Keeping your Senior Cat healthy is best accomplished with a combination of strategies: first, to prevent disease, and second, for early disease detection and intervention, when we have our best chance of successful treatment.
Who Is Considered A “Senior Cat?”
“Senior Cats” in the feline world are defined as seven and older. This is based on the statistical probability of a variety of disease states occurring based on the age of the cat. These disease states, including things like kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, and inflammatory bowel disease, to name a few, are not caused by age, but are statistically more likely to occur as your cat ages.
Starting at age 7, the incidence of such disorders in the cat begins to rise sharply. It becomes more important at that time to institute measures to prevent disease, such as carnivore-appropriate nutrition, and to facilitate early detection of developing disease states before they become symptomatic, which is our most effective time to intervene.
All feline health, regardless of age, rests first and foremost on species-appropriate nutrition
Senior Cat Nutrition – Carnivore-Appropriate
All feline health, regardless of age, rests first and foremost on species-appropriate nutrition: in the case of the cat, on a diet that resembles, as closely as possible, the prey they are evolved to eat. So, senior cat nutrition is no different than when the cat is younger.
INGREDIENTS: When creating a prey-mimicking diet, ingredients are crucial. A prey-mimicking diet is composed of what IS in prey and leaves out what is NOT in prey. This translates to a great deal of animal-sourced protein, organ meats, blood elements, bone (calcium and phosphorus), and more; but very little fat and virtually no carbohydrates, either simple or complex. What is not in prey, such as grains, starches, fruits, and vegetables, should not be a feline diet.
Can cats survive on a diet that includes these ingredients? Certainly, they can, as a result of a GI microbiome adaptive mechanism for times of prey scarcity. During such times, gut bacteria that help cats digest plants proliferate, which staves off starvation until prey reappear. The price paid for this, however, is that those bacteria secrete substances that irritate the gut walls. If temporary, this situation is life-saving and the irritation fades away after prey reappears and the GI microbiome shifts back to the normal protein-digesting bacteria. If, however, cats are fed diets containing vegetation on a regular basis, their gut biome remains deranged, and their gut walls are subjected to irritating chemicals at every meal. The result is likely the epidemic of inflammatory bowel disease and GI cancer we see in so many domestic cats and virtually no feral cats. So yes, cats can survive on these diets, but they do NOT thrive. A prey-mimicking diet is the single best tool you have to keep your Senior Cat healthy.
Mimicking a prey diet involves more than just ingredients. Fluid content and feeding pattern are also very important.
FLUIDS: Domestic cats evolved in the desert where there is often no access to water. They naturally get all the fluid they need from the body fluids of their prey. A prey-mimicking diet cannot, therefore, be dry; it must contain enough fluid for a healthy cat to go a day without access to water. Many Senior Cats, however, have disorders that cause them to lose fluids faster than they should, so plenty of fresh water should always be available even when feeding a perfect diet.
FEEDING PATTERN: Likewise, “free-feeding” is not natural to the cat. Small felines in nature eat multiple small, discrete meals throughout the day; they hunt, they eat, and they don’t eat again until the next successful hunt. As a result, their digestive systems function most naturally when their meal pattern mimics that of the feral cat most closely. 2-3 small meals a day is an excellent pattern for most cats.
Routine Immunity And Infectious Disease Risk Evaluations
Of course, no kitty, regardless of age, should go without regular evaluation of infectious disease exposure risks and immunity needs.
VACCINATION IS NOT BENIGN. The risks of vaccinating should always be balanced against infectious disease exposure risks, and decisions made accordingly. This is especially true in the Senior Cat. Vaccinating an unwell cat has the potential to make a current disease process worse. For this reason, many Senior Cats with chronic disease states may be better off without vaccination, especially if exposure risks can be mitigated in other ways, such as confinement indoors or in enclosed outdoor spaces.
VACCINES ARE NOT 100% PROTECTIVE. Vaccination decisions should always be made with an awareness of the efficacy of the vaccine being considered. Rabies vaccines are very nearly 100% effective (no vaccine is 100%), but Feline Leukemia vaccines are nowhere near that effective. The benefit of vaccinating should be weighed against the risks for each vaccine being considered.
RABIES EXEMPTION CERTIFICATES are legal in Colorado, allowing us to exempt a cat from the legal requirement to vaccinate if a medical contraindication exists. By law, these exemptions are good for only a year at a time, and must be renewed annually, which by law requires that an examination is done – which hopefully is happening anyway! Rabies Exemption Certificates can be a real blessing for the Senior Cat with a chronic disease of any sort.
Consequently, many cats who appear “fine” to their parents are not, in fact, fine at all
Early Disease Detection and Intervention
Regular Feline-Specific Veterinary Evaluations For Your Senior Cat
(history, exam, blood pressure, and lab screening)
WHY? CATS HIDE EVERYTHING! Because felines evolved as both predator and small prey, they obey the law of all small prey: never, ever show that you are sick because doing so puts a target on your back. Consequently, many cats who appear “fine” to their parents are not, in fact, fine at all. Once a cat is clearly and obviously ill, the chance to successfully intervene is probably long past. Our best shot at early disease detection and prevention in cats is through regular veterinary evaluations. These regular evaluations are most effective when they include detailed questioning, a full examination, blood pressure measurements for cats 7 years and older, and laboratory screening of cell counts and major organ functions.
REGULAR LABORATORY SCREENING AND FELINE VETERINARIAN ANALYSIS OF THE VALUES is exceptionally important. Such tests, when interpreted by a feline-specific veterinarian, often point to problems not detectable in any other way. Interpreted lab screening can detect problems early, allowing for a better outcome for the cat. Sequential lab screening and analysis can demonstrate trends over time, which is greatly more valuable than any one single lab screening. Early detection of many Senior Cat disorders is frequently made from lab test trends in which all the values are within normal reference lab limits, and would, therefore, set off no alarms without the ability to compare to previous test results.
BLOOD PRESSURE SCREENING is also very important for Senior Cats. A common problem in older cats, high blood pressure, as in humans, is almost always completely without symptoms – which is why it’s called “The Silent Killer.” High blood pressure can occur as an independent problem, or as a result of several other common Senior Cat disorders, including kidney disease, thyroid problems, and heart disorders. Regardless of the cause, high blood pressure exerts very damaging effects on multiple organ systems, accelerating aging and predisposing kitties who have it to heart attacks, sudden blindness, cognitive decline, and much more. High blood pressure is easy and inexpensive to treat, and not doing so often leads to preventable and often tragic illness or death. At Uniquely Cats, all Senior Cats are evaluated for high blood pressure.
WHAT IS “REGULAR?” For the Senior Cat, “regular” evaluation translates optimally to every 6 months for most cats, and more frequently for cats with established and problematic disease states such as advancing chronic kidney disease, diabetes, and the like. In the world of the Senior Cat, 6 months translates to about 4 people years, which is a long time to go without a checkup. A lot can happen in that time!
Quantitative Home Monitoring
Of all the tools we have for early disease detection in the cat, perhaps the most effective is home monitoring and especially Quantitative Home Monitoring. This technique involves measuring and logging specific data points and behaviors over time. Trending of these indices can alert the kitty parent of impending problems at a very early stage, where casual observation nearly always fails. Spreadsheets are your friend here – keep records with dates and numerical scales that can be turned into graphs; you’ll be surprised at what this can reveal!
WEIGHT: Perhaps the single most important aspect to measure is weight. Weight gains and losses tend to be imperceptible when viewed one day at a time, leaving kitty parents often unaware of weight trends that may be crucial to identifying a health problem. I recommend purchasing a baby scale (available on Amazon in the $35 – $65 range) and weighing your Senior Cat weekly. Keep a spreadsheet log. If weight is trending up or down over time, notify your vet. Bring your log with you to vet visits, or email your spreadsheet as needed.
APPETITE: Appetite is not quantitative but can be made effectively so by rating on a scale (say, 1-7, with 4 being normal) and noting that in your spreadsheet. How often you need to do this depends on your cat’s health. A normal 7-year-old cat might merit a notation weekly or even monthly. An 18-year-old cat with multiple disorders might merit a notation daily.
WATER INTAKE: Recall that a normal cat, fed a canned or raw diet, will drink little or no water. Many common Senior Cat disorders, however, have increased water intake as a symptom. If your kitty is slurping down a half a cup a day and was not doing that last month, it’s time to see your feline-specific vet. You can quantitate water intake by actually measuring it, or by using a scale such as with appetite. Measurement is more laborious but can be extremely helpful in the medical management of significantly ill kitties.
URINATION VOLUME AND FREQUENCY: This can be difficult to quantitate, especially in a multiple-cat household. Volume can be quantitated by clump size or an eyeball estimate scale rating. Any measurement is better than none. In situations where these observations are critical, it may be advisable to confine an individual cat for short times, periodically (say, in a bathroom, with a litterbox), and derive measurements from what occurs during those times. Urine volume usually correlates with water intake; if it does not, this should raise an eyebrow and signal you to observe more closely.
ACTIVITY LEVEL: Like appetite, activity level can be effectively quantitated by a scale rating logged over time. It’s important to be aware that activity INCREASES are as much of a concern in Senior Cats as decreases are; increased activity is a common sign of hyperthyroidism in the Senior Cat, which is often misinterpreted as a sign of excellent health.
MOBILITY: Arthritis is the great undiagnosed epidemic of the Senior Cat. While not fatal, it can and often does have a major negative effect on the quality of life. It’s easy to treat, but often nearly impossible for kitty parents to appreciate. Subtle signs such as hesitating before jumping up, or “crawling” down a vertical surface before jumping down, can mean serious arthritic discomfort is already present. Rating on a scale over time can help kitty parents recognize trends and get help early.
Home Monitoring Of Other Factors
While not easily subject to quantitative measurements, several other factors deserve individual consideration. It may benefit your kitty for you to monitor stool character (dry, hard, moist, loose, liquid, bloody, mucousy, etc.); behavioral changes (neediness, hiding, sleeping in unaccustomed places, etc.), breath smell, evidence of pain when touched, and more. Often the thing that needs watching depends on your individual cat.