Updated 26 March 2014

Caring for your elderly cat

With improved medical care and an understanding of proper nutrition and a healthy lifestyle, humans are living longer. The same is true for our cats.


With improved medical care and an understanding of proper nutrition and a healthy lifestyle, humans are living longer. The same is true for our cats.

The standard of nutrition has improved, our insight into disease has evolved and basic and specialised healthcare has improved enormously. The result is, our pets are living longer than before.

This also means that some special problems associated with old age will emerge and will become more frequent. No longer is it the age of the animal that determines when euthanasia should be considered, but rather the quality of life and the reversibility of health problems. It is not uncommon for us to treat or operate on cats of 20 years and older who are still enjoying quality of life.

Special problems of older cats
Older cats face some special problems. The wear-and-tear effects of time are starting to show on the condition and function of most organ systems, including the skin, eyes, kidneys, heart, teeth, and joints.

All cats older than about 10 years should be considered "old" and should receive special attention. Much of this attention will be based on nutrition and feeding, while regular veterinary examinations and early attention to small changes and problems should be exercised.

Firstly, with age the metabolic rate declines, and if the same number of calories were to be consumed by an old cat and a younger cat, the older cat will tend to become overweight. Obesity in itself puts extra strain on the joints and heart and can worsen existing medical conditions. On the other hand, very old cats tend to lose body weight and caloric intake should always be matched to the body condition and activity level to prevent both weight loss and obesity.

The aged cat will often suffer from a variety of musculoskeletal problems such as arthritis, back pain and muscular weakness. It may be necessary to change feeding positions to more accessible places, or to help an old cat up its favorite couch or windowsill. Painkillers should be used with great care, and only under the supervision of your veterinarian. Natural remedies are gaining favour in the treatment of these conditions and can be extremely beneficial.

All cats older than about six years should be considered to potentially have dental or oral problems. Caries and deep teeth lesions can be very painful and may interfere with or prevent eating. Bad teeth can also allow bacteria to enter the system and cause other illnesses. Regular teeth cleansing and polishing and possibly extractions should be performed by your veterinarian to ensure a healthy mouth. Some older cats will prefer soft food, which is easier to ingest.

Geriatric cats often suffer from failing kidneys. Although this cannot necessarily be prevented, once it is evident, the progression of disease can be slowed by always ensuring a supply of fresh water, by slightly decreasing the amount of protein and salt intake and by minimising the intake of substances harmful to the kidneys, such as painkillers.

Cancer is more common in older cats than younger cats. Cancer may be very malignant and rapidly fatal or slow growing and more benign. Early detection is most important. Watch out for any sign of change in your cat and have it seen to. Remember, cancer can often be cured, if it is detected and treated early.

To summarise, feed your older cat a good quality diet, matching the caloric contents to its physical condition. Watch for signs of abnormality or illness and have it attended to as soon as possible. Take it for regular health examinations by your vet and allow oral hygiene procedures to be performed. Above all, treasure the time you have with your friend, it is a special gift. - (Dr Malan van Zyl/Health24, December 2008)

- Last updated: June 2010


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