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The Ultimate Guide to Caring for Your Senior Cat

Ensuring Your Cat’s Health and Happiness Through Their Golden Years

Your cat is considered a senior when they reach the last 25% of their expected life span, or around 11 years old. Your senior cat may begin slowing down, and will need a little extra TLC and more frequent veterinary care to ensure they stay healthy and happy. If you have recently opened your home and heart to a graying companion, they should settle in nicely with little effort and accommodation. Whether your senior cat has been by your side for years, or is a recent addition, caring for them properly will ensure their golden years are their best. 



Integrating a senior cat into your household

If you have recently adopted a senior cat, they may take some time to relax and understand they are in their new forever home. In general, senior cats are laid back, and easier to integrate into your home than a mischievous kitten. They are less active than their younger counterparts because they often have achy joints, and probably will not appreciate the antics of younger, more rambunctious pets and children. Be patient as your new senior companion adapts to your home and family, and provide the support they need.

A new senior cat will likely be curious about your pets, but your other cats may not immediately take to a newcomer. To introduce your new cat to your existing feline companion, allow them to meet on opposite sides of a closed door with a gap underneath, if possible. This way, the cats can smell one another, and extend a paw under the door. Once each cat seems comfortable, you can crack the door, and allow them to interact with supervision.

When introducing your new cat to your dog, leash your dog and allow your cat to approach as they feel comfortable. If your dog is too boisterous, acts aggressively, or chases the cat, you will need to supervise all interactions, and separate them when you are not around. Provide your cat with plenty of hiding spaces where they can escape when they do not wish to interact with your other pets or family members.

Feeding your senior 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 senior pet should not eat the same food they ate when they were young or middle-agedthey require a diet made specifically for senior cats. If you are not sure which food to choose, a veterinarian is the best source of advice. Talk to a veterinarian now.

Feeding your pet the correct amount plays an important role in maintaining good health. Since your cat is slowing down, their calorie intake should decrease so they do not gain excess weight, which can strain sore joints. Many pet food companies overestimate the amount you should feed your pet, so ask a veterinarian to help you determine an appropriate daily calorie allotment. Cats are grazers, and prefer to eat many small meals throughout the day and night, but you should divide your cat’s daily calorie allotment into meals, instead of filling their bowl only once a day. This way, they won’t eat all their food by noon and beg for more. For example, if you plan to feed your cat twice per day, divide their total daily calorie allotment by two, and use the calories per cup on the food label to 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. Provide plenty of fresh, clean water for your cat at all times.

Senior pets with mobility issues may have difficulty getting to their food and water bowls, particularly if their bowls are on elevated surfaces, or they need to go up or down stairs. Place food and water bowls in easy-to-access locations on each floor of your home to ensure your senior cat can eat and drink adequate amounts.

Litter box training your senior cat

Training a cat to eliminate in the proper location is much easier than house training a new dog. Show your cat where their litter boxes are located, and put them inside so they can feel the litter under their feet. Cats prefer to bury their urine and feces, and will understand this is where they should eliminate. If your cat does not take to their litter box quickly, you can use a product such as Dr. Elsey’s Ultra Litter Attractant, which contains a pet-safe herbal mixture that encourages cats to use the litter box. 

Inappropriate elimination is the most common reason pet owners abandon their cats, so ensuring your cat has good litter box habits is essential. To encourage your cat to always use their litter box, follow these tips:

  • Provide one litter box for each cat in your household, plus one extra.
  • Place litter boxes in different locations and on different levels of your home.
  • Choose quiet, private locations—for example, do not place litter boxes near loud appliances, such as the washing machine.
  • Choose a sand-based, unscented litter.
  • Do not change litter types, as cats are often picky about their litter.
  • Do not use harsh, scented chemicals to clean your cat’s litter box.
  • Scoop your cat’s litter at least once each day.
  • Once a week, completely dump the old litter, clean the box, and fill it with fresh litter.
  • Minimize stress in your cat’s life, as anxiety is a leading cause of chronic bladder inflammation and inappropriate elimination in cats. 

As cats age, arthritis and mobility issues may prevent them from getting to the litter box, or stepping over the high sides, and accidents may occur. Clean up any accident quickly with an enzyme-based cleaner that will completely eliminate the odor, so your cat will not be tempted to use the same spot again. Accidents are expected when training a new pet, and may become more frequent for your older cat, but never punish your cat for having an accident.

Providing activity for your senior cat

Your senior 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 senior cat, as the movement and stimulation will keep their body and mind agile. Also, without mental stimulation, your indoor senior 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

Keeping your senior 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 senior pet’s health care, and addressing problems immediately, can help them live their life to the fullest, and enjoy many more quality years by your side.

Regular veterinary visits for your senior cat

While annual veterinary visits may have been sufficient to monitor your adult pet’s health, your senior pet’s health status can change quickly, and more frequent visits are necessary. Most healthy senior cats should visit a veterinarian every six months, although some cats may require more frequent visits 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 blood work to evaluate your cat’s blood cell counts and organ function, and screen for diseases, such as diabetes and kidney failure. If you have recently adopted a senior cat, they should visit a veterinarian for a thorough health screening and viral testing during their first week of adoption.

Vaccines for your senior cat

You may be tempted to skip your senior cat’s vaccines, but as your pet ages, their immune system can weaken, leaving them more susceptible to common infectious diseases. If you have adopted a senior cat with an unknown vaccine history, assume they have not had prior vaccines, and ask a veterinarian to determine their best catch-up schedule. 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 senior 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 senior 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. Senior 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 senior cat

A number of internal and external parasites can threaten your senior 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 senior 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 senior 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 senior 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 senior 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. Senior cat owners are often hesitant to have their cat’s teeth cleaned under anesthesia, but most senior cats 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 senior cat can safely undergo anesthesia.

Common senior cat health concerns

Health problems are more common in senior 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 senior cats include:

  • Arthritis — Aging joints can deteriorate, causing pain and difficulty walking. Mobility problems can interfere with your 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 senior 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 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 older 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. Common feline cancers include lymphoma, mammary cancer, and squamous cell carcinoma.

 

Your senior cat can have an excellent quality of life with an appropriate diet, regular activity, and routine health care. But, as your pet ages, health problems become more likely, and diseases can develop. If your senior cat isn’t acting normally, or you have questions that need immediate answers, download the Airvet app, and you can speak with one of our experienced veterinarians in minutes.

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