Just like people, cats are living longer these days due to advances in nutrition, preventive care, and medical and surgical treatments. This means that our cats get to enjoy longer lives and we get to enjoy their company for longer, but it also means that we should pay attention to making sure they possess the best quality of life possible as they go through their senior years.
There is no direct correlation between "human years" and "animal years," so experts on pet aging have recommended that we consider the maximum expected life span for a particular species or breed, and then consider any animal that has reached 75% of that maximum a senior. If we think about 100 years as the maximum age that all but the most exceptional humans can attain, then we could choose 20 years as a similar benchmark for cats. Ninety years for people and eighteen years for cats is probably a more realistic benchmark for most, though, so cats over about thirteen years can be considered seniors.
We generally think of cats between eight and twelve as middle-aged, and this is when we start to watch them more carefully for diseases involving the kidneys and thyroid glands, as well as checking them for cancer. One of the most important things you can do for your cat is bring them in for their wellness checkups annually when they are younger, and every six months once they reach senior territory. Your veterinarian will check them for unexpected weight loss or gain, palpate the thyroid glands and abdominal organs for enlargement or masses, and make sure the heart and lungs sound healthy. He or she may also recommend screening blood and urine tests, especially if your cat has lost weight and isn't on a diet.
Dental disease is also more common as cats get older and it can severely impede your cat's ability to enjoy his golden years. Oral pain and infection can lead to a decreased appetite, chronic discomfort, and even serious consequences such as a bacterial infection spreading to the heart valves, liver, or kidneys. Cats are very stoic about oral pain and won't necessarily show symptoms until it becomes severe, but even before then it can cause serious pain or pose a danger to their overall health. Your veterinarian should check your cat's teeth and oral cavity for dental tartar, gingivitis or periodontal infection, and oral cancer at every visit. If your cat develops bad breath, drooling, or seems to "chatter" his teeth while eating, bring him in immediately for a checkup.
Another affliction that is common to older cats and people alike is degenerative joint disease, or arthritis. Once again, cats are very stoic about pain and try not to show obvious limping until discomfort is severe, but this disease can greatly impair the quality of life for an older cat. Many cat owners write off early signs of arthritis as the cat "slowing down" as he gets older, but decreased activity level, play, and jumping ability may be due to joint pain rather than aging or laziness. Ask your veterinarian to check your senior cat's joints for swelling and crepitus (creaking or crunching noises when the joints are flexed). Muscle atrophy in a region of the body can also be caused by decreased range of motion in affected joints. Your veterinarian may recommend an x-ray to check for new bone growth around certain joints or decreased joint space, which can point to a loss of the cartilage and fluid that cushions each joint. Although nothing can make arthritis go away, your veterinarian can discuss treatments to help minimize the pain, such as weight loss for heavier cats, oral and injectable joint supplements, pain medication, and physical therapy. You may also want to consider re-arranging furniture to provide ways for your cat to step on and off his favorite perches, rather than having to jump.
For cats who still enjoy their time outdoors, including colonies of feral cats who prefer to stay outside of human dwellings all the time, increasing age can lead to some considerations during extremes of weather. In the winter, it's extra-important to make sure senior cats don't stay outside or without shelter from the cold and wind for too long. In the summer, senior cats may get overheated more easily and require more shelter from the sun. Older cats are more susceptible to dehydration in both scenarios, so plenty of clean, fresh, and non-frozen (in winter) water is a must. Also, older cats may have a decreased ability to fight off infections and parasites, so keeping up with fecal testing for internal parasites is important, as is flea and tick prevention.
Just like human seniors, older cats require a little extra consideration and care to make sure their golden years are enjoyable. With proper precautions, many cats are enjoying life to twenty and beyond!
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