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The Ultimate Guide to Caring for Your Geriatric Cat

Helping Your Feline Companion Enjoy Their Final Years With Grace and Dignity

Your cat is considered geriatric when they reach their expected life span, around 15 years of age. No matter the number of years your cat is expected to live, excellent lifelong care and dedication often allows pets in good health to live months, or years, past their life expectancy. Of course, geriatric cats will require extra TLC and more frequent veterinary care, to ensure they remain healthy and happy. As your beloved pet slows down, has trouble walking, and develops age-related health conditions, they will need your help navigating their final years with grace and dignity.

Feeding your geriatric cat

With so many options, choosing a diet for your cat can be overwhelming. As your cat ages, their nutritional needs will change, and their diet should be appropriate for their life stage. Your geriatric pet should not eat the same food they ate when they were young or middle-agedthey require a diet made specifically for geriatric cats. If you are not sure which food to choose, a veterinarian is the best source of advice. Talk to a veterinarian now.

Whereas overeating and obesity is a concern for most cat owners, geriatric pets often have a decreased appetite, and lose weight. To help your cat maintain adequate muscle mass and strength, you’ll need to ensure they consume a sufficient number of calories each day. A veterinarian can help you calculate your geriatric cat’s daily calorie requirement. To determine how much to feed your cat at each meal, divide their total daily calorie allotment by two and, using the calories per cup on the food label, calculate how many cups of food to give your pet. At meal time, measure your cat’s food with a measuring cup, to ensure they receive the proper amount. 

If your geriatric cat has a decreased appetite, you can make their meals more appealing by adding canned food, warming the food to increase its aroma, or hand feeding your cat. Speak with a veterinarian about your pet’s appetite loss, as many medical issues, including dental disease and organ failure, could be responsible, and a veterinarian may be able to prescribe an appetite stimulant. Also, ensure your geriatric cat can easily access their food and water. Geriatric pets with mobility issues may have difficulty getting to their food and water bowls, particularly if they need to go up or down stairs, or their food bowls are on elevated surfaces. Place food and water bowls in easy-to-access locations on each floor of your home to ensure your geriatric cat can eat and drink adequate amounts.

Helping your geriatric cat use the litter box

Many age-related issues may prevent your geriatric cat from using their litter box, and lead to more frequent accidents. Your cat may have difficulty getting to their litter box, especially if they have to go up or down stairs. Arthritic cats may have trouble stepping over the litter box sides. Cats with cognitive dysfunction may forget the proper places to eliminate. To make using the litter box as easy as possible for your geriatric cat, follow these tips:

  • Switch to low-sided litter boxes your cat can easily step over.
  • Limit litter depth to one inch or less to prevent unstable cats from losing their balance.
  • Provide several litter boxes, including one on each level of your home, that your cat can easily access.
  • Choose quiet, private locations—for example, do not place litter boxes near loud appliances, such as the washing machine.

 

When your cat does have an accident, clean it up quickly with an enzyme-based cleaner to completely eliminate the odor, which will remove their temptation to go again in the same spot. Understand that accidents may become more frequent for your geriatric cat, but never punish them for an accident.  

In addition to cleaning your house, you’ll need to keep your geriatric cat clean and dry. Accidents, particularly those that occur when your pet is lying down, can cause urine scalding and skin infections, if waste contacts their skin for prolonged periods. Clean all urine or feces from your cat’s skin and fur as soon as possible to prevent these complications. Consider having your long-haired cat groomed with a sanitary cut, which keeps the hair around their hind end and inner thighs cut short, so the skin can dry faster. You can also use a zinc-free, pet-safe diaper cream to protect your cat’s skin and make clean-ups easier.

Keeping your geriatric cat comfortable

Your geriatric cat will spend more time relaxing and sleeping, and needs a comfortable bed. Choose one made of supportive material that’s washable, especially if your pet has frequent accidents. If your cat likes to be near you, but mobility problems prevent them from following you through the house, place their bed in a common family area, where they can be near family activity and comforting noises. If your cat prefers to be away from the commotion, place their bed in a quiet location, such as a back room.

Geriatric cats often can’t thermoregulate as well as younger pets, and don’t handle temperature extremes well. In the winter, you may need to place their bed near a heating vent, or use a small heater, to keep them warm. In the summer, geriatric cats are more likely to overheat, and should be kept in the air conditioning on hot days.

Providing activity for your geriatric cat

Your geriatric cat may be slowing down, but this does not mean you should stop providing opportunities for activity and enrichment. In fact, physical and mental activity is more important for your geriatric cat, as the movement and stimulation will keep their body and mind agile. Also, without mental stimulation, your indoor geriatric cat will become bored and stressed, which can lead to behavior and medical problems. Activities that will keep your cat busy include:

  • Perching at the window to watch birds and other wildlife
  • Batting around a catnip-filled toy
  • Climbing a cat tree
  • Scratching a vertical post or flat scratching mat
  • Surveying household activity from a high vantage point
  • Solving food puzzles that require them to “work” for their food
  • Finding treats or food pieces hidden throughout your house

 

Encourage your pet to interact with your family and other pets often. If mobility problems interfere with their ability to access favorite spots, make navigating your home as easy as possible. For example, if your cat can no longer jump onto the bed or their favorite perching spots, provide ramps or steps to help them.

Keeping your geriatric cat healthy and safe

As your cat ages, health problems become more common, and keeping them healthy requires more effort. Although medical issues may develop, staying on top of your geriatric pet’s health care, and addressing problems immediately, can help them maintain a good quality of life.

Regular veterinary visits for your geriatric cat

While annual veterinary visits may have been sufficient to monitor your adult pet’s health, your geriatric pet’s health status can change quickly, and more frequent visits are necessary. Most healthy geriatric cats should visit a veterinarian every three to six months, to help ensure diseases are detected in their early stages when treatment is most effective. During your cat’s visit, a veterinarian will perform a thorough physical exam, oral health assessment, and lifestyle risk assessment. Routine screening tests, such as a fecal analysis, are typically performed to detect dangerous parasites that can impact your cat’s health. A veterinarian may also perform comprehensive blood work to evaluate your cat’s blood cell counts and organ function, and screen for diseases, such as diabetes and kidney failure. If your geriatric cat has a chronic health condition, they will likely need more frequent veterinary visits to monitor their progress and adjust treatments.

Vaccines for your geriatric cat

You may be tempted to skip your geriatric cat’s vaccines, but as your pet ages, their immune system can weaken, leaving them more susceptible to common infectious diseases. A veterinarian will base your cat’s vaccines on their current lifestyle and exposure risk to specific diseases, although all cats will receive core vaccines. According to the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) and American Association for Feline Practitioners (AAFP), all geriatric cats should receive the following core vaccines:

  • Rabies — The rabies virus is spread mainly by wildlife, and transmitted via bite wounds. Rabies affects a pet’s nervous system, and is always fatal, making vaccination critical. The disease can also be transmitted to people, and is typically fatal.
  • Feline viral rhinotracheitis (FVR) — Caused by a herpesvirus, FVR can cause lifelong infection in cats. The disease, which is spread by respiratory secretions, causes a respiratory infection that can become severe, and lead to life-threatening pneumonia. Chronic infections can cause respiratory flare-ups and corneal ulcers, which can cause scarring and vision problems.
  • Calicivirus — Calicivirus also causes a respiratory infection characterized by painful oral and nasal ulcers. Severely affected cats often stop eating, and can develop pneumonia. The virus is shed in respiratory secretions, and spreads when sick cats cough and sneeze.
  • Panleukopenia — Panleukopenia is caused by a feline parvovirus similar to the virus that causes parvo in puppies. The feline parvovirus causes severe vomiting, diarrhea, and white blood cell deficiencies in infected cats, and is often fatal. 

Optional vaccines that may be administered, based on your geriatric cat’s lifestyle and risk include:

  • Feline leukemia — Feline leukemia is mainly spread via saliva, when cats groom one another, or share food bowls. The disease can cause lifelong infection, and can lead to blood cell deficiencies, gastrointestinal cancer, and immunodeficiency. Geriatric cats who go outside, or have other opportunities to contact other cats, are at risk, and should be vaccinated.
  • ChlamydiaChlamydia felis is a bacteria that causes an upper respiratory infection and ocular inflammation. Severe infections can cause a cat’s eyes to swell and mat closed, and can lead to permanent ocular damage. Chlamydia felis is spread via respiratory and ocular secretions, and infection is common among cats who come in contact with other cats, such as those who visit boarding or grooming facilities.
  • BordetellaBordetella bronchiseptica, the bacteria that causes canine kennel cough, can also cause a respiratory infection in cats. Cats who come in contact with other cats are most at risk for infection, and should be vaccinated.

Parasite prevention for your geriatric cat

A number of internal and external parasites can threaten your geriatric cat’s health, and require regular prevention and screening.

  • Fleas — Fleas ingest a small amount of a pet’s blood each time they bite, and can cause life-threatening anemia in cats, particularly those who are debilitated by a chronic disease condition. Regular flea prevention is important to prevent infestation of your cat and home.
  • Ear mites — Ear mites are microscopic mites that can live inside a cat’s ear canals, and cause intense itching and inflammation. 
  • Heartworms — Heartworms, which are transmitted by mosquitoes, cause progressive lung inflammation that can become fatal. Unfortunately, safe treatment is unavailable for cats, and year-round preventive administration is critical to prevent this deadly parasite from invading your cat’s body.
  • Gastrointestinal parasites — Gastrointestinal parasites, including roundworms, tapeworms, and coccidia, are common in all cats, and can cause diarrhea and vomiting. Severe cases can lead to life-threatening dehydration. Routine fecal analysis should be performed to screen cats for parasitic infections. 

Permanent identification for your geriatric cat

The American Humane Association estimates that one in three pets will go missing in their lifetime, and as pets age, they are more likely to become forgetful and wander off. A microchip is a permanent identification device that can help reunite you and your pet, should they become lost. The size of a rice grain, a microchip can be injected under your cat’s skin during a routine veterinary visit without sedation. After the microchip is registered, its unique number will be linked to your contact information. Should a Good Samaritan take your lost cat to an animal shelter or veterinary hospital, an employee can scan the microchip and you can be contacted. If your geriatric cat has a microchip, always ensure your contact information is up to date so you can be contacted quickly, and reunited with your lost cat.

Dental care for your geriatric cat

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), dental disease is the most common medical problem of pets, and without regular dental care, most pets will develop dental disease by 3 years of age. Regular dental care consists of daily toothbrushing combined with regular dental exams and professional veterinary cleanings. Most pets require annual dental exams and cleanings, although some may need more frequent care. If your geriatric cat has not received consistent dental care throughout their life, they likely have advanced dental disease that is causing pain. Many owners assume their pet who is able to eat is not in pain, but cats frequently mask pain, and will often not stop eating until the pain becomes unbearable. For geriatric cats with a decreased appetite, dental pain may be the cause. Owners of geriatric cats are often hesitant to have their cat’s teeth cleaned under anesthesia, but many geriatric pets can be safely anesthetized. Allowing dental disease and infection to progress is typically more detrimental to your pet’s health, and a veterinarian will perform a thorough pre-anesthetic workup to determine whether your geriatric cat can safely undergo anesthesia.

Common geriatric cat health concerns

Health problems are more common in geriatric cats, and regular veterinary monitoring is essential to detect diseases as soon as possible, when treatment can provide a better quality of life, and afford you more time with your beloved companion. Common health concerns of geriatric cats include:

  • Arthritis — Aging joints can deteriorate, causing pain and difficulty walking. Mobility problems can interfere with your geriatric cat’s daily functions, such as walking, getting into the litter box to eliminate, and accessing food and water.
  • Kidney failure — Kidney failure causes waste products to accumulate in your cat’s body, making them feel sick. Unfortunately, kidney failure signs do not develop until approximately 75% of kidney function is lost, and treatment can’t help much. Routine blood testing can detect kidney failure in its early stages, when treatment can slow its progression, and provide you more time with your pet.
  • Cognitive dysfunction — Some age-related changes are normal, but extreme behavior changes, such as disorientation, altered sleeping patterns, and anxiety, may be cognitive dysfunction signs, and should be evaluated by a veterinarian. Cognitive dysfunction is treatable to improve your geriatric cat’s quality of life.
  • Urinary problems — Feline urologic syndrome (FUS) causes chronic bladder inflammation that leads to painful urination, blood in the urine, and urination outside the litter box. Severe cases can lead to a life-threatening urethral blockage, particularly in male cats. The cause is unknown, although stress and lack of mental stimulation seem to play roles in disease development, making indoor enrichment critical for older cats.
  • Diabetes Older cats, especially those who are overweight, are prone to developing diabetes, which interferes with the body’s ability to move glucose into the cells for energy production and use. Diabetes requires long-term management that often involves insulin injections and a special diet.
  • Dental disease Many geriatric cats develop painful dental disease, particularly if they have not received regular dental care throughout their life. Tooth resorption is also common, and can lead to severe pain and a decreased appetite.
  • Cancer — According to the Veterinary Cancer Society, one in four pets is estimated to develop cancer at some point in their life, and a cat’s risk increases with age. Common feline cancers include lymphoma, mammary cancer, and squamous cell carcinoma.

End-of-life care for geriatric cats

As your cat ages, they may develop chronic, debilitating health conditions, and despite your excellent care and devotion, the inevitable will eventually occur. If your pet is nearing their final months, weeks, or days, you may consider hospice or palliative care, which provides pain control and comfort, and minimizes a disease’s effects during your pet’s last days. You will likely function as your cat’s hospice caregiver, and will partner with a veterinarian to manage their care. Treatments, such as pain medications, appetite stimulants, anti-nausea medications, and subcutaneous fluids, can keep your cat comfortable, and give you more time as you prepare to say goodbye.

Common geriatric cat health concerns

As your geriatric cat nears their final days, you may consider euthanasia, which will allow your pet to pass comfortably, and with dignity, as opposed to suffering. Many pet owners struggle with choosing the right time to have their pet euthanized. Although there is no perfect time to make this decision, you should consider making arrangements before your cat’s quality of life significantly declines, and you are forced to rush them to a veterinarian for emergency euthanasia when they are suffering.

By maintaining a veterinary relationship and providing excellent care, your pet can thrive past their life expectancy. But, as your geriatric cat ages, health problems become more likely, and diseases can develop. If your geriatric cat isn’t acting normally, or you have questions that need immediate answers, download the Airvet app, and speak with one of our experienced veterinarians in minutes.

 

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