Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

Aging Gracefully

Factors that affect feline life expectancy include maintaining a healthy body weight, a high-quality diet and adequate exercise

By Kim Campbell Thornton

Andrews McMeel Syndication

They say cats have nine lives, and eventually that ninth life comes along. Senior cats may show some gray hairs around the eyes and mouth, the lens of the eye clouds over, and they may think twice and walk away instead of jumping onto the kitchen counter.

The average life expectancy for cats is 10 to 15 years, although some live into their late teens or even 20s. Cats are considered mature at 7 to 10 years of age, senior from 11 to 14 and geriatric over the age of 15.

“This can vary a lot between cats depending on their breed and health status,” says Matthew Kornya, DVM, who practices at the Cat Clinic in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. “In humans, some 70-year-old people are healthier than some 50-year-olds, and the same is true for cats.”

Fortunately, you can take steps to ease your cat into her golden years -- and possibly even extend them.

“Cats are already living significantly longer than they were just 10 years ago,” says Drew Weigner, DVM, a feline practitioner in Atlanta and president of the Winn Feline Foundation. “Advances in treating many diseases seen in older cats, such as kidney disease, diabetes and thyroid disease, have led to not only increased lifespan, but also increased quality of life.”

Keeping weight off is key. By now we’ve all seen the videos of Cinderblock, the 25-pound cat bewailing her time on the water treadmill. Excess weight stresses joints, leading to painful osteoarthritis. It’s better if your cat never packs on the pounds in the first place. Measuring food, hiding small amounts around the house so she can hunt for it and scheduling three to five minutes of playtime a couple times daily are all ways to help cats stay active throughout life.

Some aging cats have the opposite problem, losing lean body mass with age. Smaller, more frequent meals and a fountain to encourage water intake can help them to maintain good body condition.

Senior cat dietary needs vary by individual. Some become less able to digest fat, while others have a decreased ability to digest protein. Cats with chronic kidney disease can benefit from therapeutic foods to help manage their condition. Other diet-sensitive conditions include cognitive dysfunction, diabetes mellitus, hyperthyroidism and osteoarthritis. Your veterinarian can help you choose the best food for your cat, but in general, a highly digestible, nutrient-dense diet is a good choice.

Evaluate whether you need to make changes to your cat’s environment. Putting his food dish on top of the washing machine to keep it out of reach of the dog may have worked well in his younger years, but it may be time to rethink that.

“Make sure cats can easily get to food and water or their litter box without it being a stressful climb or difficult place to get to,” says veterinary technician Harmony Peraza at Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine.

Don’t smoke around your cat. Exposure to secondhand smoke dramatically increases a cat’s risk of lung cancer and other diseases such as asthma.

Take your cat to the veterinarian if you notice behavior changes such as drinking more water, eating less, not using the litter box, producing only small amounts of urine, prowling or yowling late at night or grooming less thoroughly.

“Arthritis commonly affects older cats and may lead to reduced mobility, inability to groom themselves and difficulty using the litter box,” Dr. Kornya says. “Minimizing arthritis pain can dramatically improve quality of life. Dental health is also of crucial importance, as many older cats suffer from tartar, gingival disease and oral infections that cause chronic pain and may lead to systemic disease. A healthy older cat is free of pain and infection, well-groomed and has a healthy body condition.”

Read more about caring for senior cats at FearFreeHappyHomes.com.

Q&A

Saying “Rabbits”

for good luck

Q: Why do some people say “Rabbit, rabbit” on the first day of each month?

A: This is one of those interesting but little-known sayings or superstitions that people either grow up with or have never heard of before. It’s thought to have originated in Britain.

The idea is that the first words a person says on the first day of the month -- even before greeting their rabbits, dogs or cats -- are “rabbit,” “rabbits” or “white rabbits.” Some people say it twice, others three times. The person who does this will have good luck for the rest of the month, according to the superstition.

Another belief is that saying it will ensure that a present is delivered by the end of the month, or that a wish will come true.

The tradition of saying “rabbit, rabbit” occurs in the United States as well. It’s sometimes associated with New England, but in an informal and completely unscientific poll, plenty of people from New England said they had never heard of the practice.

Storyteller Sue-Ellen Stillwell-Jones, from the Midwest, first heard it when she was in her 20s, from other storytellers. Sally Bahner of Connecticut was familiar with it, and Megan Bellue learned it from a friend from Iowa. A colleague from Ireland told Lynn Miller to say “white rabbit” three times at midnight.

Folklorists have gathered many examples over the years, including from people in North Carolina, Pennsylvania and New Mexico. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, from New York, said “rabbits” on the first of every month, according to one newspaper article. Author Simon Winchester claims to have gone 696 months -- or 58 years -- before forgetting to say it one month.

If you forget, wait until the end of the day, and say “Tibbar, tibbar” -- rabbit backward, in other words. -- Kim Campbell Thornton

Do you have a pet question? Send it to askpetconnection@gmail.com or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.

THE BUZZ

Studies aim to

keep pets healthy

-- Morris Animal Foundation is awarding more than $1 million in grants for 16 canine and feline research projects. Among the studies being funded are one to evaluate the potential of treating aggressive cancers with a new drug derived from a medicinal plant called feverfew; development of an oral vaccine for use in shelters and other multicat environments against feline enteric coronavirus, which can mutate to the deadly disease feline infectious peritonitis; and an inexpensive prognostic test to enable more rapid and appropriate treatment for canine neural injuries, such as strokes and acute spinal cord injuries.

-- Many pets and people were separated during Northern California’s Kincade Fire, and rescuers are turning to social media to help reunite four-legged and two-legged family members. The Kincade Fire Pet Rescue and Reunification page on Facebook posts photos and descriptions of lost and found pets. In Southern California, volunteers from the equestrian community often pitch in to help rescue horses through a Facebook group called Southern California Equine Emergency Evacuation. Cowboy 911, also on Facebook, has listings to help connect rescuers, shelters, owners and animals, including dogs, birds, horses, pigs and even wildlife. Reunification can take months as people seek new housing or more animals are found, so it’s important to continue checking or to renew a lost or found pet’s listing.

-- Often, dog breeds come in different coat varieties. There’s the familiar rough collie -- think Lassie -- as well as a smooth, or shorthaired, collie. Fox terriers have smooth or wire coats; Chihuahuas have short or long coats; dachshunds come in smooth, long or wirehaired coats; Jack Russell terriers have smooth, broken or rough coats; Brussels griffons have rough and smooth coats; Portuguese podengos have smooth and wire coats; and Pyrenean shepherds have smooth- and rough-faced varieties. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

ABOUT PET CONNECTION

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by “The Dr. Oz Show” veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker, founder of the Fear Free organization and author of many best-selling pet care books, and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. Joining them is behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.