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Caring for the Senior Alien

Our Cats Own Us; Here’s What To Do

Seniors are special in all species, but today we are going to focus on the felines.

I hope you are all familiar with some of the cat memes and jokes going around where we humans are the alien captors, because those are the goggles I want you to put on. (For those unfamiliar, a few of my favorites are noted after the article’s end.)

Cats are strange creatures. They definitely don’t fit the same pleasing mold that most dogs fall into. We own our dogs, but are owned by our cats. With the huge improvements in nutrition and veterinary care, we are seeing our cats live longer lives – meaning more years to manipulate us humans into serving their needs big and small.

We used to consider cats as seniors around age eight, but with the average life span stretching from 12-14 years to 16-18 years, true senior years may now begin a little later. However, the physiologic changes that we associate with middle age do begin when a cat reaches eight to 10 years of age (about the human equivalent of 40 to 50).

So as human captors, what can we do better to take care of our aging alien cats?

Cats are masters of hiding illness, so the first key to senior care is regular veterinary examinations. Once over age eight, your kitty should see their veterinarian every six months. I can see you rolling your eyes, but here’s why: Six months for your cat is the equivalent of a human aging two to three years. And, once a senior, an internal physical evaluation via laboratory values of blood and urine should be performed. This lets us screen for many changes of aging and disease that we can treat or support.

Identifying pain in cats is a harder game. They don’t show pain as simply as we do. More often they keep obvious signs of pain quiet or we poor human captors may see a behavior change to which we attribute other causes. But we know from recent large volume studies that more than 90 percent of senior cats have radiographic evidence of arthritis in their back or knees.

So what can we do to help manage pain and mobility issues? Again, see your veterinarian to formulate a plan specific to your cat, but here are a few:

Weight management: More than 70 percent of cats are overweight and that has a huge impact on mobility and pain. We are just learning in medicine about the physiology of fat and its huge negative secretory capacity. Fat is not inert and secrete pro-inflammatory and inflammatory cytokines that lead to pain. And, weight can have a significant impact on simple movement – it’s a vicious cycle, if it hurts you don’t move much and then you gain weight.

Environmental accommodations: When something hurts, automatic changes occur, but our feline friends don’t do a good job explaining their new accommodation (pooping outside the litter box?) and we often attribute to malicious intent. But, if your back hurts from arthritis, are you going to want to take a trip from the top floor to the basement? For older kitties, as much as your home space allows, have a litter box on each level. Also make sure that the threshold of the litter boxes are not hugely tall, making getting in to the box more difficult if your back, knees and/or elbows are sore. (We’ll focus on more aspects of litter boxes for happy, healthy cats in a future article.) Help them with access to cushy places with pet stairs or strategically placed ottomans, to allow access without big jumps.

Pain Management: Once identified, there are many options, both non-medication and medication, to help manage pain. We are learning more every year about how pain works and its impacts on function in both humans and animals. There is no one mode of pain management for a patient, but rather a personally tailored mix of supplements, medication and physical management (laser, acupuncture, physical therapy, etc.).

As the caretaking captor of a senior feline alien, take a look at their world from their perspective, and seek partnership with your veterinarian in developing the best care plan for these special creatures.

Favorite Cat-Captor Memes

1. Henri – le chat Noir: Google this wonderful existential pondering of a very sophisticated cat.

2. Cat Diary: Google this term and you will find yourself in a highly entertaining rabbit hole.

Dr. Margot can be reached at

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