It is not unusual now in this day and age for cats to live beyond 21 years of age.

Spike on his 30th birthday - 210 in human terms!!!!!The world’s oldest cat was Spike, a fluffy ginger and white tom who passed away just two months after his 31st birthday in July 2001. That would have been over 210 in human years! Spike came from Dorset, south west England, and he still had all his own teeth and a hearty appetite when he died. His owner attributed his longevity to aloe vera gel she gave him for the last 10 years of his life.

However, Spike is not the oldest recorded cat. The Guinness Book of Records has an entry of a 36year old cat called Puss from Clayhidon, in North Devon, (south west England) and, to date, there haven’t been any cats that have surpassed this great age. Puss died in 1939. Another cat from Devon was Ma, a female tabby, who was 24 when she died in 1957.

Maybe there is something in the water in Devon that promotes good health and longevity in cats? It’s certainly strange that the three oldest recorded cats came from the south western corner of England.

What is known for sure is that advanced technology in nutrition helps to keep our beloved cats well cared for with every aspect of their dietary needs covered. A well balanced diet with a mixture of wet and dry food has all the vitamins, minerals and ingredients needed to cater for the most finicky of our pets. Cats with skin problems, respiratory problems, kidney problems or weight problems all have special scientific formulas tailored to suit them and there is no reason for these problems to make life difficult for the owners.

With advances in medical knowledge vets are also able to treat a wider variety of illnesses and diseases and cats with kidney disease, diabetes, cancer or leukaemia or feline AIDS are also given a slightly better prognosis than maybe 10 or 15 years ago.

So how do we help our senior citizen cats cope with the autumn years of their lives? Older cats become less tolerant of noise or disturbances. If you are someone who likes to play your music loud consider your pet – you may need to turn down the volume somewhat as a cat’s sense of hearing is far more acute than a humans and music booming out throughout the house is going to cause an aging cat a lot of stress and distress.

Make sure that your cat has a warm comfortable bed on which to rest, as he will be spending more time sleeping. Ensure that he doesn’t sleep on a cold floor with just paper or a towel to sleep on. The cold from the floor will seep into his bones, which may be arthritic and will cause him great pain and discomfort.  If possible, have a bed slightly raised off the ground but don’t expect him to jump too high – especially if he does have arthritis – because he could injure himself.

You can get heat pads which are warmed up in a microwave for a few moments that can be placed under the blankets or bedding which will then stay warm most of the night. Also, there is bedding available which is self-heating. The cat’s body activates this and is far safer than a conventional hot water bottle. 

Twice yearly visits to the vet for thorough check-ups are recommended so that illnesses such as kidney disease can be detected early enough for treatment to be effective. Nephritis, which is a terminal illness for some cats, will require a dietary change and the cat will need to be weaned off red meat.

Many cats get gingivitis, (gum disease) and this is noticeable by reddened gums and a reluctance to eat, despite being hungry. If left without treatment, the cat is in a great deal of pain and will lose weight because he refuses to eat. The age of a cat will determine whether or not a vet will decide to operate to remove rotten teeth and plaque or tartar which has built up over time.  Instead, the vet will scale off plaque and tartar manually using specific dentistry tools as far as the cat will co-operate. An anti-inflammatory injection may be given to reduce the pain in the gums and antibiotics given to heal the gingivitis. 

If the cat does need to have some or all of his teeth removed, changing his food to a ‘supermeat’ type or mashing his food well, even putting it in a blender, will help him. If you are a person who goes to work, extra time will need to be built in to your timescale to allow for food preparation. 

Cats that prefer to remain indoors for longer periods may also need to have their claws clipped to keep them from getting caught on carpets or clothing which could cause them discomfort if they try to pull themselves free. Owners can trim their cats’ claws themselves but great care is needed to avoid trimming too far down the claw in case the quick is cut by accident. This is akin to humans biting their nails well below the top of the finger – it is excruciatingly painful and is best done by a vet.

Garfield in the cat kennelHowever, just as sunshine is good (in moderate doses) for us humans in order for us to get the Vitamins A and D, so it is a good idea to encourage your cat to take the sunshine each day that he can. During the summer months, right after breakfast Garfield would go and stand outside by the shed where I kept my old sun lounger. I’d put it up for him, initially in a shady place and he’d clamber up and settle himself down, usually with my help. There he’d stay for most of the day, alternating between the lounger and the cat kennel to get out of the heat of the sun.

It’s also nice if you take a walk around the garden with your cat. He will enjoy your company and won’t feel quite as vulnerable, but remember not to stare at him while he’s going to the toilet – be discreet and walk further away from him. 

Just because a cat is old, it doesn’t mean that he should be ignored or left alone to get on with things. Cats still like to interact with their human families and a little time should be set aside for cuddles, grooming, and a general chat about life and the price of fish. But don’t expect him to rush around playing with the vigour and zeal of a kitten.

While I'm working in the house, I often call in to see Garfield on the sofa so that we can have a cuddle. Not only does this reassure him but knowing that I'm nearby makes him feel secure.

An older cat may need help with grooming, as he may not be able to reach those parts of his body that his younger self managed. Regular daily gentle brushing and combing will keep his coat free from dead hair and furballs from forming when he does wash himself. At this time, a gentle examination of his ears, teeth, eyes, and rear end will keep you abreast of any changes that you can report to the vet.

Grooming him daily will also keep your bond and is reassuring to an older cat. I often wash Garfield with an old face cloth which I have wrung out in warm water and gently wash his face, then smooth it down his back and each side. I don’t have the cloth dripping wet; it is virtually dry but it makes Garfield feel good and just cleans his fur. Then I take a Zoom Groom which has plastic nodules and brush him gently. This collects loose fur and massages his body, which feels good to him. Then, finally, I comb him with a wider toothcomb. This helps to untangle any matts that may have occurred because he’s not been grooming himself properly. If this is done on a regular basis this will help to stop matts from forming. If left, matts tighten the skin and become very uncomfortable for a cat. You only have to look at the disgusting state some owners let their Persians or other longhaired cats get into. The pain that matts cause a cat is indescribable. 

A cat previously used to going outside may wish to toilet in a litter tray so ensure that the tray is big enough for his needs and that it is placed somewhere discreet for him. He will not appreciate the tray in full view of the world and his wife in the middle of a room, for example, or in the hallway where there is maximum traffic. Also, you may need to get a tray with lower sides because arthritic knees may not allow a cat to lift his legs high enough to get over the side of the tray.

Once positioned, show him where the tray is, and he’ll do the rest. Some cats do become incontinent and great patience is needed. Never tell your cat off for these accidents – he is as mortified to have done it and would tell you so himself if he could remember. Alas, some cats do become senile and don’t remember what they’re doing, and a loving face with a smile gives a cat greater security than a frowning face that is shouting.

Cats can also go blind and deaf and can still live for many years with very little disruption to their lives. What is important for a blind cat is that you don’t move the furniture around because a cat will map out his territory by his whiskers so that he can ‘read’ where he is. If you keep changing things around, he will get ‘lost’. 

Likewise, it is pointless to shout at a cat that has become deaf. Instead, use your face and hands to communicate. Simple facial expressions accompanied by simple hand movements will encourage a cat to come when called for meals, for example, or just to come up for a cuddle.  Cats who are deaf often vocalise much louder than previously - much like people who are deaf often shout without realising it.

Older cats often vocalise much louder and more frequently because they feel vulnerable and lonely and if they are in a different room to the one you are in, they may just be calling to see you. Garfield calls me a lot now, and wherever I am, whatever I’m doing, I always go to see what he needs.

Sometimes, he just needs help getting down from the sofa to get his drink of water on the hearth; sometimes he just wants help in lying himself down in a more comfortable position. Sometimes, he just wants a cuddle. I sit down with him and we have the best of cuddles which usually ends up with him giving my face a thorough defoliating and an eyebrow reshape. At these times I’m just grateful that someone doesn’t come to the door when my eyebrows are both pointing the wrong way!! 

Some people think that getting another kitten or younger cat will perk up an older cat, but this is a very big mistake. It may work with an older dog but rarely works with older cats. Think of a 90 year grandfather suddenly having a new born baby to care for – it won’t work so don’t add this additional stress to your older cat’s last few months. It isn’t fair to him, plus it will make him think that the new cat or kitten is getting all the attention – which they invariably do when you first get them – and this will cause him distress. 

Cats are more sedate than dogs and prefer their homes to be quieter and kept in the usual routine. Offering him more quality time and extra loving care and you’ll be the beneficiary of his loving character and affection in his old age. 

If you are worried about any changes in your cat’s personality, his behaviour, his appetite, toileting habits, his moods, please see your vet as soon as possible. Never leave a cat to ‘see how things go’ – he could be in severe pain and you will be prolonging that pain.

And when it looks as though it’s time for your cat to move on to pastures new, your vet will advise you of the options available and help you to make that decision that all of us find so hard to make. 

© Pauline Dewberry 2004

Additional reporting by Garfield who shared my life for 20 wonderful years and 3 months

To read Helen Dowd's account of living with a blind cat please click here:


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