Behavourist Vicky Halls gives an insight into what makes the older cat tick and how cats organise their owners!
CATS IN THE UK are living longer, have better nutrition and higher standards of veterinary care than ever before. We understand their specific requirements with regard to their changing physiology, but are we taking into consideration any increased emotional or behavioural needs? Do cats change that much as they get older?
In order to consider this question it may be helpful to examine the results of a survey conducted in 1995 of 1236 cats over the age of 12 throughout the UK. This is the first time that these details have been published having been conducted originally to generate interest and promote the special care of the elderly cat. This was a very subjective survey questionnaire so its value is in its anecdotal interest rather than any scientific significance. There certainly did seem to be some common changes in the cat's behaviour, many of which can be attributed to particular physiological deterioration or disease of the elderly. The really interesting information gleaned that cannot be explained quite so readily is the changing relationship between owner and cat and between cat and its animal companion. Hundreds of letters were received accompanying the completed questionnaires and these held some fascinating insights into the potential bond between human and cat.
The survey takes into account the results of surveys on 1236 cats. Of these, 5 per cent were less than 12 years old, 53 per cent were 12 to 15 years old, 36 per cent were 16 to 19 years old and 6 per cent were over 20.
Of the cats, 45 per cent were neutered males and 55 per cent were spayed females (less than I per cent were entire cats).
The oldest cat in the survey was Stevie who was 26 years old at the time of the survey. This cat was owned from a kitten so it is possible that this is accurate; many of the ages were given on cats that had appeared as adult strays so it is impossible to glean too much from the significance of age. 68 per cent of cats were owned from kittenhood and 32 per cent adopted as adult cats.
Domestic shorthairs accounted for 74 per cent of cats, with only 7 per cent being longhaired. Siamese and Burmese were the most popular breeds at 7 and 6 per cent respectively. The other 6 per cent were a mixture of pedigrees.
The first category owners were requested to give information on was nutrition. Fifty six of those surveyed said that their cat's appetite had stayed the same, with 20 per cent reporting that it had increased and 24 per cent that it had decreased. There are various physiological changes that occur in old age that can account for increases and decreases in the amount of food consumed. Decreased olfaction, visual acuity and the ability to taste will reduce the food intake because of the importance of the special senses in appetite stimulation. Dental problems can also be a consideration in older cats; periodontal disease affects 85 per cent of all cats to one extent or another and this can dramatically affect the appetite if the problem remains unresolved for any length of time. A general reduction in metabolic activity and exercise means the older cat will require less food and there is often a genuine need to reduce the calorific intake to avoid obesity. Other conditions such as hyperthyroidism can increase the appetite, but on the whole it appears that the majority of older cats maintain similar appetites throughout their lives until a disease process interferes.
Almost half of the owners surveyed had been 'trained' to feed their cat on demand. Only 1 per cent fed once a day, 26 per cent twice a day and 24 per cent three times a day. A cat left to its own devices would choose to eat a little and often and it is likely that cats fed twice daily (or once or three times) would return to the bowl several times during the course of the day. Feeding time is also an opportunity for loving interaction between cat and owner, there is also an innate feeling in most people that a good appetite is directly related to good health, and that feeding is also a way of expressing love for your animal. This concept was very apparent in many of the letters received accompanying the completed questionnaires.
The results showed a 50/50 split to the question 'has your cat become more fussy about food as he/she has got older?' Many cats had developed fussy appetites after being offered a large variety of alternative foods, all slightly more palatable than the last. Often a temporary 'loss of appetite' is sufficient to cause the owner to provide even tastier treats. This appears to be a manipulative and opportunist behaviour that many cats learn, not just the old ones. Owners will frequently offer food that they are eating themselves, while not all titbits are exciting, they are certainly worth investigating just in case. It appears also to be very comforting to have a cat enjoy human food, creating an even more common bond. People also tend to feel that the pleasures available to the elderly cat are limited and food is perceived as an important part of their lives. This goes a long way towards explaining how the aged cat can become ' fussy'. After all, there is little incentive to eat tinned food if there is smoked salmon in the fridge. If, however, a cat is inappetent in the latter stages of terminal illness or generally failing as a result of old age, it is often possible to feed tempting morsels and give them a decent quality of life at the end.
Just over half of owners reported their cats drank more water, 36 per cent said the cat drank no more than usual and 13 per cent said their cats didn't drink water at all. It is difficult to get anything meaningful from this section, a great deal of water is drunk outside and the taste of tap water is unpleasant to a lot of cats. There was also no correlation made between those that had a dry or tinned diet and their water consumption.
TOP 10 FAVOURED SLEEPING PLACES
1 Owner's bed (45 per cent)
2 Armchair (26 per cent)
3 Outside in the summer sun (11 per cent)
4 Near the radiator or in a hammock
5 Cat igloo/bed/basket
6 Airing cupboard
7 Owner's lap
8 Conservatory/greenhouse/ sun lounge
9 Anywhere in the sun indoors
10 Near the aga/boiler
The major pastime for the elderly cat is sleep. This includes everything from deep sleep to cat naps and resting with shut eyes. Forty per cent of the cats in the survey slept for more than 75 per cent of the time. Most of these cats were in the 16-19 and 20 and over age groups which certainly would be in line with the general ageing processes and the slowing of the metabolism. The majority (57 per cent) slept for 12-18 hours a day and only 3 per cent of those surveyed slept for less than 12 hours. Most owners reported their cats certainly slept more since they had been old. They are going out less, exploring less and generally doing less — enabling them to fill those voids with more opportunities for rest and sleep.
Seventy-eight per cent of owners said that their cats had a favourite place to sleep and it was not surprising to see that almost all the places chosen were near to a source of heat. As a cat ages, its ability to regulate its body temperature is reduced and an older cat is more prone to hypothermia and generally feeling the cold. It is also more likely to seek out a place that is soft, since loss of weight will lead to boney prominences which can so easily become sore if pressed on hard surfaces for any length of time.
Only 4 per cent of all the cats surveyed had lived exclusively indoors. Of the remainder, 55 per cent were going out less than they used to, 39 per cent were going out about the same amount but these tended to be in the 12-15 year age group; most of the 16 years plus were finding home comforts more attractive. Only 6 per cent were going out more often than before, these tended to be cats from multi-cat households which were reported to be less sociable and more remote with the other cats in their old age. The time spent in the younger years hunting and patrolling territories and being out in the cold and wet are, given the choice, almost bound to reduce in the older cat since thermoregulation and general mobility are declining. Hunting is inevitably going to suffer, visual and auditory senses are dimming and arthritic joints are not conducive to successful hunting. of those surveyed, about one third still hunted, one fifth had never hunted and almost half had completely stopped hunting.
Owners reported that about one third of the older cats were equally aggressive as when they were young when defending their territory against outsiders, and one third were more tolerant, choosing the 'live and let live' way of life. The remaining cats had either never fought (17 per cent) or ran away, ignored the outsider or glared from behind the safety of a window (20 per cent). The equally aggressive cats are probably maintaining the habits of old since it is doubtful they are coming off worse time and time again; their challengers are probably not calling their bluff.
The next section related exclusively to those cats who lived in multi-cat households — almost 60 per cent of those surveyed. Just over half had remained the same towards their companions in their geriatric years. It appears that cats vary as they get older, some mellow, some become cantankerous, some actively seek the company of other cats. The less tolerant and more remote were quite often those in households with kittens or young cats. The constant movement and play is not helpful to an old cat who just wants some peaceful uninterrupted sleep, so the idea that a new kitten will give an old cat a new lease of life is not always the case.
By far the largest amount of letters received related to the reactions of their elderly pets to the death of a cat friend. Almost half of the cats surveyed had outlived another and 60 per cent of those showed some visible reaction to the loss. The Siamese, Burmese and Birman were particularly well represented in this section. Almost all the reactions reported included searching and calling. Some told of their cats becoming more affectionate and demanding, some even said the cat improved tremendously and appeared more content since the loss of the other cat.
This subject seemed to grip the owners surveyed. It is interesting to note the number of cats who improved tremendously when new kittens were introduced. I do not feel this is a behaviour unique to old age. Similar instances have been reported in younger cats. The relevance of age is that the companions have often been together for a very long time and the desire for routine and lack of change appears to be heightened in the elderly. The loss of a long-term friend creates a profound difference in the household — grieving humans, changes of routine and the absence of a familiar part of the family unit probably causes the distressed calls and searching to try and return things to normal. The introduction of a kitten is sometimes the trigger which stops the unsettling behaviour by occupying the mind with a new source of company.
There is also the other side to the coin with those owners that reported the remaining cat ' blossomed ' on the demise of the other. It appears that passive oppression between cats may only become apparent when the assertive one is no longer there. The survivor can develop a more confident and friendly nature and start to sleep in the dead cat's favoured resting places. A mark of respect or the symbolic claiming of the rank of top cat? Probably the latter!
The Orientals, Siamese and Burmese are bred to be very devoted and loving towards their owners and they are often very sensitive to change and moods. It is quite understandable that they would become distressed at losing a cat companion if they bond in that same way with other cats. Whether it can truly be evidence of a grieving process as we understand it is debatable. In behavioural terms are we seeing a withdrawal response to an addictive relationship that has abruptly ended? When we lose a loved pet it is helpful in dealing with our own grief to feel that a remaining cat has an empathy with our sadness.
The owner/cat relationship
It is almost without exception that the elderly cat turns to us for love and attention in their old age. Over 80 per cent of the owners surveyed reported that their oldies had become more sociable/affectionate or more demanding of attention or both. Only 2 per cent felt they were less sociable, while the remaining 17 per cent stated they had always been very affectionate or independent and really hadn't changed at all. A number of people had experienced a tremendous change after a period of illness, resulting in a much more dependent and loving cat.
Vocalisation appears to play a big part in the ageing process. Two thirds of the cats surveyed use more sounds to get food and attention. As cats get older, their owners become more and more in tune with their needs and cats soon learn to play on this. It is not unusual for a variety of noises to be used if they result in attention, affection or food. Only 4 per cent of those surveyed said their cats called less, the remaining third felt they were calling about the same as they always had done.
Twenty eight per cent of cats called for attention at night and stopped only when they received attention or reassurance from their owners. Of these 346 cats, over half had started the behaviour between the ages of 10 and 15. As a cats ability to protect itself declines there appears to be a higher dependency on their owners for their security. Maybe these cats, having enjoyed additional attention during the day, feel in need of reassurance when their owners are not around in the night. Having tried successfully a number of times to illicit a response from their owners (this is a harsh distressed yowl that is difficult to ignore) they continue to perform the ritual as a learned behaviour. A number of owners reported that the calling stopped when the cat was allowed to sleep in the bedroom. However often the cat will jump off the bed and wander off downstairs only to repeat the behaviour. Deafness seems to play a role in the harshness of the cry and it is possible that chronic cerebral hypoxia (deficiency of oxygen supply to the brain) could possibly produce symptoms of senility and short-term memory problems causing general contusion at night. Cognitive dysfunction may also be a cause of a change in the sleep/wake cycle causing some cats to he more likely to be awake at night. There is also a possibility that hypertension (high blood pressure) causing general discomfort, headache and disorientation could easily promote a distress response. Night-time vocalisation is often reported as one of the behavioural signs in cats suffering from hyperthyroidism. This is a condition seen frequently in the elderly cat; a tumour on the thyroid gland causes metabolic changes including inc r eased heart and respiration rates, increased appetite and weight loss.
Other changes in habits and behaviour can be observed when the owner interacts with the elderly cat. The play response is still there for some but this mostly has to be instigated by the owner. The general deterioration of joints and mental agility make fast turns and rapid movements less possible. Only 10 per cent of owners said their cats still played regularly, almost half said they played occasionally and 15 per cent said they had stopped completely. The remainder had never played with their cats. A cat should be encouraged to play in its elderly years, to provide exercise and stimulation. The games may not be quite so boisterous but will certainly be beneficial for both cat and owner.
Grooming habits are affected by ageing, since stiffness makes it difficult for a cat to be supple enough to do the job thoroughly. The frequency may not alter until very old age but it is almost certain that areas will be missed. Over three quarters of cats still groomed regularly, 22 per cent occasionally and 2 per cent had stopped completely. This latter group also reported chronic illnesses and toilet accidents and this is in line with the idea that the very sick and elderly will not groom. Most elderly cats benefit greatly from combing and brushing from their owners with care taken about the prominence of the hones and the discomfort a harsh comb would cause.
Litter trays are provided for the elderly cat by over half of owners — the rest still chose to go outside. Twenty nine per cent of cats had toilet accidents since they had become elderly. A number of owners related these accidents to illness, eg, cystitis, a bout of diarrhoea or even the development of incontinence in the very elderly. Many older cats start to have 'accidents' indoors and this is often found to be a result of an increasing reluctance to urinate and defecate outdoors, either due to the presence of aggressive cats in the territory or an increased sensitivity to inclement weather conditions. The provision of an indoor litter tray invariably solves the problem.
Many owners spoke of a number of character changes and unusual behaviour which they have, possibly quite correctly, interpreted as senility. A blank expression, getting lost in familiar surroundings, constant yowling, lack of grooming, continuous pacing, inappropriate toileting, all with no obvious physical cause. There appears to be uncanny similarities between the symptoms shown in the elderly cat and a human dementia patient.
As discussed before, chronic illness is a factor in old age that can affect behaviour, for example kidney problems will make the cat drink more, deafness will make the cat unresponsive and more vocal. Thirty eight per cent of cats surveyed were suffering from chronic or terminal illness, the most common (according to the comments from the owners themselves rather than from a veterinary source) in descending order were:
Chronic renal failure
Advice to owners
Given the results of this survey it is possible to offer general advice to the owners of elderly cats specifically geared to behavioural considerations, for example:-
• Provide a number of warm, soft and quiet resting places for the cat to spend a significant proportion of its time. If these places are high then care should be taken to offer a number of steps up to assist arthritic joints.
• Continue to stimulate the elderly cat's mental agility with gentle games.
• Groom the elderly cat regularly using soft brushes and combs, particularly around the base of the spine and other areas that are no longer accessible to the cat. Take care to avoid areas where the bones are prominent.
• Consider a new animal addition to the family carefully before going ahead. If an old cat appears distressed or lonely following the death of a companion allow a reasonable period to elapse before considering a replacement. This may be anxiety as a result of the change in routine rather than a genuine loneliness.
• Routine is extremely important particularly at times when family members are away from the home. Friends or professional house-sitters should be employed to care for the elderly cat in its own home to avoid the distress of a change in environment, unless the cat has always been used to frequent cattery visits.
• Consider the provision of indoor litter facilities if there is any suspicion that the elderly cat is being bullied outside or appears reluctant to go out in bad weather.
• For the very elderly, whose world appears to reduce in size the older they get, provide a bed, food, water and litter facilities in reasonable proximity to each other so that they are all easily accessible. (This is probably the only exception to the rule: keep toilet and eating arrangements apart).
• Seek veterinary advice for harsh night-time vocalisation.
There are obviously many other considerations which will depend on the individual cat. Advice of this kind can be given by veterinary practices, catteries, breeders, rescue centres and pet behaviour counsellors.
As you can see, there is such a variation in the cat's response to age due to genetic, dietary and many other considerations. Some look older at ten than others do at 20. The only conclusion that can possibly be made is that every cat is an individual and that doesn't change as they get older. Most obvious behaviour patterns in the elderly cat have their roots in physiological changes and the general ageing process. Others relate to the cat's incredible and almost unique ability to train human beings.
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