How Old Is Old?
The first signs of aging will begin to appear long before your cat reaches senior-citizen status.
- Middle age: 8 to 12 years. During these years, your cat will probably look and act the same as she did in her youth, and her appetite and activity levels will remain normal. At her regular checkups, however, your vet will start looking for signs of age-related ailments, such as diabetes and kidney failure.
- Borderline old: 12 to 15 years. Some vets consider a cat old at 12; others at 15. Cats in these "bridge" years are on the verge of old age.
- Full-fledged senior citizen: over 15 years.
Signs of Advancing Age
After age 12, you might notice some signs that your pet is slowing down a bit, such as:
- Napping more: Some older cats sleep as much as 18 hours a day.
- Grooming less: Increasing joint stiffness can make it hard for cats to perform the contortions necessary to clean every part of their body.
- Growing less sociable: Even basically friendly cats can find new people and situations stressful as they age.
Potential Signs of Health Problems
The above behaviors are normal for aging pets. But be on the lookout for signs of potential health problems common to older cats, such as:
- Eating more but not gaining weight: This can be a sign of thyroid problems or diabetes.
- Drinking more water: This, too, can signal diabetes or thyroid trouble, as well as kidney disease.
- Constipation: Difficulty having bowel movements can point to colon problems or suggest the need for dietary changes.
- Chewing problems: Difficult or painful chewing can be signs of gum disease or dental damage.
If you notice any of these changes in your cat's behavior, consult your vet.
Keeping Kitty Healthy
Making some adjustments in your cat's health care, grooming, exercise, and feeding routines will help keep your senior pet in good shape.
1. Health Care
Regular checkups are important throughout your cat's life, but the following changes are recommended for her later years.
- More-frequent vet visits: Your vet may advise bringing your cat in for a checkup every six months instead of annually. This will allow you and your vet to monitor your pet's well-being more closely.
- Extra attention to eyes and ears: Vision and hearing problems are fairly common among older animals. Your vet will examine your cat's eyes and ears extra carefully as your pet ages.
- Possible tests: If your vet suspects an illness, he or she may use any of several diagnostic tools. These include blood tests, CT scans, electrocardiograms, MRIs, and ultrasound procedures.
- Close communication with the vet: Be sure to alert your vet to any changes in your older cat's eating pattern, activity level, or other behavior.
2. Keeping Up Appearances
Since your cat's ability to groom herself efficiently may diminish with age, it's up to you to help keep her looking and feeling her best.
- Gentle but thorough grooming sessions: Keep up your regular grooming routine, with a couple of adjustments: -- Brush gently, so as not to pull on your pet's less-elastic skin. -- Take note of any lumps, bumps, or hair loss, reporting anything new to your vet.
- Daily teeth brushing: Brushing your cat's teeth once a day will help keep her teeth and gums healthy. While you're tending to your pet's mouth, check her breath -- suddenly developing foul breath can be a sign of illness or dental problems.
3. Encourage Exercise
- Keep her moving: Regular, moderate exercise will help keep your cat fit inside and out. Keep play sessions fairly short, so you don't overtax your pet's energy.
- Provide novelty: Older cats can grow bored with their familiar play routines. Try introducing a new toy (maybe stuffed or rubbed with catnip) to pique your pet's interest.
- Offer soothing alternatives: If your cat isn't fit or well enough to romp with you, provide "passive exercise." Gently massaging her will help increase her flexibility and improve her circulation. If she doesn't enjoy massage (or your vet advises against it), simply pet your cat frequently.
4. Managing Mealtime
Older cats tend to gain weight as their activity levels decline. They may also have chronic conditions that can be partially managed by diet. Consult your vet before making any changes in your pet's diet. He or she might recommend some of the following measures:
- Food geared to the nutritional needs of older cats: These specially formulated foods provide more fiber with less fat and fewer calories. They can help keep your cat from growing fat as she expends less energy.
- Smaller, more frequent servings: If your cat's digestive system is less robust than it used to be, eating smaller meals more often may make fewer demands on it.
- Lots of fresh, cool water: Having ample water to drink will help ward off kidney trouble and keep all your cat's systems functioning more smoothly.
As your cat ages, you'll want to make sure she is not only healthy, but also as comfortable as possible. Here are some simple ways to improve her quality of life in her later years:
- Cut down on change. Cats' innate love of familiarity and routine grows stronger as they age. Physical frailty and weakening senses can add to their discomfort with changes. Some ways to do this: -- Stick to a routine for feedings and play sessions. -- Avoid introducing new people or animals to the household. -- Minimize the number of unfamiliar situations to which your cat is exposed.
- Keep her indoors. Outdoor living is particularly stressful for older cats, as their diminished senses make them more vulnerable to danger and their aging bodies have trouble adjusting to changes in temperature.
- Provide a cozy bed. Older cats need a soft place to rest, especially if they suffer from joint pain and stiffness. Give your pet a well-padded bed -- even orthopedic cat beds are available -- and perhaps line it with a soft, washable blanket.