How to Help Your Older Cat Enjoy the Twilight Years

As they get older, your senior feline friend may need your assistance in matters of grooming, moving around and even cuddling.

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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 cats who’ve lived into their late teens and one who didn’t head over the Rainbow Bridge till she was 24. But it’s a good idea to look ahead and figure out what sort of adjustments you can make for your feline friend as they get older.

A New Landscape

When I was growing up in the 1960s, very few cats seemed to make it to their teens. Of course, the majority of them lived outdoors and didn’t receive the kind of veterinary care their modern-day counterparts do.

So we’re looking at an entirely new landscape — one that challenges our assumptions about what older cats do and don’t need.

Many felines 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 dew claw can grow into the paw pad. Keep them trimmed, but be very careful doing so; the claws also thicken with age, so cutting them can be tricky.

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Your cat may not be into working out, but that doesn’t mean they have to be couch potatoes. Just “[m]odify the technique you use … so your cat can still enjoy being the mighty hunter,” observes animal behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett in her book Starting From Scratch. “Toy movements may need to be slower and the play sessions shorter. … Set up solo activity toys and puzzle feeders to keep her mind engaged. It’s more important now than ever.”

Routine, which is always a big thing with felines, becomes even more important. “[O]lder cats cherish predictable days more than younger cats do,” the Cornell Feline Health Center says.

The Dimming of the Light

Sadly, cats get their own version of dementia, also known as feline cognitive disorder (FCD). It is, Johnson-Bennett explains, like Alzheimer’s disease and “more serious than the normal brain deterioration that comes with age.” The symptoms include “[e]xcessive vocalization (especially at night),” anxiety, disorientation and changes in behavior.

Over the years, I’ve fostered a couple of older cats who have exhibited some of these signs. I used to find Sparkie, 11, sitting in the hallway, meowing at nothing. Boris, who was a good 7 years older, would suddenly get very agitated and start crying whenever he wandered too far in the house; he’d stare at me without recognition when I picked him up. So I kept him on the 2nd floor, closing him in my son’s old bedroom at night to keep him from becoming too frightened and confused.

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That’s just one way of dealing with FCD. 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 a cat with dementia as they are for a person with it.

Johnson-Bennett also recommends “provid[ing] stimulation for your cat through interactive play therapy to help exercise her memory.” Once again, you’ll have to go at a slower pace than you would with a younger or more alert cat.

Cherish Is the Word

Older cats “need frequent demonstrations of love,” writes Anitra Frazer in her book It’s a Cat’s Life.  Many of them “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 begun 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 1 thing you can do to make your older cat feel loved and happy. But there are score of kindnesses you can also bestow:

  • Help with their grooming. Older cats often find keeping up appearances difficult. Be gentle, though; their skin, as Frazier points out, “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 boxes out. Remove the tops from hooded litter boxes — they’re very 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.

Watch this cat lover help keep her 18-year-old Garfield clean:

The landscape may have changed somewhat for you and your 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.

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