I met a cat in her early twenties last week. I couldn’t believe it. Even more impressive, Buttercup looked healthy and was completely aware of what was going on. She had that curious feline gleam in her eye; it was apparent that Buttercup was still mentally sharp.
Thanks to modern veterinarian care, cats have a longer lifespan than they used to. In fact, more and more cats are reaching the ages of middle teens all the way through to the early twenties, like Buttercup. When I look into our eight-year-old cat’s eyes, my heart melts. Like most responsible pet owners, we would do anything to keep this little guy healthy and happy, and hope that we have at least ten more good years with him.
But there’s more to it than just keeping your pet physically well. Older cats run the risk of developing feline cognitive dysfunction (FCD) — the feline equivalent of Alzheimer’s disease — if their brains aren’t stimulated enough. The best advice is to start at a young age; it’s essential to keep your cat’s brain active and sharp well before feline cognitive dysfunction has a chance to take hold. The best thing you can do is begin training your cat’s brain early. Studies show that you can slow the advancement of mental deterioration by ensuring your feline friend is physically active and mentally stimulated throughout her life, starting in kittenhood.
With this in mind, here are a few easy tips for keeping your cat’s brain mentally sharp well into her twilight years.
The age a cat is considered “senior” varies depending upon who you ask. Even the so-called “cat experts” disagree. Some think an 8-10 year old cat is a senior, others put the age between 10-12 or 12-14, and some say as young as 7 years old. In their Senior Care Guidelines, the American Association of Feline Practitioners puts it this way: “There is no specific age at which a cat ‘becomes senior.’ Individual animals and body systems age at different rates.”
My cat Mickey is almost 15; Rocky and Annabelle will be 11 in July. So they’re all seniors, but still alert, active, playful and at times (overly) rambunctious. They may not always act like youngsters, but they do have moments where their inner kitten comes out to play. That’s a good thing, even though at 5 a.m. it might seem otherwise.
Play is very important to all cats, perhaps even more so to senior cats because it can keep them “young in spirit” which helps combat the effects of aging. We see this in older people all the time – those who are active not only live longer but have more vitality. I let my inner child come out to play as often as possible, and try to help my senior cats find their inner kitten, too.
I wrote an article a short time ago about living with an older dog. Our Bear is definitely showing her age, and many times her irritability makes it hard to do anything that helps her feel better. If you have an older dog, you may want to start making some changes around your home that will make life easier for them. I like to think of it like dealing with an elderly person who doesn’t want to admit there are things bothering them. Changes are made gradually and are designed to give them a choice without any attention drawn to the easier choices when they begin making them.
While your dog may have always flopped down for a nap wherever he felt like it, you can make it more comfy by placing therapeutic “egg carton foam mattress” dog beds in their favorite places. Bear has a hidey hole in the bathroom where she likes to lay away from the hustle and bustle of the house. She also has her spot next to our bed when she’s too stiff to go underneath it, and a spot beside the couch where she lays when she’s feeling sociable. Her cushioned beds in those places are new additions that make her favorite napping spots more comfortable, easier on her joints and warmer.
If your dog has trouble with the stairs, there are a few things you can do. Non-slip mats on the stairs will help your dog balance out unsteady steps without fear of slipping and falling. Moving food and water to a place where your dog spends most of her time can help cut down on the trips up and down the stairs. We have a terrible set of spiral stairs that are difficult for humans to navigate. Bear has always flown up and down them much faster than me, but now she tends to stumble and stops midway to rest. I worry constantly about her falling down the steps. My better half has declared that when Bear is unable to manage the steps he will build her a slide. My job is to make sure that does not happen – I don’t want her sliding to the basement, so I am making it more comfortable for her on the main level of the house. If everything she needs is upstairs, she won’t need to go down the steps.
My mother-in-law recently decided to add a heartbeat or two to her solitary life. We went to the animal shelter with her because she wanted our advice and moral support. I’m amazed that my husband and I didn’t come home with another four-legged family member, but that’s beside the point.
She set out to adopt an adult cat because she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to keep up with a kitten or adolescent cat’s high energy level. What’s more, we know that adult cats are harder to place and, as a rule, we try to help the animals like that.
When we entered the shelter, we told the staff what we were there for. They offered helpful advice on various adoptable cats that fit her criteria. After a brief conversation, we walked the aisles, surveying the available cats and watching my mother-in-law’s reactions. It was during this time that the shelter manager approached us and started in with her targeted and compassionate sales pitch. Mind you, this is the same shelter that has – thankfully – talked my husband and me into many pets that we didn’t intend to bring home. They’re good, very good!
We all know that adults and especially children gravitate towards the kittens and puppies in a shelter. Let’s face it, older animals just don’t radiate the same cuteness that the snuggly little kittens and puppies do, so adult animals often get ignored. Even so, there are real and measurable benefits to adding an adult pet (or two) to your family.
The past year has opened my eyes to the joys (?) of living with an aging/elderly dog. Bear is almost 11, and she is showing her age.
As a fairly large dog, she is experiencing some arthritis and hip dysplasia symptoms. We’ve had to get her a thick comfy therapeutic bed, which she loves. The hard part is convincing her that she is too old and stiff to still go under our bed. It’s always been her favorite place. When she gets under there, I find myself having to pick up the bed enough for her to stand up and limp out.
When her hip locks up on her, I sit in the floor and massage her leg while she whimpers. This is a very emotional thing for me, because I can’t stand when she cries. Fortunately this is not a daily thing, and if I can keep her from going under the bed or jumping around and acting like a much younger dog, then she doesn’t hurt too much. So far we’ve been pretty lucky that Bear hasn’t developed more health problems like the ones Ruthie Bently discussed in Common Health Issues for Older Dogs.
With her old age, Bear has begun to be quite moody. If you’ve read some of my other posts about Bear you know that she is not a very social dog. She loves her family and is tolerant of our guests, but lately she makes it clear that she doesn’t like people visiting. When someone comes to the door she has always barked until we let them in. Once she saw us let them in and she was able to sniff them she’d be quiet and go lay down somewhere. These days when anyone comes over she barks and barks. They go into another room and she quiets down until she hears one of them laugh or talk and she barks some more. It’s almost like she forgets someone is here until she hears their voice, then she has to warn them that it’s her house.
My friend Karen recently adopted a senior dog with general arthritis and hip dysplasia. Good for her, right? It started with a conversation we were having about the high number of senior dogs in shelters, and how sad it was for an older dog to live out his or her days behind bars. In our local shelter, senior dogs make up about 10% of the overall population at any given time. When trying to understand why, a shelter worker told us that oftentimes families surrender their senior dogs when they reach an age where they require extra care. What a shame.
Karen’s goal is to provide her new dog, Goldie Girl, with a safe and comfortable home during her twilight years. Their union is heartwarming; it’s amazing how quickly Goldie Girl and Karen have bonded. And the dog seems to have turned back the clock several years. She holds her head a bit higher and her limp is less pronounced. Karen attributes the quick bonding and Goldie Girl’s improved physical state to massage.
The article I wrote titled The Benefits of Massage Therapy for Pets helped convince Karen that her new dog would get a lot out of regular massages, but she didn’t want to cause Goldie Girl any additional pain. Having no experience with massage, Karen went looking for advice on how to massage an older, arthritic dog. She found what she was looking for on The Dog Channel, where there is a helpful tutorial on massaging a senior dog. Here are some simple pointers.
Why massage an arthritic dog?
Arthritis is a degenerative disease that causes pain and soreness in a dog’s joints, specifically the hips, lower spine and knees, and, less severely, to the elbows and shoulders. Massaging your senior dog’s aching muscles a few minutes every day will help slow down the degenerative process of arthritis. Furthermore, massage can help relieve some of your dog’s arthritis pain and reduce some of the muscle tension associated with the disease.
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