Symptoms of digestive problems include vomiting of food or bile-stained (yellow-green) saliva, diarrhoea and constipation. These may respond to:
ο feeding three to four small meals daily (as for kittens)
ο including a greater proportion of moist foods in the diet
ο feeding products containing more easily digested forms of protein (e.g. lightly boiled egg yolk)
ο changing to a prescription diet on the advice of your vet.
Arthritic changes and osteoarthritis
An early sign of arthritis and osteoarthritis is stiffness when getting up and first moving around; this stiffness improves as the day progresses. In more extreme cases the cat has difficulty walking, with weakness of the hind legs, lameness and symptoms of pain.
Two-thirds of osteoarthritis cases in cats are first recognized by their owners, so as soon as you notice any signs you should talk with your vet and follow his or her advice.
ο a non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drug, given daily in tablet form for long-term treatment
ο drugs that aid the production of joint fluid
ο various homeopathic and natural remedies, including green-lipped mussel extract, herbal remedies and shark cartilage.
Coat colour changes can occur as part of the aging process (just as people turn grey), though these changes can also indicate poor health.
Reduced bladder capacity and loss of bladder control
A very old or arthritic cat has a reduced bladder capacity. One of the earliest signs of this may be frequent visits outside or to a litter tray. In the later stages it may begin to lose control over its bladder (urinary incontinence), and small amounts of urine may leak onto the places where it sits, lies or sleeps.
An old cat has more difficulty in passing faeces, and these may be passed at irregular intervals. Arthritic changes may also prevent it from adopting a normal excretory posture. Because cats usually defecate outside, you may not notice these symptoms for some time, so as your cat begins to age you should keep a closer watch on it.
If constipation develops, talk to your vet about possible corrective measures, which may include the addition of small amounts of medicinal paraffin to the cat’s food or a change to a prescription diet.
In the early stages deafness may be difficult to detect, because it occurs gradually and many cats learn to adapt. One of the first signs may be failure to respond to your usual calls.
As your cat’s hearing deteriorates it will be more prone to accidents. It may not hear vehicles that drive onto your property or approach it on the road.
During its early stages deteriorating sight may not be detected. Watch out for the following:
ο The eyeballs appear a bluish colour (the cornea is affected)
ο The eye appears white in the centre (a sign of cataract)
ο The cat starts to blunder into objects such as furniture
ο The cat is reluctant to go out at night and/or in bright sunlight.
The same principles apply as for humans. Avoid moving furniture, and protect the cat from danger. A partially or completely blind cat can usually live a contented life as long as it is in familiar surroundings.
Some cats cope better with old age than others. This cat has survived well into its 20s, with an excellent quality of life.
ο Increased demand for your attention
ο Increased vocalization.
Just like elderly people, old cats have good days and bad days. As the ‘owner’ you will have to adapt, and be tolerant and sympathetic to the cat’s needs. As the situation progresses you will probably need an increasing amount of advice and involvement from your veterinarian, and medication may be required.
Caring for an elderly cat
You can reduce stress on your aging cat by following these suggestions:
ο Put comfortable blankets or rugs in its favourite lying places, out of full sun and away from damp areas.
ο Protect it from situations in which it is likely to fall: for example, put barriers across steps or stairs, and make sure that it cannot fall from a sundeck.
ο If it shows less interest in eating, then slightly warm the food or change the diet to something more palatable.
ο Adjust its food intake according to its level of activity. As a cat takes less exercise it tends to put on weight, and an overweight cat is more prone to heart disease. Ask your veterinarian about diets that are specially formulated for various health conditions such as aging kidneys.
ο Monitor how much water it is drinking. If the quantity appears to be increasing, talk to your vet.
ο Take your cat for regular health checks at your vet clinic. Booster vaccinations need to be kept up to date, and teeth and gums checked. Routine blood sampling may assist with health care.
ο If you have to go away, arrange for a housesitter or an alternative home environment rather than a cattery.
Older cats appreciate extra warmth and comfort, as they tend to spend a large part of their day asleep.
Thinking about a replacement
As your cat begins to age, you may decide to bring another cat or a kitten into the household. You will need to spend a little time integrating the two animals and working at preventing inter-cat aggression, but it creates a transitional stage that may help you cope with the impending loss of an old friend while adapting to the different demands of a kitten or young cat.
Alternatively, you may decide to wait. Nursing an old cat may be enough for you to cope with, without having to take time away from this older companion to spend time with a younger one.
If you are in any doubt about what to do, talk to your veterinarian and/or the veterinary nurses at the clinic. They will have plenty of experience of owners who have been through the same difficult situation as you, and should be able to offer sound advice.
Whenever you get a replacement, you will have to decide what sort of cat to get, and will probably need to learn a new set of skills for a new individual.
The final days
This can be the most difficult period of your whole relationship with your cat, yet in many ways it can be one of the most rewarding times, too. This is your final opportunity to repay the companionship that your cat has given to you during the happy times you have spent together. If you know what to expect during these remaining days, you will find the inner strength to cope with them and know that your care and concern are being noted.
As your cat becomes more frail, its reliance on you will increase, and nursing procedures will take up more of your time.
As its sense of smell deteriorates, your cat will be less able to detect the aroma of foods, and will therefore become more fussy about what it eats. You will need to talk to your vet about the problem, and try out different types of food to discover what the cat prefers.
Loss of bladder and bowel control may result in ‘accidents’ to clean up, and if the cat sleeps in a basket its bedding may need frequent changing and washing.
Increasing deafness and blindness will make life more difficult for both of you, and your cat may become disoriented and demand more attention from you day and night.
Give your cat that attention. Physical contact, and the message of love that it carries, is very important; so spend as much time as necessary gently stroking and cuddling your cat to let it know that you are there, and how much you care. Sometimes an old or dying cat will purr a lot more. Why this happens is not fully explained, but for the owner it can be a comforting sound during what is often a stressful time.
Making the decision
Sometimes the final decision is made for you, and the cat dies suddenly and naturally.
In most cases there is no such solution and you, the owner, will have to make the decision to authorize euthanasia. It may come easily, or you may find it very difficult. We witness death (human and animal) on television, videos and films many hundreds of times every year, yet most of us have been brought up in a society that does not cope particularly well with dying, and are unprepared for it in real life.
If there are children in your family, discuss the situation with them and allow them to express their emotions. Talk about the positive aspects that came from owning the cat, and explain that however good their health care may be, cats have a much shorter life expectancy than we do.
The overriding factor in your decision must be to do what is best for the cat, not for yourself or your family. That decision will probably be made with the help of your veterinarian, who can play an important role as a counsellor and advisor.
Veterinarians and their staff understand what you are going through. They deal with this situation almost every day, and many of them have been through a similar situation with a cat of their own. They understand your grief and sense of loss, but also know that they can end your cat’s suffering in a humane way.
Animals have long been favourite subjects for artists, and a portrait of your pet is a wonderful memento of the times you shared together.
The grieving process
Grieving is a natural human reaction to the death of a much-loved cat or other pet, and you need to express it. There are five well-documented stages in the grieving process, and you will pass through each of them to some degree or another.
It is important to involve all the family members in decisions about euthanasia, as everyone needs time to say goodbye.
1.Denial and depression. Confronted with the fact that your cat is at the end of its life, you will probably suffer from depression to a greater or lesser extent. It is often at the subconscious level, and not immediately apparent to those around you. You may tell yourself, ‘They’ve got it wrong’, ‘Things may not be as bad as they seem’, or ‘There must be something else that can be done’. This reaction cushions your mind against the emotional blow it is experiencing.
2.Bargaining. In the human grieving process this involves offering some personal sacrifice if the loved one is spared. It is less likely to happen when a pet is involved, but you may still say things to yourself such as, ‘If you get better I promise to let you sleep on my bed’.
3.Pain and anger. Your emotional pain and feeling of frustration evokes anger. This may be directed at somebody else, such as a close relative or even your veterinarian, or it may be directed at yourself, and emerge as a feeling of guilt. At this stage the support of your veterinarian may be particularly helpful, because negative feelings are not constructive and need to be replaced by positive thoughts.
4.Grief. By this stage the feelings of anger and guilt have gone. Your cat has died, and all that remains is a feeling of emptiness. The less support you get at this stage, the longer that feeling will last. If support doesn’t come from your family or friends, then get it from another source, such as your veterinarian, a pet cemetarian or a professional counsellor.
5.Acceptance and resolution. It will take time, on average three to four months, but eventually your grieving will come to an end. Fond memories will replace grief, and appreciation will replace the sense of loss. Your deep feelings for your cat will remain, but now they will be positive as you recall the happy times the two of you spent together. You may even celebrate them by obtaining a new pet.
Knowing the stages of the grieving process, and how your family, friends and the staff at your veterinary clinic can help, should enable you to come through the event with the minimum of pain and the maximum of love.
Our pet animals have a shorter life span than we do, and on average an owner will suffer the loss of a dearly loved pet five times or more during a lifetime. Each time such a loss occurs that owner will experience grief. It doesn’t get any easier the more often it happens, for each pet is an individual and the owner grieves individually for it.
The usual procedure for euthanasia is the injection of an overdose of anaesthetic into a vein. There is no pain, and the cat falls asleep within 15–20 seconds. You may wish to be present during this procedure, or you may prefer not to witness it and say your last farewell afterwards. The choice will be yours.
Your veterinarian and the veterinary nurses who have assisted will understand what you are going through, and your tears are a natural reaction. One of their obligations is to help you deal with your grief.
Burial or cremation
Your veterinarian can help you to decide what to do next and, if necessary, find somebody who can help to make arrangements. You may wish to have your cat cremated, in which case a casket or urn containing the ashes can be returned to you. This can be buried, or kept. If you wish your cat to be buried, it can be done in your garden or in a pet cemetery.
For some pet owners the lingering grief can become intolerable. If this happens to you, don’t continue to suffer – rather seek help. This may come from a traditional counselling service, but in some countries (particularly the USA) there are veterinary teaching institutions with social workers specially trained to counsel pet owners. Once again, your veterinarian should be able to advise you.
The joints of an older cat become less flexible, and it is not able to reach every part of its body with its tongue for grooming. Its once glossy coat therefore begins to look ‘broken open’.