What to Expect When You Find Yourself With a Senior Cat

Older pets can suffer from a range of issues, but it certainly doesn’t mean their lives are over.

By: ipeters61
Senior pets should be cherished, but unfortunately some people don’t feel that way. By: ipeters61

Sometimes it feels as though we have a revolving cat door here.

The last of our foster kittens left for their new home together on Friday night. A few days later, Boris, a 15-year-old Maine Coon, arrived. His mistress had died a couple of years ago, and her widower had recently gotten involved with a woman who’s highly allergic to cats.

So Boris ended up here, complete with bed, litter boxes, toys, brushes, scratching posts and a 5-foot cat tree with a pagoda on top. He is thin, matted, confused and in kidney failure. It’s hard for me to understand how anyone could let go of an old friend like this.

It Comes With the Territory

“Cats, like people, experience old age in their own individual ways,” observe the writers of The Cornell Book of the Cat. “Advances in veterinary medicine and health care have helped to extend the cat’s normal life span. It is not unusual for cats to live twenty years and longer, although the average life span is between 10 and 14 years.”

We’ve been lucky. The majority of our cats have made it into their late teens. But there are, as I’ve learned, things that you definitely have to gear up for when dealing with a geriatric cat:

  1. Cataracts are common. For the last 5 years of his life, our Zorro had very limited vision on account of them. But he managed to maneuver about the house with surprising ease — probably because we moved here just as his vision was starting to go and he still had time to learn its layout.
  2. Like old people, old cats lose weight and tone. Derv Sr. went down from a magnificent 22 pounds in his prime to 12 pounds by the time he checked out at age 19-and-a-half. And because he had a large frame, he looked pretty gaunt.
  3. Chronic kidney disease (CKD), tumors, liver disease and dental disease are more apt to show up. If a cat lives long enough, my vet once told me, it’ll probably be his kidneys that take him out.

Taking Care of Your Old Friend

There’s the whole bumpy terrain of living with an elderly cat that you have to learn the lay of.

A lot of elderly cats are — big surprise — arthritic. Vets usually prescribe Cosequin for this, and that’s good. But you can up the ante on your feline’s behalf by investing in an orthopedic blanket and/or heated cat bed. Zorro benefited greatly from a heated bed during his last year. Pictured here is the K&H Thermo-Kitty Heated Cat Bed, which you can learn more about on Amazon (affiliate link).

Massaging your cat along the spine, tail and feet works well. “Gentle traction in a smooth massaging stroke down the tail can help stretch the spine,” according to PAWS Chicago. Carefully working the paws “can improve the neurological connection from the brain to the foot, improving leg mobility and foot placement.”

Then there’s the grooming issue. Senior cats frequently have trouble keeping up with it, so they’re going to need your help getting rid of their mats. And you’ll need to go gently because they, like elderly people, have paper-thin skin. They are not as mobile, so their claws will also have to be clipped regularly. Otherwise, they grow into the paw pads.

This video offers great suggestions for optimizing the health of an older cat:

Loving the Changes

So, your calendar-cute kitten has disappeared and left a bony-hipped, matted senior citizen in its place. Deal with it. He has the feline equivalent of crow’s feet around his soul and should be cherished.

Sadly, not everybody sees it this way. In her book It’s a Cat’s Life, cat groomer Anitra Frazier tells the story of Clawed, an elderly white Persian she was working on. His people, viewing him as an inconvenience, told her after the first grooming session to bring him to the vet for euthanization. Frazier saw a cat worth saving and adopted him herself.

Clawed came into Frazier’s life pretty late in the game. But she encourages people with senior cats to “continue any ritual activity that they and their cat have enjoyed over the years…. These things give a cat a feeling of security and continuity, as well as providing beneficial exercise.”

Hold them, stroke them and make them feel loved. I just did that with Boris this morning, and he gave me one aria of a purr.


This pet health content was reviewed by a veterinarian.

T.J. Banks

View posts by T.J. Banks
T.J. Banks is the author of several books, including Catsong, which received a Merial Human–Animal Bond Award. A contributing editor to laJoie, T.J. has also received writing awards from the Cat Writers’ Association, ByLine and The Writing Self. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including Chicken Soup for the Single Parent’s Soul and A Cup of Comfort for Women in Love, and T.J. has worked as a stringer for the Associated Press, as an instructor for the Writer’s Digest School and as a columnist.

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