With all the improvements in veterinary care, cats today have a life expectancy of approximately 20 years. Your cat’s geriatric years are when they will desire and need more attention, more grooming, and more lap time. These years present an opportunity for more special time with your cat.
These geriatric years also mark that stage when cats, similar to humans, have age-related challenges and possible disease challenges that may have started earlier in their life. Your geriatric cat has been part of your family, and our family here at Harmony, for a long time. Our commitment to keeping them as healthy and as comfortable as possible is as heartfelt as yours. As your cat slows down, they may need less food, may be more prone to certain diseases, and will need more care.
What differentiates the senior stage from the geriatric stage is usually degrees of fragility. As vets, we will be evaluating some of the following indicators:
- Structural Weakness and impaired balance
- Level of fatigue or exhaustion
- Weight loss
- Decreased physical activity
- Slowed motor performance
- Bodily function control
A trip to your Harmony veterinarian is warranted if your cat:
- Has bald patches
- Has stopped grooming itself or has greasy hair
- Has lost weight
- Displays a decrease or increase in appetite or thirst
- Is drinking more or eating more, but is still losing weight
- Has a lump anywhere on its body
- Has blood in its urine
- Cannot urinate or defecate
- Displays a change in litter box habits
- Is having difficulty breathing or starts coughing
Changes in the Senses: Vision, Taste, Hearing
A cat’s vision, taste, and hearing can be affected in their senior and geriatric stages. These changes can be so subtle that you may not notice them but keep watch and report changes to your vet.
If you are worried that your cat might be going deaf, test your cat’s hearing by snapping your fingers behind the cat’s head to see if they respond. If not, bring your cat in for an exam. An ear infection or wax buildup can affect hearing and needs to be ruled out before assuming deafness is developing in your geriatric cat.
If your cat’s senses of taste and smell have altered, then food may not be as appetizing. If your cat isn’t eating, you can try warming up its food a bit to see if the smell and taste are more attractive that way.
Advances in cataract and other eye surgeries have helped cats see longer and better into their geriatric years. Come in for an evaluation and consultation with the vet if you are concerned about your cat’s vision. Some cats can function quite well without sight as long as they are not also deaf, but there is no reason not to consider eye surgery when appropriate.
Geriatric Cat Behavior
Cats usually mellow with age, and you will find your geriatric cat spends more time lying in the sun or parking on your lap than racing up and down the stairs or chasing toys in their younger years. They are now much less curious and much more sedentary. Other than this general slowing down, most behavior changes are related to health issues. If your cat is normally feisty and suddenly seems listless or is normally sweet and gentle and is suddenly cranky, something is probably wrong and warrants an appointment with your vet.
Because stress is particularly bad for senior and geriatric cats, this stage is not the best time to add a kitten to your family. The kitten’s energy and desire for play could cause behavior in your geriatric cat that is not good for anyone.
Senility can affect cats and may present as pacing, forgetting how to use the litter box or where it is, or walking around in a disoriented fashion. In veterinary medicine, senility is called cognitive dysfunction. L-Deprenyl may help improve cognitive ability in affected cats. (L-Deprenyl is labeled for dogs, so its use in cats is off-label). A consult with your vet will determine if medication is needed.
The most common health problems in senior and geriatric cats are related to thyroid and kidney issues. The most common of the thyroid problems is hyperthyroidism; it’s an overproduction of thyroid hormone. In this condition, a cat’s metabolism keeps increasing to the point where the cat will burn off too much body fat, and maintaining a good weight is hard. If hyperthyroidism is left untreated, heart and liver problems will occur. Three traditional types of treatments are available for hyperthyroidism: radiotherapy, surgery, and medication. A newer treatment option is iodine-restricted dietary management. This dietary adjustment has shown results in cats who strictly follow this diet but should be considered only in consultation with your Harmony vet. Your vet will advise you on which of the above four treatment options might be most appropriate and effective for your particular cat.
Cats do tend to have urinary problems in their geriatric years. This can be either chronic (slow progression and long term) or acute (rapid onset and an urgent problem). Bring your cat in for an evaluation. Treatments vary, depending on the particular kidney/bladder disease involved. It may include a change in diet, a prescription diet, medication, and/or surgery.
Liver problems also occur in geriatric cats fairly frequently. When an older cat’s liver develops problems, the four most common causes are:
- Hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver).
- Lymphoma (a type of cancer).
- Feline infectious peritonitis.
- Cholangiohepatitis (inflammation and/or infection of the liver and biliary tree).
Your vet will evaluate your cat’s liver closely during his geriatric years, so regular visits are important.
Hypertension and Skin Diseases
Hypertension is a relatively common issue in geriatric cats. Many diseases (such as chronic kidney failure, hyperthyroidism, glomerular disease, Cushing’s disease, diabetes, etc.) can be associated with hypertension.
And your older cat’s skin is thinner than when they were younger, making them more prone to skin injuries and diseases.
Again, staying on schedule with your appointments, as your Harmony vet advises, is critical to catching and treating diseases early.
Arthritis can become even more pronounced in the geriatric years compared to the senior years. Your geriatric cat may need even more assistance getting onto the bed or into their litter boxes. You may need to add ramps or footstools to provide a necessary step-up. Their litter boxes may need to be moved to a more convenient place on the first floor.
Although each cat’s aging process is somewhat different, regular checkups are necessary. Some cats have an annual exam until they reach the age of seven. Semi-annual exams and more frequent appointments may be necessary during the geriatric stage to stay on top of problems. At the semi-annual exam, your veterinarian will do a physical examination and will probably do blood chemistry tests, urinalysis, fecal examination, etc.
As during the senior stage, dental health issues tend to arise in the geriatric years. Bad breath, tartar buildup, or gum inflammation can be signs of tooth damage, oral ulcers, periodontal disease, oral neoplasms, or systemic health issues.
The most critical part of preventive health care for your cat at any stage, particularly now, is a healthy weight as best as possible. Geriatric cats need only about 2/3 the daily calories that adult cats do. It is critical that you reduce their calorie intake if they are gaining weight.
If your older cat has already gained weight, putting it on a diet takes guidance, as rapid weight loss is particularly bad for cats. Talk to your Harmony veterinarian to see how your cat’s weight can best be managed with the proper (and slow) calorie reduction and increased play.
Provide Fresh Water
Keeping your geriatric cats properly hydrated is very important. As in their younger stages, your geriatric cat will still love fresh (moving) water. Keep wide, large water dishes available, and change the water regularly to keep your cat interested. Cats who don’t get sufficient water most commonly develop urinary tract infections and other health problems. If you want to really encourage your geriatric cat to keep drinking adequate amounts of water, try an electric water fountain if you have not already. It will keep the water circulating and tempting to your cat.
Comfort for Your Geriatric Cat
Because of muscle tone loss and arthritis, your cat will most likely prefer sleeping on something other than a hard surface in their geriatric stage, even if their favorite spot has been a hard surface by a window or heater. Try adding cushioning or providing a softer bed in a more accessible spot. Continuing to encourage a bit of daily exercise and improved muscle tone will make sleeping more comfortable.
Structural House Changes
As with senior cats, geriatric cats might require household changes such as a softer bed mentioned above. You might also need more matting throughout the house to help your cat with their footing. Night lights might be used for walking around at night. You might need mattress covers in case your cat has an accident at night.
Exercise is still an important part of your cat’s health during these geriatric years, but it may be much harder now for your cat if they have arthritis or a chronic condition. Talk to your Harmony vet about the exercise needs of your particular cat to feel confident about the amount and nature of the exercise.
Your Vet is Here to Help
It is a given that more frequent visits to your Harmony vets will become necessary during your cat’s geriatric years. As much as you want to do everything you can to make your geriatric cat’s life comfortable, we at Harmony understand the new and sometimes demanding challenges you might face in this stage of your cat’s life. We are here to guide you and support your cat in every way. We are here to do everything we can to help with the physical and emotional feelings around caring for your geriatric cat.
Holistic Veterinary Medicine for Geriatric Cats
Although holistic veterinary medicine has been around for many years, it has become increasingly popular over the past two decades, with more and more vets embracing the practice. There are a couple of reasons for this.
One of the reasons for its popularity is that many cat owners have experience with Alternative Medicine themselves and are looking for less invasive ways to treat their cats. Although medications can heal, they also come with a number of secondary effects. While some health issues require the use of traditional medication, this is not always true for every health condition. In fact, many milder problems can be treated through less invasive therapies such as herbal medicine, acupuncture, and homeopathy. Even nutritional therapy can work wonders for certain health issues that don’t seem to respond to other forms of treatment.
If your geriatric cat is already undergoing traditional treatment for a health problem, holistic medicine can be used as an add-on, either to help relieve secondary effects or symptoms or to strengthen the immune system so that healing occurs faster. Click here to learn more about Harmony’s holistic veterinary medical offerings and philosophy as it pertains to your geriatric cat.
End of Life Counseling and Cat Hospice
Saying goodbye to a beloved cat is never easy, even if you know the time has come. We understand the pain and, much too often, the guilt associated with “letting go,” and we can help you make the best choices at a time when it seems impossible to move forward. Here at Harmony Animal Hospital, we are wholly committed to making this very difficult process as easy as it can be for both you and your beloved Cat. Our compassionate, caring team will take the time and share this journey with you every step of the way. We are here to offer advice, assistance, counseling, and even a warm hug if needed.
Is It Time to Let Go?
As cats get older, their lives and their bodies change, along with the parents’ lives, too as we care for our aging friends. Because cats live relatively short lives, those changes happen much faster than we would like and can be scary, emotional, and heartbreaking. However, slowing down is not necessarily a sign that anything’s wrong, so just because your cat seems to move less or not participate in as many activities as he did before doesn’t mean their time with you is over.
When looking at your cat, the one thing you should always consider is quality of life. An elderly cat can still enjoy life even if they need support getting up or has to take short walks instead of running on the beach. That is, as long as they are not in pain and overall seem to be happy and comfortable.
It is often a struggle to make the decision to humanely euthanize a beloved cat. It is even common for there to be differences in “when the right time is” between family members. A great tool we counsel our clients to use is to create a calendar to make daily notes about your cat’s quality of life. It can be very detailed with examples of things that are good (i.e., ate well today) and things that are bad (i.e., wouldn’t eat today). It can also be a very basic calendar just stating “good day” or “bad day.” At the end of every day, discuss as a family if it truly was a day that your cat was happy and comfortable or if they were painful and not enjoying themselves. This gives you a very objective way to look at how your cat is doing over days, weeks, and months. It also gives everyone in the family a chance to observe and understand what your cat is going through. When the bad days start outnumbering the good days, it is likely getting close, or it has reached the time to say goodbye.
Pet Hospice Care
The concept of hospice care has always been associated with people, but there’s no reason why animals can’t be part of it as well. The idea behind hospice care is simply: sometimes there’s nothing else you can do to help cure your cat of their illness or disease, but it’s still possible to control pain and provide a comfortable life. In this case, you can choose to keep your beloved companion around longer if you are willing and able to care for and attend to your ailing cat’s needs.
Hospice care for cats (sometimes referred to as “pawspice”) can involve many things, depending on your cat’s condition and health issues. It should address not only the physical needs of a terminally ill cat but also his emotional ones.
Hospice care often includes some form of pain management. This can be done through pills, injections, or transdermal patches. Pets might also receive acupuncture, laser therapy, and/or massage therapy to help alleviate pain and increase comfort. We are here to discuss and determine the best options for your cat.
Another primary goal of hospice care is to provide emotional support to both the cat and their family. This makes the transition to “letting go” easier for everybody. Our goal here at Harmony is to help you figure out what’s part of growing old and what isn’t. We are here to fully support you and your cat during this challenging part of life. If something’s wrong, we can discuss treatment or management options and see whether they can improve the quality of life and are worth trying.
We also focus heavily on education. We want you to be able to tell when your cat is in pain and suffering, as animals can and often do hide pain very well. We also help you see other signs of declining quality of life. For example, you should look for changes in behavior (cats that become irritable or seem confused), loss of appetite, decreased grooming, changing potty habits, disinterest in activities that he used to love, and even a tendency to look for places to hide. These could all be indications of the quality of life deteriorating.
At Harmony Animal Hospital, our goal is to always focus on our patients’ and clients’ needs and maintain an intimate partnership between our veterinary team, clients, and patients for the most optimal outcomes. We will continue to strive to do everything possible in the best interest of our patients and their families while maintaining the highest ethical standards.
Preparing to Say Goodbye
Our caring and well-trained team offers support and care for your family as you prepare to say goodbye to your cat. There are several decisions to make once you have made the kind, humane decision regarding euthanasia, and we are here to help you with all of them. We offer to perform the euthanasia at our hospital in a quiet, peaceful, warm room separate from the exam rooms, or we can even accommodate euthanasia at your home in most instances. We offer cremation options, including a private cremation, where you will receive your cat’s ashes back in a beautiful cherry wooden box urn, or communal cremation services, where your cat’s ashes will not be returned. There are a limited number of burial options, and we are happy to assist you in determining if this is right for you.
We can also offer suggestions on how to honor your cat after he’s gone, and we always provide a memorial clay paw print of your cat’s paw for you to take home with you.
Losing someone you love is always difficult. When it comes to pets, the loss can be made even more difficult because some people might not understand what you’re going through. We assure you that you are safe at Harmony Animal Hospital to grieve and share your sadness with us. We have all been in your shoes with our own beloved pets and welcome the opportunity to help you through this difficult time.
If you need additional help to deal with your grief, please check out the following resources. You’ll find there are many caring, non-judgmental, supportive resources to help you with your grief – and that you don’t have to suffer alone.
www.spcawake.org (Search for pet loss support group)
Rainbow Bridge Poem
Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge.
When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together. There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable.
All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor. Those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by. The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind.
They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent. His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster.
You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.
Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together….