Care for your elderly feline friend

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Cats are very good at disguising their problems. So as they age, you need to be even more attuned to changes in their everyday activities and behaviours. Early detection of problems is the key to improving your cat’s longevity and quality of life.

Even though we would like our kitties to live forever, we know it is not practically feasible.  But as responsible pet parents, we can improve the quality of their old age. Let’s see how.

Dr. Ashwani Kumar Singh
How long will my cat live?

There are many formulas for calculating a cat’s age in relation to human age. An old standby is that seven cat years are equal to one human year. Actually, in her first few years, a cat does a lot more growing up than that. So the first few years of a cat’s life are equivalent to more than seven human years, and the later years are equivalent to fewer.  Pet parents want to know what the life expectancy is for their cat, and in general, it is between 13 and 15 years, especially if the cat stays indoors. However, we have many 19 and 20 years old patients, and our oldest is 24! If a cat goes outside, her life expectancy is shortened because of the increased risks cats face outdoors. She is exposed to more diseases and dangers, such as poisons and cars.

Problems associated with old age
There are six diseases that are particularly common in senior cats: 1). Hyperthyroidism; 2). Chronic
Dr. Kumar Mangalam Yadav

renal failure; 3). Hypertension; 4). Cancer; 5). Diabetes mellitus; and 6). Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Liver, heart, neurological and lung diseases are also found in senior cats, but their frequency is greater in geriatric humans than in cats.

Care of your lovable senior kitty
Cats need the most care when they are kittens and when they are seniors. Middle-aged cats are usually healthy and take pretty good care of themselves and can get by with once-a-year visits to the vet for their physical examinations. Regular veterinary examinations will objectively note small, gradual changes, which can add up to significant changes over a period of time. Even if you’ve lived with your cat for years, you may not notice subtle changes that occur in her conformation and health as she ages.
Health care programme is a must: A preventative health care programme for healthy animals may include a complete history and physical examination and some diagnostic testing, including a CBC, blood chemistries, viral testing, urinalysis and measuring blood pressure. I think it’s beneficial to start a programme like this around nine years of age. By establishing baseline values on body condition and organ function, you can detect changes as the animal ages. If a cat has an illness, she should be monitored at least every six months.
Keeping your old friend comfortable: As different parts of the body wear out, it may be difficult for a cat to maintain her regular activities. If you have an older cat, you want to be sure to make things as easy as possible for your old feline friend. It is common for vision and hearing to be impaired as a normal part of the aging process, although it is unusual for a cat to go completely blind solely due to aging. If vision is compromised, the animal can usually see better in daylight than at night. She will do better if important items such as food bowls and the litter box are always kept in the same areas where she can easily find them.
Although it is best to keep all cats indoors, it is extremely important to do so if your cat is deaf. Complete deafness occurs occasionally in older cats. You should not let a deaf cat outside alone, because she will not hear noises that would normally alert her to danger, such as the sound of approaching cars.
Never forget the importance of water: Because kidney disease is so common in older cats, maintaining good hydration can make a big difference in how an older cat feels. At our clinic, we teach many pet parents how to give their cats fluid injections under the skin at home to help maintain or improve their pet’s hydration. It is difficult to make a cat drink under the best of circumstances, but it is even harder when the animal is dehydrated and weak.
Nutrition for your senior cat: Because they are not building muscle and are less active than younger cats, senior cats need less protein and fewer calories. As a cat ages, the digestive and absorptive processes of the gastrointestinal system can become less efficient. Many companies produce ‘senior’ or ‘geriatric’ diets formulated for these situations.
Dental disease is common in older cats and can affect how much and what a cat will eat. Dental health should be assessed at each veterinary visit, and the diet changed to accommodate the cat’s dental function.
Softer food that requires little or no chewing may help an older cat. For a cat with poor appetite, dense food that provides a lot of nutrition in a small quantity can be appropriate. It is always important for a senior cat to eat and at least maintain her body weight.
Arthritis… bane of every cat: It is inevitable that joints will develop at least some mild arthritic changes over time. Arthritis, or degenerative joint disease (DJD), can cause pain and restrict a cat’s movement. If a cat cannot get around well, she may not be able to perform her normal functions. Arthritic cats who spend time outdoors are in danger because they cannot run and jump as well as they might need to in a dangerous situation. When joints hurt, it is more difficult to jump down from places the cat has jumped upon. It is a good idea to start keeping an older, achy cat indoors for her own protection.
Kitty comforts…. your first priority: Older cats can lose body fat and muscle. They can become less insulated against cold temperatures and can develop calluses and ‘bed sores’ when bony parts rub against hard surfaces cats lie on. Be sure your cat has something soft and warm to lie on, such as a towel, throw rug or kitty blanket that will keep her more comfortable.
Beware of bugs and pests: As horrible as it sounds, insects like to take advantage of weak animals. Older cats may not be able to move away or scratch when insects bother them. Insects want to get a meal as easily as possible, so if an animal is not shooing them off, they are going to stay and eat. Check your older animal for fleas and use flea control when needed. If the cat goes outside, monitor the areas she sleeps in and make sure ants are not bothering her. Also check to make sure that flies are not bothering an outdoor cat. Flies can lay their eggs on animals who don’t move away, and the eggs will hatch into maggots about 12 hours later.
Knowing when to let go…. time to make her last days happy: Losing your beloved kitty is always painful. It is never an easy experience. Each pet parent will have different feelings about how far they are willing to go financially and emotionally with the treatment of their cat. There is no right or wrong when it comes to treating a geriatric cat with a life-threatening illness. For some pet parents, a year or two more of life is worth it; others are ready to say goodbye when the news is bad.
It is uncommon for a cat to die comfortably and quietly in her sleep, and in most situations, a pet parent is faced with a decision about euthanasia. The phrase ‘quality of life’ is used a lot, but people don’t always know what it means. Our interpretation is that if an animal is able to eat, drink, eliminate and get around reasonably well and does not seem to be in constant pain, then her quality of life is probably pretty good. When these basic functions cannot be performed, then quality of life is in question.
Unfortunately, in many older cats, one part of their body is not working at all, but otherwise they’re in good health. Under these circumstances, making a decision is difficult. We cannot truly assess how much pain an animal is in with most diseases, so we use their clinical signs as a guide.
Euthanasia…. sad but true: When an animal is “put to sleep,” she is given an overdose of an injectable barbiturate anaesthetic. If the injection is given intravenously, the animal dies within 20 seconds. Everything in the cat’s body slows to a stop, including the heart, so the process is painless. Cats do not close their eyes when they die. After death some cats empty their bladders or have muscle twitches. This is all normal. As much as you do not want to have to plan for your cat’s death, it is often hard to think clearly when the time comes. It is best to be prepared so that you do not have to make hasty decisions later.
Coping with the pet loss
Anyone who has ever been close to a pet knows how much it hurts emotionally when the pet dies. It is normal to want to cry when a pet you have loved and shared your home with dies. It is vital to let your emotions out, whether you are a man or a woman. Why should you have to keep them bottled up? Those of us in the veterinary profession do understand how painful it is to make a decision about a pet’s life. All family members, even those who may have previously claimed not to care about the cat, will feel some sort of loss with the animal’s death. It is good to talk about it when possible. If there are children in the family, let them know that you are sad too, but that all living creatures will die at some time.
If you live alone, you should tell others about the loss of your pet so that friends and relatives can help you and be supportive of your feelings.
You can also do the following:

  • Give your pet a best funeral.
  • Keep memories of your friends like snaps, hair clipping, paw mark.
  • Don’t blame yourself for your pet’s death. You did whatever you could and regretting will not help in any way.
  • Talk to people who have lost their pets. Knowing that you are not alone in this grief will make you deal with it in a better way.
  • Don’t shut yourself from the world. Go out and have fun. However, don’t give yourself to forced outings.
  • Don’t rush into buying a new pet, unless you are completely over the loss of the old one.
  • Avoid bringing a pet who looks exactly like the deceased one. Remember, no two pets are the same and you need to cultivate a new relationship with the new pet.

When should you get a new pet?
Each person should go through a grieving period, but the length of time will vary. A new cat will never replace an old one, but each animal should find her own place in your heart. We personally think pet parents who feel a void in their life from the loss of a pet should consider getting a new pet, because they obviously have a lot of love that another pet would benefit from. You may or may not want to get the same colour, sex or breed of cat. The decisions are up to you, but remember the new cat is not a replacement— she is an entirely new family member. You must also remember that if you get a kitten, her behaviours and your responsibility to the animal will be different from those you have been accustomed to.

(Dr Ashwani Kumar Singh and Dr Kumar Mangalam  Yadav are interns at Government Veterinary Hospital, Bharatpur, Rajasthan).

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