While I believe that everyone should have the experience of living with the little monsters we call kittens, what some overlook are the joys of living with a senior cat. Think all the sweetness but less of the biting, curtain-climbing, feet-attacking mayhem. What senior cats lack in craziness they more than make up for in peaceful snuggling and serenity. I have learned more about aging gracefully from my senior cats than any internet video or self-help book out there. Living with older cats has shown me how to enjoy the little things — like the perfect sunbeam. And how to roll with the changes that come with age — like accepting that I might need to move a little more slowly.
There are ways we can help our senior cats continue to age with dignity and grace. Some things to consider are accessibility, comfort and health care.
As anyone who has lived to a certain age will tell you, physical activities do get more challenging as we age. What used to be an easy hop, skip and a jump can start to feel like an Ironman marathon. While a senior cat's physical prowess is still amazing, jumping up does become more challenging as they age. You can help them by providing stairs or ramps up to their favorite spots. You also want to make sure that the surfaces they use have some sort of traction, like carpeting, to help them move with confidence. Accessibility to food and water are also very important. I strongly recommend having multiple food and water stations throughout your house so that it's never too far for your kitty to get a snack and drink. And remember, no one wants to jump a hurdle just to go to the bathroom, so get a litter box with low sides and put it in an easy access area.
When it comes to comfort, the key is softer and warmer. Because cats lose muscle mass as they age, giving them beds with a little extra padding can really help. You don't want the padding to be so thick that it becomes awkward for them to walk, but definitely it should be soft enough to cushion those old bones. Some older cats also really like a low temperature heating pad to relax on. Each kitty is an individual so see what temperature and location your kitty prefers — one of my kitties liked her heated bed to be on the ground for easy access, but my other likes a heated window seat. An area of comfort that can be overlooked is keeping their nails trimmed. Older cats often struggle with long nails getting caught on things, making it painful to move. So keep those nails short!
As cats age, more things can start to go wrong, so veterinary care becomes even more important. By taking your cat to the vet for yearly checkups you can hopefully identify any problems early. I recommend yearly blood work because that is where you can diagnose two common senior cat illnesses: kidney disease and hyperthyroidism. In addition, cats frequently suffer from arthritis, which your vet can help you manage. Remember many medications that are safe for dogs and humans are toxic for cats, so never give any medicine to your cat without talking to an actual veterinarian. (Not Dr. Google!)
While these routine veterinary visits are important there are some things you can watch for at home. An early sign of health issues can be changes in eating and drinking, so watch carefully. And as the saying goes, what goes in must come out, so also track pooping and peeing. Monitor general attitude and activity as well — remember you know your kitty best, if something seems off, schedule a checkup.
We are never going to make our senior kitties young again, but their golden years can be better with just a little extra care and consideration. It's really the least we can do in exchange for all the blood pressure lowering, purring, snuggling joy that they bring us. And for those of you who are not lucky enough to have a senior cat in your life, there are sadly many waiting for their forever homes at our local shelters. So go out and get yourself an in-house aging guru!
Sara Shaw is a small-animal veterinarian who lives and works in the Spokane area.