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Caring for Senior and Geriatric Cats

Litter Box Adjustments

When it comes to the litter box set-up for an older cat, make it very convenient by increasing the number of boxes and locate them throughout the house so he never has too far to travel when nature calls. If he has arthritis or difficulty getting in a regular box, use a low-sided one. If you’re worried about litter scatter, get a high-sided, plastic storage container and cut a low entrance on one end.  If your cat’s aim is no longer accurate when in the box, place absorbent pads under and around to catch spills.

As mentioned above, nightlights near litter boxes may help older cats. Some of my clients have even installed rope lighting along the wall to help guide their cats to the box.

Help Your Older Cat With Grooming

Older cats may not groom themselves as efficiently as they used to. Take time to brush your cat on a regular basis. This is also an excellent opportunity to do a physical once-over to check for any lumps or bumps that weren’t there before. Keep in mind older cats who have lost weight and muscle tone will be more sensitive to touch so use a softer brush and go easy around bony areas. Keep nails trimmed. Brush your cat’s teeth on a regular basis and use that time to watch for signs of periodontal disease or loose teeth. If you notice a red line on the gums, almost as if someone had taken a red marker to the edge of gums, contact your veterinarian to schedule an appointment because that’s the start of dental disease.

Food and Water for Your Senior or Geriatric Cat

Your cat’s food and water intake may change. Consult your veterinarian. If keeping weight on your cat is an issue, your veterinarian can advise you on whether to add any flavor enhancing products. Some older cats eat better when the food is warmed slightly because that brings out the aroma. If your older cat is overweight, your veterinarian will advise you on a safe weight loss program. The extra weight on an elderly cat is extra hard on joints but you don’t want to restrict his calories too much because it can cause serious liver complications. Always follow your veterinarian’s specific instructions on how much and how often to feed.

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Staying Active

Exercise is an important part of a cat’s life at any age. Even if your elderly cat is not so mobile, you can still engage him in low-intensity play sessions. Any activity that causes him to have a little spark about life is beneficial – even if he can no longer do those gravity-defying back-flips from his youth.

Scratching Behavior

Your cat may have used a scratching post faithfully in his younger days but perhaps he has lost interest in it now. Help him out by keeping his nails trimmed. You can also add a horizontal scratch pad because he may no longer be able to reach up to scratch vertically.

The Safer Indoor Life for the Older Cat

If your cat is an indoor-outdoor cat, he should now be kept indoors exclusively. With declining senses and limited ability to escape, he’s at greater risk of becoming injured. His immune system is also not as strong so he’s more vulnerable to disease. And with an older cat, the last thing he needs is to be infested with internal or external parasites. Additionally, if you even suspect that he’s experiencing some cognitive issues, being outdoors may increase his disorientation problems.

black cat with sheltie

Photo: Pam Johnson-Bennett

Monitor Your Cat

Routinely check your cat’s back area in case he needs help cleaning there. Elderly cats may groom less or might dribble urine in their sleep which can cause urine scalds. Longhaired cats may have feces stuck to their fur and will need help getting that removed. If your cat has started urinating in his sleep or on his bedding, cover the bedding with absorbent pads.

Reduce Stress

Changes in your cat’s cognitive or physical ability can result in a change in the relationships he may have with other companion pets in the home. Be observant of any change so you can be sure to create a safe environment for the cat with limited ability to escape or defend himself. Make sure your older cat has safe retreats and hiding places where he isn’t pursued by housemate cats, dogs or children.

If you travel and have always boarded your cat at a kennel, consider having a pet sitter stay at the house so your cat can remain in his comfortable familiar environment. At this point in his life, this option may greatly reduce his stress level.

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Pay special attention to how upheaval  in the home may affect your senior or geriatric cat. House renovation, moving, the addition of new people or animals to the home, and so on, are all stress triggers. While some things are obviously unavoidable such as the addition of new family members or a necessary move, there are other situations, such as adding a new puppy or kitten, that should seriously be reconsidered. Many people think that adding a lively young kitten or puppy will add spark to an old cat’s daily life when in reality, what it adds is tremendous stress.

If a stressful change is necessary, ease your cat through the process as best as possible and watch him closely for signs that he’s not handling it well. Keep in mind that stress triggers your cat was able to handle in his youth may be more difficult for him now.

gray dsh closeup

Photo: Pam Johnson-Bennett

Be Patient with Your Older Cat

Most of all, be patient and understanding of missed litter box attempts, food spilled on the floor, a miscalculation while climbing that causes a picture on the table to get knocked over, or the increased desire to be close to you. These golden years can be absolutely precious and a time of tender closeness between the cat and his human family. You may find that the cat, who in his youth, was reluctant to be in your lap now seeks out your affection. Make the most of these years!

Need More Information?

For more information on cat behavior and training, refer to the best-selling books by Pam Johnson-Bennett. This article is not intended to be a replacement for your cat’s own veterinary care and is not intended to diagnose.

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If you have a question about your cat’s behavior, you can find information in the articles on our website as well as in Pam’s books. If you have a question regarding your cat’s health, please contact your veterinarian. This article is not intended as a replacement for your cat’s veterinary care.

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