Top 5 Ways to Improve Life for Your Senior Cat

If your senior cat is starting to slow down, there are extra steps you can take to ensure that it is healthy, comfortable and content.

How to Help Your Senior Cat
Here are five basic steps you can take to make life better for your senior cat:

1. Visit your veterinarian regularly. Cat owners sometimes have the tendency to not schedule regular veterinarian visits unless their cat is due for vaccines, says Dr. Debbie Van Pelt of the Veterinary Referral Center of Colorado. But bringing your cat in for at least an annual exam helps your veterinarian catch treatable illnesses in the early stages. For example, your veterinarian can check for lumps and bumps. “Cancers that are caught early can be treated and removed,” says Van Pelt. Veterinarians think of cats as senior at about age 10, says Dr. Tracy Dewhirst, a veterinarian in Knoxville, Tenn. However, it’s a good idea to have your veterinarian do a baseline blood-check when your cat is about 7 years old, advises Dewhirst. “It’s a good landmark. Then the veterinarian has something to look back on if your cat starts to develop problems.”

2. Maintain your cat’s dental health. “From a veterinary health standpoint, oral health is really big. We see cats decline rapidly when they don’t have their teeth taken care of,” says Dewhirst. If your cat develops plaque and gum disease, bacteria can find its way into the bloodstream and threaten your cat’s heart health, among other problems. Cats with dental problems also might struggle to eat and maintain weight.

3. Watch your cat’s weight. Excess weight can lead to serious conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, and a fat cat is more likely to suffer from arthritis. Make sure your cat is eating a high-quality food designed for senior cats, and try rationing the portion sizes to help your cat maintain a healthy weight, as its metabolism has slowed in the last few years. Your veterinarian can help you figure out an appropriate calorie count and portion size for your cat. You’ll also want to notice if your cat is losing weight, since older cats can develop thyroid problems, says Dewhirst.

4. Be a detective. Cats tend to be private, aloof and secretive. “By the time a cat owner notices a behavior change, things may have progressed farther,” says Van Pelt. “We see a lot of older cats where by the time we see them, we are diagnosing them with kidney disease and heart failure.” Pay attention to little clues, such as water intake, how much your cat is eating and its elimination habits. A change in elimination can signal a myriad of health problems and indicate a need for a veterinary visit.

5. Make your cat comfortable. A 16- or 17-year-old cat might show signs of creaky joints. If you simply make things easier, your cat is sure to enjoy better quality of life. Create warmth for your cat by using a heating pad or placing its bed near a warm area.

6. Give your cat extra attention. Natasha Deen, a Canadian author of young adult novels, helped two beloved kitties live to the ages of 19 and 21, and she thinks extra attention made a difference. Deen cuddled her cats more and regularly brushed and groomed them. Your loving attention is crucial, says Deen.

When to Feed Cats a High-calorie Diet

A high-calorie pet formula packs a nutrient-dense punch and has even saved the lives of cats that are in need of gaining weight. Because of the calorie density in such formulas, a cat can ingest about one-quarter of the bulk of standard cat food and get the same nutritional benefit. Below, Virginia-based veterinarian Dr. Katy Nelson, who is a member of the Iams Pet Wellness Council, weighs in on when a higher-calorie formula may or may not be right for your furry friend.

When to Feed High-calorie Food
“If your cat has lost weight, it’s possible that something is going on metabolically that needs to be addressed,” says Nelson. “No normal cat on a normal diet is going to start to drop weight unless there’s something underlying. This is specifically a recovery diet.” Cats treated for inflammatory bowel disease, as well as the following conditions, are often prescribed calorie-dense foods:

  • Fatty liver disease. When an older cat stops eating, it is vulnerable to fatty liver disease. The body goes into starvation mode and begins sending fat cells into the liver to process as protein. Untreated, this will result in liver failure and death. “You can stop the process by supplying the animal with a fat source. A cat with fatty liver may end up being prescribed a high-calorie food for three to six months,” says Nelson.
  • Cancer. Cats with cancer will likely need extra calories to heal, but may not have large appetites. Nelson shares that eating just one-sixth of a can of certain high-calorie cat foods is “like eating a full can of regular food.”
  • Dental work. Many higher-calorie formulas are wet foods, making them easy on the teeth.
  • Hyperthyroidism. Once the condition is identified and the medication is started, a high-calorie formula may still be prescribed to help the cat return to a healthy weight.

When Not to Feed Maximum-calorie Food
A pet owner should not independently make the decision to put a cat on any prescription diet. A high-calorie formula “is a phenomenal food to have in your arsenal, but no owner should say, ‘I’m going to make a diet change because my cat is losing weight,’” says Nelson. “These foods are very high-protein, very high-fat. Start it unnecessarily, and your cat’s going to end up with pancreatitis or horrible diarrhea.”

  • Pregnancy/lactation. “Kitten food is most appropriate for pregnant and nursing cats. It has the appropriate levels of all sorts of nutrients that are necessary for the kittens,” says Nelson. A cat with a particularly large litter might be given a higher-calorie food as a supplement, but check with your veterinarian first.
  • Old age. Many elderly cats have mildly compromised kidneys, making a food that is very rich in protein likely a bad idea. For slender, senior cats, choose a nonprescription senior-formula cat food.

Transitioning
Switching to a new food generally requires a transition period, but Nelson explains that when cats need a high-calorie formula, time is often of the essence. “Typically, in situations where this food is required, you don’t have transitioning time. If you have to deal with a little diarrhea versus their liver getting compromised, you go for the former.”

Transitioning off is another story. Once a cat’s underlying issue has been identified and addressed, and the cat returns to a healthy weight or the oral problem is resolved, spend seven to 10 days adjusting the ratios of the new diet back to the older one.

Healthy Nutrition for Your Senior Cat

Are you feeding your cat age-appropriate food? As a general rule, cats are considered to be mature when they reach 7 to 8 years of age, and true seniors at age 11. Although 8 might seem like a young age to change the food of a cat that’s still active, playful and not yet overweight, experts say that looks can be deceiving. “Aging brings with it physiological changes. Some are obvious; others are not,” says Dr. Amy Dicke, an Ohio-based veterinarian and a technical services veterinarian for Iams who specializes in diet and nutrition. “Skin and hair coat changes may be obvious, while lean muscle mass loss and digestive or immune system failing may be less evident or hidden. Changes also include joint/mobility/flexibility concerns and oral health.”

Food for Mature Cats: What to Look For
Some cat foods tailored to seniors may offer lower calorie levels, which are appropriate for an assumed decrease in activity. But Dicke says that if your cat’s activity level remains relatively unchanged, you should look for a food for active older cats that provides enough calories and addresses the physiological changes happening inside.

Ingredients to look for include: antioxidants, such as vitamin E, to help support waning immune system function; glucosamine and chondroitin for joint health; sodium hexametaphosphate (SHMP) for dental health; and prebiotics, like fructooligosaccharide (FOS), to support the digestive system. “A prebiotic fiber selectively feeds beneficial bacteria in the gut and starves the bad bacteria,” says Dicke. “This can create an optimal environment in the gut, promote better digestion and actually have an influence on the immune system, as 70 percent of the immune system is located in the digestive tract.”

The right protein is another important factor at this age, according to Dr. Katy Nelson, a veterinarian basted in Alexandria, Va. “Moderate levels of high-quality protein, low carbohydrate percentage, low fat if choosing canned, and a low sodium diet is recommended for seniors for heart and kidney health,” says Nelson.

Look to meat-based products for a high-quality protein source. “Cats are true carnivores,” says Dicke. “As they age, protein levels should be maintained to support lean muscle mass maintenance and immune system function, both of which rely on adequate protein levels.”

How to Switch Foods

Both experts advise using the guidelines above as a starting point for discussions with your veterinarian, who should be involved in the decision to switch foods. From there, they suggest implementing the change slowly and gradually. Decide on a time period between seven and 10 days, and then give your cat a different mixture every few days. “The first two days, 25 percent of the current food volume should be replaced by the new food and slowly increased until your cat is eating 100 percent of the new product,” says Dicke.

As your cat gets even older and goes from the mature stage to the true senior stage, you may want to switch again to a food that suits a more sedentary lifestyle. “Cats tend to sleep much more as they age, as much as 22 hours a day,” says Nelson. “Therefore, their caloric requirement is basically just what their body needs to maintain function.” She says that’s another decision that should be made with the close supervision of your veterinarian.

Senior Black Homeless Cats in Crisis

The fate of homeless, adult black cats constantly remains in question at shelters. A 2002 study in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science found that black cats were up to two-thirds less likely to be adopted than other cats. Being a homeless cat is hard enough, but the sad truth is that certain types of cats are bypassed by adopting families time and again.

Not Every Cat Is a Kitten
Age may be an even more important issue than color. For those who wish to bring home a new cat, kittens of any color are hard to resist. Their furry faces and playful antics often steal the show at adoption events, while adult cats quietly sit alone in their carriers. “Kittens usually fly out the door because they are so popular,” says San Francisco SPCA spokeswoman Jennifer Lu. “Once cats lose their kitten-ness, it becomes harder to adopt them out.”

Inga Fricke, director of Sheltering and Pet Care Issues at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) based in Washington, D.C., adds that “animals with special medical or behavioral needs are more difficult to adopt than puppies and kittens.” Lu explains that cost is often the concern. “If an animal needs a certain medicine that’s expensive, just as a practical issue, some potential owners are unwilling or are unable to take on that cost,” she says, adding that her organization will sometimes issue special medical dispensations covering the additional cost.

Black, Senior Cats Are Often Overlooked
Even if a black adult cat is in perfect health and has a sweet nature, it may still remain in the shelter. One reason is simply that black cats are more common, perhaps because this color is just genetically more dominant among cats. Old superstitions may also be to blame, suggests Bobbie Gambarini, who fosters cats and who recently volunteered for a Black Is Beautiful cat adoption event in California. She thinks some people believe black cats are unlucky, even though in parts of Europe they’re actually believed to bring good luck to their owners.

The biggest reason, however, may have to do with how well the cats photograph. In this social media age, people often surf the Net before visiting shelters. Professional photographers aren’t always available to snap the most flattering shots of scared homeless cats, so some cats disappear into dark backgrounds and poor lighting.

Turning the Tide
Groups across the country are trying to increase the rate of adoptions for all cats, and especially those that need the extra boost. Fricke shares that the HSUS has joined together with Maddie’s Fund and the Ad Council to create the first-ever public advertising campaign to promote adoption, The Shelter Pet Project. Boston-based Black Cat Rescue and other organizations are also building awareness while finding cats homes.

Frequently overlooked cats often make better pets. “Older animals, for example, are beyond the annoying chewing stage, are typically fully trained and are much more ‘What you see is what you get’ than younger animals who have not fully developed their personalities yet,” says Fricke.

Christina Alvarez, director of Hopalong & Second Chance Animal Rescue in Oakland, Calif., adds that such cats also tend to be:

  • Trained to use the litter box
  • Reserved and well-behaved
  • Adapted to home life
  • Appreciative of love and care
  • Eager to bond with supportive owners

The experts often practice what they preach too. Lu, who adopted three adult pets, advises that anyone who desires a new cat “should go in with an open heart and open eyes. Rather than sticking to predetermined characteristics, make a love connection.”

Fricke agrees: “We would love for people to bear in mind that most pets wind up in shelters through no fault of their own -- not because they have problems, but simply because their owners had personal problems, such as they needed to move, had a new baby, etc. They are wonderful, family-ready pets who only need to be given an opportunity to show how wonderful they are.”

‘Adopt a Senior Pet Month’ Saves Lives

November is Adopt a Senior Pet Month, a time of year that’s always celebrated in my home. My life has been so blessed and enriched by my two cats, Freddy and Sweetie, who are both well over 20 and are thankfully still going strong. If you can bring home a new pet, consider adopting a senior kitty.

“Think of a pet that is already trained and doesn’t chew or scratch everything in sight -- a pet that will love you unconditionally,” says Kim Saunders, director of public relations for PetFinder.com. “That’s what you get when you adopt a senior pet.” PetFinder.com is sponsoring Adopt a Senior Pet Month, which grows in popularity each year. Here are more reasons why you should consider bringing home such a cat:

1. You will avoid the “kitten zoomies.”
Kittens offer their own playful companionship and charms, but they also require a certain amount of tolerance. “The internal energy clock of kittens tends to go off between 3 and 5 a.m.,” says Gail Buchwald, senior vice president of the ASPCA Adoption Center and Mobile Clinic Outreach Program. “That’s when kitten owners are awakened the most.”

Veterinarians even get calls from concerned owners of kittens and “teenaged cats” (cats under the age of 2). “They’ll phone in saying, ‘Something is wrong with my cat. It’s always running around and getting into mischief,’” according to Buchwald, who usually assures them that the behavior is probably tied to the cat version of the “terrible twos.”

2. You will gain a loyal, loving family member.
Some people worry that senior pets come with problems, but Hazel Blumberg-McKee of Tallahassee, Fla., who has adopted senior animals, believes there are no disadvantages. She explains that “in most cases, they’ve had a home and they want one again. An older animal is easier to deal with.”

Buchwald, who has an elderly cat, agrees. “You’ll likely find yourself with a lap cat, a snuggle cat, a greet-you-at-the-door cat all rolled into one.” On top of that, “your new senior cat won’t place tremendous demands on you as a kitten might.”

3. You will still likely have an active, playful pet.
Cats, like humans, often live long, active and healthy lives well past adulthood. I can certainly attest to that, as my Freddy and Sweetie are still quite frisky and playful without being kitten zoomers. “There’s a bias in our culture toward youth, and that extends to our pets,” explains Buchwald. “Senior cats often remain playful, wanting to chase after string, bat a ball, or otherwise want to enjoy spending active time with you.”

4. You may save money.
The ASPCA sometimes offers a “Free Over Three” adult cat adoption promotion. Check with your local shelter to see if that, or a similar program, is in place. “We were concerned we’d have a lot of returns, since the over-3-year-old cats are free, but quite the opposite happens,” says Buchwald. “Families fall in love with their cats and don’t want to let them go.”

You may also save money on your medical bills. The Humane Society of the United States reports that senior humans, in particular, may enjoy lower blood pressure and other cardiac benefits from the soothing presence of a cat. Pets also help ease loneliness, thereby promoting mental health too.

Tips on Caring for a Senior Cat
Buchwald offers these five basic guidelines for senior pet care:

  1. Feed your elderly cat a senior diet. “Veterinarians recommend senior diets for older cats,” she explains. Certain cats may require other special diets if they have particular health issues.

  2. Groom your cat regularly. “Sometimes older cats will slack off on grooming themselves,” she explains.

  3. Provide playtime. Just as we humans need to exercise throughout our lives, so do cats.

  4. Keep it relatively quiet. “If your home is like Grand Central Station all the time, your older cat is likely to become stressed out,” she says. Make sure your cat has a nice, quiet spot to retreat to throughout the day.

  5. Schedule regular veterinary visits. Prevention and early detection can save, and extend, lives.

“My senior pets are priceless to me,” says Buchwald. “I have never regretted my decision to adopt older animals. They provide me with such unconditional love and joy.”