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Caring for Older Cats

Cats may have tiny paws but over many years they have a way of stamping big footprints across our lives.  They quietly make themselves heard and find a way to ensure that their life is intimately tangled amongst that of the household. Those with a cat would have watched it grow from a frisky kitten to a mischievous cat and, in its older years, a very warm and loyal companion. Cats go through the same life stages as we do culminating in their senior years where they need just that little bit more love and affection.

It’s often difficult to gauge the true age of a cat, especially with the considerable difference between breeds. Experts suggest that the first two years of a cat’s life is the equivalent of 25 of a human’s and after that, every one year equals four ‘cat years’.  So, a cat that has been alive for 10 years would be around 56 in human years and considered a senior. However, indoor cats generally live longer than outdoor cats but this differs from breed to breed. In both cases their diet, exercise and medical history have a major influence in how they age and the number of years that they live.

The best way to tell if a cat is growing old is simply to observe changes in their behaviour or appearance. At some point, signs will become apparent that will indicate that your beloved pet is reaching old age but this doesn’t mean that you should begin to worry or become over-protective. You just need to adjust the daily routines, be a little more observant and take a little more care of their health.

Regular check-ups with the veterinarian are a must for older pets.  A visit once or twice yearly will allow the vet to screen for typical illnesses that occur with ageing.

DIET AND EXERCISE
Obesity is one of the most common problems in senior cats simply because they begin to sleep more and become less active and some keep eating the same amount of food. In short, these pets are receiving more food than their activity level is able to burn off and this leads to obesity and all the associated health risks that come with it, potentially shortening their life span.

Gentle, low intensity exercise is important for older cats to burn off excess calories and to maintain mobility in joints. Gentle play with cat toys and string is enough to keep them moving and a scratch pole will help them to stretch their body out. There are many interactive toys for cats available now including wobbling treat toys which keep them active as well as challenge their problem solving skills.

The best way to control obesity in older pets is to reassess the food that they are provided. Changing to one that is still filling but lower in calories and high in fibre will ensure that they are satisfied whilst eating in a manner to lose or perhaps maintain an ideal weight.

Premium pet foods are available designed specifically for seniors. These are made with high-quality, low fat protein and easy to digest carbohydrates for energy and have the addition of key minerals and vitamins to support ageing joints and to help improve the immune system and fight infection.

On occasions, a very old pet can become thinner and may need more food to maintain a healthy weight. This is probably caused by their digestion becoming less efficient at retaining the goodness in what they eat. If concerned, a visit to the vet to be assessed is the best approach.

In general, cats older than eight should have their nutritional needs re-assessed based on their level of activity and slower metabolism. The team at Better Pets and Gardens has undertaken extensive training to help to identify the best food to suit a senior cat.

Senior cats often benefit from being fed several small meals instead of one large one. Small meals burn more calories in digestion than do infrequent large meals and also help to deliver the energy that they need more evenly throughout the day. They are also far easier for the animal to digest allowing them to retain the nutrients within the food.

As cats age, their sense of smell and taste can fade along with their ability to chew so smaller, softer pieces would be best. Food with higher meat content also helps but if they are reluctant to eat, try adding the juice from a tin of sardines or some warm water to their food. Serve their meal at room temperature and always use a clean bowl as they can be very fussy.  If they haven’t eaten for two days, consult a veterinarian.

DENTAL CARE
Disease of the gums is more common in cats than teeth issues such as cavities. Over time, plaque forms on the teeth causing the gums to recede. As this occurs, more plaque is produced and the gums recede even further. Eventually the dentin covering the roots of the teeth are exposed and the teeth become loose and the gums sore. Lack of dental care can also cause bacteria to spread to other areas of the body and enter the bloodstream making the pet quite sick.

For cats, including dry pet food in the diet will help to keep teeth clean as these scrape against the teeth cleaning the surface as they are eaten. There are also treats available for cats which will help clean their teeth but an annual professional clean by the vet is important and will also give them an opportunity to check for any oral health issues.

ARTHRITIS AND JOINT PAIN
Older cats do not handle extreme changes in weather well. They become less tolerant of hot weather and cold and some with joint problems visibly struggle at this time.

In winter, beds with extra thick padding helps to keep their joints warm and make it easier for them to move after lying down for a long time. And, cats really appreciate a heated pet bed which may be electric, have a microwaveable insert or have a special inner panel that radiates heat. Even a hot water bottle wrapped in a blanket tucked into their bed will make them more comfortable.

Nutritional supplements are available to help ease the pain associated with arthritis but if the disease progresses further the veterinarian may recommend cortisone-like drugs or injections.

Visit any Better Pets and Garden store to discuss the supplements and bedding options available for cats suffering from arthritis or joint pain.

GROOMING
Older cats benefit enormously from regular grooming sessions since as they age, they often don’t have the energy to groom themselves properly. For cats, a daily brush to remove loose fur and to stimulate the skin will keep their coat shiny and them feeling relaxed and pampered.

If knots are allowed to remain in a cat’s fur it starts to form mats which are so close to the skin that often the only way to remove them is by having the fur shaved, often by a vet. If the mats remain, the skin can become infected and sores rashes occur.

Better Pets and Gardens has a great range of brushes for both long and short haired cats including slickers brushes and shedding brushes which remove all the loose hair which is what starts to cause matting.

BEHAVIOURAL PROBLEMS
In older cats, the most common behavioural problem is spraying or inappropriate elimination outside of the litter box. This will possibly be the result of a medical condition and may even be as simple as the older cat not being able to use the litter box.  If the cat has difficulty moving, using a litter box with lower sides or increasing the number of litter boxes throughout the house may solve the problem. It may also be that the cat has developed an aversion to the material in the litter box so try changing the type of kitty litter that is being used.

Keep in mind that pets that have been housetrained for years that start having accidents throughout the house may have more of a medical problem than a behavioural problem. Where this is the case, it is best to start with a visit to the vet.

Aggression does occasionally become a problem in older cats but often these are the result of medical problems. Pain from arthritis, dental disease and vision or hearing loss may make the cat feel more vulnerable to the point where it feels the need to protect itself from being hurt. It might even be lack of mobility where it feels that it can’t remove itself from an irritating stimulus such as an annoying puppy or kitten so tends to lash out instead. Stresses such as moving home, a new pet or a new family member may result in the older pet being more irritable and therefore more likely to be aggressive.

It is important that the owner and the family in general be aware of the older cat’s needs and adjusts their own behaviour to suit.  This may mean that the pet is moved to a safe area if young children or other visitors come to the home so that it is not put into a situation where it may become stressed.

In the end, it is highly likely that an older cat will change its habits simply because of its energy levels and health. It might sleep more or at different times, it might have a different appetite or perhaps prefer a quieter life but with patience, understanding and care, an older pet will still have its place as part of the family.

INTRODUCING A KITTEN OR PUPPY
Since older cats do not handle stress very well, getting a new puppy or kitten may need some careful consideration.  Very old pets that might be experiencing aches and pains and mobility problems will probably not cope well with the introduction of a feisty young kitten or puppy that wants to play, climb on and generally annoy anything that is in its vicinity. The solution is to introduce a young pet into the household earlier, whilst the older one is still mobile and able to get away from the youngster, is relatively pain free and still has good hearing and vision. There might still be a tussle over who is the boss in the household but this is normal behaviour in the animal kingdom.

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