By John Gilpatrick
Kittens often get all the glory, but senior cats make wonderful pets, too. Just ask Marci Koski, a certified feline behavior and training consultant and owner of Feline Behavior Solutions in Washington State. She’s had her cat, Jesse, since he was 3. He’s now 18, but Koski wouldn’t change that for anything. “He sleeps more than he used to, but I know his personality, habits, and routine, and he knows mine,” she says.
Even if you haven’t had the pleasure of spending a decade or more with a cat and developing that relationship, an older cat might be the right choice for you, says Dr. Bruce Kornreich, associate director for education and outreach for the Feline Health Center at Cornell University. This is especially true if you’re no spring chicken yourself. “We’ve seen that adopting cats can be psychologically beneficial to older people, and in many cases, an older cat is the perfect match,” he says. “They’re generally calmer and make for great companions.”
If you decide to wade into these waters, it’s best to be prepared. A senior cat’s needs are often different from those of their younger counterparts. Here are five myths about senior cats, debunked by experts.
This is one of the saddest myths of all. The notion that a singular illness marks the end of an older cat’s life, which tends prevent owners from seeking treatment, couldn’t be more wrong. “Age isn’t a disease. We understand why some owners think that, but there are so many cases and conditions where we can help the cat live a longer, better life,” Kornreich says.
Preventative care and early detection are, of course, the best ways to handle any potential illness or condition, and Kornreich says this begins with a shift around the age of 10. “Cats should go the vet at least once a year before that and twice a year after that,” he says.
Kornreich adds that cat owners should be on the lookout for any major changes in behavior, including not using the litter box properly or appearing to hide or withdraw more than usual. Cats tend to mask the signs of illness or pain so behavioral symptoms like these are sometimes associated with problems like kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, diabetes, or arthritis, among many other manageable conditions that afflict older cats.
This might relate to an older cat’s litterbox habits or to his ability (or lack thereof) to clean himself, but Koski says most cats retain their extreme fastidiousness throughout their lives. When they stop or reduce their grooming, there’s a reason for it.
Arthritis is a likely culprit. “Many arthritic cats aren’t able to groom as well as they used to because they have joint pain that prevents them from reaching certain parts of their bodies, typically their back or hind quarters,” Koski says. Regularly brushing or combing these areas will help pick up the slack and keep your cat happy.
If you find missing the litterbox to be a problem, it might also point to arthritis. Koski says she experienced this with Jesse recently and found that using a shallower box that was easier to get in and out of helped solve the problem.
There’s no correlation between age and friendliness in cats. Both Koski and Kornreich say that they’ve worked with plenty of young cats who are standoffish, old cats who are friendly, and vice versa. “If a cat was socialized when she was younger to enjoy being around people, she’ll likely stay that way her entire life,” Koski says.
One of the reasons this myth persists is that arthritic cats won’t jump up as much and tend to shy away from being petted, but these are symptoms of a medical problem, not any sort of change in the cat’s underlying personality, Kornreich says. While this condition won’t ever go away entirely, you can work with your vet to develop a plan to manage the pain and hopefully make the appearance of being unfriendly go away.
This gets back to the idea that the best type of care for older cats is preventative in nature. If you think you can feed a 15-year-old cat the same food and quantities as one that’s 3, you might spend more time than you’d like with your vet.
Kornreich adds that cats with kidney disease need to have their diets monitored closely for protein and phosphorus content, and diabetic cats should watch out for high-carb foods.
It’s also very important to monitor an older cat’s weight. While obesity is a major problem, Kornreich says unexpected weight loss is just as serious. Weigh your cat regularly and make note of any sudden changes in either direction. You can work with your vet and perhaps a nutritionist to make changes that will give your cat what she needs to maintain a healthy weight and provide her with the nutrients necessary for her body to function properly.
If you’re worried that adopting senior cats won’t work because they’re stuck in their ways, don’t be. Like friendliness, the ability to adapt and handle changes around her is entirely dependent on the individual cat’s personality. “Some younger cats hate change and can’t handle even furniture being moved around. Some older cats are so mellow that they don’t care if there’s a new dog in the house,” Koski says. “It’s a matter of how much novelty your cat was exposed to when she was young. Is change no big deal, or is that cucumber really a threat?”
That said, it’s always best to make changes slowly, no matter how old your cat is, Koski says. “Make those changes gradually and use positive reinforcement to form a good association with the new element, person, or animal.”