It’s always hard to watch our pets getting older. Over time, we might notice small changes. Greying around the nose and eyes, sleeping more, changes in weight and appetite, accidents outside of the litter tray, maybe impairments in hearing or sight, and altered behaviour. Whilst it’s true that ageing, as a natural process, will cause some changes in your cat, it is also imperative that any signs are taken seriously because they could well mean illness. 

What is the normal lifespan for a cat?

All cats are individuals, so there’s no hard and fast rule. Realistically, cats are considered to be ageing when they get to around 12 years old. However, with advances in pet and veterinary care and, therefore, improved health and wellbeing throughout their lives, cats are frequently living into their twenties. Some cats may, in fact, be healthy throughout their entire lifespans up until this age. Others, however, may suffer from illness or poor health earlier on and may not live so long. 

End of life care

End of life care doesn’t just apply to our geriatric cats. It also means those cats with terminal illnesses (such as some tumours) and those suffering from chronic, debilitating conditions which gradually diminish their quality of life. If your pet is unwell and under the care of your veterinarian, they can help you manage your cat’s comfort and maximise their quality of life as far as possible.

However, even geriatric cats who appear fine will also benefit from annual or six-monthly checks. This helps identify anything that may be brewing and get on top of it before they become very unwell. 

What does your cat need?

Medication is the obvious one, ensure they get the right treatment as often as prescribed. 

If you’re used to providing treats to administer tablets, bear in mind that your cat’s sense of smell might reduce with age. This means that you may need to play around with different treats. Perhaps enquire at your vets as to whether different forms of the medication are available (for example, syrup instead of tablets). 

It’s important to make sure your cat is comfortable. 

Providing a warm, soft bed is essential. If your cat is older, finds it hard to get about, or has impaired sight, then it’s a good idea to keep food and water bowls within easy reach for them, it may also be a good idea to keep various of these and litter trays around the house so they have easy access. Cats that are less mobile might benefit from adapting their litter trays so they don’t need to jump in and out, finding ones with low sides or even cutting an entrance for them will help.  

Cats that are unwell or ageing may neglect their own self-care. 

It’s not a bad idea to have their nails trimmed, ask your local vets to do this if you struggle. Also, make sure to take some time to groom them daily, this helps to prevent hairballs and it stimulates oil glands in the skin which helps to keep the coat in good condition. They will probably appreciate the extra attention from you too. 

Try to keep a steady routine for your older pet

They appreciate regularity and certainty, so feed and offer them dedicated attention at the same times each day. Keep their food, water and litter in the same places, especially for blind and very senile cats, keeping things predictable helps them out. Bear in mind that this isn’t going to be a good time to introduce new pet family members, older and poorly cats find it harder to adapt to changing circumstances and they would probably feel overwhelmed.  

When is it ‘time’?

Unsurprisingly, there isn’t a right answer to this question. Your veterinarian can help you, we will often have a conversation digging deep into the ups and downs of your cat’s daily life. This can help you to appreciate when their quality of life is becoming too diminished, but, in the end, you must make the decision yourself.

Your veterinarian doesn’t live with your cat, see them daily, or see how they behave and interact at home, you do. You are their family; they have trusted you to care for them throughout, and they will trust you to care for them at the end. You are the one best placed to appreciate the changes in their behaviour that start to tell you that the day is approaching. 

What do you need to look out for?

The signs, indicating that the time to let your cat go is nearing, often start gradually. You might notice that your cat seems in more pain (maybe they are crying, or just not moving so much) despite adequate medication. They may soil their beds despite your efforts to make their litter as accessible as possible. Often cats will start hiding in places around the house or garden, or retiring from attention to spend most of the day sleeping. In many cases, we subconsciously start making the decision to let them go based on how often we see such things happening. 

Try not to feel guilty

When an owner asks our professional opinion, we very often see that they’ve already assessed it’s nearly time, but they feel guilty. We know it feels like an impossible decision, we’ve been in the same situation for our own pets, but please remember that it’s a brave thing to do to let your beloved pet go with respect and love, forsaking your own heartache. 

Personally, I always get choked-up putting pets to sleep. As a veterinarian, it’s part of daily life but it’s not something that you just become numb to, if anything, as time goes on, I feel each one more. However, what I do appreciate is that it gives me the unique blessing of seeing just how much your pets are loved, and it fills my heart every time.

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