Geriatric cats need special care. A veterinarian shares tips on keeping them comfortable and safe
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
Aging cats are a growing segment of the feline population, thanks to better veterinary care and nutrition and a powerful human-cat bond. What happens when they move from seniorhood to the geriatric stage -- and what’s the difference?
Senior cats may still be active and reasonably healthy, but geriatric cats are fragile, with health conditions that make them vulnerable to mobility issues, anxiety, urinary incontinence and sleep disturbances. At last month’s virtual Cat Writers Association conference, veterinarian Mary Gardner, co-founder of Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice, shared tips on recognizing feline geriatric issues and making the lives of old cats better for the time they have remaining.
Clues that a cat is geriatric include trouble getting on and off furniture, not making it to the litter box or struggling to get in or out of it, frequent urinary tract infections and signs of dementia, such as howling or seeming lost. They need extra-special care, and there are ways to set up your home to help give them good quality of life.
Mobility is the No. 1 issue for geriatric cats, Gardner says. Common causes are arthritis, neuropathy (nerve damage), inflammation, back problems, obesity and muscle wasting. “Almost all old cats have a form of arthritis,” she says.
An osteoarthritis checklist (bit.ly/catoachecklist) asks whether cats can walk up and down stairs easily, jump up to and down from perches normally, run and chase bugs or toys. If the answer to any of these questions is no, arthritis is likely the culprit. Gardner adds that a bit of fur standing up along the spine can also indicate pain. Photos or videos of your cat’s movement around the house can help your veterinarian reach a diagnosis, and medication can help.
Use ramps, pet steps and smart furniture placement to aid cats in getting to their favorite comfortable or sunny spots. Apply nonslip adhesive strips to ramps or steps that don’t come with them. Placing an end table next to a cat tree can help old cats reach perches that might otherwise be inaccessible.
For cats with shoulder arthritis, elevated tilted food bowls (available from online merchants) can make it easier for them to eat. A cat who enjoyed drinking from a bathroom faucet but was in pain from shoulder arthritis benefited from adhesive nonslip pawprint-shaped treads placed in the sink to provide traction.
Geriatric cats may be less able to groom themselves, so brush them regularly and trim their hind nails if they’re unable to reach them. They may also need cleaning with baby wipes.
Getting into or out of the litter box is often difficult for geriatric cats. Instead of a standard litter box, provide a large plastic storage box or underbed sweater box with an opening cut in the side for easy entry and exit. Use only a shallow amount of litter so it’s not difficult for them to walk through it. Pee pads are another option.
Pay attention to a cat’s litter box behavior. “Having trouble covering up poop may indicate shoulder or elbow pain that needs to be evaluated,” Gardner says.
Many old cats have diminished vision. Use night lights throughout the house or place light strips on the floor or stairs to help them find their way around.
Howling is a common sign of cognitive dysfunction. Take your cat to the veterinarian at the first sign for a cognitive assessment and to rule out a UTI or hypertension, both of which are treatable. There’s no cure for feline cognitive dysfunction, but progression can be slowed with medication, nutraceuticals and enrichment, Gardner says.
Finally, a quality-of-life scale (aplb.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/Cat_Life_Quality_Assessment.pdf) can help you keep tabs on your geriatric cat’s comfort and happiness.
When to take
pets to ER
Q: Heavy bleeding and broken bones are obvious, but what are some other signs my pet needs to make a trip to the veterinary ER?
A: Great question! Animals are good at hiding pain and other signs of illness, so knowing what to look for can mean the difference between life and death. Here are some clues that signal serious problems:
-- increases in respiratory rate (the normal rate in a cat is 20 to 30 breaths per minute, and for a dog, 16 to 24 breaths per minute);
-- changes in gum color from a healthy pink to white, yellow, gray or blue;
-- unusual or sudden changes in attitude or behavior;
-- increased or decreased appetite or thirst;
-- unexplained weight loss;
-- changes in urination;
-- a wobbly gait.
You should also take your pet to the emergency hospital in the following situations:
-- allergic reactions
-- any animal bite
-- bloated belly, especially with unproductive retching
-- bloody diarrhea
-- difficulty breathing
-- distress from excessively hot or cold temperatures
-- eye injuries
-- frequent or projectile vomiting
-- ingestion of a toxic substance
-- restlessness for no reason, especially accompanied by rapid respirations -- 35 or more per minute
-- serious trauma, such as being hit by a car
-- straining to urinate or defecate
-- unconsciousness or collapse
-- venomous snake or spider bites
If you're not sure, err on the side of caution. Veterinary emergency clinics are expensive, but sometimes the cost of a visit is a price worth paying for peace of mind. -- Dr. Marty Becker
Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.
News about dog
-- Cancer is the leading cause of death in pet dogs, and golden retrievers have up to a 65% cancer-related death rate. Researchers at the University of California, Davis wondered if some long-lived goldens might have genetic variants that contributed to their extended lifespan. They performed a genome-wide association study in more than 300 golden retrievers, comparing dogs older than 14 years to those who died prior to age 12. What piqued their interest was a gene called HER4, capable of serving as both a tumor suppressor gene and an oncogene -- a mutation with the potential to cause cancer. Dogs with certain variants of the gene survived nearly two years longer -- on average, 13.5 years compared to 11.6 years -- according to an article by Amy Quinton written for UC Davis. The finding could eventually contribute to identification of favorable or disease-modifying variants important to the intersection of aging and cancer.
-- In November, celebrate National Adopt a Senior Pet Month and National Prevent a Litter Month; National Animal Shelter Appreciation Week, November 5-11; and National Canine Lymphoma Awareness Day, Nov. 7. (Find out more about canine lymphoma, one of the most common forms of canine cancer, here: vet.purdue.edu/wcorc/cancer-research/canine-lymphoma-research.php.)
-- Five books took top honors in last month’s Cat Writers Association annual contest: “Catagenesis,” by Jody Wallace, a sci-fi murder mystery that takes place in a world of mind-reading cats; “Night of the Were-Cat,” by Eileen Watkins, a mystery that centers on a movie-promoting werewolf lookalike contest for pets; “There’s a Cat Hair in My Mask,” by Mollie Hunt, an ode to the healing power of cats in tumultuous times; “No Snowball!,” by Isabella Kung, a picture book that won the illustrated children’s book category; and “The Cat in the Christmas Tree,” by Callie Smith Grant, winner of the gift book category. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts. Veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker is founder of the Fear Free organization, co-founder of VetScoop.com and author of many best-selling pet care books. Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning journalist and author who has been writing about animals since 1985. Mikkel Becker is a behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/Kim.CampbellThornton and on Bluesky at kimthornton.bsky.social. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.