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Looking after an elderly cat

Cats age remarkably gracefully. Apart from a few silver hairs, their coats stay thick and shiny. Un-neutered female cats remain fertile throughout their lives, and many old cats enjoy robust good health until their very last days. Older cats are generally calmer, more experienced at staying out of trouble, and much more likely to be homebodies. Many elderly cats seek human company more readily than younger ones. In short, older cats make very agreeable pets, which is why some people who know their cats prefer to look for an older cat to adopt.

Cats are considered middle-aged when they are 7 years old and elderly when they are 10. However, with medical advances and better nutrition, it is quite common for domestic cats to live for more than 15 years, with many reaching 20. Although many cats remain active and playful - there are quite a few cats with two decades of experience who are still good mousers - they will inevitably slow down with age. They will spend more time on the sofa snoozing gently and less time running in the garden. (A nice warm place to sleep is therefore a must.)

However, as with humans, the final years are not necessarily golden ones. Being less active, older cats are more prone to spreading waistlines. Obesity in cats carries the risk of a number of diseases including arthritis, diabetes and heart problems. It is therefore important to keep an eye on your cat's weight as she ages. Weighing the cat every one to two months is a good idea, and if the weight starts creeping up, it's time to harden your heart and cut the food intake as necessary. There are foods specially designed for senior cats. These have less calories and some of them also have less protein. There is a theory that older cats should eat less protein; but this is only really necessary for cats with kidney failure. Nevertheless, if your cat is overweight, reducing her calories will be necessary. It is important that you get your vet to assess the general health of your cat before setting up the diet regime.

Older cats tend to drink less, so a wet food diet is normally preferable. Also make sure that fresh, clean water is always available. Older cats may also suffer from tooth decay, so it is a very good idea to pay more attention to the cat's teeth. Most veterinary clinics provide dental health services for pets. Regular dental checks will be able to spot developing dental problems and treat them before they become serious. It is also a good idea to introduce dental care as early as possible. There are cat toothpastes now available; and also special dental treats which are designed to reduce the build-up of tartar.

Older cats are not only more susceptible to chronic diseases such as arthritis and diabetes but also to infections, since their immune system slows down with age. It is therefore important to keep up with vaccinations and pay attention to any signs of illness. Below we have listed a set of signs which should warn you to take action and make an appointment with the vet.

Key signs of illness:

  • Your cat is eating less or has lost weight
  • Is stiff or limping and has difficulties with jumping onto things
  • Is drinking more and more frequently than normal
  • Has trouble passing urine or faeces
  • Has any unusual lumps or bumps
  • Has smelly breath
  • Seems to be listless and disorientated.

Although many cats stay active and do not need special help, some cats - especially those suffering from chronic or degenerative diseases such as arthritis - may need help with getting on and off things, and with the cat flap. You may also consider raising the food bowls slightly so the cat does not need to bend all the way to the ground. There are special raised bowls available in some pet stores. Older cats will also require a quiet place away from the noise of the household.

Special attention should be paid to the cat's claws. Older cats, especially those with impaired mobility, will spend less time at the scratch pad (or stropping their claws on your furniture!) and so may need help with nail trimming. Overgrown claws may curl up and dig painfully into the footpads. The vet will be able to show you how and when to clip them.

Cats are immaculately clean and they spend a lot of time grooming, but if your cat has painful joints she will not be able to reach those hard-to-get-to bits. Introducing regular brushing will help her to keep up her high grooming standards.

Kidney problems and associated bladder problems are not uncommon in elder cats.Therefore even if the cat tends to go to the toilet outside, it would be prudent to introduce one or two cat litter trays in the house, in case your pet gets caught short.

Finally, although most cats in their older age become better company for the owners, some do develop behavioral problems. Older cats in general talk more with their humans, but some may become prone to anxiety and will become very vocal especially at night. Neurological disorders resulting in disorientation are a frighting experience for the cat. If that becomes a big issue, the vet may prescribe calming medicines. However, for most cat owners, having a mature cat in the house is perfectly described in Browning's poem

Grow old with me.
The best is yet to be,
That last for which the first was made ...

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