With advances in veterinary medicine and nutrition, cats are living longer than ever. It is not unusual for a cat to live to 20 years old although the average lifespan is around 15 years. It is common to presume that old age for a cat is seven years old but this is actually when a cat is classed as middle age, old age for cats is between 10 and 12 years.

Unless there are any health problems, it would be usual for your cat to visit the vet for their annual vaccination on a yearly basis but as your cat gets older it is advisable to visit the vet on at least a bi-annual basis for a health check.

There are many health issues more common to aging cats, including: arthritis, cancer, constipation, dental dis-ease, diabetes, hyperthyroidism, kidney and liver disease, obesity, skin problems (or matted coat due to increased difficulty in grooming), urinary problems and vision impairments. For that, caring for very old cats could be difficult and need more effort from you and your vet.

Arthritis

9 Tips for Caring for Very Old Cats 1

Arthritis can make a once agile cat, who was often tearing around your house, climbing up the curtains and jumping onto the furniture, much less active. They may start avoiding places that used to be their play or sleep areas as it is too painful for them to be able to climb onto. By putting in small steps or stairs for them to access their favorite places, it can make a huge difference to their lives and also encourage them to take a little more exercise which is always beneficial to any cat.

If your cat starts having accidents on the floor it may be that they are having difficulty getting in and out of the litter tray. By having a shorter sided litter tray it is easier on the cat’s joints and will hopefully prevent any accidents from happening. Even if your cat usually goes to the toilet outdoors then it would be worth considering putting a litter tray indoors so that they have the option.

Both physical and mental activity is crucial for senior cats. It increases blood flow, which stimulates and oxygenates tissues to help remove toxins from the body more easily. Exercise also helps maintain proper bowel function, especially in constipation-prone senior cats, and can even help them maintain emotional health.

If your cat is still active, take him/her outside on a harness and leash for exercise and mental stimulation. If your cat has difficulty grooming him or herself then brush them often, as this helps to stimulate circulation. Also, keep a check on their claws as with a less active cat, it can result in the claws overgrowing, and they can curl and grow into the feet. Try to keep some cats grass handy as this always goes down a treat!

Coughing

9 Tips for Caring for Very Old Cats 2

I decided to cover this condition based on personal experience. My cat Poppet turned up in the garden in May 1996. She was an incredibly nervous and shy cat and it took several months to gain her confidence. She became a regular in the garden, coming in for her daily feed, gradually coming into the kitchen and within 18 months was a fully-fledged house cat. Since no one had reported her missing and with no microchip, she officially adopted me as her mum! Whilst she liked to go for a wander in the garden and curl up and sleep in the bedding plants, she preferred to live in the house which was her safe haven away from the other cats who frequented the garden and saw her as an easy target to pick on.

In autumn 2010 Poppet started to cough. It was only every now and again and I initially put it down to her coughing up a furball but after a few days she was still coughing and I took her to the vets where she was put on a course of antibiotics.

In March 2011 I noticed she was starting to lose weight. I knew it was not down to her teeth as she had only had a dental check three months before. I took her to the vets and the following day she was admitted for an x-ray. Three hours later I received a call; the news was not good. Poppet had cancer and there was nothing that could be done.

The vet kept her under anesthetic until we got there, and we were able to say goodbye before she was put to sleep. Poppet was a huge part of our lives for 15 years and the house was empty without her. However, it was not long before I adopted a white and tabby bundle of mischief called Willow who became a very much loved member of our family.

Dental disease

9 Tips for Caring for Very Old Cats 3

This is probably the most common disease that vets see in general practice. Dental disease can cause pain, salivation and for the cat to be off their food. The gums are often red and sore to the touch. The teeth are yellow looking and there can be missing or loose teeth.

Plaque and calculus form on the teeth and cause inflammation of the gums (gingivitis). Gingivitis can progress to periodontal disease which results in the destruction of the tissues supporting the tooth and this is irreversible.

Eventually, the tooth becomes loose and may fall out. Infection and pain can be caused by periodontal disease. With very inflamed gums, bacteria can get into the blood supply and cause problems in other areas of the body.

9 Tips for Caring for Very Old Cats 4

There are many symptoms that owners can look out for in their cat, so if you have any concerns at all then it is advisable to take them to see their vet as soon as possible. For example:

  • Any lumps or bumps which have recently appeared or have got bigger
  • A change in their vision and hearing
  • A change in their behavior – have they become more aggressive?
  • Constipation
  • Coughing
  • Diarrhea
  • Drooling or bad breath (see under dental)
  • Frequent urination 
  • Increased vocalization 
  • Increased thirst 
  • Reduction in appetite 
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Stiffness or limping 
  • Vomiting 
  • Weakness/lethargy

How can an owner prevent this?

You can buy toothbrushes specifically for your cat, use special dental foods and Chlorhexidine. Treatment at your vets can include: Scale and polish under general anesthesia, tooth extraction, periodontal surgery, antibiotics, painkillers.

Hyperthyroidism

9 Tips for Caring for Very Old Cats 5

It is caused by an excess of thyroid hormone due to a (usually) benign enlargement of the thyroid gland. ‘Overactive thyroid gland‘ can be diagnosed with a blood test.

It is very common in older cats and the symptoms can show in the form of weight loss, increased appetite, increased activity, increased heart rate, heart murmur, vomiting/diarrhea, and a poor coat.

Once a diagnosis has been made, the cat can be treated with tablets or surgery or radioactive iodine (this particular treatment requires a period of isolation at the vets and many cats do really well after treatment).

Food and drink

9 Tips for Caring for Very Old Cats 6

Talk to your vet about beginning a senior diet when your cat becomes of old age as older cats undergo metabolic and body composition changes. Some of these are unavoidable but others can be managed with diet. Cat foods formulated for seniors should be lower in fat but higher in protein – but it is best to ask your vet for advice on this.

Also feeding on a ‘little and often’ basis is easier on a cat’s digestive system rather than one or two large meals a day.

Older cats may have decreased absorption of nutrients from their intestinal tract, and often lose more of them through their kidneys and urinary tract. Some vets feel that aging cats benefit from the addition of dietary supplements, also known as “nutraceuticals”. Again it is best to discuss this with your vet, as to whether they feel your cat could benefit from additional supplements.

It is advisable to weigh your cat on a regular basis. This way, if there is weight loss, you can consult your vet to rule in or out any illness and likewise if your cat has put on weight, it is time to start reducing its food intake. Overweight cats are unlikely to live as long, and they are prone to serious illnesses such as kidney disease, diabetes, and arthritis.

Renal Failure (Kidney Failure)

9 Tips for Caring for Very Old Cats 7

This is very common and affects about 30% of cats over 15 years old. Cats and humans are born with more kidney tissue than they need. This is why humans can safely donate a kidney. Signs of kidney failure are not seen until at least two-thirds of the functional kidney tissue has been lost, so often, by the time owners notice anything is wrong, the cat is already seriously affected.

The kidneys have a few functions: excretion of waste products via the urine, regulation of sodium, potassium, calcium, and phosphate, regulation of body acidity and production of erythropoietin which helps to produce red blood cells. Kidney failure can be caused by a number of things: kidney cysts, abnormal development of the kidney, infections, inflammation, toxins such as antifreeze and lilies, trauma, cancer.

Symptoms in order of most common first: weight loss, eating less, dehydration, tired, very thirsty, passing a lot of urine, high blood pressure, vomit, anemia, mouth ulcers. Diagnosis is by way of blood tests and urine tests.

How do you treat a cat with kidney disease?

9 Tips for Caring for Very Old Cats 8

There are special ‘kidney’ diets which have restricted levels of protein, low phosphorus, and increased potassium and Vitamin B, increased calories and reduced sodium. Intravenous fluids can be given by putting the patient ‘on a drip’. There are also various drugs to treat resulting in electrolyte problems, anemia, high blood pressure, nausea, and vomiting.

The long term prognosis is very variable. Kidney failure always gets worse with time but the rate of progression varies. Some cats do very well, whereas others deteriorate rapidly. If your cat has been diagnosed with an age-related condition, it is worth considering combining conventional medicine with alternative medicine such as homeopathy. 

Acupuncture is definitely worth considering, especially for arthritic conditions but it is important to note that acupuncture can only be performed by a veterinary surgeon.

If you are considering using homeopathy for your feline friend you should consult a veterinary surgeon who is also a qualified homeopath. Homeopathy is considered extremely safe with no known side effects and it works on an energetic level.

Reiki is also worth considering as it can help on both an emotional and physical level. “Your cat has been diagnosed with an age-related condition, it is worth considering combining conventional medicine with alternative medicine such as homeopathy”

caring for very old cats

Older and ill cats can easily go off their food. Here are some tips for encouraging them to eat and drink include:

  • Offer a small amount by hand 
  • Warm the food gently 
  • Add liquid to make it softer
  • Groom and sit with your cat whilst feeding
  • Ensure water is always available, on every floor of the house and close to where your cat sleeps.
  • Experiment with different water bowls and keep them fully topped up
  • Try using a water fountain
  • Flavor the water, using juice from a drained can of tuna/salmon in spring water (not brine)
  • Liquidize prawns to make a fishy broth