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Keeping golden years golden

Recognizing and responding to the unique needs of senior shelter cats

From Animal Sheltering Magazine September/October 2013

Cats of all shapes, sizes, colors, and ages find their way into our shelters and rescues, and some of them are old-timers. Although old age is not a “disease,” the aging process results in many physiological changes that affect the care required for older cats. Understanding these changes will help us meet the unique needs of older cats so that we can provide them with the best possible care.

Most of us have heard that one “cat year” (or “dog year”) is equivalent to approximately seven “human years.” This comparison is not altogether accurate: Cats progress rapidly through kittenhood and adolescence to young adulthood. In fact, a 2-year-old cat is considered to be a young adult, much like a person in their early to mid-20s. Beyond age 2, the aging process slows down considerably, and every “cat year” is probably equivalent to about four “human years.”

The Feline Advisory Bureau (FAB) defines “senior cats” as those more than 10 years old, while “geriatric cats” are more than 14. FAB provides a comparison chart of cat years to human years.

Determining a cat’s age is no simple task. Between the ages of 3 and 10 years, cats often look very much the same, with few apparent differences in their physical features. Since dental disease is common in older cats, we often look at teeth to assess age, but that’s not always reliable; the presence or absence of tartar and gingivitis alone is often not a reliable predictor of age.

There are, however, a few physical features that become increasingly common as cats get older. These may be subtle at first, but generally become more pronounced over time. These changes include:

Eyes and face:

  • Increased opacity or haziness of the lens of the eyes (called nuclear sclerosis)

Like dogs, cats may develop a cloudy or bluish appearance in their pupils as they age. This is the result of changes in the lens of the eye and does not affect vision. This is not the same as cataracts, which are white, opaque spots within the lens of the eye that can affect vision and cause discomfort. Cataracts are much less common than nuclear sclerosis.

  • Mottled, granular, or “moth-eaten” appearance of the colored part of the eye (called iris atrophy)

The colored part of the eye thins as a cat ages and may take on a lacy appearance. Over time, the cat may not be able to constrict her pupils as small as she once could.

  • Loss of fat around the eyes and top of the head

This results in the more lean, angular facial appearance typical of many older cats.

Skin, hair coat, and claws:

  • Thin, less supple and resilient skin

The skin often thins and becomes less elastic as cats age, and will not snap back into place as readily when gently lifted and released.

  • Dull or unkempt hair coat

Older cats often groom themselves less effectively than do younger cats, sometimes resulting in hair matting, or a flaky or greasy appearance to the hair coat. This also occurs in obese cats that have difficulty grooming due to their size.

  • Thick nails that tend to flake

The claws of old cats are often thick and brittle, and may be overgrown.

Body and muscle mass:

  • Muscle atrophy

Loss of muscle mass along the back and hindquarters is common as cats reach advanced ages; this can contribute to weakness.

  • Thin body condition

Loss of weight is also common in older cats and often indicates underlying disease.

  • Obesity

Obesity is also common, and as cats continue to age, it greatly increases the risk of diabetes mellitus, joint problems, skin infections, and other health issues.

The changes cats experience as they age have important implications for those who enter shelters and rescues. Senior cats have less hardy immune systems and are more susceptible to infectious disease. Older cats are also more susceptible to the effects of stress, further compromising their immune defenses as well as their welfare.

As cats age, they may experience changes in their senses, including loss of hearing and vision, or in their mental abilities; these may make it harder for them to cope with changes in their environment.

Senior felines are often prone to dehydration, making it more difficult to recover from minor illness such as upper respiratory infection. Diseases common to older cats, such as impaired kidney function, make them uniquely prone to dehydration, and cats with dental disease may have mouth pain that causes them to reduce food and water intake.

Older cats often have arthritis, which slows them down and makes engaging in normal activities more difficult. Although most arthritic cats are not overtly lame, they may have difficulty gaining access to litter boxes, especially if the sides are high. They may also have difficulty finding a secure place to comfortably perch or hide, particularly if they have to jump or climb to gain access.

Getting the Right Start

Because senior and geriatric cats are more susceptible to infectious disease and to the negative effects of stress, it is important to be proactive about stress reduction and infectious disease control efforts. With this in mind, protocols for senior cats should include the following:

  1. Vaccinate senior cats immediately with a modified live FVRCP vaccine.
  2. House them in comfortable, quiet quarters with careful attention to stress reduction.
  3. Provide the largest enclosure possible—preferably at least
    4 feet wide—or a condo-style cage or run. Make sure it is easy to navigate without requiring excessive jumping and climbing.
  4. Provide a litter box large enough to accommodate the cat with sides that are not too high to allow easy entry and exit. An empty carton—like a case for canned cat food—works well.
  5. Provide a secure, comfortable resting spot that is easy for them to access.
  6. Assign one familiar caregiver to ensure a more predictable and less stressful routine.
  7. Provide a hiding box or cage cover for added privacy and security.
  8. Feed a high-quality canned cat food to stimulate a healthy appetite and promote good hydration.
  9. Arrange food and water bowls where they are easily accessible—some cats eat and drink better when their bowls are placed in the back of their enclosure where they feel more secure.
  10. As for any cat, be sure to separate food and water bowls from the litter box as much as possible—this will also help to promote a good appetite!

What Do You Know?

For geriatric cats surrendered by an owner, obtaining a medical and behavioral history are important steps and will help to determine the state of the cat’s health, his specific needs, and potential adoptability. A thorough interview with the owner will help to provide the best possible information to facilitate in-shelter care and decision-making.

Although some senior kitties are relinquished by their owners, many older cats enter the shelter as strays. Considering how difficult it can be to rehome a geriatric cat, and realizing that in order to reach an advanced age, a cat very likely has an owner out there somewhere, the best possible outcome for most geriatric shelter cats will be to locate the owner!

Most shelters are all too familiar with the very low return-to-owner rates for cats. Many owners do not think to look for their missing cats at the shelter, and this may be especially true for the owners of older cats. This is perhaps due the widely held belief that older cats frequently “wander off to die.” This is a myth—when a cat goes missing, it is most likely because the cat’s routine was disrupted. Perhaps he was let out by accident, or chased by a dog, or otherwise became scared or disoriented. A neighbor finds him, recognizes he is old and needs care, and takes him to the shelter. Meanwhile, the owner mourns, never realizing his beloved cat is still within reach.

One of the best things to do for “stray” senior cats is to initiate a search for the owner. Ask the person who brings the cat to the shelter to post signs in the area where the cat was found and to post a notice on Craigslist. Of course, careful scanning for a microchip is a must. Scanning multiple times and using a universal scanner will increase the likelihood of finding a chip. Posting photographs online is also useful and enables owners to look for their pets even if they are physically unable to come to the shelter. Most geriatric animals are owned—and reuniting them with their owner is always the best medicine! If they are reclaimed, be sure to send them home with an ID collar and a microchip. History might repeat itself, and this will facilitate reunification if it does.

Health Assessments for Seniors

Assessing the health of older cats is crucial to ensure that the cats’ needs are met in the shelter and beyond. A good physical examination is always the most important tool for evaluating health. Following a standardized physical examination form will ensure a complete and systematic review of all body systems.

Ideally, a veterinarian should carefully examine any senior or geriatric cat soon after intake, but nonveterinary staff can and should be trained to perform basic evaluations including sexing, aging, body condition scoring, and looking for evidence of fleas, ear mites, dental disease, overgrown claws, or other obvious physical conditions. Pay particular attention to dental health, taking care to identify painful teeth and gums. Drooling, poor appetite, weight loss, and lack of grooming may be signs of severe dental disease and warrant treatment by a veterinarian.

Other procedures at intake include vaccination; the administration of medications for control of common parasites, such as fleas and intestinal worms; and testing for feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV).

After intake, careful monitoring of the cat’s food and water consumption as well as excretory output is crucial. Poor appetite and increased thirst are two of the most common signs of illness in older cats. Constipation is also common and may be a sign of underlying disease. Monitoring body weight and condition will help you ensure that cats maintain a good state of hydration and nutrition in the shelter. Mitigating stress often helps to promote a healthy appetite in the shelter.

Common Diseases of Older Cats

Besides dental disease, other common ailments of older cats include renal failure, diabetes mellitus, hyperthyroidism, cancers, and inflammatory diseases such as hepatitis, pancreatitis, and chronic infections such as FIV. Ideally, complete blood work and urinalysis should be performed on all senior cats. Recognizing this is not always possible in the resource-limited environment of a shelter, the next best practice would be to collect a few drops of blood for measurement of packed cell volume and total solids (PCV/TS), and a small volume of urine for measurement of specific gravity and a urine dip stick test. These procedures screen many body systems and are cost-effective. They should be viewed as extensions of the physical exam for the senior animal and can be performed on site at many shelters.

Of all of the diseases seen in older cats, perhaps the most common is chronic kidney failure. Weight loss and increased thirst and urination are hallmarks of this common feline disease, to which Persian cats are especially prone.

One of the best and least expensive tests for evaluating kidney function in cats is to check the concentration of the urine. This is done by measuring the specific gravity of the urine, using a device called a refractometer. Inexpensive refractometers may be purchased online. A veterinarian can train staff to collect urine and to measure its specific gravity. A simple way of collecting a urine sample from a cat is to place nonabsorbent material—such as packing peanuts, aquarium gravel, or a nonabsorbent litter like Nosorb—in the litter box. Only a drop of urine is needed to measure the specific gravity. Normally, the specific gravity of a cat’s urine should be greater than 1.035. This indicates normal kidney function. Lower values may indicate kidney failure or other diseases and would warrant more complete urine and blood testing to determine an underlying cause.

Ongoing Care

Senior cats need regular, daily opportunities for exercise and enrichment. Office fostering provides a welcome break from the cattery, and group housing may be appropriate for cats who are socialized to other cats, provided a compatible housemate is selected and plenty of space is available. Geriatric cats often have little tolerance for the high energy and playful antics of many younger cats, which can cause them substantial stress. For this reason, senior and geriatric cats should be housed separately from other age groups, unless they enter the shelter with a bonded housemate of a different age.

Older cats often benefit from quality lap time with caregivers; activities like gentle massage, grooming, and interaction with cat toys are all beneficial. Stimulate their senses by offering good and interesting things to eat, smell, see, hear, and scratch, and help them get regular exercise, which is essential for well-being and vital for joint health and maintenance of muscle tone in senior cats.

Because senior cats often take longer to adopt than younger cats, it is imperative to reduce their length of stay. Health can decline when cats linger in the shelter, and depression is common in older cats housed long-term. Foster care may provide an excellent alternative to shelter housing, but the geriatric cat will need time to adjust. Fosterers should pay special attention to their individual needs, especially in multicat homes.

Aggressive marketing campaigns can help shorten the stay of senior cats. With good housing and stress reduction, a senior cat can show well to prospective adopters. Remind adopters of the virtues of more mature cats—for example, senior cats typically don’t participate in midnight toe attacks and other similarly annoying kitten antics! To the contrary, senior cats often make well-mannered companions and purr-fect lap cats. And they just might be ideal matches for many senior citizens (or homebody young people).

Shelters that take in senior cats with health problems must ensure they can provide appropriate veterinary care. Develop and implement a humane plan for diagnosis, treatment/management, monitoring, and housing. When determining if cats with special needs can be humanely cared for in a population setting, the following issues should be considered: What measures must be implemented to prevent transmission of disease to other cats or people? Can appropriate care realistically be delivered? Will the care provided result in a cure or adequate management of the disease or problem? Can the facility afford the cost and time for care? How will it impact resources available for other cats? What welfare assessment will be used to measure quality of life in the shelter?

Always weigh outcome decisions in the context of the health of the population as well that of the individual, while considering animal welfare and the availability of resources. Senior cats often hold a special place in our hearts, and finding a senior cat a home in a speedy fashion is an extremely rewarding experience.

About the Author

Dr. Griffin is a 1990 graduate of the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine. While a member of the faculty of the Scott Ritchey Research Center, Dr. Griffin co-founded the Alliance for Contraception in Cats and Dogs. She later served on the Association of Shelter Veterinarians’ Task Force to Advance Spay-Neuter, as well as the Shelter Standards Task Force. In 2000, she was named by the AVMA as the Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year.

She currently co-instructs courses in shelter medicine at both the University of Florida and the University of Georgia, and serves as the Regent for the new specialty in Shelter Medicine: ABVP- SMP.