GROWING OLD GRACEFULLY
Copyright 1995, 2000 Sarah Hartwell

A Guide for People Owning or Adopting Older Cats

1. Why Adopt an Older Cat?
2.
One Cat or Two
3.
Introducing Additional Cats
4.
Feeding Older Cats
5.
General Care of Older Cats
6.
Health Care
7.
When to Call the Vet
8.
Old Age and Disability
9.
Growing Old Gracefully
10.
Time to Let Go
11.
Coping With Pet Bereavement
12.
Further Reading

Note

This article was originally researched and written for cat owners in Britain and a condensed version has been approved for use by Cats Protection in the UK. However, styles of cat ownership vary according to your country of residence. It should be borne in mind that sections relating to the older cat outdoors may be inapplicable in those areas where cats are kept as indoor pets. Where you have any detailed concerns about your pet, please do not hesitate to contact your vet for specialist advice.

WHY ADOPT AN OLDER CAT?

When deciding to adopt a cat, many people immediately think of kittens. Though cute, kittens are bundles of tearaway energy with remarkably little common sense and are prone to getting into scrapes or becoming playfully destructive if bored or unattended. Curiosity combined with a lack of common sense means that many cats are involved in accidents, both indoors and outdoors, during their early years.

If you plan to adopt a cat you must decide whether you and your furnishings can cope with a boisterous young animal or whether a more sedate adult cat would suit your lifestyle better. If you have young children, a small kitten is vulnerable to accidental harm while an older cat is better able to avoid being trampled or mauled. If you are an older person, you will find an older cat calmer and more companionable and less likely to get under your feet or need to be rescued from kittenish scrapes.

Cat care education, neutering, vaccination programs and improved veterinary care means that cats are now living longer and, barring accidents, spend proportionally more time in middle- and old-age than in kittenhood and youth. The average lifespan of a cat is now reckoned to be 16 years with many cats reaching their late teens or early twenties. There is no hard and fast rule about when a cat is considered "old". Vets consider cats to be "middle-aged" from about 5 years old, though cats themselves may show few signs of being aged until they reach their teens. Definite age-related changes occur in the cat's body from about 7 years. Most vets and behaviorists consider cats to be geriatric at the age of 10-12 when the cumulative effect of such changes start to affect the cat's body and lifestyle.

Cats are longer-lived than most other domestic pets and this longevity means that there is no shortage of adult and older cats needing homes. They also age gracefully and, with a little understanding and care, there is plenty of mileage left in most 10 year old cats.

The Benefits of Older Cats

Older cats are generally quieter and more sensible than kittens or young cats and generally need less supervision. They are already used to household life and know the ground rules of living with people. Instead of becoming bored and needing to let off steam in your absence they are more likely to doze, leaving your furnishings intact. An older cat will already be housetrained and adult cats adopted from shelters will probably already be neutered and possibly already vaccinated.

Although there is less variation in size between cats than in dogs, an older cat is fully grown so you can see what you are taking on - large, medium or small, longhaired, semi-longhaired or shorthaired, placid or active. The cat's previous owner may have provided details of its character, allowing you to select a cat that suits your own needs and lifestyle.

As cats grow older they are less likely to hunt successfully, a boon if your cat is allowed outdoors but you don't appreciate regular "presents". They are more home-oriented and settled, making them excellent companions. If you enjoy pampering your cats, an older cat will be much more appreciative of this attention than a kitten.

Older cats have less energy and are more placid than kittens and are content to spend much of their time watching the world go by. As they slow down, their play becomes less energetic and less alarmingly acrobatic. Cats are at their most companionable in these later years. They enjoy attention and companionship, but will not pester you continually for games. Most owners find caring for such cats a very rewarding experience and in turn, an older cat will enjoy the love and security that a caring cat owner can provide.

ONE CAT OR TWO?

Although once believed to be entirely solitary animals, it is now generally accepted that many cats enjoy feline company. A single cat relies on you for company and attention. If you are out for much of the day, a pair of cats will keep each other company. Rescue shelters often have pairs of cats to be homed together, providing an ideal opportunity to obtain compatible cats.

If you choose cats which have not previously met each other, the rescue shelter should be able to give you guidance on which cats are most likely accept feline company. While many cats will soon accept each other, others cannot tolerate another cat on their territory.

The choice of one cat or more depends on your own preferences and circumstances and on the personality of the cat or cats chosen.

Settling In

A newly adopted adult cat needs time to settle in a strange new environment. It will be more cautious (and less destructive) about this than a kitten and requires a few weeks to adjust. Be gentle and be consistent about applying house rules during this settling in period. Regardless of their age, cats are adaptable creatures and a cat's reaction to moving into a new home is related to its personality not its age. I have taken in cats aged aged upwards of 18 years and found them to be as adaptable as much younger cats.

When you bring your older cat home, make sure it knows where the litter tray is and use a litter that it is familiar with, such as the one used by a previous owner or the rescue shelter. Cats are generally clean creatures and most accidents are due to a cat not being able to find the litter tray or not recognising an unfamiliar litterbox filler. Keep the cat in one or two rooms to begin with and when you do move the litter tray to its permanent place, do so by moving it a few feet at a time over a period of days so as not to confuse the cat.

Don't feed too many rich foods or gourmet treats early on. The cat has enough new things to contend with and feeding a plain diet will prevent stomach upsets (like humans, cats can suffer "nervous tummies"). There will be plenty of time for treats later on.

The cat will need time to explore your home and may be shy at first. Spend time alone with it, offering small bribes, to build up its confidence. Make sure your house is secure and escape-proof and allow the cat time to explore on its own. Some cats complete their initial explorations after only a few hours, others take days or weeks.

If you already have other cats, don't expect them to make friends instantly. Introductions between pets must be done gradually in a supervised environment until you are certain they will get along without fighting.

If you intend to your older cat to be an indoor-outdoor pet (this is more common in Britain and Europe compared to the US), make sure it has settled down indoors before introducing it to outdoors. Though older cats are more home-centred than kittens, the move to a new home may be confusing. It must be kept indoors for several weeks, even if it shows interest in going out. Make sure it is wearing an elasticated or break-free collar and an address tag in case it does escape. It is unlikely to deliberately run away, but it may panic and become lost. Initial trips outdoors should be supervised and you may wish to use a cat harness and leash for extra safety. If his first trips outdoors are before mealtimes he is not likely to wander far before returning for food.

Many owners prefer to keep their cats indoors away from traffic and other outdoor hazards. Older cats may be less able to cope with certain outdoors hazards and a safe outdoor environment is not available to all cat owners. A less energetic older cat is more likely to accept the indoors only restriction than an active and playful younger cat. Many older cats like to spend much of their time indoors even if they have access to a garden. If your cat is to be an indoor cat, provide him with a scratching post so that he can exercise his claws; some toys and a pot of grass for him to chew.

INTRODUCING ADDITIONAL CATS

If you already have an older cat and want to provide it with a feline companion you need to consider several things. Is your cat likely to accept another cat into its home? Though most cats are sociable with their own "family", they may resent the intrusion of an outsider if the introduction is not handled carefully.

Many cat owners believe it best to get a kitten to keep an older cat company. This does not always work out in practice since a new kitten is often far too energetic for the older cat in the household and it is the kitten which is likely to be injured if the other cat takes exception to it.

Some cats enjoy having other cats around and thrive on the company. Others are upset by the addition of another cat, especially an energetic youngster. A boisterous kitten could drive it away or make it resentful rather than restore its youth especially if the cat has been used to an older and less active companion cat. There is no simple formula, it depends on the temperament of your cat and the way in which a new introduction is handled.

If your cat is generally friendly towards other cats then it may benefit from a feline companion which is closer to its own age. It is often possible to introduce another adult or older cat into your household if the introduction is handled carefully. Although there may be initial resentment on the part of the resident cat, they usually come to an amicable agreement. Many become firm friends sharing mutual interests such as finding the most comfortable sleeping and sunbathing places while others simply ignore each other so long as there are enough comfortable sleeping places for all concerned.

Since the character of older cats is already well developed, it is easier to find a companion cat known to be friendly with other cats.

FEEDING OLDER CATS

As a cat gets older, its digestive system becomes less efficient and it requires several smaller, easily digested meals a day rather than two main meals. Waltham Nutrition Centre researchers have determined that changes to the digestive system begin to take place around 7 years of age so that older cats need food containing easily digested protein.

Most cats enjoy a variety of tinned food, semi-moist pellets, dry food (kibble) and occasional treats of cooked meat/fish. "Complete" cat food provides a balanced diet for your cat while "complementary" food should be fed as a treat only. Most veterinarians will be happy to advise, but don't let them force you into buying one particular product; some vets get commission for selling certain brands in vets clinics.

If you use tinned food, always clear away or refrigerate uneaten food otherwise it will become stale or fly-blown and may cause digestive upsets if eaten later.

There are also "life-stage" foods available which are aimed specifically at Older Cats and Less Active Cats. These are formulated to suit an older cat's digestive system and to reduce the risk of obesity in less active cats. They provide easily digested protein, but they are often expensive and not all cats like them. Unless your cat has problems digesting ordinary cat food, is becoming overweight or is on prescription food, ordinary complete formulation cat food accompanied by fresh drinking water is adequate. Before being fooled by slick advertising for life-stage formulations ask your vet if your cat really needs it. Personally, I give an occasional treat of kitten formulation food to older cats.

Many cats enjoy dry food (kibble) and the crunchy texture may help to keep their teeth healthy. Cats which eat mainly dry food require plentiful fresh drinking water. As cats grow older they may experience dental problems which make it difficult for them to eat crunchy food. It may be useful to accustom an older cat to tinned food as it gets older since a toothless cat may swallow dry food whole; this can cause indigestion and regurgitation or vomiting of undigested kibble.

Most cats manage very well without teeth, but if your cat has problems you can chop tinned food to a manageable consistency. Some of the very firm foods can be mashed with gravy, tomato juice from a sardine can or warm water to give them the consistency your cat prefers. Gravy can also be added to dry food to soften it.

Like humans, cats sometimes need extra roughage in their diet to combat weight gain or constipation. Older bowels often become lazy and require a little bulk to get things working smoothly. Mashing one or two teaspoons of bran, porridge oats, canned pumpkin, cooked rice, cooked pasta or cooked mashed potato into tinned food will add roughage. Some older cats also enjoy warm porridge or hot oat cereal on cold mornings, but this is not suitable for cats with lactose intolerance.

A cat's sense of smell deteriorates with age and this can lead some cats to become finicky eaters; strong smelling tinned food may overcome this. Cats are also adept at manipulating owners into serving food that the cat likes, which is not necessarily the food that is best for it. Unless you enjoy preparing balanced gourmet meals for your cat try not to be manipulated as this creates a risk of dietary imbalances.

Any cat which is experiencing difficulty in eating or has lost its appetite should be examined by a vet in case there is an underlying problem. Likewise, a suddenly increased appetite, especially if it is coupled with weight loss or poor condition, needs to be investigated. Signs of poor diet include thin, dull coat, excessive shedding or dandruff, weight loss, vomiting, diarrhoea, yellow teeth and mouth odour. A cat which wobbles as he walks is probably receiving too many calories for his level of activity.

GENERAL CARE OF OLDER CATS

There are very many excellent books on cat care available from bookstores and libraries. Many rescue shelters, veterinarians and feed suppliers also produce leaflets on cat care. This supplemental information is geared specifically towards older cats.

Grooming

Older cats may be less supple than when younger and may require more help with grooming. Brushing a cat can be very relaxing and is usually enjoyable to both cat and owner. Daily grooming ensures quality time set aside exclusively for your cat which may otherwise be forgotten if you have a busy schedule. Extremely old cats may pay little attention to their hygiene, but they will appreciate it if you help keep them clean, comfortable and sweet smelling. If you have two companionable cats they may help to groom each other.

Brushing removes dead hair from the coat and helps prevent matted fur and also prevent furballs since the cat will swallow less hair when it grooms itself. A fine toothed comb will help remove parasites from the skin. The area under the tail may sometimes need a gentle wipe with damp tissue or a pet wipe. Not many cats like having their belly combed and there is no need to press the point unless the belly fur becomes matted. As well as keeping the coat in good condition, grooming helps to establish a strong bond between cats and between cat and owner.

If a cat does not groom itself, its coat quickly develops mats. Cats which lack teeth may have problems preventing mats, since they need teeth to help "comb out" mats. Daily brushing will prevent shaving or clipping later on. Mats are commonest on the flanks, inside thighs, under the "armpits" and in the ruff (of longhairs). Mats containing cat litter or faeces can form under the tail or on the back legs.

Longhaired elderly cats may become messy around the backside; they simply cannot do the necessary contortions to groom this area. Because many cats don't like being combed in this area, some owners trim the fur under the tail (britches) to stop faeces, cat litter and mud sticking to it. Cats rarely need to be bathed, but if your cat does become very dirty a bath may be necessary. Most cat care books will tell you how to do this. Only use a specialist cat/kitten shampoo which must be rinsed off thoroughly. Dry the cat off in a warm room and make sure it is completely dry before allowing it outdoors.

Sleeping Places

Most cats are happy to sleep in a blanket-lined box or on chairs or beds if allowed. If you want to buy your elderly cat its own cat bed or basket choose one which is large enough that the cat does not have to curl up tightly; older cats are less supple and less able to fit themselves into small cat beds. Most elderly cats find beanbag beds comfortable as the polystyrene beans keep in the warmth and provide support for a rickety body or stiff limbs.

Make sure your cat's bed is situated away from draughts. No cat likes to sleep in a draught, but this is particularly important with older cats as they cannot withstand extremes of temperature as easily as youngsters. They have less insulating fat than young cats and need a cosy, draught-free bed. Most will automatically seek out the warmest spot in the house.

Placing your cat's bed beside a warm radiator at night ensures that Puss stays warm, especially in winter. A covered hot-water bottle or a heated pad, designed specially for pets and available from larger pet-shops, is useful if your cat feels the cold or is recovering from illness.

Many cats like to sleep through cold spells and an older cat will usually snooze through the colder times of year. Shake out the cat's bedding frequently to keep it fresh and vacuum it or dust it with flea powder to kill parasites. The bed or blanket should be laundered from time to time to freshen it up. Make sure it is completely dry before allowing the cat to sleep on it again as sleeping on damp bedding is unhealthy.

Some older cats call out at night when the house is quiet and they feel lonely or in need of reassurance. Placing the cat-basket in your own bedroom may solve this. Many people allow their cat to sleep on the bed and as long as both you and the cat are healthy this is safe. Other cats become more settled and call less; you'll quickly discover if your cat is a night-time caller. Cats are naturally most active at dusk and dawn and this is when most of the crying out is likely to occur. They simply want to know that all is well and a little reassurance when you are out of sight.

The Great Outdoors

Many cats enjoy spending some of their time outdoors (where the environment permits this) and a little daily exercise helps keep a cat's body healthy and mind active. Many older cats will happily potter about the garden with you. They are usually much more home-centred and less likely to wander off on long hunting expeditions. If your cat has poor sight or hearing, make sure he is in a safe place when you want to mow the lawn. Other garden hazards include pesticides and other chemicals, poisonous or irritant plants and in some countries venomous wildlife. A special enclosure or supervised walks on a leash may allow you older cat to enjoy the outdoors in safety.

Most older cats enjoy sunbathing, whether outdoors or indoors on a windowsill. As well as warmth, sunshine helps provide Vitamin D. A folded blanket or cat bed placed in an open greenhouse or conservatory may be appreciated though you must be extremely careful not to accidentally trap your cat in the greenhouse as older cats are less resistant to dehydration and heatstroke.

If your cat regularly sunbathes outdoors you should take precautions against skin cancer - dab non-toxic sun-block cream onto the cat's ears and nose, especially if these are white or pale coloured. The last thing your old cat wants is an operation under general anaesthetic to remove cancerous ears. Bushes, or even an old open rabbit hutch, will provide shelter from the sun while allowing your cat remain out in the fresh air. In hot weather make sure there is extra drinking water available as older cats are quicker to become dehydrated.

Although most older cats will learn to use a cat flap, a few find they lack the strength to push one open, particularly if it is stiff or heavy. Some older cats become quite rickety and cannot cope with a cat flap, even if they used to use it when younger. If the cat flap causes problems you can remove the flap section during the day and fasten a piece of cloth or light carpet in its place. It is recommended that indoor-outdoor cats are kept indoors at night to reduce the risk of theft or accident so please ensure that there is some way of securing the flap at night; this will also prevent strange cats from entering the house at night.

An indoor litter tray will be especially welcomed in wet or cold weather even if your cat normally goes outdoors for his toilet during the daytime. After all, would you expect granny to use a privy at the bottom of the garden in inclement weather? Don't make a cat stay outdoors in cold or wet weather, it is not good for them. If the cat gets cold or wet put him in a warm room or by a heater until he is completely dried off. If your cat is suffering from senility, you may need to bring him indoors as senile cats are forgetful of their own wellbeing and may lie out in all weather, even if soaked to the skin.

A Less Active Lifestyle

Although older cats often remain active well into their teens or twenties and should be encouraged to take moderate exercise, they will lack the athleticism of youth. They still require some exercise to keep them healthy, but are unlikely to participate in high-impact aerobics as they did when younger.

High surfaces, such as favourite windowsills or ledges, become inaccessible to them unless you provide a stool or ramp as a stepping stone. An advantage of this is that shelves and counters may well become cat-free zones. Ornaments and cookery ingredients are less likely to be overturned by older cats; their curiosity is unabated, but they no longer want to exert themselves by jumping up onto high surfaces.

As cats grow older they often turn their attention away from playing or hunting, preferring to spending time quietly with their owners. You may find that an older cat prefers to sit near you rather than on your lap. This is not a sign that he snubbing your affection. Depleted fat stores means that older cats often become bonier and simply find a human lap uncomfortable to sit on. Putting a cushion or folded blanket on your lap will make it more comfortable when he wants a cuddle.

Middle-age spread (through overfeeding and under-exercising) eventually gives way to increased boniness as the fat stores become depleted. You will notice shoulder blades and hips are more prominent. Older cats also find it harder to curl up into a tight ball and a larger cat bed may be necessary. Big beanbags mould themselves to a cat's shape and provide support while the polystyrene beads in a beanbag will retain heat and help keep a cat warm.

Since older cats may no longer indulge in claw-wearing activities such as tree-climbing their claws will need more frequent trimming otherwise overgrown claws will snag on carpet and furnishings. Claw-trimming is not difficult, especially if the cat is fairly docile, and a vet can show you the right way to trim claws. An older cat's claws become more brittle and may not fully retract as the muscles become less efficient. A scratching post is still recommended, although an older cat may not use it as often as before.

Older cats are often more talkative than younger cats. As they spend less time in physical activities, they have more time to express their opinions. Some may simply be seeking reassurance, but others become remarkably chatty, taking a more vocal interest in their owner's activities. Not only do they enjoy your company, they will tell you how much they enjoy it!

Mellowing With Age

As they grow older most cats become more sociable with those they regard as friends, though a few can be described as cantankerous and short-tempered just like some elderly people. Sudden mood changes can be a sign of illness. A cat which suddenly wants to be left alone or one which constantly seeks reassurance may be trying to tell you that he is unwell, so ask your vet to check that all is well.

Although old cats may be laid back with visitors, put Puss a in warm, quiet room with bed, food, water and litter tray if you are having a noisy get together or party. He may not appreciate all the noise and disturbance and giving him his room while the party is in full swing will provide a sense of security and allow him to pursue an older cats favourite "activity" - relaxing.

Holidays

Since most older cats are happy to spend more time dozing, they will be quite happy if a neighbour pops in several times over a couple of days to feed them. If you are taking a longer holiday you may want to find a cat sitter or use your regular cattery or boarding establishment, informing them of any dietary preferences or behavioural quirks. UK owners looking for a cattery for the first time should look for one which has been approved by the Feline Advisory Bureau (list of FAB Approved Catteries available from Caryl Cruickshank, 1 Church Close, Orchestron, Salisbury, Wilts SP3 4RP). Other countries will have their own approval systems or a friend may be able to recommend a cattery.

HEALTH CARE

An adult cat adopted from a rescue shelter may already have been neutered (castrated or spayed); if not, neutering will probably be included in the adoption contract. If you have adopted an unneutered adult cat (or one has adopted you), I strongly recommend that it is neutered. Neutering prevents unnecessary litters of kittens and helps eliminate antisocial habits, such as spraying, singing and fighting in tomcats. Neutered cats are at less risk from Feline Leukaemia Virus (FeLV) or Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) which can be contracted through fighting with other cats. A neutered cat is a contented cat with a longer life expectancy and it will be more home-oriented and a much nicer pet. Unspayed females are more prone to infections of the womb and also mammary tumours than are spayed females.

There are plenty of publications on general health care for cats, the following information is supplementary.

Vaccinations

It is important to keep Cat Flu and Feline Infectious Enteritis (Distemper) vaccinations up to date as a cat grows older. Though it's tempting to let these lapse, an older cat has a less efficient immune system so vaccinations are more important with age. Some cats will have been vaccinated by the previous owner and only require annual booster shots. If the cat hasn't had any vaccinations, or you aren't sure about this, you can start vaccinations at any age.

Depending on where you live, vaccinations are available for Cat Flu, Enteritis (Distemper), FeLV, Chlamydia, FIP and Rabies. Your vet will be able to advise on which ones are required or advisable in your area.

Parasites

The most common skin parasite of cats are fleas. Many cats develop an itchy reaction to flea bites and we recommend regular use of a flea spray or flea powder formulated specifically for use on cats and used in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions. Flea collars are convenient, but less effective, and must have an elasticated section for the cat's safety. Tapeworms, roundworms and other internal parasites afflict older cats as well as young cats, particularly cats which go outdoors. It is recommended that a cat be treated for worms, especially roundworms, every 3 to 6 months. This may be modified for indoor-only cats. Further information about fleas, worms and other parasites specific to your locality can be found in most cat care publications.

Teeth and Gums

Older cats are more prone to dental problems such as loose teeth, build-up of tartar on teeth and sore gums (gingivitis). Difficulty in eating and trouble grooming indicates mouth-problems. After de-scaling (tartar removal) of teeth or extraction of bad teeth, the cat's appetite and normal grooming soon return. Many cats appear "rejuvenated" after dental problems have been treated.

If possible, check your cat's teeth and gums regularly, looking for yellow or brown scale, inflamed gums and mouth ulcers. An annual dental check up at vaccination time is advisable. Dried food, fed as part of the cat's diet, has an abrasive action on teeth and helps to keep them clean. If you feed dried food regularly, ensure there is plenty of fresh drinking water available.

It is possible to clean a cat's teeth, but it needs to become accustomed to this when young. Preparations such as "Logic" toothpaste can be rubbed onto the cat's teeth and does not require use of a brush.

Although general anaesthesia is a little more risky in older cats, this should not prevent any dental surgery (or other necessary surgery) being carried out. Modern anaesthetics have drastically reduced the risks and modern Veterinary Practices are well-equipped and have suitably trained staff. Ideally, surgery should be carried out when your cat is well so it is better to act sooner rather than later as additional problems may occur if he cannot eat properly. See your vet when your cat first shows signs of mouth problems; he may be able to de-scale and save your cat's teeth and prevent gum infections.

After a dental operation, your cat will need softer food while his gums heal although sometimes a cat will tuck into his favourite dried food within a few hours of going home which shows just how much better he feels when his painful teeth have removed! Your vet will give you any tablets, e.g. antibiotics, and explain how often to give them to your cat and also when to take your cat in for any post-op check up. Many owners report that the cat has taken on a new lease of life after dental work, grooming neglected areas and sometimes acting like a kitten again - think of the pain of human toothache and the absolute joy when the pain is gone!

There are now special cat treats such as Whiskas 'Dentabits' which are shaped and textured to clean a cat's teeth. It is possible to buy special toothbrushes, flavoured toothpastes or enzyme tooth gels from their vet surgery - but only to use these if the cat is happy to let you clean his teeth.

Claws

As well as checking teeth and gums, check claws regularly and trim them if they become overgrown. An older cat may no longer wear down its claws as quickly as it once did and more frequent trimming may be needed. Overgrown claws can snag, sometimes causing injury as the cat tries to pull the claw free. Badly overgrown claws will cause discomfort and problems with walking.

Waterworks and Bowels

Keep an eye on the cat's water bowl. Although older cats tend to drink more water anyway, dramatically increased thirst can indicate kidney problems, which are more common in cats as they grow older and their kidneys work less efficiently, or cystitis. Cats with cystitis pass tiny amounts of urine, sometimes bloodstained, more frequently. Cystitis causes discomfort and must be treated by a vet. Cats with kidney disease can be put on prescription diets if the problem is caught early. There are other reasons a cat might start to drink more so any unexplained increased thirst should be investigated and diagnosed by a vet.

What goes in must come out so keep an eye on the cat's litter tray or toileting area. Learn to recognise what is 'normal' for your cat (some cats naturally produce softer stools than others) and be alert for signs of worms, constipation, diarrhoea or bloodstained stools. Do not delay in seeing a vet if you spot anything abnormal. Diarrhoea can lead to dehydration.

Vomiting

Cats sometimes regurgitate their food, especially if they have bolted it or have scavenged something unsuitable. Some will eat grass to promote vomiting. Cats, particularly longhairs, tend to bring up hairballs unless groomed regularly. Cases of unexplained vomiting which last for more than 24 hours or are accompanied by diarrhoea or other symptoms should be referred to your vet. If untreated, vomiting can lead to dehydration. It may also be a symptom of poisoning. Both vomiting and diarrhoea can lead to dehydration if not treated.

Operations

Just like humans, cats sometimes need operations. If pre-anaesthetic blood tests show mild liver or kidney problems, your vet may suggest feeding an appropriate prescription food for a few weeks before the operation to further reduce any risks. Before the operation your cat will be given a pre-med injection. He will be anaesthetised by injection and kept under using a gas anaesthetic. His pulse and breathing are monitored during the operation, just as for a human operation, and he may be given intravenous fluids during, and after, his operation. Heated pads are used during and after operations to keep him warm and he will be given pain-relief.

After going home, your cat will probably need to be kept warm and quiet for a few days and may want to sleep off the effects of the operation. Don't give him human painkillers because these are poisonous to cats. Your vet will give more detailed information on looking after your cat after an operation and on going back for a check-up. Your cat will usually let you know when he feels fully recovered, but always follow your vet's advice and seek his help if you notice any problems.

Older Cat Clinics

As cats grow older, they become less resilient when it comes to illness or injury and recover more slowly. They may develop stiffer joints, but their more relaxed pace of life usually means that this does not worry them unduly. Many vets now run "Older Cat Clinics" and recommend that cats over 5 years old have a veterinary check-up every 6-12 months so that any problems can be caught and treated early. Another benefit of "Older Cat Clinics" is that you will meet other owners of older cats and have a chance to compare notes. Annual vaccination time is another ideal opportunity for an annual check-up.

Cats nowadays live much longer than in the past, and the fact that some ailments are more common in older cats doesn't mean that your cat will necessarily develop them. A great many cats reach their teens and twenties with little or no sign of deterioration.

WHEN TO CALL THE VET

Cats are generally healthy creatures and fairly maintenance free. However, when they are unwell they are adept at disguising symptoms of illness. Most good cat care books contain information about ailments which can affect cats of all ages. The following symptoms in an older cat should be investigated by your vet.

** evidence of poisoning or injury
** house-soiling
** constipation or diarrhoea despite a balanced diet
** frequent urination or problems urinating
** unexplained or frequent vomiting
** excessive thirst
** loss of appetite or excessive appetite
** sudden loss of weight
** change of activity level - suddenly hyperactive or lethargic

** lumps and bumps on the cat's skin
** panting when at rest
** rapid heartbeat
** dental problems
** looking off-colour, withdrawn or not interested in things
** unusual behaviour, confusion
** staggering or sudden collapse
** mobility problems, stiffness, limping, pain when touched

 

Don't delay in taking your cat to the vet if you are concerned about its health. Although the cause may turn out to be trivial, your vet would much rather declare your cat fit and healthy than have to tell you that an illness has progressed too far to be treatable. It is more effective to treat problems early on, ensuring a healthier, longer life.

OLD AGE AND DISABILITY

As a cat grows older, its reflexes become less acute and its ability to bounce back from certain injuries is reduced. Though there is no need to become over-protective, it is worthwhile being aware of some problems which may afflict cats.

The loss of a leg through injury may sound catastrophic but 3 legged cats adapt well. A recent amputee needs time to adjust, but once recovered is as agile and active as any 4 legged cat and will soon resume all its previous activities with little sign of being handicapped. He will need some help grooming areas that were groomed by the now-missing leg, but will otherwise be as active and independent as before.

As a cat ages, its sight and hearing may gradually deteriorate. The change is often so gradual that many owners don't notice anything until hearing loss or sight loss is total. A cat compensates by relying more on remaining senses, especially smell, to guide it through its daily routine. Because older cats have a more relaxed approach to life, most appear unperturbed by failing hearing or sight. The problems of deafness and failing sight can be counteracted by a caring owner.

A deaf cat is easily startled because it can't hear you approaching. Deaf cats can learn to recognise hand signals or the flashing of a torch to call them in for meals or at night. At close range, sharp handclaps might still be sufficient to gain a partially-deaf cat's attention. Deaf cats cannot hear danger signals such as cars, lawnmowers or barking dogs. If he goes outdoors, make sure he is wearing an elasticated collar bearing his address and write 'I AM DEAF' on the collar to help people who find him on their driveway oblivious to car horns. A noisy bell on his collar will help you to locate his whereabouts when he is in motion. You may decide it is safer to confine a deaf cat to a safely fenced garden or indoors.

A cat which bumps into things may be losing its sight. A cat blind in one eye may be startled by sudden movements on its blind side. Blind cats are easily disoriented and should not be allowed to roam; indoors only or indoors with access to a safely fenced garden is best. He may enjoy walking in the garden using a harness and lead and these trips can be enjoyable for you both as you can observe what things attract the attention of your cat. Make sure he is wearing an elasticated collar stating his address and disability in case he escapes and becomes lost.

Blind cats rely on on scent and memory to find their way around so keep furniture, food and litter in the same place and don't leave obstacles in unexpected places where he could walk into them. Carrying a blind cat around will disorient it so if you do move it, place it at floor level somewhere it knows well such as its feeding or sleeping area so it can easily get its bearings. Sound is very important to a blind cat and many enjoy playing with jingly toys.

It is much rarer for a cat to lose both hearing and sight. Such cats are far safer indoors as they can easily become lost or hurt outdoors. Many adapt well and still enjoy life, relying mainly on their sense of smell. The fact that older cats are less active anyway means that they are less distressed by these problems than you might think. If you feel that your cat is distressed by its condition, you should discuss the matter with your vet who may recommend euthanasia, especially if the cat has other age-related problems as well.

Strokes are not very common in cats and those that do have them usually recover faster and more completely than humans though they may gain a slightly lopsided appearance. Many cats have lived very long, healthy, happy lives after suffering a stroke.

GROWING OLD GRACEFULLY

Most cats glide gracefully from middle age into old age, simply slowing down their pace of life. You will notice that an elderly cat tends to become thinner and its spine and shoulders become more prominent as it loses the insulating layer of fat on its body. It may become a little more rickety or unsteady on its back legs. A little more grey hair may appear around the muzzle and its coat. Its senses become less acute and its pace of life slows down. These are signs that your old cat is now a vintage cat and should be treated with the respect his advanced years have earned him.

Popular belief has it that one year of a cat's life is equivalent to 7 human years. In fact, kittens mature faster than human children and the rate of ageing slows down to one year equalling only 4 human years after only 2 years as the equivalence chart below shows:

CAT'S AGE

EQUIVALENT HUMAN AGE

COMMENTS

2-3 months

9-12 months

Kittens/humans weaned. Kittens are becoming less dependent on the mother.

4 months

2-3 years

Talking/adult communication in children. Under natural conditions, the kitten is fully independent of the mother.

6-12 months

12-15 years

Sexual maturity, most females now fertile and able to produce offspring although they may not have reached their full growth.

2 years

24 years

Could have raised children.

3-6 years

28-40 years

Human career-making

6-9 years

40-52 years

Middle age spread, menopause for some women.

9-13 years

52-65 years

Human menopause and retirement. Most cats are beginning to take things easier.

13-17 years

65-85 years

Active but ageing. Signs of senility in some individuals, senses becoming less acute, injuries heal more slowly or incompletely. Internal organs are less efficient.

17-19 years

83-92 years

Most individuals have become frail due to loss of bone density, subcutaneous fat and muscle tone. Skin more fragile. Hearing, sight and mobility affected. Less supple.

19-22 years

92-100 years

Amazing.

22+ years

100+ years

An exceptional individual

30 years

136 years

Several cats have recently attained this age.

34-36 years

152-160 years

Longevity records noted in the Guinness Book of Records.

43 years

188 years

Unverified longevity claim; cat was apparently still active and was killed by a train.

 

The figures are based on veterinary and behavioral research, though as with all individuals there is a wide degree of variation and there are always exceptions, with some cats and humans enjoying a robust old age. Some individuals mature earlier or later than average and some remain active while their age-mates are taking life easy.

As a cat ages it tires out more easily and will take things easy. Games will become shorter and less energetic for both of you. High-speed acrobatics and daredevil feats will be a thing of the past. Cats are often at their most companionable in these later years. They need and enjoy your attention, but are unlikely to pester you continually for games. They are content to sit with you and take things easy. This can be a very rewarding time for an owner to indulge their nurturing instincts.

Cats have a remarkable ability to adapt their lifestyle to cope with any incapacity caused by advancing years. A cat's pace of living slows down gradually and it will seek out warm, comfortable spots and will spend a greater proportion of its time asleep. Older cats also tend to sleep more deeply, so it is not a good idea to disturb a sleeping cat as it will be startled, especially if its hearing is not as good as it once was. This deep slumber also shows that the cat feels safe and secure with you.

In extreme age, some cats become forgetful, staying outdoors in bad weather or wandering and becoming lost. Cats which wander and become lost should be confined to indoors or only allowed out in an escape-proof garden in good weather. It may fail to use its litter tray. A veterinary check-up can ascertain whether this is due to a physical problem or a senility. Providing several litter trays around the house may help for a while, but if the problems of extreme age become too acute you need to consider the cat's quality of life and possible euthanasia.

A cat which becomes senile has probably lived a comfortable life far beyond the lifespan it would have had in the wild. Few feral cats grow old enough to develop senility and this fact may be of some comfort if you decide to have a cat euthanised because of senility and related problems.

TIME TO LET GO

The decision to end a life is never easy as the bond between cat and owner is a very special one. It is easy to become emotionally caught up in keeping a pet alive when your own common sense tells you there is no hope of it regaining its health. A good vet will help you to decide when it is time to let go. You need to consider things from the cats point of view.

** Is your cat in incurable pain or continual discomfort which cannot be alleviated by drugs?

** Has it suffered severe injuries from which it will never recover?

** Does it have an age-related condition which cannot be alleviated and which now causes misery e.g. advanced senility or incontinence.

** Is it suffering from a terminal illness, maybe one related to extreme old age, which has now reduced its quality of life to such a point that it is no longer happy?

The decision almost always causes much soul-searching, especially if you and your cat have been companions for several years. What matters to the cat is quality of life not length of life since a cat has little concept of future time. An illness may be treatable for a period of time, but there eventually comes a point when the cat no longer enjoys life. He may be in visible distress, withdrawn or incontinent. If you are unsure, your vet will be able to advise you, but he cannot make the decision for you.

Having seen your cat when he is happy and healthy, most owners recognise the signs given by a cat which is miserable or uncomfortable and a caring owner will realise that is their duty to prevent further suffering by offering the cat a painless release from life.

Modern drugs are extremely fast-acting and the end is very peaceful compared to the latter stages of a terminal illness or age-related illness. Your vet will administer an overdose of anaesthetic by injection and the cat will simply fall into a painless and final sleep. If, during its life, your cat has been a cherished member of your family, this is the last, and often most compassionate, duty you can perform for it.

COPING WITH PET BEREAVEMENT

All cats grow old, whether you have had it from kittenhood or adopted it as an adult cat. Cats have a shorter lifespan than humans (the record age for a cat is 36 years) although most owners would like to think their cat is immortal, especially if it is hale and hearty in its late teens.

The death of a well-loved pet is on a par with the death of a human family member, despite what thoughtless people may say, and grief or anger are both very natural reactions to the death of an animal companion. People react differently to death, but almost all need time to come to terms with the loss of a close animal companion. Many seek consolation in remembering the joy that their cat brought them. Others find it much harder to come to terms with pet bereavement especially if the cat had been rescued, nursed through illness or was their main companion.

It sometimes helps to share your feelings, but people who have never lost a pet themselves may seem unsympathetic. Many doctors are now sympathetic to those who have lost an animal family member and can offer bereavement counselling. Pet bereavement counselling services may be offered by organisations in your area.

FURTHER READING

BOOKS ABOUT OLDER CATS

Caring for Your Older Cat by Chris C. Pinney, Barron's, 1996
The Ultrafit Older Cat by Claire Bessant & Bradley Viner, Smith Gryphon Limited, 1993

PET LOSS AND BEREAVEMENT

Absent Friend by Laura & Martyn Lee. Trafalgar Square (or Henston), 2000, Ltd. 1992.
Coping with the Loss of a Pet by C.M. Lemieux. Wallace R, Clark, 1988.
Death of An Animal Friend Society for Companion Animal Studies, 1a Hilton Road, Milngavie, Glasgow, Scotland, G62 7DN, price 2.50 (Sterling).
The Final Farewell: Preparing for and Mourning the Loss of Your Pet by Marty Tousley & Katherine Heuerman. Our Pals Publishing, 1997.
Good-bye, Dear Friend by Virginia Ironside. Robson Books, 1996.
The Legend of Rainbow Bridge by William Britton. Savannah Publishing, 1994.
The Loss of a Pet: New Revised and Expanded Edition by Wallace Sife. Hungry Minds, 1998.
Pet Loss: A Thoughtful Guide for Adults & Children by Herbert Nieburg, Arlene Fischer & Martin Kosins. Harper Perennial Library, 1996.
Preparing for the Loss of Your Pet: Saying Goodbye with Love, Dignity, and Peace of Mind by Myrna M. Milani. Prima Publishing, 1998. 
When Your Pet Dies by Christine Adamec. IUniverse.com, 2000.

BOOKS FOR CHILDREN

A Special Place for Charlee: A Child's Companion Through Pet Loss by Debby Morehead & Karen Cannon. Partners In Publishing, 1996. Ages 8-11.
Bye Bye, Belle: (illustrated story book) Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS), 1a Hilton Road, Milngavie, Glasgow, Scotland G62 7DN, price 4.95 (Sterling).
The Tenth Best Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst. Aladdin Books, MacMillan Publishing Co., 1999. Ages 5 and up.
My Pet Died by Rachel Biale. Tricycle Press, 1996.

Guide to Euthanasia

 

MESSYBEAST CATS - HEALTH, FEEDING & GENERAL CARE

You are visitor number