Caring For Older Cats
The Special Needs Of Older Cats, Caring For Your Elderly Feline
Healthy lifestyles don’t change with age for us or our cats. It’s just that the bills come due late in life.
Many veterinarians believe that about a third of a pet’s potential for a long and healthy life is determined by its genes. As it’s species’ maximum age limits of life approaches, that genetic component becomes even more important. That still leaves you with a great deal we can do to keep your cat healthy. There is not much known about average life spans of cats in the United States, but it does appear that the number of cat oldsters has substantially increased in the last 20 years. (Kraft W. .Eur J Med Res. 1998;3:31-41) It is a very hard thing to know for sure.
Some say that one year to a cat equals seven of our years. Actually a one-year-old cat is similar to a teenager – about 17 years of age. A two-year-old cat is about physically equivalent to a 24-year-old human. After that, cat years drop in relation to human years so that by ten years of age a cat will be equivalent to you when you are fifty. By the time a cat reaches fifteen it is nearer in cat-years to a seventy-three year-old person. My oldest feline patient was twenty-three years old and equivalent to about a hundred and four year old man.
We don’t really know why cats are living longer. Pet food manufacturers would like you to believe that their foods are responsible; that may be true to some extent. But I believe that keeping more cats safely indoors – along with preventive veterinary vaccinations in their youth – are as least as important.
What Should I Feed My Elderly Cat
Cats thrive on diets that are high in moisture (canned or fresh), relatively high in meat protein and fat, and balanced in essential minerals and nutrients. Pet food manufacturers and nutritionists rely on the National Research Council in formulating commercial diets and all National brands are quite similar in their nutrient analysis. Cats do not, by nature, thrive on carbohydrates or plant-derived proteins.
Don’t feed your cat generic or house brand because their low price dictates that their ingredients be low quality. Mid or average priced cat foods tend to have better quality ingredients and most national brands market top-of-the-line premium formulas that are likely to be a bit better. Those are the brands I suggest.
I don’t recommend that you feed niche, high-cost, brands sold in pet shops, groomers or on the Internet either because the small companies that make them do not have the resources to do frequent quality control and analysis of their products. If a problem does occur, not enough pet owners use any particular one for the FDA to be alerted promptly. Products produced by small companies are also more likely to vary from batch to batch than those sold by larger food corporations. They also tend to sit on the store shelves longer and get stale.
Many of the private label brands, or their sub-ingredients, are manufactured by a few large US or foreign firms – so the only thing special that you have purchased is the bag, can or marketing campaign. By your pet foods where you buy your own food, after all, you already trust your health to them.
Should I Feed My Elderly Cat Canned Or Dry Food
Over the years, most veterinarians, including me, recommended dry cat chows for all their feline clients. Vets noticed that cats on dry kibble tended to have cleaner teeth, less gum disease and less of a problem with obesity. Dry cat kibble also lacks can-liner chemicals that some veterinarians associate with hyperthyroidism (bisphenol-A). (ref)
We are less sure if that is reason enough to recommend dry diets now.
Dry cat kibble is very convenient for owners. It doesn’t smell like canned food does and it doesn’t spoil nearly as quickly as canned foods do once they are opened. It is economical and, theoretically, meets all of your pet’s nutritional needs. However, it is quite an unnatural diet for cats. Most dry cat foods are much higher in grain carbohydrates (and some in plant-based proteins) then cats were designed to eat. Some veterinarians associate the high carbohydrate content of many dry chows with susceptibility to diabetes. This has not been proven. Many dry cat foods have been sprayed with fats to make them more palatable. This fat can become rancid and unhealthy. But the biggest potential problem is that cats eating dry diets almost never drink sufficient water to equal the hydration they would get consuming a canned or homemade diet. Some veterinarians associate this potential dehydration with kidney disease, and bladder disease (struvite/oxalate crystals). This is, again, unproven. Dry cat foods are also more susceptible to bacterial contamination (salmonella, etc.) than canned foods.
Canned cat food, like dry chows comes in low, medium and premium formulas all related to the price of the product’s ingredients. If you feed them, stay with premium brands and feed a wide variety of flavors, not just one. Cats tend to prefer the taste and smell of pungent fish-based canned foods. But it has been my experience and that of other vets that cats do not thrive on canned, fish-based cat food when these are fed in excess or exclusively. (ref) Perhaps this is due to the very low quality (stale and partially decomposed,unsaturated fatty acids and lipid peroxides) of the fish products that generally end up in pet foods. (ref) If you must feed these fish products frequently, give supplemental vitamin E and B-1(thiamine).
If your cat allows you to brush its teeth or you feed a small amount of dry dental kibble at the end of the day, your cat’s teeth and gums should stay reasonably healthy into old age.
It is true that cats tend to prefer canned diets and eat more of it. That can be a problem if the cat gains too much weight. But you can control that by feeding no more that it takes for your pet to maintain a healthy body weight.
If you have the time and inclination, you can always prepare a home cooked diet for your cat. There is more information on that here. No factory is capable of turning out as healthy a product as you are in your kitchen.
Regardless what food you decide to feed, make changes in your elderly cat’s diet slowly. Most cats are nibblers and intermittent feeders. They like to take a few munches, do something else for a while, and then return. This is not a problem with dry kibble cat chows, but canned food, left out all day can spoil. So canned foods are best offered in 4 or more spaced meals throughout the day.
Should I Feed A Diet Formulated Especially For Senior Cats
A lot of diets are marketed as “Especially For Senior Cats”. You will notice they are vague in describing how and why they differ from the Company’s diets for younger, mature cats. That’s because nobody actually knows what change in their diet formula, if any, might be best for older cats. But all major pet food companies feel compelled to offer one.
Based on what we we know about older humans (70+), most of these “senior diets” have increased amounts of vitamin D and B6, calcium and fiber, with some added antioxidants and omega fatty acids thrown in for good measure.
Older cats do seem to have a reduced ability to digest fat and protein. Studies found that 50% of cts 15-25 years old are underweight. Perhaps that is due to their reduced sense of smell and taste, decreased intestinal absorption, bad teeth or a side effect of one of the common chronic diseases of older cats. Several of these “Senior Diets” have fewer calories than those marketed for midlife. Be careful about using those if your cat is already thin. You can read a study that discusses diets for older cats here.
For examples, Nestlé Purina (the makers of Purina, Purina One, Friskies, Arthurs, Chef’s Blend, Fancy Feast, and Tender Vitals cat foods) dominates the international pet food industry. The Company has one of the best group of animal nutritionists in the World. Yet, the difference between their Senior and Adult formulas are insignificant. Their “Vibrant Maturity® 7+ Formula” differs from their regular adult formula only in fiber (5% vs. 2%) (by the addition of soybean hulls), slightly more calcium and less phosphorus and a slight increase in omega-6 fatty acids (1.6% vs 1.5%). In their Senior formula, they doubled the amount of vitamin E anti-oxidant and increased the amount of glucosamine by adding more poultry and fish bi-product meal. According to the information they provide on the senior product, it was not test it in old cats to see if it performed any better than their regular formula. (the AAFCO standards they quote are the same for both products). So although there is certainly no harm in feeding this senior diet, there is no proven benefit either.
If your elderly cat has a tendency to constipation, the extra bran fiber might be helpful. If you believe in the protective power of antioxidants, you should see to it that your pet receive them for its entire life. If your cat needs added fiber because it has diabetes, the added fiber might be helpful, however their senior formula is too high in carbohydrate for that use. Their increased glucosamine might help old cats that have arthritis. But the amount they consume will be less than with many joint supplements.
So, if you plan to offer your cat dry diet, a “Senior Formula” is a good food. But there is not much science to back up the slight formula modifications that have been made.
Another problem with “senior” formulas is their one-size-fits-all caloric content. Many older cats tend to be too chubby until they reach about 12 years of age. After that, many become too thin. Some gain or loose too much weight somewhat earlier or later. Overweight cats need a diet formula that is less caloric while underweight cats need just the opposite.
Old cats tend to be lean. But if your cat is chubby, adding water to its diet helps keep it trim and active. Up to 30-40% water can be added to dry cat foods. (ref) That can be even more beneficial if your cat’s kidneys are not as efficient at filtering out waste as they once were (high blood BUN and Creatinine).
Would A Vitamin Supplement Help My Elderly Cat
If you are feeding a nationally marketed major brand of canned or dry cat food (with AAFCO or NRC standards), you do not need to add vitamins or minerals. If you feel your cat might benefit from anti-oxidants, Omega-3, or glucosamine/chondroitin supplements, it is perfectly fine to give them in doses proportional to their body weight. Pets that are in decline, not eating properly, and pets that have digestive problems preventing proper nutrient absorption might benefit from added vitamins. A veterinarian who knows your pet personally needs to make that decision because too much of certain vitamins cause as many problems as not enough.
Is My Old Cat Too Fat – What’s Wrong With A Chubby Cat
Obesity is quite a common in older cats. The most common problems I see in overweight, older cats are diabetes and urinary tract problems. Fat cats are also less inclined to groom themselves well.
It is often said that overweight elderly cats are more prone to arthritis, heart disease, liver and pancreatic problems – and that may be true. But I do not know of any studies that document it.
If your cat does not have a sluggish thyroid or an overactive adrenal gland (hypothyroidism, low F T-4, Cushing’s disease) its obesity is simply due to consuming more calories than it expends (burns). So you have three choices : feed the cat a less fattening diet, feed the cat less of what it is now eating or increase its exercise.
Reducing your old cat’s weight through increased exercise can be beneficial to its health. You can purchase a laser pointer, add cat furniture, leashed walks outdoors and any other encouragements to activity you can imagine. But it will almost never be sufficient in getting your pet back to a trim, healthy weight. You will also have to make diet modifications.
Feeding a less caloric diet may be all you need to do. Some owners find that a diet higher in protein and lower in carbohydrate leads to gradual weight loss. Other cats require diets that are less caloric because they are bulked with fiber. Most of these feline weight loss diets are also reduced in their fat content, but fat must not be reduced too low. Another great way to reduce the caloric content of your cat’s current diet by adding ground cooked or pureed vegetables. Since cats are not, by nature, grazers, you will have to experiment to see which it handles well without, diarrhea, flatulence or bloat. Make these additions or changes slowly. Any diet change often brings on a a few days of loose stools that usually firm up again with time.
Your cat’s weight loss must be gradual. Cats that abruptly reduce their food intake are susceptible to hepatic lipidosis – a serious problem. (ref). A serious diet requires a scale, a diary and careful observation. If a cat is otherwise healthy, I begin by reducing its diet volume by 15%. If you are using a new, lower caloric diet, follow the directions they provide – and be sure your cat is actually eating it. When changing your pet’s diet, always do so gradually. Some higher-fiber low-cal diets cause diarrhea and other cats just won’t eat them.
Is It Important If my Cat Does Not Drink Plenty Of Water
Elderly cats are more prone to dehydration and fatigue than younger animals. They are less likely to get up and seek out water and many have weakened organs that do not tolerate dehydration stress well. So keep several bowels of water out for your older cat.
Another potential problem veterinarians discuss is chronic dehydration. This is thought to occur when cats subsist primarily on dry cat food. Cats do not appear to ever drink sufficient water to compensate for the lack of moisture in dry, versus canned or fresh homemade diets. Cats that consume insufficient water could, conceivably, be more susceptible to urinary tract crystal formation (FUS) and, perhaps, kidney disease as well. At this time, it is entirely speculation.
Bad thinks are known to occur in the children of desert communities that do not consume enough water over time (ref) , The Worshipful Company of Cooks figured this out out among the elderly many centuries ago. (ref).
Thin cats should be more susceptible to dehydration because much of the body’s water is stored in muscle; and cats with the weakened kidneys (low specific gravity urine) that many elderly cats have, would not be able to conserve their water well.
Feeding a canned or fresh home cooked diet avoids this worry. If your elderly cat is weak, scatter multiple water dishes around the house that have low sides. (Sometimes a recirculating fountain or drippy faucet will draw their attention) Giving A Hand With Grooming
Many elderly cats lack the energy and flexibility to keep well groomed without your help. It is a problem in longer haired cats in particular, but mats along the spine and in the groin and armpits can occur in any oldster. Sometimes, the skin under these mats is quite inflamed. I prefer to remove them with a matting comb and soft slicker brush. Groom them several times a week rather than letting the mats get large. Longhaired cats can be sheared at home twice a year. Have a mobile groomer do it in your home. Frequent brushing also prevents cats from binding up with swallowed hair.
Be sure to check your pet’s claws as well. They overgrow in inactive cats. Elderly cats rarely if ever require a complete bath. You can almost always clean them sufficiently with a soft wash cloth, infant-safe soap and warm water.
Your Old Cat’s Kidneys CRF (Chronic Renal Failure, CKD)
When elderly cats begin to fade, it is often their kidneys that are no longer working properly.
As cats age, there is a slow but steady decrease in the weight of their kidneys and a loss of filtering ability. Cats are born with a certain number of filtering apparatus in their kidneys (glomeruli and nephrons). These filters are lost when the walls of the blood vessels that form them thicken, scar and become blocked as cats age (the process is called chronic glomerulonephritis or chronic interstitial nephritis). Cats are born with extra reserves of glomeruli, but eventually not enough are functional and wastes begin to build up in your cat’s blood. (a rise in blood BUN and Creatinine) This is called uremia (azotemia). Many older cats are borderline uremic. Any stress that causes these cats to drink less will put them into a full blown uremic crisis.
Diet and lifestyle can be risks for early kidney failure in cats. (ref) Low quality diet formulas (high ash),seemed to increase the rate at which kidney failure occurred. And, as I mentioned earlier, some veterinarians associate the kidney damage of older cats with chronic dehydration.
The most common signs of CRF that owners observe are weight loss and increased thirst. The most common signs that veterinarians find are increased albumen in the urine, increased levels of urea nitrogen (BUN) and creatinine in the pets blood, a decrease in blood potassium and an increase in blood phosphorus. However, the problem is stealthy, symptoms and some of the abnormal lab tests do not occur until more than half of the kidney’s blood-cleansing abilities have been lost.
Examination of your cat’s urine for abnormal protein leakage is sometimes the earliest warning of kidney changes. The most sensitive tests currently available are the microalbuminuria test offered by Heska and the Urine Protein Creatinine (Urine P:C) Ratio offered by Idexx . However, it is not clear if this test actually predicts which cats need, or will need any treatment because not all age-related kidney changes in cats lead to illness. (ref)
Nothing will halt the gradual loss of your cat’s kidney’s abilities over time. It happens to us too (ref). But there may be things that will slow it down. Keeping your cat well hydrated by feeding wet foods is one thing that may help. Another is the addition of antioxidants to its diet. Fish oils, containing omega-3 fatty acids might also slow the progress of kidney inflammation (ref) although to what extent, is unclear. Several pet food companies market diets for cats with kidney problems (Hills Prescription K/d, Purina NF, etc). Protein in those diets is of higher quality and furnished in smaller amounts based on the results of studies published a number of years ago. (ref) (other studies in dogs gave contradictory results ref)
Keeping your cat’s teeth in as healthy a state as possible might also slow the inflammatory changes associated with CRF (ref) because we know that dental disease is associated with kidney failure in humans. (ref)
Veterinarians have always wondered why kidney failure is such a common occurrence in elderly cats. Some organ or system inevitably fails in all of us and we are always looking for reasons why that happens. There are veterinarians that are suspicious that common vaccinations most cats receive might even play a part (ref) – another good reason not to over-vaccinate your cat.
Your Cat’s Creature Comforts
Making small modifications to your home and household routine can make life easier for your elderly cat. They also greatly appreciate a life free of disruptions and change.
A soft bed, in a quite, accessible location will be much appreciated. Get one that does not have a lip on the front.
Many old cats appreciate added warmth on cold days. Either set your home thermostat higher or purchase a low wattage heating liner that warm to approximately 100° F
Build or buy ramps to help your cat climb on its favorite sofa or recliner.
Keep food and water bowls within easy reach. Use shallow bowls with low sides and keep water bowls in multiple locations around the house.
Purchase several easy-entry litter boxes.
Warmed, canned cat foods with pungent odor and a bit of added water encourages picky eater.
No introduction of new pets – especially new cats.
A gentle, house call veterinarian to avoid stressful trips to the vet. A pet sitter when you travel, rather than a boarding cattery.
Loss Of Litterbox Training – Soiling The House
This is a common problem in older cats. The first thing to do is separate a behavioral issue from a health issue. Some cats loose litter box training because they are old (senility) . (ref) , others, because they are stressed and still others because they are ill. These three causes occur in roughly equal numbers.
When removing inter-cat stress, other stressors, and dietary and home modifications do not solve the problem; your veterinarian needs to become involved. Blood and urine tests will check if a urine problem is due to urinary tract disease and other tests can rule out digestive tract disturbances and metabolic problems such as diabetes or hyperthyroidism.
Even arthritis can make cats reluctant to use their litter box. When an underlying disease has been ruled out, you will find my general suggestions in dealing with this problem here.
What Health Problems Are Common In Older Cats
As I mentioned earlier, your cat’s kidneys are quite sensitive to the passage of time; so kidney (renal) failure is a very common health problem in older cats. High on the list are also cancers. In my experience, cancers of cats are often more aggressive than those I see in dogs. These health problems often appear between 9 and 10 years of age. By the age of 12 they are common. It is also common for oldsters to have more than one problem going on at a time. Hyperthyroidism, hypertension (high blood pressure) and kidney problems, the trinity health issues, often appear on your doorstep together. When your veterinarian runns blood tests on your older cat, the results will probably not be quite the same as they were when it was younger. You can read about some of those changes here.
What Changes Might Alert Me To A Health Problem
Behavioral and physical changes in an elderly cat are never a good sign. Of course, when a cat’s environment changes, that cat makes changes and adaptations. But otherwise, any changes in eating or elimination habits, weight, mobility, and daily behavior needs to be examined and your veterinarian is the best person to do that.
Hyperthyroidism – A Common Problem In Older Cats
An overactive thyroid gland is quite a common problem in older cats. Some owners mistake the symptoms of this disease for an unexpected burst of youthful energy. However, with time, it leads not only to weight loss and increased activity but to high blood pressure, digestive upsets, excessive thirst and urination, and heart and biochemical abnormalities. Luckily, most cases are quite easy for your veterinarian to diagnose – in a few, thyroid tests may need to be repeated to catch the problem.
Cats with this problem are best treated with radioactive iodine to destroy abnormal thyroid tissue but they can also be managed with a medication called methimazole (Tapazole). For more information on this condition, you can read the article on hyperthyroidism in cats that I previously referenced
Caring For Older Cats Continue P-2
Ron Hines DVM PhD
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