During my career working with cats in a rescue environment, I became aware that older cats were often overlooked. It became apparent that owners are not fully educated on the welfare of ageing cats. Starting senior cat clinics to educate owners on the extra attention ageing cats need and what they can do to make a difference became a way of addressing this deficit. The Royal Canin Feline Healthy Ageing Clinic supports longitudinal studies into the ageing of cats. We aim to fill the gap in knowledge on the ageing process of cats, educate owners on how they can recognise signs of ageing, and encourage them to make small changes to improve the quality of life of their cat.
Ageing cats have specific emotional and physical needs, and these can easily be provided by the owners with a little education and advice. While veterinary professionals may be good at conducting physical examinations, communicating appropriately with clients can be challenging. It is key to ensure that there is plenty of time for a consultation involving an ageing cat. Not only does this allow the cat to settle, but it provides ample opportunity for gathering and disseminating information.
This can be facilitated when practices run a bespoke senior cat programme, usually overseen by an enthusiastic veterinary nurse. Veterinary nurses are great at discussing the above points with owners and referring the older cats for a nurse clinic is another useful way to communicate important information to owners. The veterinary nurse can be the first point of contact with the owner in the nurse consultation, and then refer to the veterinary surgeon if they have any further concerns for the patient.
Recognising the signs
Educating the owner on how to recognise subtle changes in their cat during the ageing process is the first step to improving health of the patient, and such awareness can be empowering for owners. Cats show subtle signs of discomfort and so can be tricky to evaluate; using a questionnaire to help gather information can be useful and should ensure nothing is missed. A questionnaire like that in Table 1 can be given to the owner when they book the first appointment for the senior clinic or posted ahead of time. Alternatively, the questionnaire could be uploaded to the practice website or social media so owners could complete it online.
Gaining information from the home environment is invaluable because many clinical signs, for example those arising from osteoarthritis, are subtle in cats and may not be observed in the consultation. The cat’s behaviour at home is also a key indicator as to how the patient is coping with the ageing process. Avoiding interaction with members of the family or other pets and appearing “on edge” or nervous can indicate that they are feeling vulnerable in their environment, perhaps due to pain or illness.
Discussing the feeding habits is also important; cats can begin to lose their sense of smell as they age and no longer find the food as inviting as it used to be. Warming the food slightly can improve the smell and palatability.
Using open-ended questions, such as “What changes have you seen in the last year?”, encourages owners to provide more detail about any changes they have recognised, and improve the quality of information overall. Getting
them to open up and talk about their pet engages them to the next step of the consultation. Owners (especially cat owners!) enjoy talking about their pets, so the conversation is usually free-flowing. Once you have captured information with an open-ended question, you can follow up with more targeted questioning in areas of key importance.
Helping the owner to understand the needs of their ageing cat
After you have gathered sufficient information from a history, a detailed physical examination should be conducted. It helps to talk through what you’re looking for and why; this will raise further awareness of important changes that the owner can monitor in the future. For example, claws can become thickened if the cat is less able to groom and begin to grow into the pads causing discomfort and lameness (Figures 1 and 2). This can be illustrated and explained during the physical examination. A great tip is to talk to the cat rather than the owner. Not only does this help the owner see that you care about their cat, it is also less confrontational if new findings are identified that require a delicate conversation (for example, unwanted weight gain).
While carrying out a dental examination, show the owner how to check the mouth and point out signs of disease if noted. Preliminary data from the Royal Canin Feline Healthy Ageing Clinic has shown that over a third of cats have dental disease by 10 years of age, two thirds of which have feline oral resorptive lesions (Figure 3). Cats usually have a strong drive to eat, and so will often continue to eat without obvious signs of pain, even in the face of advanced dental disease. Educating the owner on what can happen and what it looks like will make the owner more aware of smaller changes to their eating habits and encourage them to routinely check the mouth.
Encouraging the owner to make changes that can improve quality of life
Owners can make very small changes that can have a huge impact on the cat’s welfare and quality of life. As cats age, their water intake often increases because older cats are prone to conditions that predispose them to dehydration. Many owners are unaware of tips to promote water intake. For example, many cats prefer fresh water, running water, large shallow bowls and to drink from a source away from their food or litter tray. Based on preliminary data from cats attending our clinic, the water bowl is placed next to the food bowl for 68 percent, while 45 percent of these cats choose to drink from other sources such as the bath, shower, outdoor puddles and glasses etc.
Advise owners to provide easier routes up to high spaces such as windowsills and beds. Moving side tables and coffee tables can be enough to help, but specific steps can be produced if necessary. Placing a step under the cat flap can make it easier for cats to get in and out of the house. Owners may mention that their cat keeps scratching the carpet instead of their scratch post. Providing a horizontal scratch mat can resolve this as cats get older and osteoarthritis causes discomfort when stretching up to use a vertical scratch post.
Toileting accidents can begin to occur as their mobility changes, and they may find wooden litter uncomfortable to stand on. They can also find high-sided litter trays difficult to get in to, and hooded trays can force a crouching position which can be painful and difficult for the older, stiffer cat. Advising owners to provide large, open, low-sided litter trays with soft substrate can help to prevent toileting accidents.
Simple adjustments can be made should an older cat begin to limit their activities to one part of the house or struggle to climb the stairs. Owners can ensure that all necessary resources are available and easily accessible, for example on both levels of a house. This is especially important with multi-cat households. When cats begin to age, they can feel vulnerable in certain situations, so advise the owner to provide plenty of food, water, litter trays and warm places up high that are easily accessible where they can rest while avoiding any conflict.
Owners may be unaware of the subtle changes of ageing in cats and may be missing opportunities to improve their cat’s quality of life. Discussing these in a consultation is imperative to achieving the best experience for the cat and owner. Raising awareness of ageing can have a positive impact on the quality of life of cats, and if the owner changes just one aspect of the provided care, it will make a difference to the welfare of that cat.