By Dr. Becker
If your cat is 10 years or older, he's considered a senior. You may find that surprising, since kitties tend to age gracefully and remain frisky and playful well into adulthood.
Fortunately, lots of cats today live into their late teens or early 20s, so with excellent care, an otherwise healthy kitty of 10 can live another six to 12 years. The goal is to keep your cat happy and healthy throughout her golden years despite the inevitable changes her body will undergo.
5 Health Problems Common in Older Cats
Studies show that most cats (up to 90 percent) who are 12 years and older have some degree of arthritis, which is a condition characterized by the progressive, long-term and permanent deterioration of cartilage around the joints. It occurs most often in the elbow and hip joints.
Keeping kitty at a lean, healthy weight is crucial in preventing or alleviating arthritis symptoms. An overweight cat with arthritis can have noticeable improvement in her symptoms after losing just a small amount of body weight.
Cats also need to move their bodies more, not less, as they age. Although the intensity, duration and type of exercise will change, daily activity is still crucial to prevent profound musculoskeletal weakness with age.
Muscles maintain your pet's frame, so preserving muscle tone will also slow the amount of joint laxity (which causes arthritis) as well.
Other crucial factors in maintaining the health of an arthritic cat include feeding a balanced, species-appropriate diet, and avoiding unnecessary re-vaccinations (titer instead).
There are many wonderful natural treatments and remedies for arthritis that can reduce or eliminate the need for painkillers, many of which are highly toxic to cats. Some of the therapies I've used successfully with arthritic cat patients include:
✓ A high-quality omega-3 supplement (krill oil)
✓ Chiropractic care
✓ Supergreen foods (spirulina, astaxanthin)
✓ Natural anti-inflammatory formulas (herbs, proteolytic enzymes, nutraceuticals or traditional Chinese medicine [TCM] formulas)
✓ Glucosamine sulfate, MSM or eggshell membrane
✓ EFAC complex
✓ Homeopathic remedies (Rhus tox, Arnica and others depending on symptoms) and flower essences
✓ Laser therapy and the Assisi loop
2. Dental Disease
Most cats have some form of periodontal (gum) disease by the age of 2, primarily because they don't receive regular home and/or professional dental care, and they don't show signs of discomfort or pain until the disease is pronounced.
Infections in your kitty's mouth and gums can create other problems including tooth root abscesses, jaw fractures, nasal infection, eye loss and oral cancer.
There are also a number of other painful conditions of the mouth including cavities, broken teeth, orthodontic disease and tooth resorption, an extremely painful condition in which the kitty's immune system attacks its own teeth.
Unfortunately, the risk of painful mouth conditions — in particular, gum disease, tooth resorption and oral cancer — is dramatically increased for older pets. This means that for your senior or geriatric kitty, proper dental care is extra important.
Daily homecare and professional cleanings as required by your veterinarian are the best way to keep your cat's mouth healthy and disease-free. They are also important for pets with chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and kidney failure.
Plaque forms on your cat's teeth within 24 hours, which is why daily brushing is highly recommended. For help getting started brushing your cat's teeth, view my instructional video.
It's also important to feed a balanced, species-appropriate, raw or lightly cooked diet. Raw meat, in particular, acts as a kind of natural toothbrush. This is especially important for kitties, since they don't enjoy chew bones like their canine counterparts do.
Perform routine mouth inspections at home, and arrange for regular oral exams performed by your veterinarian, who can alert you to any existing or potential problems in kitty's mouth, and recommend professional cleanings if necessary.
3. Hearing Loss
If you're suspicious your cat isn't hearing as well as he used to, monitor his behavior.
Signs of diminished hearing can include sleeping more soundly than usual or seeming to ignore noises that used to bring him running, like the squeak of a favorite toy or the whir of an electric can opener.
I also recommend making an appointment with your veterinarian to rule out medical problems that could interfere with hearing. And since your kitty may lose some or all of his hearing as he ages, it's important to have a few tricks up your sleeve to help him make adjustments along the way.
- Use hand signals and eye contact to help communicate with your hard-of-hearing cat.
- Approach your sleeping kitty or a kitty that isn't facing you with caution. Make your presence known to reduce the chance of frightening her. Cats tend to startle easily, so if your new way of communicating with your hard-of-hearing cat is to alert her by gently blowing on her or with a touch, be gentle and soft in your approach.
- Consider putting a small bell on your cat's collar so even if she doesn't hear you calling or approaching, you can hear her or locate her easily.
- Cats with hearing loss should never be outdoors unsupervised. If your kitty is accustomed to wandering the neighborhood (which I don't recommend), it's time to confine her to a secure enclosed area on a patio or porch.
4. Vision Loss
The most common cause for loss of eyesight in elderly pets is cataracts. If the appearance of kitty's eyes seems to be changing, for example, if they've developed a bluish-grey tint, it's time for a visit to your vet or a veterinary ophthalmologist. Sometimes a change in the appearance of the eyes doesn't mean your cat's vision is becoming impaired, like in the case of another common eye condition of older pets called nuclear sclerosis.
If your vet determines your cat is indeed losing eyesight and there's nothing you can or want to do to try to improve the situation medically, don't be discouraged. Most pets who experience gradual loss of vision adapt so well using their other senses many pet parents are shocked to learn their older cat is technically blind.
Leave a radio, television or other background noise on when your cat will be home alone. This will give her a reference point, and should also help muffle noises that may startle her.
Avoid moving furniture around, keep household walkways clear and minimize clutter. The easier it is for kitty to navigate through the house, the less likely she will be to become disoriented or injure herself. Cover up slippery surfaces to keep her confidence up on slick surfaces.
Use natural scents like aromatherapy products (I use this flower essence product from Jackson Galaxy) to mark special spots in the house, for example the water dish. Don't move your pet's feeding station around, and don't move the litterbox from place to place. A familiar environment and daily routine are especially important to elderly pets with diminished faculties.
5. Cognitive Decline
Cognitive dysfunction presents as a mental problem, but the root cause is actually physical and the result of age-related changes within the brain. Cats' brains undergo oxidative damage, neuronal loss, atrophy and the development of beta-amyloid plaques. These ß-amyloid plaques are also seen in human Alzheimer's sufferers.
Some features of cognitive function do decrease with age, but cognitive dysfunction of the type seen in Alzheimer's disease is not normal. There are many conditions older animals acquire that can mimic the symptoms of cognitive decline, so it's important to rule out all non brain-related physical reasons for a change in behavior.
For example, a small seizure can cause a kitty to stand still and stare. If your cat seems detached, he could be in pain. Inappropriate elimination can be due to kidney disease. Nighttime yowling and restlessness can be due to hyperthyroidism. These disorders and many others can result in a change in behavior unrelated to cognitive decline.
That's why it's so important to rule out all possible alternative reasons, especially in aging pets. It's also important to review any medications your cat is taking. Older animals metabolize drugs differently than younger pets. Recommendations for helping your cat maintain good mental function for as long as possible, and delay the onset and progression of cognitive decline include:
• Feed a balanced, antioxidant rich species-appropriate diet that includes omega-3 essential fats, such as krill oil, which are critical for cognitive health.
• Keep your kitty's body and mind active with regular exercise appropriate for his age and physical condition, and mental stimulation (puzzles and treat-release toys can be beneficial). Think of creative ways to enrich your cat's environment.
• Provide your kitty with a SAMe (S-adenosylmethionine) supplement as a safe and effective way to stall or improve mental decline. Consult your holistic veterinarian for the right dose size. Periodic detoxification with the herbs milk thistle and dandelion can also be very beneficial.
• Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) can improve brain energy metabolism and decrease the amyloid protein buildup that results in brain lesions in older cats. Coconut oil is a rich source of MCTs. I recommend 1/4 teaspoon for every 10 pounds of body weight twice daily for basic MCT support for cats that are willing to eat it.
• Other supplements that can inhibit age-related cognitive deficits are antioxidants, including resveratrol (Japanese knotweed), which protects against free radical damage and beta-amyloid deposits, N-acetyl cysteine (NAC), vitamins E, C and B complex, ginkgo biloba, phosphatidylserine and apoaequorin. Consult a holistic veterinarian for dosing guidance.
The above recommendations will be only marginally effective for a cat in the advanced stages of cognitive decline, which is why it's important to diagnose and begin treating the problem as early as possible. Cognitive dysfunction is a progressive disease that can't be cured, but early diagnosis and intervention can slow mental decline and offer your aging kitty good quality of life.