Cats are tending to live much longer nowadays, due to advances in veterinary medicine, including vastly improved vaccination programmes against feline diseases that used to be killers. It was once thought that one cat year was equivalent to seven human years, but although there is a correlation between the ages in later life, this tends to be on a sliding scale with a one-year old cat equating to about fifteen human years, whilst a cat of eight years is about forty-eight in human years, and one of sixteen around eighty human years.
However, cats age at various rates in many of the same ways as humans do, and as cat owners, we need to be able to adapt to these changes in order to help our pets reach a happy and comfortable old age with the minimum discomfort.
Conditions commonly affecting older cats include:
We can help alleviate many of these problems by looking out for changes in our cats, and then consulting the Vet at a very early stage, the sooner the better. The root condition may well not go away completely, but in most cases our cats will enjoy many more happy years with us if appropriate treatment is started promptly.
Kidney and liver problems are extremely common in all breeds of older cat and in themselves can affect the way an older cat responds to treatment as most drugs are broken down and eliminated from the body by these organs. As soon as you notice that your cat is drinking more than usual, or behaving even the slightest bit differently (such as wanting to sit or sleep away from their companions when previously they have curled up together - and the changes vary, only you will know that something is not quite right), get your Vet to check by running some blood tests which can usually be done at the local surgery. Once the situation has stabilised, it will be easier to deal with other problems that might arise. Once your cat gets to about ten years old, it is probably worth asking your Vet to check them over twice a year, rather than just waiting for the annual vaccination booster to discuss any problems.
You should check your cat regularly for lumps or growths as they cannot do it for themselves, and take immediate action if you notice anything unusual - sometimes this will just be a benign lump, which can be easily removed. Even with a cancerous growth, this too can often be removed so long as it is not too far advanced, or in an inaccessible place that would be impossible to operate on. It is possible to have chemotherapy or radiotherapy treatment for cats, but you should always take your Vet's advice on whether this is likely to badly affect the quality of your pet's life, especially in an older cat.
Some cats develop diabetes, but this can be successfully controlled in exactly the same way as it can for humans with regular insulin injections, which you will be able to do yourself at home once your Vet has shown you how. Problems with the thyroid gland and with blood pressure are easily kept under control with diet and medication, and can often be detected early on if you notice any changes in your cat's behaviour, as cats tend to be creatures of habit.
Older cats often develop failing eyesight and hearing, and close observation of your pet will alert you to these problems, although cats are able to live quite happily with these disabilities with some help from you. If you notice that your usually confident cat appears to be a little cautious and feeling their way round, try not to make too many changes to the layout of your home so that they do not bump into furniture that has been moved, or are unable to find their food and water bowls or litter tray. You will also need to be aware of things that could be dangerous for them such as an open toilet, a full bath or an open fire without a guard. Cats have their whiskers to help them, and will adapt very quickly to loss of sight. With these disabilities it's usually best to keep your cat indoors, or just allow them into the garden when you can go out with them, as they may not be aware of passing traffic or the neighbour's dog that they always used to tease.
As cats grow older, they do not like to climb and jump so much, so make sure your cat has the option of a bed nearer to the ground, or if they insist on sleeping higher up, provide them with some means of getting to it more easily with maybe a chair or portable plastic step. They will also sleep far more, which you might need to explain to younger members of the family, as older cats will not play as much as they did when they were younger, and they need to be handled carefully if they are becoming arthritic. They may also start to feel the cold, so ensure that their bedding is out of any draughts, and maybe provide a heated pad for those chilly months of the year.
Older cats often have different dietary needs, and there are plenty of proprietary foods on the market that take account of this. It's often a good idea to encourage older cats to eat wet food if possible, so that you can be sure that they are taking in sufficient fluids and are not becoming dehydrated. Dental care is important throughout your cat's life, but problems with sore gums and tooth decay tend to accelerate in later years. If teeth need to be removed to make your cat more comfortable, they adapt very well to this but will probably appreciate softer food.
Different breeds of pedigree cats have different life expectancies, and non-pedigrees sometimes live to more than twenty years, but the important thing is to know your cat and recognise the symptoms when changes start to affect their lifestyle. With prompt action, and help and advice from your Vet, you will be able to help your cat enjoy their later years as a much-loved member of the family.