Easing Into the Senior Years
In September 1987 I took in an emaciated little scrap of gray tabby fur. The kitten was so weak it couldn’t sit up or even hold its eyes open for very long, but did its best to mouth a few pieces of roast chicken my mother had on hand. I didn’t recognize the signs of dehydration and thought the weakness was due to distemper, so common in my experience with cats found outdoors. It was a Sunday, and because emergency care wasn’t always available I decided on what I’d done with other cats: keep them comfortable overnight, and call the vet in the morning. In the morning the kitten was still weak but had actually managed to eat more chicken and crunch some dry food, and likely also drank some water. The veterinarian that night gave a dose of fluids, and told me just to make sure it ate and drank water, that it used the litterbox and was apparently comfortable, and bring it back in a few weeks for an exam. The kitten was so thin, and had likely been starving for some time, it was nearly impossible to tell its sex, but we guessed it was male.
I had very little experience with feline health and wellness beyond yearly vaccines and putting out a bowl of dry food and water to feed however many cats I had in the household at the time. But I had begun collecting books about cat care, reading about optimal environments, the importance of play, and that dry food was a poor diet in general because all the nutrients had been had been processed right out of the food. I was also exploring new plant-based diets for myself at the time and knew there was a whole line of truth in an appropriate diet that I’d grown up missing in the rush of 1960s and 1970s convenience foods for all, including dry pet foods. Just prior to taking in this kitten I had read the original version of The Natural Cat by Norma Eckroate and Anitra Frazier and learned about the specific needs of a cat’s diet, about high-quality canned foods, found recipes for making high quality cat food on my own, and also about feeding a raw diet, and it all made a huge amount of sense to me.
This kitten needed more than dry food and water, I didn’t need a book to tell me that. If it was to be in my care and survive I would find the best way to care for it. A raw diet was difficult to organize, but I am a skilled cook and was ready for a home-cooked diet as well as trying out high-quality canned foods. I went shopping, followed recipes, dished out bits of canned food that didn’t smell as if something had died in the can, and saw the little bedraggled rag of a kitten grow stronger in the course of days in the warm and cozy bathroom until on the fifth morning she ran behind the toilet and stared at me. This kitten was Moses, my first feral cat, the one who led me to a new understanding of not only feline behavior but also diet and health.
I took her back to the veterinarian the following week, and they were surprised to see she had not only lived but was feeling quite well—they hadn’t wanted to tell me how ill she was and really thought they’d see me back in a day or two, or hear that she’d died. She weighed in at one pound on that first visit the day after I’d taken her in; on the second visit she had gained a little over a pound and a full exam—she was the type of feral cat who froze in fear and wasn’t difficult to examine—showed she was not a tiny kitten, but was about five months old.
Moses lived a long and healthy life to age 19, and her recovery and following wellness from those early days set the stage for my lifelong learning about keeping cats well all their lives beginning with an appropriate diet. While she was still recovering I quit free-feeding my other cats and began adding high-quality canned and cooked meals to their diet, transitioning completely over in a couple of months. I have never again free-fed my cats, and aside from times when I could only afford a higher-quality dry food for a household of ten or more, I have always fed canned or home-cooked, and recently transitioned over to a mostly raw diet. In addition to the diet, I’ve also provided a safe home free of toxins, good for all of us, and containing lots of the things cats enjoy—places to run and climb and scratch, windows and doors to watch the world and enjoy fresh air, spots of sunshine, soft, warm sleeping spots, and toys and furniture that belong to only them. And as much love as they can handle from their human.
In return, of the 20 cats who’ve spent a significant portion of their lives with me (not counting the rescued fosters for whom I found new homes), eight have lived to be 18 or older and in good health until the end of their lives—Stanley amazingly living to 25—and most of the others reached the age of 15. Most of them did not begin their lives with me as all my cats have been rescues and nearly all were adults, even already seniors, and I had no control over their early life, but providing those things right away can help make up for lost time. I lost a few to cancer early on, like Allegro and Fawn who were each only ten when they passed from the effects of lymphoma, and Sally who was 15 when she died of the effects of an osteosarcoma in her jaw; we presume that Sophie had a mass in her throat when she died at age 17 or 18 but were never sure. Since the 1990s I have not had any such cancers in my household, never any diabetic cats, only Namir‘s inherent hypertrophic cardiomyopathy as far as heart disease, unfortunately Lucy‘s FIP, three males with urinary issues that I controlled/control with diet, and hyperthyroidism or renal failure has only appeared at age 19 or older, as an end-of-life condition.
Though I began this path by reading information in books, I always consult my veterinarian about new possibilities and changes. She may not feel informed enough about alternative therapies to advise me, and we may not always agree on my choices, but she would never see me harm or neglect one of my cats nor stand in my way if I felt something was right for them. Although I work with other veterinary hospitals for different therapies, I have had the same veterinarian for 20 years. She knows my household and me, and has taught me a good bit of what I know about everyday care, from administering sub-cutaneous fluids to the right way to give pills, how to determine if a cat is in pain or needs to see a veterinarian right away, and hundreds of other things I’ve used through the years to ensure my cats are well and healthy.
Cats are living longer and healthier lives, and unfortunately many of them end up in shelters at a time when they need people the most. It’s often the fear of illness or impending death that prevents people from adopting senior cats, but realistically assessing a cat, knowledge of common conditions to anticipate, and a veterinarian you trust can overcome that and give a cat who’s lost its home years more of a happy life. And I can tell you that, while I adored all of my cats through their lives, the last years, months, weeks and days with each of them, even with cats like Cream, Lakota, Emeraude and Kennedy who had only been with me a short time, were a deeper experience than I could ever have imagined, and something I would not have missed for all the fears of loss.
It’s the month to adopt senior pets, and a great time to rescue an older cat from a shelter and get to know that sort of love.
Read more Essays on The Creative Cat
and also read my articles about senior cats in general and my senior cats in particular.
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4 thoughts on “Easing Into the Senior Years”
My “new” senior Mister is now thriving – fast becoming spoiled and settling in for a good chapter in the unwritten book of his life. I wish I had insight to those previous chapters but he’s not talking!
I truly admire what you do for senior cats Bernadette..you fill the end of their lives with love and security..I have one senior left here..a Tortie who is 11 but she is healthy and active and still loves to run and play at times..Could you tell me at what age are cats considered senior..Bless you for all that you do..
LOVE. Just shared on G+. You know we’re crazy about older cats. Merlin is going to be the ASPCA Senior Pet Month spokescat.
I am Layla–kittens are cute, but those old ones have stories to tell. Con-cats to Merlin! This is one time in a long time I don’t have an old one.