New Mexico's Pet Resource SUMMER 2008


By Anne Galer

The human world pays a lot of attention to healthy lifestyles and their effect on maintaining a physically and mentally active old age. After a recent vet visit with my cat in her teens, I realized how much we can do to create a lifestyle to help our cats enjoy their older years, too. If your cat is in good health but slowing down, sleeping more and gaining a little weight -- all normal for a cat in its teens -- small changes in the daily routine can improve his or her long-term lifestyle and perk up a more active, playful nature.

First in order is an overall exam by the vet. A vet specializing in cats, or one who has a special interest in your cat and stays up-to-date in cat medicine, will be able to guide you on the issues of feline old age. Your vet may recommend tests for diabetes, kidney function, hyperthyroidism or other common problems of the older cat. Once your feline has a clean bill of health, there is a lot you can do at home to make every day a good one for your special kitty.

Diet changes and weight reduction should be at the top of the list if your cat has put on a pound or two over the years. Overweight older cats are at higher risk for health problems like diabetes. I used to keep dry food available constantly in the bowl for my thirteen-year-old Mimi. The vet suggested limiting the dry food to one-half cup a day to help her lose a little weight. She also suggested modestly increasing the tuna, chicken and other meats in her daily food ration.

As they age, cats need more protein in their diets and the protein helps them ward off diabetes. This is best supplied from meat and fish, not dry food. “People food” canned meats are fine. Use low-sodium or rinse with water to eliminate some of the salt content. Cats are lactose intolerant, so milk is not recommended, especially for the older animal. If tabby is still fond of milk but having a harder time digesting it, lactose-free substitutes are available. Fresh water, changed twice a day (plus that special drink from the faucet that so many cats love) will round out feeding-time needs.

Our feline friends often develop arthritis later in life making it harder for them to jump and play. If you have helped your pet take off the extra weight, but are still seeing stiffness in movement and a slowdown in activity, consult with your pet’s doctor. Because cats do not tolerate steroids well, the treatment for arthritic cats is different than for dogs. Surprisingly, the vet suggested half a low-dose “baby” aspirin (81mg) every 48 hours to ease this condition. Since aspirin is toxic to cats, and larger amounts (even one regular 325 mg aspirin) can be fatal, be sure to check with your vet before starting this treatment.

Time takes its toll on teeth, as well. It is not uncommon for cats to have a dental condition in which their own bodies erode the enamel of their teeth, producing areas of decay and pain. A good dental check during the cat’s exam visit can alert you to this problem. Cleaning may help, but in most cases pulling the affected tooth is the only solution. Look for plaque buildup, gum redness, bleeding and tenderness around the affected teeth. Even though eating well, a cat that is sluggish or unhappy (none of the old purring and rubbing) could be suffering from a decayed tooth.

Beyond healthcare basics, other lifestyle changes can make for a more rewarding old age. Take time to draw out the older cat and enjoy each other more. When she was a kitten, your cat came to you to for play. Now you can initiate the play to keep your aging cat active and alert. Feather-whip toys and a little catnip make for fun at any age.

A daily brushing provides hands-on attention, keeps her coat shining and is a good chance to check for lumps, eye and ear problems, or other conditions that may need medical treatment. To maintain mental alertness, make special places where your cat can watch the outdoors or be drawn into the activities of your home. A window at her height is ideal. Some people even set up an aquarium for the cat to watch to relieve indoor boredom!

Make sure kitty’s old “high places” are still safely accessible by placing a chair or stepstool to break the climb-up and the jump-down. Commercially available pet stairs can give continued access to places made difficult by old joints and muscles. A soft and warm bed is a must for older animals. Cats especially enjoy their creature comforts. A sunny place on the couch or fluffy blanket or towel near a heating vent can become your pet’s favorite place.

Above all, show your cat that even if she’s slowing down, she is still special in your life. Little every-day things like an accessible shelf where she can watch dinner preparations or her own cat pillow in the room where the family spends the most time will encourage the older cat’s continuing involvement with her surroundings -- and give pleasure to both of you.

Anne Galer is a freelance writer and artist. She and Mimi, the older cat, split their time between Albuquerque, New Mexico and the Washington D.C. area.

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