Aging Cat

posted: 05/15/12
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The Aging Cat
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Wildcats rarely live longer than 10 years. Since their declining bodies and senses cannot cope with hunting and younger competitors, they succumb to malnutrition, disease or injury. In this regard, civilization has its benefits. Although domestic strays live out much the same story as their wild cousins and rarely live beyond a few years, well-cared-for indoor domestic cats can live well into their teens, even into their twenties.

A domestic cat is considered "senior" at about 7 or 8 years of age, when body tissues begin to lose their ability to regenerate, the effectiveness of the major body systems decreases and metabolism slows down. Even though the aging process is impossible to stop, it can be slowed by good nutrition, daily exercise and prompt attention to medical problems. Your cat will probably be anxious about his deteriorating abilities, especially because they were so sharp to begin with. If he was rambunctious, a decline in his agility is likely to cause stress. Most cats tend to slow down as they age, and engage in play less often and less energetically. But don't leave your cat to sit in some warm, cozy spot just because he is old. He needs moderate play and activity to keep his muscle tone, help prevent obesity and get his blood flowing. A stubborn reluctance to exercise may be due to stiff muscles or arthritic joints. If so, jumping and climbing may be out. Some creaky seniors find it impossible even to jump up to a favorite chair. Make sure that all your cat's amenities -- food dishes, litter box, favorite perch or bed -- are easily accessible to him.

Your cat may also have difficulty reaching his entire body for grooming, so brush him every day to remove loose hair. Hairballs can cause serious digestive problems in an older cat. This extra grooming provides you with a good opportunity to check for abnormal lumps, growths or lesions. Anything of this nature should be examined by your vet.

If he isn't using his scratching post as often as he used to, you'll need to trim his claws more frequently, too. And, don't forget to care for teeth and gums. Gently scrub his teeth a few times per week and have them cleaned by your vet as necessary. A cat with painful gums, usually the result of plaque buildup, will go off his food, especially dry food.

You know your senior is getting deaf when he appears inattentive or fails to respond to either his name or the usual sounds associated with feeding or playing. Have a vet check for infection or a tumor in the ear canal, but if the hearing loss is due to aging, there isn't much you can do except to keep him away from any dangers he can't hear, such as those he might encounter outdoors.

Signs of vision problems include pupils that don't respond to light, the inability to follow objects such as toys and bumping into things. Sudden blindness may be caused by a detached retina due to hypertension. Prompt treatment is essential and may return some vision. Even blind cats can manage well, as long as everything stays in its familiar place. The center of the eyes may seem to cloud slightly, owing to increased density in the lenses, or the irises may look "worn out," but these things may not significantly interfere with vision. A whitish, opaque clouding of the lens may indicate a cataract, which is often treated successfully by surgery.

A loss of the sense of smell interferes with perception of the world: A cat knows its people and places by their smells. This is another reason to keep an older cat indoors, or outside only on a harness and leash, even if it was a street-smart outdoor cat in its youth.

As your cat's senses of smell and taste dull, his regular fare may taste bland, and the cat who always wolfed down his food may become a finicky eater. Try warming the food to enhance its aroma, or flavor it with a small amount of a high-protein, strong-smelling food, such as cheese or cooked fish, as long as your cat has no medical problems such as kidney disease. Weight loss can signal a potentially serious problem. In older cats, diet, hairballs or disorders in other body systems often cause gastrointestinal dysfunction, such as vomiting, diarrhea, constipation or loss of appetite. Persistent weight loss, however, may be the sign of a serious problem. Weigh your cat regularly, keeping a record of the date and figure.

Another common problem for older cats is overfeeding. As your cat becomes physically less active, he still needs good nutrition, but requires fewer calories. Your best bet here is a food specially formulated for senior cats; if he has any health problems, he may need a specialized diet recommended by your vet. This isn't the time to spoil your cat with food: Obesity depresses the immune system and contributes to a number of serious disorders, including arthritis, diabetes and liver disease.

Often you and your vet may have to face the biggest decision of all: when to end your cat's life. This is a time to calmly and rationally consider quality of life. Discuss and examine all options with your vet. If there is no treatment for your cat's ills, no way to keep him comfortable and living is painful, then euthanasia is the humane choice. Keeping your cat alive and suffering because you cannot deal with his death isn't humane. When he can't enjoy even the most basic of life's pleasures, such as eating, ask yourself: Is it time?

Once you have made the decision, you may wish to spend a little bit of extra time with your cat to say goodbye. Try to stay calm before the euthanasia procedure so that your cat doesn't pick up your anxiety. Consider bringing a friend or relative with you for support. You may wish to remain in the room with your cat during the final moments, so that your comforting voice is the last thing he hears. Euthanasia is now performed most often by injection of an overdose of anesthetic: He will fall unconscious within seconds, and die, very peacefully, within a minute. Although euthanasia is a quick and painless death for your cat, it can be a heartbreaking experience for you and your family. Grief over the loss of any loved one is legitimate and can be profound. Give yourself time to mourn, and do what you feel is appropriate. Some people choose to hold a memorial service or funeral at a pet cemetery. Others make a charitable donation in their pet's name or keep the ashes on the mantle. Try not to dwell on your loss or your cat's absence, but celebrate the good life he had and the pleasure that you derived from him.

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