Phoebe leaps up after the cat-fishing toy.
She pirouettes, a fluffy gray ballerina, and keeps up her spirited attack long after the younger cats have gotten bored and begun moseying over to their food bowls.
Phoebe turned 12 in February. A former stray, she shows no signs of slowing down.
Let’s put it this way: If cats had their version of the Silver Sneakers Fitness program for seniors, she’d be there front and center.
She is not going gentle into that good night — or any other one, thank you very much.
In truth, 12 isn’t really old, but it does mean that your cat is turning the corner, so to speak.
This is not something to panic over. I’ve known many senior cats who have lived into their late teens and one who didn’t head over the Rainbow Bridge until she was 24.
But it’s a good idea to look ahead and figure out what adjustments you can make to help your older cat enjoy life as the years tick by.
A New Landscape
When I was growing up in the 1960s, few cats seemed to make it to their teens.
Of course, the majority of them lived outdoors and didn’t receive the veterinary care that their modern-day counterparts do.
So we’re looking at an entirely new landscape — one that challenges our assumptions about what older cats need and don’t need.
Check Your Senior Cat’s Claws
Many cats become more sedentary as they reach those double digits, meaning you need to do a claw check more often.
Since Lily and Iris aren’t moving around as much, their claws tend to get really long. The dewclaw can grow into the paw pad.
So, keep the claws trimmed, but be careful doing so — they also thicken with age, so cutting them can be tricky.
Keep Your Senior Cat’s Mind Stimulated
Your cat may not be into working out, but that doesn’t mean they have to be couch potatoes.
Just “modify the technique you use … so your cat can still enjoy being the mighty hunter,” says animal behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett in her book Starting From Scratch.1
“Toy movements may need to be slower and the play sessions shorter,” she says. “Set up solo activity toys and puzzle feeders to keep her mind engaged. It’s more important now than ever.”
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Keep Your Senior Cat’s Routine Predictable
Routine, which is always a big thing with cats, becomes even more important.
“Older cats cherish predictable days more than younger cats do,” the Cornell Feline Health Center says.
Feline Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome
Sadly, like dogs, older cats can also get cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS), or dementia.
Johnson-Bennett explains that it’s like Alzheimer’s disease and is “more serious than the normal brain deterioration that comes with age.”
Signs and Symptoms
Cats “may begin to show signs consistent with cognitive dysfunction at approximately 10 to 11 years of age,” according to Clinician’s Brief.2 One study determined that half of cats older than 15 showed signs of possible CDS.3,4
The symptoms of feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome include:
- Vocalization, especially at night
- Abnormal wandering at night
- Going outside the litter box
Helping an Older Cat With Dementia
Over the years, I’ve fostered a couple of older cats who have exhibited some of these signs of CDS:
- I used to find Sparkie, 11, sitting in the hallway, meowing at nothing.
- Boris, who was a good 7 years older, would suddenly get agitated and start crying whenever he wandered too far in the house. He’d stare at me without recognition when I picked him up.
I learned to keep Boris on the 2nd floor, closing him in my son’s old bedroom at night to keep him from becoming too frightened and confused.
That’s just one way of dealing with CDS. Another is to do what you would for a cat who is blind or has cataracts: Don’t move the furniture around.
In fact, don’t make any changes if you can possibly help it. Changes are as overwhelming for an older cat with dementia as they are for a person with it.
Johnson-Bennett also recommends providing mental stimulation through “interactive play sessions” to help your cat exercise their memory. Once again, you’ll have to go at a slower pace than you would with a younger or more alert cat.
Finally, Clinician’s Brief suggests a great tip to help your cat keep a normal sleep cycle: “Opening the blinds or windows can help keep patients awake during the day.”
Watch this woman help her older cat keep clean:
How to Help Your Older Cat Enjoy Life
Older cats “need frequent demonstrations of love,” writes Anitra Frazier in her book It’s a Cat’s Life.4
She says many of these cats “withdraw into themselves; they don’t overtly call for attention as they once did. So it’s up to the kindly owner to be sensitive to this subtle change and make the overture himself.”
Derv, my red tabby, is 10 now. He has always been a keep-to-himself kind of character.
But lately, he has started coming upstairs at night, craving companionship. So I sit on the stairs with him and hold him when he wants me to. For whatever reason, he now wants more hands-on reassurance than he did as a younger cat.
That’s one thing you can do to make your older cat feel loved and happy. But there are score of kindnesses you can also do to help your older cat enjoy life:
- Help with their grooming. Older cats often find keeping up appearances difficult. Be gentle, though. As Frazier points out, their skin “is extremely delicate and lacks almost all of its youthful elasticity. Combing and brushing must be done with a lighter and slower hand.”
- Don’t scold your cat for litter-box misses. Instead, put extra litter boxes out. Remove the tops from hooded litter boxes — they’re difficult for an elderly cat with arthritis to get in and out of.
- Have at least one set of pet steps on hand. I’ve seen what a difference they make for my 15-year-old Scrabble. And while you’re at it, also get a heated cat bed or, if you’re worried about safety issues, some thermal pads. They reflect the cat’s body heat.
The landscape may have changed over the years for you and your senior cat, but that doesn’t make it a bad place.
Remember, not all cats get the privilege of growing old. So celebrate your old friend and learn to navigate the territory.
- Johnson-Bennett, Pam, CABC. Starting From Scratch: How to Correct Behavior Problems in Your Adult Cat. Penguin Books. 2007.
- Gruen, Margaret E., DVM, MVPH, DACVB. “How to Treat Cognitive Dysfunction.” Clinician’s Brief. Dec. 2013. https://www.cliniciansbrief.com/article/how-treat-cognitive-dysfunction.
- Head, Elizabeth, PhD, et al. “Beta-Amyloid Deposition and Tau Phosphorylation in Clinically Characterized Aged Cats. Neurobiology of Aging 26, no. 5 (May 2005): 749–763. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15708450/.
- Studzinski, Christa, PhD, et al. “Visuospatial Function in the Beagle Dog: An Early Marker of Cognitive Decline in a Model of Human Aging and Dementia.” Neurobiology of Learning and Memory 86, no. 2 (September 2006): 197–204. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16616528/.
- Frazier, Anitra. “It’s a Cat’s Life.” Berkley. 1990.