Pictured above is our current longterm senior cat, Stevie, who is blind. Stevie has unique needs since he is blind. We provide him with unique textures, scents, enrichments, and catnip bananas. He just recently got a toy that makes a noise when it detects motion. We prioritize senior cat care at the rescue that I am the director of because I believe that they deserve the absolute best in their golden years, but taking proper care of senior cats does come with its unique challenges. Senior cats still have much love to give and life to enjoy. It is not fair to short them veterinary care, comfort, pain management, nutrition, or supplements that will make life comfortable during their stay and beyond. The nutrition part is vital since they become less able to digest fat and protein, which is why we feed specialty senior cat food. We thoroughly counsel adoptees on providing the best level of care for senior cats for the rest of their life.
Just in the first two years of operation, our small rescue was able to save over 15 senior cats. Every senior cat we have brought into our rescue had medical problems that we happily treated and rectified before adoption. Problems we saw at the rescue included severe dental decay, kidney failure, diabetes, cognitive dysfunction, entropion, battle wounds, feline immunodeficiency virus, and more. I am very adamant that a treatable or manageable medical condition is not an excuse for euthanizing a cat, even if it took nearly a year to find each of our senior cats a brand new home.
I find that a senior cat is likely to be surrendered for several reasons. Quite a few senior cats are picked up as loners who were left to fend for themselves for a long time, which is reflected in their overall condition. Some people lose interest in their senior cat and want a cuddly kitten while other people surrender their senior cat when they start peeing on the floor. Not using the litter box can have multiple causes such as arthritis or being picked on by a much younger cat with more energy. I routinely find that only cat rescues are usually equipped with the knowledge and supplies to care for senior cats. Shelters and animal control facilities are generally a bad place for a senior cat.
A senior cat can require many resources, which often exceeds any kind of budget set for the year and requires additional fundraising. The amount of time spent on each cat in the rescue or for the person surrendering the cat can be a factor if subcutaneous fluids or medications are required longterm. Administering fluids may seem like a small task, but having to do that for days can start to add up if your rescue or shelter is not staffed well. Aging cats need more frequent blood tests, dental procedures, wellness examinations, diagnostics, and even surgery in some cases. Cost of care can be a common reason for surrendering as a senior cat, which can be tough for the owner to commit to. Medical problems often lead to behavioral problems such as not using the litter box, which typically ends in relinquishment of that cat.
Litter Box Rules
There are several guidelines that you can go by when you are thinking about litter box care, placement, and management. I have included some useful evaluation tips below for your consideration. Some of the more time-consuming care tips can be utilized when you start having issues if it is tough for you to do go through each step of the evaluation daily. It can be hard to keep up with a senior cat in a busy world, which I completely understand for people who work really long hours.
You need to keep an eye on the bowel movements, which is one of the best indicators of health in any cat. Stool that is softer, harder, or of a different color than usual can be a red flag of disease or severe stress. Constipation can often occur in senior cats due to dehydration, which may require supplementation, fluids, or a change to canned food as they start to become constipated more often.
Keep a mental tally of your cat’s urine output either by observing your cat or keeping an eye on how many clumps you scoop on average now versus in the future. A change in urine output can signal illness in your elderly cat. If your cat is peeing outside of the box, then a urinalysis is important for a proper diagnosis. Diabetes, kidney failure, and hyperthyroidism are three common diseases that can alter the amount of urine that is excreted on a day to day basis.
Your litter box may be modified to better meet the physical build of your cat if they are having problems with climbing or jumping. The ideal litter box is easy to step into without too much effort. A quality utility knife can be used to modify a litter box from the store to best suit your cat. The location needs to make sense for you and your cat. I have met a few cats in my life that needed to have a sandbox lined with potty pads that you would use for dogs. There are not many cats that will not resort to using a potty pad if, for some reason, they reject cat litter.
Setting up multiple boxes can prevent your cat from having to go up or down a flight of stairs, which can be painful if they are experiencing arthritis or joint pain. This will set your cat up for success in the long run. Finally – the ideal cat litter is gentle on your senior cat’s paws and does not deter them from wanting to use the litter box due to pain or discomfort. I personally prefer the Dr. Elsey’s Precious Cat Senior Litter because of the comfort that it seems to provide to declawed cats and senior cats since it is super soft to the touch.
Veterinary Care For Your Senior
The routine veterinary visit can become increasingly stressful for your cat as he begins to succumb to the health issues that can pop up with advanced age. Some cats amaze me at how healthy they are with their advanced age, other cats not so much. Below are some of the tips that you can implement for making veterinary visits easy.
First, you want to make the carrier comfortable for your cat by leaving it out at all times rather than storing it in a faraway place. You can set a bed in the pet carrier and leave some treats in the pet carrier on a daily basis to improve the rapport. It is very possible to work on improving the pet carrier experience. This way, when you need to put him in the carrier for a veterinary visit, it will not be so bad or involve you having to chase your cat down to throw him in there.
Leave plenty of time available for you to pick up your cat and arrive at the veterinary office with time to spare. This will allow time for you to spray Feliway in the pet carrier, which is a feel good pheromone for cats. Feliway replicates the same scent that your cat leaves on scratching posts when they rub against it with their body or with their paws. Some cats may be given a drug such as gabapentin and zylkene about 1 to 2 hours before transporting to the veterinarian for reduced stress.
Some owners will spray a towel down with Feliway and line the pet carrier with it so the veterinarian can lift the cat up on that towel and transport them to the exam table by removing the top of the pet carrier. This can help the cat feel more at ease as the cat is moving with the feel good pheromones onto the examination table. Some professionals are shocked by the difference in their stress levels when Feliway is used.
Going to a clinic that practices fear free can prove useful for cats that often experience severe stress. These clinics have a specific cat-only waiting area, calming music, and technicians who do everything in their power to make the visit valuable and happy. You may also seek out a cat only veterinarian or an AAHA certified clinic as they are likely to have gained more advanced techniques through experience to make your senior cat feel better
Medical procedures like blood work, dental cleaning, and even grooming are essential for keeping your senior cat healthy for their final years as they will likely not groom as much as they used to with increased age. At the same time, you must balance the benefit of medical procedures with the stress of those procedures since you want to limit anesthetic use at this age. If your cat needs a very invasive surgery that could be life-threatening, you may need to consider the benefit versus the cons while factoring in their age and quality of life. A full medical workup and diagnostics at least once a year is the only way to catch significant medical issues in the early stage where they are treatable or can be managed effectively versus if they were found in a later stage.
It is very easy to underestimate the value of utilizing dental radiography to scout out decaying or painful teeth so that they can be extracted before they cause significant trouble. It is better to perform a dental on a cat while they are still young rather than later when they may take anesthetic harder. Some veterinarians do not utilize dental radiography, which can result in issues being missed or tooth roots being left in, which can lead to future pain.
Dental pain is excruciatingly painful and should be taken seriously, starting from a very young age when possible. Last year I had a veterinarian promise they removed certain tooth roots, which were proven not to be removed when I took the cat to my primary veterinarian for a dental radiograph. My primary veterinarian sent the digital radiograph to a dental specialist as it was not something the clinic had too much experience with at that time. The dental specialist concluded that the roots were left in purposely, which is sometimes the case with rural or old school veterinarians.
Habits and Routine
You should question the health of your senior cat if he does not follow the routine he has followed for years or if his habits change abruptly without any identifiable cause. Sudden change in a routine can be a significant clue that your cat is not feeling well or is experiencing some type of pain or stress.
If your cat is having any trouble at all navigating around the house, then you can consider using night lights and adding more water bowls, food bowls, and litter boxes so that your cat does not get lost. Increased resources will also prevent competition among cats for those resources. This can happen as they age or with cognitive dysfunction. We had a cat with cognitive dysfunction that could not find his litter box so we had to put down like seven litter boxes for him.
Do the best within your power to provide the same care at the same time every single day so he can anticipate what is always going to happen next. Cats can stress out if they do not know what is going to happen and at what time.
Looking & Feeling Their Best
A cat that does not look good is often not feeling good and vice versa. You need for your cat to both feel good and look good to be healthy, emotionally, and physically. You want to continually evaluate the appearance and behavior patterns for your cat to determine if they are taking care of themselves properly. Having a trained behavior consultant on staff can really help nail down the areas of concern for all cats.
The above picture is after removing a trash bag full of mats. The personality quickly switched to a more happy cat. Looking and feeling good is essential for adoption promotion and beyond. Even small changes in their grooming routine or behavior patterns can be alarming and may require you to assist with grooming. Slowing down, changes in appetite, coat appearance, and not using the litter box as often or too often can be signs that your cat is not feeling their best.
Keeping a log on each category of your pet’s health can prove invaluable for identifying trends. Taking bloodwork from your cat when he is young or healthy is one way that you can identify abnormalities in their blood work once they are older and have it examined. You need to know what is normal to understand what is abnormal for your cat. Some cats naturally have higher or lower values.
Senior cat care and monitoring are most important in the shelter because of the way that they often present on entry to the shelter. The above pictures show a cat throwing up due to stress, another cat hiding in the box due to trying to feign sleep – both images taken from a shelter I pulled from. I try to utilize foster homes before taking in a senior at the rescue. These cats are often categorized as depressed and stressed. I often say these are cats that have given up. Older cats can often become very stressed out and stop eating, vomit, or exhibit diarrhea within just a few days. You commonly see these cats feigning sleep and hiding in the back of the cage or litter box. A cat with any kind of medical condition can rapidly decline if they start to experience symptoms of fear, anxiety, or stress while in the shelter’s care.
Cat Shelter Or Rescue Enrichment Ideas:
- Clicker training
- Toy rotation strategies
- Vertical space
- Multiple scratching surfaces
- Cat television
- Battery operated toys
- Motion-activated toys
The cat above was a senior cat who just wanted to lay in a ball pit and bat at the balls because he was a very lazy, laid back cat. At Cuddle Cat Rescue, we house all of our senior cats in a 25 to 50 square foot enclosure or allow them to free roam with microchip feeders, so they do not eat food that is prohibited for those cats. The level of stress in free-roaming senior cats and senior cats placed into a large enclosure with proper enrichment opportunities dropped dramatically, if not paired with cats that are high energy and can overwhelm them. I saw much more stress-based behavior when we had to house senior cats inside of a 1o to 12 square foot stainless steel cage because we did not have a building yet.
We offer 5 to 10 toys in each enclosure, which we rotate on a daily basis to keep them novel and enjoyable. Toys left out all week can become just furniture. All of our enclosures can view the lobby television, which is often displaying a Youtube video with cats catching birds. Senior cats are offered an orthopedic or heated bed. We have enrichment days where we offer a specific enrichment on that day to every cat. One day we may give out a catnip mouse to every cat while on another day we hand out robotic mice that move and squeak when the toy is batted or can detect motion.
Enrichment can actually be as simple as giving a small serving of canned food to every cat at the shelter or rescue once or twice per week. Enrichment is all about offering a new experience that is licking to elicit joy. Some senior cats will never adjust, and that is just the sad reality as some cats will only bond with one owner. Below are some of the different logs that you can keep on each of your senior cats so you can identify trends and decide when your cat is not acting normal.
- Urine color and output
- Stool color and form
- Ease of mobility
- Sociability level
- Food consumed each day
- Water consumed each day
Adoption Promotion For Senior Cats
We have established that the senior cat must feel good and look good enough to be emotionally and physically qualified for your adoption program. In addition, you can improve their adoption chances by giving them a rhinestone collar, soft paws that match their fur pattern, and taking a picture that is of high quality. Make them stand out above the plethora of kittens. We did this through our seniors or seniors program, which allowed us to adopt more senior cats then had previously been able to. The adoption fees are waived for anyone eligible for this program.
Reasons To Adopt An Older Pet:
- They have better manners than kittens
- Require less time and energy
- Personality is already developed
- Easier to train
- Longer attention spans
- Make excellent sleeping pals
- Still have lots of love to give
- Already housebroken
There was a trend in several of the shelters I consulted with about cat behavior in the last decade, which was very troubling. Some shelters strongly believe that taking a senior cat is a liability for them or that they were unadoptable. A few of those shelters wanted to euthanize senior cats on entry, which I stopped. There are more people that want a kitten to grow with the family, but that does not mean we forget the senior cats. I used to think senior cats were impossible to adopt when I first voyaged into the world of animal care, I have since realized that no cat is impossible to adopt. All adoption is about is the right person coming in at the right time to meet the right pet for their family.
I find senior cats can actually find a home much quicker since they often have an interesting backstory and personality to match. I have had people drive two hours away to adopt a senior cat with medical issues that are progressive. Telling stories and spotlighting their personalities across social media is going to be one of the largest tools you can take advantage of. Social media can be useful for posting cats for adoption and for posting informational articles. I even utilized my local television station and newspaper to get the word out about our senior cats.
The key to matching a senior animal with an adopter is to recognize who would want to adopt an older pet. The seniors for seniors program is so effective because life has slowed down considerably on both ends, but both parties still have much love to give. Older pets just seem to have this ability to elicit compassion and generosity. Most people who adopt an older pet often tell me that they are adopting them so that they can live the rest of their life in a happy home. I would definitely train adoption staff on properly adopting out senior cats – for instance, matching a senior cat with a Bengal cat would be horrible.
High-quality photo sessions often highlight the cat’s face and unique body features while blurring out the background and clutter. Including a perk with the adoption of a senior cat like free care for the rest of their life or the first year can prove as a great marketing tool. You are going to have to show your enthusiasm while talking about senior cats and the value they bring in order to be taking seriously, even if you are tired from a long day of work and are winding down for the day. You may consider a Petfinder grant in order to pay for more costly medical procedures if this is a problem for you.
Enjoy The time you Have Right Now
The senior cat’s needs will change as they age. This can happen slowly or abruptly. At some point in their life, they may need hospice care and subcutaneous fluids to extend their life if they develop kidney failure, for instance, or diabetes. Having a keen eye for detail and identifying when something needs a change or a tune-up is the magic bullet for providing a great quality of life for your cat in their senior years. Take life one day at a time and cherish the time you have with them at this moment. It can be way too easy to worry about tomorrow or next week that we forget that cats live in the now.
Low impact exercise is what I have found to be my favorite way of spending time with a senior cat. Merely using a wand toy or a clicker device to mentally work with them rather than physically tiring their joints out can prove to be a great bonding tool if used right. I think the use of a laser light toy or a kicker toy can prove very beneficial for a senior cat. My top enrichment for my senior cats is the television that I have in the lobby.
Consider the use of joint supplements, laser therapy, hydrotherapy, and even calming supplements to make movement easier, which improves the quality of life. Keep their weight manageable to prevent arthritis that can manifest into litterbox avoidance. I use the HHHHHMM Scale for determining the quality of life on an objective scale that can help you see the reality of the situation for your senior.
Some Of Our Special Senior Cats
Mocha came into the rescue with a big tumor on the back of her neck, and she was diagnosed with diffuse iris melanosis at an eye specialist in Saint Louis. She did not need her eye removed because it was slow growing, but she did need a dental which we paid for. Mocha was a cat that was acting very depressed at the local shelter, so we pulled her for our rescue. She was estimated to be between 7 and 8 years old at the time.
Mocha hated cats and sometimes would chase them around like a dog chasing a rabbit. It took nearly 9 months at the rescue, but she eventually found the home that was meant for her. We would just carry her around for 30 minutes a day and let her watch television. She got to roam when the other cats were all sleeping. There were people who suggested for us to send her to a barn or euthanize here, but we knew she could be adopted. Being old in and of itself is not a disease.
Precious was surrendered to our rescue with a chronic skin condition called miliary dermatitis. She broke out 7 times during her stay at our rescue. An allergy test and a blood test identified she was highly allergic to several ingredients found in most cat foods, yet she continued to break out. She was extremely allergic to fish and turkey, but that was only one piece of the puzzle, as that alone did not fix the problem.
We tried 3 medications until we found the correct medication and food regimen for her that regulated miliary dermatitis. Royal Canin Ultamino and atopica made a world of difference, and I am happy we did not give up the search for the perfect treatment. Precious had not broken out for months, at which time she found the perfect home. Precious was adopted out after nearly 2 years at the rescue, free-roaming, of course.
Orion is a very special cat to me because he was one of the very first cats that our rescue pulled from the animal control shelter nearest to our town. Orion was found locked up in a garage all by himself. Orion was dehydrated, emaciated, anemic, hypoglycemic, and poorly cared for at the shelter too. He was five pounds underweight and lethargic. The shelter did not provide any covers or even a bed for him to rest his bones.
We pulled Orion and found out that he had a severe upper respiratory infection, grade 3 dental disease, intestinal bowel disease, and a severe ear infection. It shocked me that taking care of all his medical issues corrected his intestinal bowel disease, as evidenced by a repeat blood test. We suspect that his IBD was partly due to the stress that he was experiencing from his world being tipped upside down in a colossal way.
Sir Hershey is my favorite cat that we ever took into our cat rescue. It is amazing how bad he looked on the day of admission and how awesome he looked when he left our rescue for his new home. He was pulled from an animal control facility that overlooked his eye problems and overall condition. Sir Hershey suffered from severe matting, entropion, and dental disease. His eyelids were literally scratching his eye all day long, and no one noticed. All of his teeth needed to be removed, and he had an infection in one of his feet, which caused it to puff up like it was stung by a bee.
Sir Hershey was later diagnosed with feline immunodeficiency virus, but we adopt cats all of the time with that virus. We happily made sure that Sir Hershey got all of his medical work taken care of. He was misdiagnosed five times at the animal control we pulled him from. It took about 3 months for him to recover both physically and emotionally. Hershey hid for the first month because he was overwhelmed by all of the changes and the medical procedures that we had to have done on him.
The above cat is Tank, one of our most recent senior cats that were adopted and perhaps the second favorite cat that we ever took in at our cat rescue. He came in with aspiration pneumonia, feline immunodeficiency virus, all of his teeth were decayed, and he had battle wounds. Tank was turning blue when we were transporting him to our vet. Tank always had a happy temperament regardless of the extent of medical problems that he was going through during his first month at the rescue. Tank was 8 years old but came out on top after our veterinarian provided all of the care he needed.
Tank was adopted 250 days after he was admitted to our cat rescue. We had to get his medical conditions under control before we could adopt him out to his new home. The worst part of treating Tank is that he had severe ringworm in 5 spots, which took 2 months of oral antifungal medications to treat. Tank currently lives with a special needs black cat that we also adopted them.
Mr Cow Cow
This is the cat that made headlines at our rescue because he was 7 years old and in the worst spot of his life. The radiograph verified that he was hit with a baseball bat then shot with a gun. His bones were shattered entirely in multiple locations, which required the limb to be amputated. The cat received a full dental and blood panel to ensure he was healthy before rehabilitating him for 6 weeks and sending him to his new home.