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Caring for Senior Cats

Life can go along without any problems for your cat and then as he approaches his senior years, you may notice changes. Don’t assume it’s just normal age-related behavior without having him checked by the veterinarian. Any change in behavior is a potential red flag that something medical may be brewing. Age-related issues left unaddressed can have serious consequences. Additionally, if you’re alerted to these changes early, there are things you can do to make life more comfortable for your senior feline.

Going Through Changes

Physically, your elderly cat can start to have difficulty getting around and reaching the places in your home he normally loves. Jumping up to a favorite window perch may now be difficult. When it comes to the litter box, arthritis can make it difficult for your cat to get in and out. An older cat may also lack bladder control so he may not make it to the box in time. Arthritis or stiff joints can also make it difficult for the cat to get to a standing position and walk to the box in time to empty his bladder. Older cats who are diabetic or in renal failure may not make it to the box in time because of their increased water intake. Constipation is another common issue with older cats. This can lead to litter box avoidance if the cat associates the box with his discomfort. He may also make so many attempts to poop that he winds up straining every chance he gets – no matter where he is at the time.

Elderly felines who are suffering hearing loss typically sleep soundly and as a result, they don’t get the message from the brain in time to tell them the bladder is full. Cats with declining senses may also be more easily startled.

Books by Pam Johnson-Bennett

Cognitive Problems in Elderly Cats

Age-related cognitive dysfunction is something you may have heard of and it can affect cats. It can be as subtle as the cat exhibiting increased vocalization periodically to something as serious as being completely disoriented.

Helping Your Senior Cat

If your cat’s behavior is concerning you and you think he may be experiencing cognitive dysfunction, consult with your veterinarian. There are medications available to help slow the progression of this. There are also environmental things you can do – some of which are described below.

Make life easier for your senior cat by providing steps to favorite perching locations. If your cat enjoys being on a window perch but it’s a drafty spot, install a heated window perch. These are available at your local pet product store and online.

If your cat becomes disoriented and starts vocalizing, call out to him to let him know where you are. It’s not uncommon for cats with cognitive issues to start yowling at night when the house suddenly becomes quiet and dark. Leave nightlights on, especially near litter boxes, feeding stations and favorite climbing areas. If kitty is very disoriented, take him in the bedroom with you and set up a cozy sleeping spot for him there – complete with a conveniently located litter box nearby.

Litter Box

When it comes to the litter box set-up for an older cat, make it very convenient by increasing the number of boxes and locate them throughout the house so he never has too far to travel when nature calls. If he has arthritis or difficulty getting in a regular box, use a low-sided one. If you’re worried about litter scatter, get a high-sided Sterilite storage container and cut low entrance on one end.  If your cat’s aim is no longer accurate when in the box, place absorbent pads under and around to catch spills.

Changes in Grooming Habits

Elderly cats may not groom themselves as efficiently as they used to. Take time to brush your cat on a regular basis. This is also an excellent opportunity to do a physical once-over to check for any lumps or bumps that weren’t there before. Keep in mind older cats who have lost weight and muscle tone will be more sensitive to touch so use a softer brush and go easy around boney areas.

Food and Water

Your cat’s food and water intake may change. Consult your veterinarian. If keeping weight on your cat is an issue, your veterinarian can advise you on whether to add any flavor enhancing products. Some older cats eat better when the food is warmed slightly because that brings out the aroma. If your older cat is overweight, your veterinarian will advise you on a safe weight loss program. The extra weight on an elderly cat is extra hard on joints but you don’t want to restrict his calories too much because it can cause serious liver complications.

Staying Active

Exercise is an important part of a cat’s life at any age. Even if your elderly cat is not so mobile, you can still engage him in low-intensity play sessions. Any activity that causes him to have a little spark about life is beneficial – even if he can no longer do those gravity-defying back-flips from his youth.


Scratching Behavior

Your cat may have used a scratching post faithfully in his younger days but perhaps he has lost interest in it now. Help him out by keeping his nails trimmed. You can also add a horizontal scratch pad because he may no longer be able to reach up to scratch vertically.

The Safer Indoor Life

If your cat is an indoor-outdoor cat, he should now be kept indoors exclusively. With declining senses and limited ability to escape, he’s at greater risk of becoming injured. His immune system is also not as strong so he’s more vulnerable to disease. And with an older cat, the last thing he needs is to be infested with internal or external parasites. Additionally, if you even suspect that he’s experiencing some cognitive issues, being outdoors may increase his disorientation problems.

Monitor Your Cat

Routinely check your cat’s back area in case he needs help cleaning there. Some elderly cats groom less or may dribble urine in their sleep which can cause urine scalds. Longhaired cats may have feces stuck to their fur and will need help getting that removed. If your cat has started urinating in his sleep or on his bedding, cover the bedding with absorbent pads.

Changes in your cat’s cognitive or physical ability can result in a change in the relationships he may have with other companion pets in the home. Be observant of any change so you can be sure to create a safe environment for the cat with limited ability to escape or defend himself. Your senior kitty also doesn’t need increased stress at this point in his life.

Be Patient

Most of all, be patient and understanding of missed litter box attempts, food spilled on the floor, a miscalculation while climbing that causes a picture on the table to get knocked over, or the increased desire to be close to you. These golden years can be absolutely precious and a time of tender closeness between the cat and his human family. You may find that the cat, who in his youth, was reluctant to be in your lap now seeks out your affection. Make the most of these years!

Here’s a video from the AVMA on older pets and veterinary care

Want More Information?

For more information on dealing with behavior issues in adult cats, check out the book Starting from Scratch.

Note: information in this article is not meant as a medical diagnosis. If you suspect your cat has a medical condition please consult your veterinarian. Any change in behavior may have an underlying medical cause and should be checked out.