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  • Tara Jarussirirat

Caring for a Senior Cat

As our cats age it is important for us to be aware of changes that may occur and to modify their needs. Cats 10 years of age and older are considered senior and need some extra attention.

(L to R) Cleo, Amigo & Django

I am currently employed by 3 cats, Amigo (6), Django (10) and my very senior cat Cleo AKA “Ole Lady” (18). I got Cleo as a kitten when I was going into my second year of college to become an RVT. She has been there with me for many major life events and in her own way has shaped me into a RVT with a passion for working with and understanding cats. It has been difficult to watch her get older, but I make it a mission every day to do whatever I can to make her comfortable and her environment suitable to her changing needs.

A few years ago, when our lab Franky (who was 9 at the time) required surgery for a ruptured cruciate, I knew that he was going to need us to change some things in our home for recovery and long term. One of those changes was getting a set of stairs for our bed so he would not have to jump up on his own. I am lucky to have a set of parents that are handy when it comes to my impromptu DIY projects, and they helped design and create a set of stairs for me. I soon noticed that the stairs were not only getting used by Franky but also by Cleo who at the time was 14 years old and appeared to me to be thriving. It wasn’t until I started to pay close attention to her activity and behavior that I observed that she was showing multiple signs of her maturing age. She spent more and more time in our bedroom than other places in the house but she happily used those stairs to access the bed as it was easier for her than


Cats are absolute masters at hiding signs of pain and disease, and it is important as cat owners to pay close attention to changes in their routines and behavior that might indicate pain or signs of disease. Osteoarthritis is a common cause of pain in senior cats. Studies have shown as many as 92% of cats suffer from arthritis. Lucky for them, we have many ways to help. From senior mobility diets, glucosamines products and a brand-new injectable therapy to treat arthritis pain in senior cats we have more tools than ever before at our disposal.

Understanding your senior cat's changing needs is important to ensure they can live a long, happy life. We can provide them with a good quality of life by creating a “Senior Cat Friendly” home environment.

Here are my top tips to make your senior cat comfortable and happy inspired by my “Ole Lady”:

1. Watch for changes in behavior. It is important to pay close attention to things your senior cat may be doing differently. Sleeping more, sleeping less, drinking more water, urinating more frequently in the litterbox, difficulty posturing to defecate, accidents outside of the litter box, increased “talking”, hiding, less affectionate, not being as social, not jumping up as much, less grooming or more grooming. It may be helpful to keep a journal of changes you are noticing to monitor how often these behaviors are happening.

2. Get your cat to the vet. It is important for senior cats to have regular check-ups. Senior cats 10-15 years old should have exams every 6 months and cats over 15 years should be seen every 4 months. Cats with ongoing health issues may need more frequent visits. Exams can often help identify disease or age-related health conditions before they become painful or cost more to manage. During these visits, cats are weighed to monitor for weight loss or weight gain, mouths are checked for signs of painful dental disease, auscultation of the heart and lungs for any signs of changes/abnormalities and a full body check for any noticeable lumps and bumps. Bloodwork may also be performed to check for or monitor disease.

Now is also a great time to discuss with your veterinarian any changes that you may have noticed at home with your senior kitty. Remember, cats wrote the book on hiding disease and pain so we may not be able to reproduce their behavior or possible pain in hospital. Videos and pictures are excellent ways to show your veterinary team what has been going on at home. The visit to the veterinarian does not have to be stressful and should not be used as an excuse to forgo a visit. SLVC is a certified Low Stress Handling facility, and we take extra steps to provide low stress visits/exams to our feline patients. We are happy to offer you additional advice on how you can prepare and reduce your cat's stress when they need to come for a visit.

3. Litter boxes. As osteoarthritis develops it can become more difficult for your cat to navigate their way to a litter box and climb into the box. I get that nobody wants to look at or smell a litter box, however it may be necessary to add a litter box with easy access from where your cat is currently spending most of their time. For Cleo, that was our bedroom. She took to sleeping on a plush pet bed that was on our bed and that is where she spends almost all of her time. In our house the litter boxes have always been kept in 2 separate areas of our basement. But as it became more difficult for her to move around the journey to the basement was too far for her to make most of the time. We added a litter box in our ensuite bathroom just steps from her throne on our bed. She will still make the journey downstairs but now she has an option that is closer that she utilizes frequently. It is important to set kitties up for success, otherwise unwanted bathroom habits can be created. Litter boxes that are low to step in are also important. Litter boxes with high sides are great for cats like my Django who feels that it is his duty to shoot litter all over the place however for arthritic cats it can be difficult for them to step into.

4. Regular grooming and nail trims. As cats age they may not be able to readily groom themselves as they once did. Help your kitty out by gently brushing or combing their fur to prevent painful matting. The nails of older cats don’t shed like they used to due to a decrease in natural scratching behaviors. The nails can easily become overgrown into the paw pads and can be very painful. Long nails can also become caught in carpets, couches and bedding which in turn can cause damage to those items and potential pain for an arthritic cat. Create a routine of regular nail trims to prevent this and to make it easier for your kitty to get around.

5. Be aware of bullying housemates.

These 2 (pictured to the right) may look all sweet and innocent but sometimes they can be bullying brats! All 3 cats have always gotten along extremely well but Amigo (the youngest and my husband's cat ;) can be a bully to Cleo from time to time. I have witnessed him try and attack her while she is drinking and eating or trying to get to the litter box. This is extremely important behavior to notice and take swift action to correct. Repeat of these events could cause aversion to what the senior cat is doing when the bullying happens. We certainly do not want a senior cat to stop eating or drinking because they are afraid, they may get jumped on by a housemate.

Pheromone diffusers have become a staple in my house, and I have them in multiple areas where my cats spend most of their time. It hasn’t completely corrected the issue, but it has helped greatly, and I can tell when the diffuser needs to be replaced.

6. Stairs or ramps to get to their sleeping spots. Cats are known as agile creatures that like to jump and climb and as they age these activities can become increasingly difficult for them. Ramps or stairs can be very useful in a house with aging pets and are not just for dogs. If your cat starts to have trouble jumping to their favorite surfaces, consider adding stairs or ramps to make the access easier for them.

7. Access to food & water. Food and water for your senior cat should be placed in multiple areas that are easily accessible. If those areas are up high, consider ramps, stairs or move the bowls to a lower spot that doesn’t require them to jump. Raised food and water bowls are also helpful so arthritic cats don’t have to bend to eat and drink.

8. Extra cushy beddings. As cats grow older, they often require extra padding and warmth. Be sure to provide plenty of cushy beds and blankets in multiple areas with easy access.

Together with your veterinarian, you can provide a good quality of life for your older cat. Caring for a senior cat can be a deeply rewarding experience that will enhance the uniquely special bond you and your cat share.

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