Updated: Oct 13, 2020
“Kitten proofing” is a popular search term on Google, but “elderly cat proofing” doesn’t have nearly as many results. Why? Senior cats have plenty of special considerations. Of course, their decline is a bit less fun to think about than cute, playful kittens. But consider this: Cats are considered elderly once they turn 11, and the average domestic cat lives to be 15. Therefore, most cat owners spend about a third of their pet’s life caring for a senior kitty.
As cats enter their twilight years, owners should prepare to look out for warning signs of declining health, and make sure their home is ready to meet the changing demands of an older cat.
Chronic Kidney Disease
Owners should keep an eye out for cats making frequent trips to the water bowl and litterbox. Dehydration can be a symptom of a wide variety of illnesses. Chronic kidney disease is an especially common illness in older cats, and signs of chronic kidney disease include increased urination and thirst. Kidney failure may lead to worsening grooming habits, as well as a loss in appetite.
Cats can develop acute kidney problems at any age — for instance, cats can suffer from kidney failure after accidentally eating a poisonous chemical or plant — but they’re much more prone to chronic renal failure at an older age. In fact, 30 to 40 percent of cats over the age of 10 will suffer from chronic kidney disease. When kidneys don’t work properly, a buildup of toxins in the blood may lead to cats feeling poorly all-around.
Unfortunately, by the time noticeable symptoms arise, chronic kidney disease has already progressed to the point when the kidneys have begun to fail. At this point, fluid therapy or dialysis could be the only way to manage toxins — steps that comes with a steep price tag that most owners find unaffordable. But that doesn’t mean cats can’t live with chronic kidney disease, especially with a few healthy changes to their diets (more on that below).
High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure — aka hypertension — often appears in elderly cats with chronic kidney failure. Because the two are so closely related, they have many of the same symptoms, like dehydration and a decrease in appetite. Hypertension can also affect a cat’s eyesight, leading to sudden blindness. If a cat suddenly can’t find their way around, a veterinary consultation is immediately in order.
Similar to chronic kidney disease, the primary signs of diabetes in cats are increased thirst and urination. Cats with diabetes also have an increased appetite, but still manage to lose weight. Vets can diagnose diabetes with a blood and urine test, and then owners can treat the condition with insulin injections. Just like for human diabetics, experts typically recommend a low-carbohydrate diet for diabetic cats.
What Can Pet Owners Do for Elderly Cats?
1. Make Sure They Have the Right Diet
Cats may lose their appetite for a variety of reasons. If a senior cat is ignoring their food, owners should try changing up their diet (after consulting with their vet). The usual store-bought food might not tempt an older cat who doesn't feel well. In order to make sure they get proper nutrition, owners can try incorporating treats like fresh cooked meat, chicken stock, or tuna juice into their diets.
But meat isn’t always the answer. Owners may also want to try foods specially formulated for older cats — lower protein and low-phosphorus preparations can be especially helpful for cats with kidney problems.
2. Make Their Food Easy to Find
In one survey, owners said that their cats had begun loudly meowing to express frustration at not being able to find their food bowl. It's also best to remind owners that putting the food on top of the counter may no longer be the best place as your pets get older. Also, you may want to have several smaller bowls, placed next to their favorite hang out spots. On that note, owners should make sure that the food dish is always put in the same place, as cats tend to rely on their memories more than their eyesight as they age.
3. Don’t Change the Layout of Your Home
Speaking of memory, if the layout of their habitat changes, elderly cats might have a harder time getting around. For their sake, owners may want to hold off on any new decorating schemes, in case their cat rounds the usual corner and yowls as they run headfirst into the new ottoman.
4. Give Them Plenty of Water
Water, water, everywhere — make sure older cats have plenty to drink, in bowls situated throughout the parts of the house where they like to perch. The easier it is for an elderly cat to find water, the easier it will be for them to remain hydrated.
5. Lots of Patience
Physical changes often accompany mental changes, including cognitive dysfunction. Cats who never had a problem with toilet habits might forget where to find their litter box. Improvements to their diet and kidney health might help, but just as with humans, there is bound to a period of decline before the end. Cats who wander, meow more than usual, lose weight, or exhibit other changes may be experiencing their own feline version of senility.
Owners may be well prepared for the trials of kittenhood, but vets should highlight that their needs will once again increase once their cat reaches the age of 10. Knowing what to look out for in an older cat can help owners catch problems sooner, and prevent unnecessary suffering at the end of a long and happy life.