Cats – The Geriatric Cat
What is considered geriatric for a cat?
The geriatric years for a cat are usually defined as 8 years of age or older. The average life span of a cat has improved considerably in recent years. Today, it stands at 10 to 14 years. This is due primarily to improved vaccinations, availability of improved technologies and new treatments, increased awareness of guardians to keep their cats indoors, and increased guardian responsibility and care of their cats.
What affects a cat's longevity?
Both genetic and environmental factors affect a cat's longevity. We have no control over the cat's genetic makeup, but you, the guardian, have some control over the environmental factors which affect longevity. These environmental factors include nutrition, veterinary care, daily home care, neutering, and keeping cats indoors. Cats that have been neutered, preferably at a young age, live longer than unneutered cats. Cats that stay indoors live longer than cats allowed to roam.
What changes can I expect as my cat gets older?
Aging is a natural process with progressive and irreversible changes in all the body systems and their functions and a gradual decline in the metabolic rate. Behavioral and physical changes are usually predictable and degenerative as the cat ages. These changes usually occur slowly and are only distinguishable over time.
The aging cat is more sensitive to change as the capacity to adapt diminishes. The aging cat may demonstrate behavioral changes, including lapses in house training, lethargy, increased and changes in sleeping pattern, night time restlessness, increased anxiety, and inability to cope with environmental changes, lack of attention to grooming, decreased tolerance to cold, finicky eating habits, and becoming more sweet tempered (on the other hand some become more cranky or grumpy!). Some become more vocal, irritable and anxious. If advanced senility occurs, bizarre behaviors are seen, for example, wandering, excessive meowing, disorientation, and avoidance of social interaction.
Teeth, gums, and mouth:
Dental calculus (tartar) gradually builds up at a different rate for each cat depending on genetics (some breeds of cats are more prone to dental disease) and food fed. Hard dry cat food builds up less tartar than canned cat food. Tartar, unless periodically removed, will eventually cause periodontal disease or gingivitis that leads to loosening of teeth.
Older cats may have anorexia (loss of appetite), vomiting, diarrhea, or constipation. Constipation is a common problem with older cats. The colon loses tone, the bowel movements may become harder and more difficult to pass. Poor digestion and absorption of foodstuffs is common. A diet change or medications may be necessary.
Kidney degeneration occurs in older cats. Cats can compensate by drinking more water and thus urinating more urine. Incontinence (lack of bladder or bowel control), and thus lapses in house training, may occur.
A general loss of muscle mass and tone occurs with age. Long bones become more brittle and arthritis sets in. These changes account for the decreased and slower activity of the older cat, inability to jump as high, less agility, and tendency to wobble.
All the senses of the cat are diminished by age, but cats can compensate well, up to a certain degree. Loss of hearing can appear to the guardian as acute (sudden) due to this covert compensation. Deterioration of the senses of smell and taste may lead to difficulties in the cat eating his regular food.
As a cat ages, her skin loses its elasticity (skin becomes flabby) and a general thinning of the skin and fur is common. Skin cysts and tumors occur more frequently as do chronic skin infections. Many older cats have an unkempt coat from poor grooming habits and reduced blood circulation. Nails grow thicker, longer, and more brittle. With aging, a decrease in metabolic rate occurs and cats can become obese on high calorie food.
Other signs may include a cloudy appearance of the lens and a lacy appearance of the iris of the eyes, changes in hair coloration (for example, the Siamese becomes darker with age), more prominent spine and hips, and loss of weight.
What can I do to care for my elderly cat?
While the maximum life span probably cannot be increased beyond its present limits, there is much you can do to improve the quality of an older cat's life. This requires an increased desire, care, understanding and higher maintenance on your part. But you will enjoy your cat more fully in his declining years and your cat will live a longer and happier life.
Feed your cat a balanced nutritious diet in restricted amounts to prevent obesity. If your cat is overweight, consult your veterinarian for a lower calorie diet. If your cat is underweight, consult your veterinarian for a higher calorie, more palatable diet. Warm the food to enhance the aroma.
Cats are experts at hiding illness. It is common for a cat to have a serious medical problem, yet not show any sign of it until the condition is quite advanced. Take your cat to see your veterinarian at least once or twice a year or more often if recommended for examinations, determination of weight, and blood testing. This will vary from cat to cat. Frequent diagnostic procedures may be needed to identify disorders and treatment plans.
Commonly encountered geriatric-related diseases include diabetes, hyperthyroidism, inflammatory bowel disease, kidney disease, liver disease, obesity, cancer, heart disease, hypertension, and diseases of the teeth and mouth.
Chronic diseases require lifelong treatment, intermittent monitoring and modification of the management regimen. Follow the recommended diet (and any supplements), medications, vaccination schedule, and dental care (teeth cleaning). Adverse or unexpected drug reactions should be immediately reported to your veterinarian — some older cats cannot tolerate some medicines that they use to.
Give fresh water constantly. Keep your cat indoors. Never leave your cat out in cold or rainy weather. Encourage playing and as much activity as possible. Give plenty of attention and affection to the older cat. Groom the cat every day to prevent hairballs and to offset poor grooming habits. Clean eyes regularly. Cut your cat's nails regularly to keep them short. If the cat will allow, examine the teeth and gums periodically, brush the teeth daily, and chip tartar off the teeth with your fingernail. Eliminate stress as much as possible from your cat's life. If possible, have the cat cared for in her own home while you are on vacation.
It will take the older cat a longer time to recuperate from any illness. Also it will take less to push the older cat to be ill, due to a diminishing function of the immune system. Be observant of the cat's water intake and urine output, weight, any lumps or growths, food intake, activity level, and any problems of diarrhea, constipation, vomiting, coughing, or sneezing.
Never assume that changes you see in your older cat are simply due to old age, and therefore untreatable. Any change in your cat's behavior or physical condition should alert you to seek veterinary attention.
It may be necessary to relocate food dishes and litter boxes to make them more easily accessible and accessible 24 hours a day. You may need to locate a stool by the bed to allow the cat to jump onto the bed via the stool.
When do I know it is time to say goodbye?
Pets offer companionship, emotional intimacy, and feelings of well being to their guardians. This makes the reality of advanced age, and ultimately death, difficult to accept. Guardians must ensure a happy, pleasurable and dignified quality of life to their pet. When that quality of life cannot be maintained, alternatives need to be considered.
A decision about euthanasia is difficult to make. Euthanasia is a humane course of action in cases where the prognosis is hopeless or where the continued life of the cat would be painful or undignified. Please talk to your veterinarian about all options available to you, to help you make informed decisions.
In 2006, Rabbi Yona Metzger, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, issued a issued a ruling, a Psak Halacha, stating that on the basis of the Jewish mandate to prevent cruelty to animals, tsa'ar ba'alei hayim, a suffering animal should be allowed to end its life in a dignified manner. "Compassion is inherent in our people, a characteristic of the sons of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; therefore, pity any suffering creature and relieve it of its suffering in a quick manner, by euthanizing it so that it will feel no further pain."