As cats age into senior and geriatric ages, there are important considerations that can dramatically improve their quality of life.
As the domestic cat grows in popularity as a pet, caregivers get better at providing everything your cat needs to stay healthy. Cats may live longer as a result, but do they lead better lives? We need to focus more than ever on the wellbeing of the aging cat population.
What is a senior cat? When are they considered geriatric? The AAFP Senior Care Guidelines 2021 Task Force has updated the age categories to be patient-dependent (Table 1) .1 The senior and geriatric years are a special time for caregivers and their cats. The veterinary team has a direct role to play in providing support and guidance. Our aging cat patients should visit us at least every 6 months, sometimes 4 depending on their health. With more visits, we can diagnose diseases earlier, treat diseases more successfully, and improve patient stability and quality of life.
Each visit should include an assessment of the patient’s medical history, including changes in behavior. Any suspicion or confirmation of pain requires the use of analgesics before continuing the visit. A thorough physical exam and a minimal database are integral parts of the visit, including blood pressure, clinical chemistry, total T4, CBC, and urinalysis. Body weight, body condition score and muscle condition score can be assessed at each visit. Noteworthy are negative trends in these parameters, which often precede the onset of a manifest disease.
Equally important are the conversations we have with the caregiver and how we lead them through the cat’s golden years. Our detailed medical history can be improved by providing caregivers with validated questionnaires on mobility and quality of life. With each passing visit, trends identified enable us to guide the caregiver. Housing and access for the aging cat within the home are critical to improving the quality of life. The instructions are ideally based on the 5 pillars of a healthy cat environment (Table 2), adapted to the declining senses of the aging cat, limited mobility and specific health conditions
For example, an older cat with arthritis is likely to need more access to resources such as food, water, and litter boxes. More of each resource, further distributed throughout the house, is ideal. The resources should also be in an easier-to-use or patient-preferred version. Litter boxes should either be low-walled or, if high-walled, translucent with an easily accessible door (Figure 1). Flat plates and wide bowls may be preferred by seniors over traditional food and water bowls (Figures 2 and 3).
Figure 1. A homemade, tall, clear, litter box has a low entry point for aging cats with mobility issues.
Figure 2. Aging cats may prefer low-walled or shallow food and water containers over traditional cat bowls.
Figure 3. An example of a shallow food jar that is easy to access for aging cats.
Regular reassessment of quality of life factors can be helpful in helping the client with relief and decision making at the end of life. There are many quality of life scales available for caregivers including the HHHHHMM scale and the Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice & In-Home Euthanasia scale. It is helpful if we can name 1 or 2 contact persons for the caregiver with whom they can build a trusting relationship over the years. Providing our guidance and a listening ear to caregivers requires additional time and effort, but is valuable to the family. When they remember their pet, they will also remember the support, time and effort we went into to support them on their journey – a memory that is worth gold.
- Ray M, Carney HC, Boynton B, Quimby J, Robertson S, Denis KS et al. 2021 AAFP guidelines for the care of cats for the elderly. J Feline Med Surg. 2021; 23 (7): 613-38.