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Understanding Your Old or Aging Cat

Indoor cats now live an average of 15 years, and it is not uncommon to see cats 18 to 20 years of age. The domestic cat in the wild (sometimes called a feral cat) has a short life expectancy-about 6 years. Accidents, diseases, parasites, the trials of securing food, and the stresses of multiple and frequent pregnancies all contribute to this shortened life. The city cat fares somewhat better, but still contends with infectious diseases, accidents, fights, and sometimes malicious behavior on the part of humans. The indoor pet, being well nourished, vaccinated against infectious diseases, and protected from accidents, fares the best.

Of greatest importance is the care the cat has received throughout her life. Well-cared-for pets suffer fewer infirmities as they grow older. But when sickness, illness, or injury is neglected, the aging process is accelerated.

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The Geriatric Checkup

Caring for an older cat is directed at preventing premature aging, minimizing physical and emotional stress, and meeting the special needs of the elderly. Cats older than 7 should have a complete veterinary examination at least once a year-often, twice a year is preferred. If the health of the cat is questionable, she should be seen by a veterinarian more often. If symptoms appear, she should be seen at once.

The annual geriatric checkup should include a physical examination, complete blood count, blood chemistries, stool exam, and urinalysis. Depending on the results, special liver and kidney function tests, a chest X-ray, and an electrocardiogram may also be needed. Some veterinary clinics include checking blood pressure as part of the geriatric exam for cats. Thyroid hormone levels, such as T4, are also important in older cats.

Kidney disease is relatively common in older cats, and a new, simple urine test called Early Renal Disease Healthscreen (ERD) checks for protein leakage into the urine-specifically, albumin. This test may pick up kidney failure very early on so you can take steps to slow its progression.

Routine dental care, including scaling the teeth, may be needed more frequently than once a year.

Danger Signs in the Geriatric Cat

If you see any of the following signs, take your cat to the veterinarian as soon as possible.

  • Loss of appetite or weight
  • Coughing, shortness of breath, or rapid, labored breathing
  • Weakness or difficultly moving about
  • Increased thirst and/or frequency of urination
  • Change in bowel function with constipation or diarrhea
  • Bloody or purulent discharge from a body opening
  • An increase in temperature, pulse, or breathing rate
  • A growth or lump anywhere on the body
  • Any unexplained change in behavior


Behavior Changes

In general, older cats are more sedentary, less energetic, often less curious, and more restricted in their scope of activity. They adjust slowly to changes in diet, activity, and routine. They are less tolerant of extremes of heat and cold. They seek out warm spots and sleep longer. When disturbed, they are cranky and irritable. Most of these behavior changes are because of physical ailments-diminished hearing and smell, stiffness, and muscular weakness-that restrict a cat’s activity and ability to participate in family life. A cat so deprived may withdraw, engage in compulsive self-grooming, or eliminate in places other than the litter box.

Boarding and hospitalization are poorly tolerated in old age. Often, cats left in these situations eat poorly or not at all, become overly anxious or withdrawn, and sleep poorly.

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