Did you know that cats age the equivalent of 24 human years in their first 2 years of life? After that, each cat year is about equal to 4 human years. So my 18 year old Maddy cat is the same age as my 88 year old grandmother. Doing that calculation helps put her age in perspective, and makes you wonder, am I taking care of her as I would care for my grandmother? In my last blog I talked about some of the signs that your cat may start to show as they get older. Observations such as changes in behaviour, toileting issues or changes in sleep patterns are all relatively common in older cats, but could actually indicate an underlying medical condition. Any changes in your ageing cat should be discussed with your vet so that if there is any concern, the appropriate diagnostic tests can be run and treatment can be started if necessary. But if you and your vet decide that your older cat is physically well, there are still lots of things that you can do to help them age a bit more gracefully.
Give them a nail trim
Most cats, especially those that go outside regularly, don’t need (and don’t want) their nails trimmed. Older cats, however, don’t tend to need them much for hunting, tree climbing or fighting with their neighbours. Although feline claws naturally shed with daily activity, the nails of older, less active cats tend to get overgrown and can even grow all the way around and into the pad of the foot, a very painful condition. Even if they’re not overgrown, they still frequently get stuck on the sofa or their bedding, particularly if the cat suffers from arthritis and has limited movement. Trimming the claws is relatively straightforward and most of the time you can do it at home. Ask your vet or vet nurse for a demonstration if you are unsure.
Give them a toilet
Would you want your 88 year old grandmother to have to go downstairs, out the back door and down the garden to use an outside loo in the middle of the night? Do your older cat a huge favour and give them a litter tray in an accessible location. Make it big and uncovered with low sides if possible, as these are easier to use for older arthritic cats. If you have lots of stairs, consider one on each floor. Not only will they appreciate the shorter trip and be less likely to have accidents on your carpet, but many older cats have trouble going through cat flaps so the less they have to use it, the better. Cleaning the litter tray also gives you an opportunity to notice any changes in urine volume or blood in the stool.
Give them a (gentle) brush
Old, stiff cats often find it difficult to groom themselves as much as they used to. Their bodies just don’t bend that way anymore, or if they do, it hurts. They also tend to sleep more and that leaves less time for activities like grooming. I think they also just plain forget sometimes. Cats that don’t groom themselves, even those with short hair, can get matted fur and this hurts. By brushing your cat daily, you can help them remove dead hairs and dirt and prevent painful matts. Long haired cats need a more thorough groom. Be gentle though, particularly over the spine and legs as these are the areas most likely to be affected by muscles loss or arthritis. While you’re at it, take a look for fleas or any new lumps or bumps on the skin and bring these to the attention of your vet. If your cat objects, try a grooming glove or very soft brush rather than the typical wire cat brush. If they still won’t let you near them, speak with your vet about a possible underlying cause and consider having some of the fur trimmed and matts removed by a professional with clippers. Whatever you do, never try to cut out closely matted fur with scissors – I have seen some horrendous injuries as a result and it is simply not safe.
Give them what they want to eat
You may notice that your older cat doesn’t have the same appetite that he used to. While this can be due to a decreased sense of smell or taste with age, it could also be the result of an underlying medical problem so it’s very important to speak with your vet. If your older cat ever needs some encouragement to eat, here are some things that you can try if your cat finds eating to be a bit of a chore:
- Warm the food up slightly (beware heating cat food in the microwave, it gets very hot very quickly!) to just below body temperature. Warm food generally smells and tastes better.
- Giving your cat a good stroke before or sitting with them during a meal can encourage them to eat.
- Don’t leave food sitting out all day – if they don’t eat it within an hour pick it up and put down fresh food at the next meal.
- Trying a new brand or flavour can encourage them to eat. But at the same time, try not to leave out several bowls of different foods for them to choose from as this can be overwhelming.
- Wet food is almost always more palatable than dry, especially for older cats who may have dental problems, so consider changing the type of food you offer. You could also try adding a bit of water to the food or mashing it with a fork.
Make it easy for them
- If your cat prefers to sleep on your bed, put a chair next to it so they can use it as a step to get up and down.
- Consider keeping a food and water dish in the bedroom or just outside it so they don’t have to go far for the things they need. Older cats (particularly those fed dry food) can become dehydrated easily.
- Keep their environment quiet and warm, and try to avoid letting the children grab them at every opportunity.
- Offer a horizontal scratching post instead of a vertical one, and don’t forget, they may be old but they still need mental stimulation. They may choose to play with different toys as they age, but things like open cardboard boxes or bags can give them something to investigate and a large catnip toy can be batted and kicked around the house.
- Try to keep their routines as constant as possible, as older cats can take great comfort in knowing that things always happen when and how they’re supposed to happen.
As your cat starts to age, take a good look at their daily activities and see if there is anything you can do to make things a little bit easier on them. Your vet or vet nurse may have other suggestions, so it’s always a good idea to ask for advice. You could even try asking elderly members of your own family for ideas – you might be surprised by what they come up with! And remember, if you wouldn’t want your 88 year old grandmother doing it, you probably shouldn’t expect your 18 year old cat to do it either.