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I’m growing older. My knees ache sometimes, it’s much harder to lose weight, and don’t ask what happens when I sneeze. As humans age, our bodies change (and not in any good ways). Well, our feline companions experience many of the same age-related challenges that we do — but unlike us, they can’t verbalize it. It’s up to us as pet owners to keep track of what’s going on with them healthwise so we can make their sunset years happy ones. So what should you do?

PAY ATTENTION

One of the things you should watch for with senior cats is what’s happening in the litter pan. As a vet tech, we saw many older cats present with severe symptoms that surprised the owners, but the evidence of illness was there if you knew what to look for. So you need to keep an eye on that box, as unpleasant as it may be. Is there extensive urine volume? Might need to check your kitty’s kidneys. Stool soft or too hard? Time to see the vet.

REGULAR CHECK-UPS

Speaking of the vet, this is the time for regular visits. Many veterinarians consider a cat to be entering its “senior” years as early as age 7, and any cat over 10 is considered to be of advanced age. As you may have guessed, the best health strategy for senior cats is regular check-ups. Even a healthy-looking senior cat should be examined by your vet annually, as any hidden health problems will be easier and far less costly to treat if detected early. Also, cats can lose weight due to various diseases and illnesses, and it can be hard for the owner to recognize the weight loss, so having a vet check your cat’s weight is important.

DENTAL CARE

Even if you’re the kind of cat owner who willingly brushes your cat’s teeth, vet tooth checkups are important. Older cats often have loose or infected teeth — and you might be surprised to know a dental infection can actually lead to other problems, such as kidney disease. You may even decide to get your cat’s teeth cleaned; this is a procedure that requires anesthesia (trust me on this one). There may also be some tooth extractions, but you’d be surprised how little impact those have on a cat’s happiness and well being. In fact, I once assisted a veterinarian in removing 17 teeth from an older cat — and the owners said the cat had a return to kittenhood after the procedure because he was no longer in pain and discomfort from those bad teeth.

SENIOR CAT DIET

Another key factor is diet. Because kidney disease is so rampant in older cats, diet is key to longevity. Consult with your vet, but in general, an age-appropriate diet for senior cats should include a high-protein food. Cats are natural carnivores and there are key proteins found in meat and meat byproducts that senior cats need to maintain bone, kidney, and cardiovascular health. Avoid vegan or vegetarian cat foods (this is probably controversial, but cats aren’t interested in being vegan, and it’s actually unhealthy for them). And if you have a fat cat? Time to consider a diet as well. Be sure to ask your vet to recommend an age-appropriate food for your senior feline.

KNOWING WHEN IT’S TIME TO SAY GOODBYE

My favorite cat (of the 30+ I’ve owned, yes, there was a favorite) was Spike, a pure black kitty that didn’t know how to exist without purring. One day he simply collapsed after being healthy for all of his 13 years. After visiting the vet it was clear it was his time for the Rainbow Bridge. But for some of my other cats it was much less clear.

While many chronic kitty diseases can be managed for long periods of time, I have made the decision to make quality of life a priority for my cats. Unlike humans undergoing extensive medical treatments, cats don’t understand why the torture is happening.When our cat Dylan got cancer, we made the decision to make him comfortable but not to undergo chemotherapy. It wasn’t likely to work, and it would have made the end of his life miserable. The average lifespan of a cat is 15 years.  If you’re considering putting your kitty through uncomfortable treatments to get beyond that mark, you might want to think again.

It’s terribly sad that our kitties don’t live as long as we do. But we can definitely make their lives happy and comfortable.

Written by Cecily Kellogg