Dr. Mark is a veterinarian. He works with dogs, cats, exotics, and livestock.
Over half of cat-owning families do not even take their cats to see the vet—52%, according to a study from Bayer and the AAHP. If you do not take your elderly cat in to be examined by a local vet or live in a part of the world where no veterinarian is available, the tips here can provide you with some things to do to make his or her life a little better.
Please be aware though that these are only suggestions and some cats cannot be helped without medical care. The most important thing you can do if you are not able to go to the vet is improve your cat´s quality of life. If your cat has a serious health issue, none of these things are going to stop them from going downhill eventually.
Making Life a Little Easier
Even if you do not think that your cat is dealing with any health problems, things change as we become seniors. Here is a short list of some of the things you should do around the home as your cat ages:
- Bedding: Make sure that your cat bed has plenty of padding so that your older cat is more comfortable and is on the ground or only slightly elevated. Elderly cats are not able to jump up as well as kittens but are likely to spend a lot more of their time sleeping.
- Litter box access: Be sure that the litter box is easy to reach. As a senior myself, I know that I dread steps. As your cat gets older he or she might choose to spend most of their time upstairs or downstairs. If you only have a litter box on one floor your cat is going to end up not going up or down to use it. Putting it in the room where your cat spends most of their time is the best thing you can do.
- Litter box type: A new litter box, a lot shallower than the type used by younger cats, will help some pets from having accidents when too sore to climb in and out. (If you are worried about the cat scratching and tossing the litter out of the box, put a mat down.)
- Cat water fountain: Older cats are prone to dehydration so one of the fountain-type waterers that provide clean flowing water throughout the day is a great thing to buy for your pet.
- Food dishes: Not all older cats suffer from arthritis but the estimate is as high as 90%. Getting up and down the stairs or in and out of the litter box is hard but even something as common as leaning over the food dish becomes a chore. Providing a little stand to put the food on makes this simple task a lot less stressful.
- New toys and the old scratching post: New toys that will help your cat keep mentally active are a great benefit in his or her old age. If you already have a scratching area and your cat enjoys it he or she might stop using it with age, but not because they no longer want to. Provide a ramp so that your cat can get up and down easily.
Health Issues in Geriatric Cats
The conditions that older cats are prone to almost always need to be diagnosed through blood work or x-rays, and thus can only be performed by a vet.
- Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD): The most common problem that most of us see in older cats is kidney disease. Unfortunately, most pet families will not be aware of kidney problems in their cat until it has progressed to the stage that it is affecting the cat´s body condition. Pets will suffer, and kidney disease that is untreated will lead to a shorter life.
- Osteoarthritis: Arthritis, often of the back or back legs, is seen a lot and is probably ignored even more often than it is treated. Cats can be treated with an anti-inflammatory at home to see if the problem exists, and although there is no proof yet that these work, some of the components in the better kidney diets for cats (glucosamine, chondroitin, omega-3 fatty acids, and green-lipped mussels) are also useful for cats with arthritic changes.
- GI diseases: If your cat starts using his litter box sporadically and you find hard stools outside the box it can be a sign of constipation. Vomiting is also more common in older cats and can be caused by hairballs and by increased acid in the stomach secondary to kidney problems. Cats with kidney problems are also more likely to vomit blood.
- Dental disease: Oral problems are common in almost all senior cats and will start showing up when your pet is only a few years old. The dental diets and treats are not really good for senior cats with health problems so you need to start brushing your cat's teeth from the time he or she is a kitten. Not all cats will allow this, of course, especially if you do not start until the cat is older, so the best thing you can do is have your cat's teeth cleaned and examined under anesthesia by a veterinarian. (If you did not start brushing early, and your cat does not allow you to mess with his or her mouth, you can try a tooth cleaner like this. It does not always work on all cats but the majority will show some improvement in oral health when chewing on the brush. )
- Other senior diseases: Hyperthyroidism is the most common endocrine disease in cats but unfortunately there is nothing to do at home to prevent or treat it. (Not proven, anyway. There are a lot of theories.) Over 10% of senior cats will be sick with this disease. Testing will need to be done by a vet and then the medication level is adjusted based on response. If your cat develops diabetes or cancer of any type he or she will also need to see a veterinarian.
Home Tips for Health Problems
Check your cat's condition every time you interact. When I am petting one of my dogs or cats, I check the gums and teeth, look at the color of the mucus membranes of the eyes, look in the ears, check for swellings or bites that can lead to an abscess, massage the joints and legs, and feel for general body condition. A thorough exam only takes about 5 minutes and my animals feel this is normal.
If your cat does not expect this exam, he or she might find it a little strange and may even try to bite when the mouth is examined. At the very least, pick at least once a week to do a full exam at home. (Every Monday after work, for example. If you try to do this on a Friday or Saturday night, you are more likely to end up forgetting and your cat will suffer the consequences.)
No matter how good your examination is, however, realize that cats are great at disguising any signs of problems. Even if you are not sure what health issues your geriatric cat is dealing with, there are a few things that you can do to improve his or her condition.
I always recommend a diet change for senior cats. If you cannot have your cat´s blood tested for kidney disease, just assume there is a problem and change appropriately. Cats with kidney disease are often put on a special diet with adequate protein but limited phosphorus, and it is also important to limit the salt in the diet. Since senior cats are so prone to kidney problems and do not drink enough, switching to a moist diet is very important. (Some owners will even add a little warm water to the food but I have heard others complain that their cat will not eat if they add water.)
Food Type and Frequency of Feedings
Since kidney problems are so common in older cats, it is okay to assume that your cat has this condition even if he or she has not been diagnosed. I recommend you go ahead and switch your cat to one of the kidney diets, which is also may be helpful for cats suffering from arthritis. (Not all vets will agree with this recommendation as some kidney diets are lower in protein, which seniors still need. The diet you choose should have high quality protein.)
Older cats are frequently constipated and do not eat normal meals like younger cats. The best thing you can do is feed smaller meals three or four times a day. If you work and are not at home as much, give a meal in the morning, when you get home, a few hours later, and a meal just before you retire for the night. Do not overdo it—arthritis is not caused by obesity but an obese cat with arthritis has a hard time getting around. (If your cat is already obese you should switch to one of the weight reducing high fiber diets before starting on a kidney diet.)
As I mentioned above, assume your cat has a developing kidney problem and encourage him or her to drink as much as possible. Even if kidneys disease does not become a problem for your cat the increased water consumption will make him or her less likely to develop constipation.
Read More From Pethelpful
High fiber and Laxatives
Issues like hairballs and constipation are all too common. Increased water consumption helps some, more frequent feeding helps some other cats, and yet others need a laxative product that they can consume every day or two or three times a week.
A lot of good products are available, like this laxative from Pfizer that most cats like. Pumpkin is a high fiber natural alternative but I have had mixed results as not all cats are willing to eat it.
Cats, just like people and other animals, get stiff with age and it just hurts to reach around and groom the whole body. Daily grooming will decrease hairball formation and you can reach places that an older cat cannot. Grooming does not require a lot of time, since you can just brush your cat a few minutes each day as you sit on the couch watching TV.
Arthritis is very common in geriatric cats and a long-term therapy for this condition is a natural substance called cosequin. Cosequin is a great alternative therapy you can use at home since it is a natural nutrient and can help protect your cat´s joints. If you do not have access to this product in your area, raw chicken feet are an alternative that have been used sucessfully in some areas.
Aspirin or Meloxicam
Think about a trial use of an anti-inflammatory, even if you are not able to get a prescription for your cat. If your cat is not jumping up on the scratching post, or does not want to jump down, that is not a sign that he or she is geting old. That is a sign that your cat is in pain when he is jumping and would benefit from an anti-inflammatory.
In some areas, the only non-prescription anti-inflammatory that you can use with your cat is aspirin. The other NSAIDs are toxic and will kill your cat. Even with aspirin, it can be dangerous if given too often so do not use more than every 2 or 3 days, and you can only give one-half of a children´s aspirin to an adult cat. (10 miligrams per kilogram.) In some areas of the world, meloxicam is available over the counter, but in the US it is not. It is not labelled for long term use in cats but most it is one of the few products available and most pets use it without problems.
Cat Hunting Toys
If your cat does not have kidney problems or other health issues, he or she may live to be over 20 years old. A lot of the senior cats that we see in that age range though are suffering from mental issues, a type of dementia. They sleep most of the day and just get up to use the litter box and eat. One way to keep your cat younger is to provide a hunting type of toy when providing food.
Although this video lists mostly commercial foods made in the US, take the time to look into it if you do not have access to a commercial source of a diet for a cat suffering from kidney disease. Try to provide your cat with the option of a healthy diet.
Why Spend Your Money Taking Your Cat for a Vet Visit?
Even if you follow the recommendations listed above to improve your cat's life, there are things that can only be diagnosed through bloodwork, x-rays, and other health tests. Senior cats need to be seen by a vet twice a year when problems like kidney disease and hyperthyroidism can be caught early and treated before any changes affect your cat.
Amazingly, many cats will show blood changes a full year or two before having any disease changes.
Not all cats are even able to live until their senior years so having a cat in this age range is quite an accomplishment. I really wish all of them could receive veterinary care but I know it is not possible for everyone. Do your best.
Bayer-AAFP study breaks down why 52 percent of cat owners avoid regular vet visits
Peterson M. Hyperthyroidism in cats: what's causing this epidemic of thyroid disease and can we prevent it? J Feline Med Surg. 2012 Nov;14(11):804-18. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23087006/
White JD, Malik R, Norris JM. Feline chronic kidney disease: can we move from treatment to prevention? Vet J. 2011 Dec;190(3):317-22. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21262581/
Bennett D, Zainal Ariffin SM, Johnston P. Osteoarthritis in the cat: 2. how should it be managed and treated? J Feline Med Surg. 2012 Jan;14(1):76-84. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22247327/
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.