Caring for Aging Cats


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AAFP’s updated Senior Care Guidelines aim to give veterinary teams a well-rounded understanding of the changing needs of each individual senior cat.

Earlier this year, the American Association of Feline Practitioners released updated 2021 Feline Senior Care Guidelines in an effort to provide emerging advances in feline medicine with respect to the aging cat. The Guidelines, along with additional supplemental resources, encourage veterinary teams to have a well-rounded understanding of the changing needs of each individual senior cat, according to the association.

“Veterinary professionals are encouraged to use the 2021 AAFP Feline Senior Care Guidelines to enhance their assessment and treatment of age-associated medical conditions and to provide guidance to clients so they are included in their cat’s health care team,” stated Task Force Co-chair, Hazel Carney, DVM, MS, DABVP (Canine/Feline).

The Guidelines detail common issues in aging cats including pain management, nutrition, and weight management, diseases and conditions, quality of life, and end-of-life decisions. The newly emerging concept of frailty is introduced in these Guidelines and how practitioners can incorporate this into the senior cat assessment.

Caregiver considerations

The Task Force also recognizes the impact caring for an aging cat has on the cat caregiver. Veterinarians are asked to consider four budgets of care when making treatment plans: financial, time, emotional, and physical. The weight of each of these budgets will vary for each caregiver and it is important to recognize this when having decision-making discussions.

“Although all owners say they want what is best for their cats, providing ‘the best’ requires financial, temporal, emotional, and physical commitment,” said Carney. “Only rarely do owners have all four budgets in abundance and few cats allow treatments that can exhaust all four budgets. An open, honest discussion of the goals an owner has for the cat considering the prognosis and how much time, money, psychological reserve, and physical abilities an owner has will allow the veterinarian to help the client choose both the most realistically attainable and least stressful care for the cat and the cat’s family. This helps to maintain the bond between the cat and all its caregivers including the veterinary team.”

Quality of Life discussion

The Guidelines detail specific discussions on how quality of life (QOL) and health-related quality of life (HRQOL) impacts the aging cat and emphasizes veterinarians and cat owners partnering to make well-informed decisions for each individual senior cat. The AAFP is also providing additional supplementary resources to veterinary teams including information on Quality of Life (QOL) and Health-Related Quality of Life (HRQOL) instruments, video demonstrations on myofascial examination techniques, and cat-friendly tips for dental exams.

Pain, disease complications, and the loss of control over life that aging diseases cause will decrease a cat’s QOL said Carney. Owners want aging cats to be happy, comfortable and continue to enjoy life.

“Many owners, however, need guidance to recognize and understand how the changing behavior and environmental comfort needs of an older cat affect the cat’s daily activities,” she said. “The AAFP resources give excellent examples of provocative questions that elucidate levels of change; they provide pictures of alternative ways to offer mental stimulation, food, water, latrines, resting areas, low impact exercise and an improved sense of security; and they discuss ways to monitor behaviors so an owner can better evaluate a cat’s evolving QOL and recognize significant signposts of progressive disease or discomfort.”

Photo of Family with senior cat speaking with vet representative of caring for aging cats.
Owners want aging cats to be happy, comfortable and continue to enjoy life.

Common ailments

The following are some of the most common age-associated medical conditions that veterinarians will
see in their senior feline patient base, according to
Dr. Hazel Carney:

  • Hyperthyroidism, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, degenerative joint disease, and occult pain are very common among aging cats and often occur together.
  • Dental disease and gastrointestinal problems, even if present in younger ages, may progress significantly.
  • Heart disease and hypertension, although they may be new diagnoses, are often secondary to hyperthyroidism or renal aging.
  • Cancer and cognitive dysfunction become more likely as well. Sarcopenia, cachexia, and frailty syndromes may result from aging and the interaction of aging with associated diseases.