Behavioural changes - As cats age, their behaviour alters too, often as a direct result of the physiological changes taking place. The elderly cat adapts gradually to these changes, and it may not be apparent unless you are specifically looking for signs of ageing. Older cats hunt less, spend less time outside, are generally less active and sleep for longer periods. They can have a reduced or fussy appetite, be less keen to play or groom and be more vocal. They also tend to become more insecure and therefore potentially more dependent on you.
Other behavioural changes can be seen as a direct result of disease, for example, increased thirst or appetite or aggression associated with pain.
Home care for the elderly - This is the time, more than any other, when your cat needs some essential care. As cats get older, they will find it more difficult to maintain their own cleanliness and checking your cat regularly will enable you to detect problems that need to be tackled straight away.
Claw trimming - Elderly cats are less able to retract their claws and they may get caught in furniture and carpets. They can also overgrow and stick into their pads. Regular trimming will be necessary and with the right advice and training from your veterinarian, it may be straightforward for you to perform this routine task and therefore avoid the need for a potentially stressful journey to the surgery.
Grooming - Your old cat is less able to groom efficiently so you may need to wipe away any discharge around its eyes, nose or anus using separate pieces of cotton wool for each area moistened in warm water. You may also need to brush your cat using a soft brush and fine comb, but care should be taken to ensure you are gentle, as older cats tend to be thin with very little padding over their bones so vigorous combing can be painful. At this time, you can also check for lumps, bumps, sores or anything else that merits attention from the vet. Grooming shorthaired cats only needs to be completed thoroughly if there is any matting. This can often occur on the lower spine and hindquarters as your cat may be less flexible and therefore unable to reach these areas to self-groom.
If your cat is longhaired and is having difficulties keeping itself clean it may be helpful to trim the coat around its anus, underside of the tail and back legs to avoid soiling or matting. If you find any matts, then they should be teased out rather than cut with scissors as this can so easily damage the skin. If you have any concerns, consult your veterinarian as severe matts can be very uncomfortable for your cat.
Hairballs - Hairballs are a common problem in older cats as they often have sluggish digestions and hair ingested during grooming may cause complications such as chronic vomiting or constipation. Special supplements or foods can be purchased to assist with hairballs should this become a problem for your cat.
Toilet habits - Even if your elderly cat has access outdoors it is wise to provide an indoor litter facility as there will inevitably come a time when your cat just doesn’t feel inclined to toilet in cold, damp conditions outside. If you provide a litter tray you then have the opportunity to check your cat’s elimination habits for blood in the urine or stools, change in consistency of stools or other indicators of disease.
Dental checks - old teeth and mouths can cause problems so check your cat regularly for signs of any growths, reddening of the gums or evidence of dental disease. Halitosis (bad breath), drooling, a ‘chattering’ jaw, loss of appetite and pawing at the mouth may all be signs of dental disease, if in doubt, consult your veterinarian.
Regular health checks
Your veterinarian will advise the frequency of health checks that would best suit your cat, taking into consideration its age and general health. Although it’s good to know your cat will be regularly examined it shouldn’t prevent you from being a little more vigilant at home to spot the first signs that all is not well. There are a number of general warning signs that merit attention from your veterinarian, namely:
Encouraging appetite - Your cat may have less of an appetite as it gets older as its sense of smell and taste diminishes or there may be occasions when your cat needs a little encouragement. There are various ways that you can stimulate appetite, for example:
Drinking - Elderly cats are more vulnerable to becoming dehydrated, especially if suffering from medical conditions such as chronic kidney disease, so always make sure that a variety of water bowls are available in the home in accessible areas away from the normal places where food is eaten. You may need to experiment with the type of container, for example, ceramic bowl, glass or drinking fountain and even the type of water, such as tap water, boiled water, filtered, spring etc. It may even be helpful to add a small amount of water to your elderly cat’s wet food. Water bowls, like food bowls, may be more comfortably used by the older cat if you raise it off the ground.
Elderly cat friendly home - All the recommendations for a cat friendly home will work as well for the elderly with a little modification. There is rarely the need to make drastic changes to the home to accommodate your cat as it gets older but small adaptations to the existing cat resources can make a significant difference to the quality of life. If your cat is finding stairs difficult to negotiate, for example, then it may be spending prolonged periods on one level, either up or downstairs. Ensuring that all your cat’s needs are met on that one level will avoid any risk of being unable to access important resources.
In order to make activity and movement in general easier for your older cat, it is important that it feels comfortable walking. Laminate tiled or wooden flooring can be slippery and old cats can become unstable on slippery surfaces making them less inclined to be active. Equally, carpet can catch on your cat’s claws that overgrow easily without regular stropping and remain protracted as the muscles weaken. Cut pile carpets are more comfortable for your cat than loop pile so if your flooring is the latter you can compromise by providing cut pile runners throughout the home to enable your cat to walk in comfort. This is also the ideal surface on which to play, particularly if your cat likes to lie down in the process.
Litter trays - Litter trays should normally be located well away from other resources, such as food and water but for the very elderly or those cats suffering from cognitive dysfunction, it is appropriate for all its resources to be located in easy reach to avoid confusion.
The trays should probably not be the covered variety as these can be difficult to negotiate. Open trays with low sides are ideal and they should be firmly fixed to prevent them from being tipped up if your cat is clumsy when using a tray. Polythene litter liners should be avoided as they can catch in your cat’s claws and any indoor trays should be cleaned regularly. If your cat is suffering from a condition that causes increased thirst and urination you may need to fill the tray to a depth exceeding the recommendation of 3cm – probably as much as 5cm in some cases. Trial and error are required as your cat may prefer a shallower litter that is cleaned more frequently.
Beds - Many favoured locations for sleep are on raised surfaces, such as your bed or a window sill, so it may become difficult with time for your elderly cat to access these special places. The positioning of ramps, steps and platforms will enable it to reach the area in gentle stages rather than giving up due to stiffness or weakness in the joints.
If your cat uses your bed, chair or sofa you may wish to provide a thermal blanket that is warm and washable. If your cat likes to sleep on window sills or other narrow platforms it is advisable to place a soft padded object underneath to prevent injury as many older cats have impaired balance and could easily fall. Ideally, elderly cats should be encouraged to use secure or wider surfaces for sleep.