There are now more pet cats than dogs in Britain. Increasingly, with improved nutrition, health care and management changes, more and more of these cats are living to greater ages. In America, over the last ten years there has been a 15% increase in cats over 10 years of age and the proportion of the feline population aged 15 years or older has increased from 5% to 14%. From this we can see that elderly cats form an ever increasing group of animals that need to be cared for. With advancing age body functions change, so older cats need to be treated differently to younger cats.
As cats age, all of their body systems are affected:
Reduction in exercise may result in reduced muscle tone, which may further reduce the cat’s ability to jump, climb or exercise. This may also lead to a stiffening of the joints.
When coupled with a reduced metabolic rate (common in older individuals), lack of exercise can result in a fall in energy requirements of up to 40%. If a cat maintains a good appetite its daily food intake must therefore be reduced to prevent excessive weight gain.
Inappetance (lack of desire to eat) may be encountered, since the senses of smell and taste become dull with age, and periodontal (dental) disease is common.
Gut function and the ability of the intestines to absorb nutrients are reduced in older animals.
Thirst is also decreased, causing an increased risk of dehydration, especially when combined with concurrent renal insufficiency (which is common in older cats).
Most specific nutrient requirements are not yet determined for older cats. However, it is often assumed that older cats have some degree of subclinical (underlying) disease, particularly of the kidneys, hence a diet with moderate protein restriction is usually recommended. For the same reason it is often suggested that mild phosphorus restriction may be beneficial. With advancing age medication must be given with ever increasing care.
Changes in physiology not only affect food absorption, they also affect the way many drugs are metabolised. Liver and kidney disease occur commonly in older cats. When coupled with mild dehydration these can result in reduced clearance rates and marked elevations in drug concentrations circulating within the blood. When treating geriatric patients the dose and dosing intervals of some drugs may therefore need to be altered.
Does my old cat still need to have regular booster vaccinations?
Although little is yet known about the feline immune system, it is generally assumed that with age immune function may deteriorate. This may in turn result in a reduced ability to fight infection or screen for neoplastic (cancer) cells. Regular booster vaccinations are generally recommended and prompt treatment of disease is essential.
My old cat becomes very distressed when we try to medicate her. Should we keep trying if it upsets her so much?
This is something you should discuss with your vet. There is no simple answer to this question; it depends on whether the treatment may lead to a cure, or whether it is aimed at controlling clinical signs. It also depends on how ill the cat is, and on how distressing it finds the disease for which it is being treated. Older cats are often poorly tolerant of excessive physical handling or environmental change, so while veterinary medicine may be able to offer complex therapeutic options, it is important that each case be assessed individually. Treatment should not be attempted where it will be poorly tolerated for medical or temperamental reasons. Once the patient’s quality of life can no longer be maintained it is important that euthanasia is performed as compassionately as possible, in order to prevent the cat from suffering.
What diseases do old cats suffer from?
The major diseases seen in older cats are hormonal disorders (such as hyperthyroidism and diabetes mellitus), kidney disease, neoplasia (cancer), infections (e.g. feline immunodeficiency virus [FIV]), periodontal disease and arthritis. However, older cats can also be affected by diseases more commonly seen in younger animals (such as inflammatory bowel disease), and road traffic accidents.
It is important to remember that while young animals usually have only one disorder at a time, this is often not so in older patients, where diagnosis and treatment may be complicated by the concurrence of multiple interacting disease processes.
While it is true to say that "old age is not a disease", it is important that we pay particular attention to our older cats, so that if they do develop disease we can recognise it, and treat it early, and so maintain their quality of life for as long as possible.
What can I do to make my old cat as happy as possible?
Most cats age gracefully and require few changes to their general regimen. Since older cats do not generally respond well to change, if changes must be made it is important they are introduced slowly.
Elderly cats should have easy access to a warm, draft free bed, situated where the cat can sleep safely without fear of disturbance.
It is advisable to feed older cats on a highly palatable, possibly reduced protein diet, with a high water content, on a 'little and often' basis. They should always have easy access to fresh drinking water. If they continue to want dry biscuits, a small daily helping may help to maintain their dental hygiene.
As cats’ age some show an reduced ability to control urination and the passing of bowel motions. To reduce the risk of “accidents” it may therefore be necessary to allow access to an indoor litter box.
Older cats should have regular health checks.
My vet mentioned a geriatric health care programme. What does this entail?
The aim of any geriatric health care programme is to maintain the quality of the patient’s life and to slow the progression of age-related disease. Programmes usually include regular and thorough physical examinations, blood screening for biochemical and haematological change, and testing for feline leukaemia virus infection (FeLV). Body weight should be recorded regularly and booster vaccinations should be given annually.