Dealing with aging cats far from ‘purrfect'

I haven't been sleeping well lately. I usually wake up two or three times before my alarm rings at 7 a.m. My early awakening is by the hand -- or should I say it is by the paw -- of my demanding feline; Starboard.

With a paw- swat to my face or a loud "MEOW!" in my ear, she lets me know it is time for first, second, or even third breakfast. This 19-year-old orange tabby cat is set entirely in her ways, which has only gotten worse in the past couple of years. Thus, is the life of a senior cat owner.

The pets in my world consist of two older cats, Port and Starboard, sisters from the same litter. These dignified ladies were stray kittens of about six-weeks-old when my brother found them in the woods and brought them to my mother.

Orange female cats are rare, so it made sense to give them unique, unusual names. My mother is a Navy veteran, and these symmetrical, ginger fluffballs were officially deemed Port and Starboard in keeping with mom's nautical background. Their arrival was in August of 2001. Here we are in 2021. I have long since moved back into my mom's house, and my kitty "sisters" have accepted me as one of their own. They are as affectionate and loving as you would want your cat to be. However, they also have expected me to be their servant, especially Starboard.

This is where the morning wake-up calls come into play. When humans age, they can begin to develop memory loss and some confusion. Senior cats develop behavior changes as they age too. New behavior traits that may develop in an elderly cat could be excessive vocalization, wandering, disorientation, and hiding. Starboard's behavior changed significantly about two years ago. She produced all the above actions along with a desire to be fed several times a day. She decided this should start around 4 a.m. She climbs on me and begins with several head "boops," which I choose to ignore at that hour of the morning. Then comes the concerto. I often call it her "yodel." Loud, sharp meows exit her vocal cords as she unsheathes her claws and taps several times on my nose or the side of my face. Usually, it isn't too forceful of a swipe, but I know that she will put some more effort into waking me if I don't comply. I have had the scratches to prove it. She climbs all over me, which is not easy for her as she is not as steady on her feet as she once was. To make sure she doesn't slip, she sinks her claws into my skin ever-so-slightly like little cleats on a soccer field. She is relentless, and to make sure there is no bloodshed (from me), I concede.

I am now in the routine of going back to sleep after these early morning persuasions, but they usually happen again once or twice before I'm ready to stay awake for the day.

Geriatric cats are usually in the 15 years and older range. They unquestionably require extra attention and care. Behavioral changes can generally be controlled or reduced. Both Port and Starboard excessively "meow." They both enjoy yodeling in the wee hours of the morning or directly after they eat. I'd love to know what that means. It seems like they are the noisiest when they are wandering around the house. It's as if they feel lost or are looking for a person. The solution is to get their attention and give a little scratch behind the ears to let them know everything is okay. Once that is satisfactory, they will follow you back to wherever you go and relax there. Hearing loss may be another reason for the commotion. They aren't aware of how loud they are.

Older cats don't groom themselves as well as they used to. The inability to properly groom can lead to matting and skin irritation. Port and Starboard have many combs and brushes I use to keep them groomed and mat-free. Keeping up with this job is no easy feat. I need to brush and comb them every day to keep their coats nice.

Degenerative joint disease, or arthritis, is also common for aged cats. It may not be easy to notice when they are just moving around, but signs appear if you pay attention. Senior cats may stop jumping up on top of places where they used to enjoy hanging out.

I provided Port and Starboard with a few sets of kitty-size stairs to help them reach places they can't quite jump to anymore. I also created a bridge from the couch to the chair for easy access to where Starboard likes to sleep.

Urinating outside of the litter box or on the litter box's sides might also indicate some arthritis. If you have a cat of any age that has begun to urinate outside of the litter box, it is vital to take them to their vet to rule out illness. Inappropriate elimination sometimes is a sign that there is a medical problem. Once they receive a clean bill of health from the veterinarian, you can consider that using the litter box may be painful for them due to the inability to properly "squat." I swapped out their old litter box for a new one with a low, wide opening for easy entry. It also has a high back and sides, so they won't need to worry about getting into an uncomfortable position to aim correctly.

I'm aware that some may wonder why I go to the lengths I do to feed my cat six different (small) meals a day, respond to early wake-ups, give extra brushing sessions, and add special assistance to access furniture. I love my cats, and the answer is that simple. Aging is not a disease, and it is a part of their life and mine. They aren't going to be with me forever. I could have another year with them, two years, or just a day. The extra care can be complicated, but it's manageable. I owe them the ability to age happily and comfortably. It is the absolute least I can do.n

The author is a certified veterinary technician.