Oldies but Goldies: Caring for Senior Cats

Keeping felines happy and healthy as they age

As the proud cat parent to not one but four senior cats, I’ve spent countless hours trawling the internet for expert advice, new products, and ideas for keeping my brood in tip top shape well into their golden years.

For cats, the transition from adult to senior is a subtle, yet critical milestone. After the age of ten, like me, senior cat parents need to stay on guard for any micro-changes in their pets’ behaviors. There are also some simple strategies for making sure your cat’s retirement is a happy and healthy one. Here are my top tips based on my research and experience.

Don’t skip visits to the vet

According to the experts, senior cats are most at risk of developing a number of conditions:

  • Cancer
  • Kidney failure
  • Arthritis
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Dental disease
  • Hypertension
  • Diabetes

Try your best to watch out for any sudden changes in behavior (fatigue, loss of appetite, not grooming, for example), but be warned, cats are masters of disguising pain or weakness.

“Cats tend to hide their symptoms, which is probably due to survival instinct,” says Dr. Stacy Eckman from Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences.

“Most signs of illness or injury are subtle, including sleeping more than normal; not getting up to greet you, if that is normal behavior; or laying and sleeping in the same position for long periods of time.”

For this reason, I recommend not skipping twice-yearly vet checkups. My eldest cats get an annual full bloodwork and urine tests to catch any issues before they become too serious. So far, so good!

Say cheese!

Periodontal disease often plagues older cats. Some of the symptoms include inflamed or bleeding, bad breath, and problems eating. Regular dental cleanings are key.

Because I am terrified of having to put the cats under anesthesia for dental cleaning at the vet, I go for a DIY approach. Every two to three days, I use an enzymatic toothpaste and a baby toothbrush to give their tiny chompers a good scrub. All of them particularly like this toothpaste; it doesn’t have any foaming agents and apparently the poultry flavour is finger-licking good!

The cats don’t always cooperate — sometimes it’s more awkward chewing on the toothbrush’s bristles than brushing — but it works. Their teeth are clean, gums are pink and healthy, and I always get high praise from their vet.

Get those paws moving

According to the movie Zombieland, cardio is the #1 rule for beating zombies. By all accounts, it’s also the best way for senior cats to beat health issues. Environmental enrichment is absolutely critical for keeping cats in peak physical form.

Some ideas to “catify” your home include:

While cat trees are a constant, I like to put the other toys away once they show signs of losing interest (sometimes almost immediately). Revealing toys on a weekly cadence seems to keep the wow factor going and marinating toys in plastic containers of catnip also gets the party started.

For a huge cardio hit, I find that nothing beats Da Bird’s feather wand. I take this out every week and it has even my laziest felines doing backflips and mid-air somersaults trying to get their paws on the fluttering feathers. They all absolutely love it and have a good 10-minute intense workout, usually followed up by a long recovery nap.

When they’re bored, I also let them play their favourite Mouse Hunt game on the ipad. That usually sustains their attention for a good 20 minutes!

As a precaution, I would limit the amount of “high impact” activity in older cats. For my oldest (and most overweight) kitty, I have lots of spots for her that are closer to the ground and do not require to jump up or down from heights. I have also put gym foam mats on the floor of her room to reduce the impact on her joints as she hops down from her resting perch or out of the litter box.

Food and supplements

Feeding can become a real nightmare with cats — finding something healthy, economical, and suits their picky tastebuds has been an ongoing challenge. For me, having four cats means having four unique palettes, different eating habits, and nutritional needs. It’s an ongoing struggle!

This is what I’m serving up.

Dry food

All my cats have had a history of dental issues when I adopted them, so I am feeding them a combo of dry and wet food to keep their teeth healthy. I always go for high-protein, grain-free food. My cats are extremely specific about the shape of the kibble, so I have to go for either tiny spheres or UFO-shaped pieces.

My go-tos are Farmina’s Herring & Orange for adult cats. This one is on the pricey side, but it’s low GI, 98% animal-derived protein, and has a pretty high (44%) protein content. The cats all really enjoy this one (perhaps because of the strong smell?) and they tend to feel full for longer with this food.

The other one which is a little easier on my wallet and just as high quality is Dr. Elsey’s CleanProtein. This formula has the highest protein content I have found at pet stores (59%), and is 100% grain-free. The chicken formula has been more well-received by the cats than the salmon one. Overall, I’ve noticed that the cats do stay fuller for longer when they have this in the evening and don’t hound me for mid-day snacks as much.

Wet food

I feed the cats one meal of wet food a day, on the recommendation of the vet. The high moisture content in wet food is supposed to be good for preventing urinary tract problem (a particular problem for male cats), diabetes, and kidney disease.

The problem with wet food I find is that the cats lose interest in the higher quality, grain-free canned foods very easily. Some of them have sensitive stomachs and for some reason (could be additives in the food?), many canned foods cause my kitties to throw up or have traces of blood in their stool. After multiple carpet clean-ups, I’ve narrowed down to these that I regularly add to my cart.

Nutro Chicken and Liver pate is a crowd favourite. Real chicken is the first ingredient and there aren’t any grains or fillers. My cats really enjoy the texture (perfect mix of chunky and saucy) and a little goes a long way. Two servings (2 halves of the packaging) are enough to feed the four cats and leaves everyone licking their lips contentedly.

Iams Perfect Portions is another grain-free one that tops the list. The cats like the Indoor Cuts in Gravy variety. Rotating between pate and chunks in gravy seems to be the way to go.

In terms of supplements, I have been putting half a scoop of FERA Organic Probiotic powder in their wet food once a day. I’ve noticed a huge difference after a month of consistently supplementing their diet with these probiotics — no more eye infections, sporadic coughs, and loose bowel movements. The cats don’t seem to notice the powder (it doesn’t have any smell, so I’m assuming no taste?). According to the manufacturer, the probiotics also supports skin health and may reduce severity of scratching, itching, hot spots from allergies.

Every few days, I crush up some freeze-dried salmon skins (about an inch-sized piece) and mix it up with a portion of wet food. This is a great source of Omega-3 fatty acids and I’ve noticed their fur is softer and glossier. They much prefer this to the salmon oil I was giving them previously (that had quite a pungent odor). Additionally, I’ll give each cat 2–3 dried sardines as a treat every evening. They love crunching these and will sometimes spit the heads out for me to pick up off the floor.

At the end of the day, looking after senior cats is a lot like looking after senior humans — regular check-ups, proper nutrition and mental and physical stimulation are a must. My carefully crafted regimen seems to be working wonders for my lot and is keeping them healthy and purring. Hopefully they’ll inspire some lifestyle changes for your oldies too!

Cat person, PhD-qualified Cell Biologist & Science Writer. Interested in trends and emerging technologies in the biopharma industry.

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