Aging Cats and Saying Goodbye
Time passes very quickly when we own cats. All too soon it will be time to say goodbye. Please know that you are supposed to outlive your cat. Saying goodbye is the most difficult thing of all about being a cat owner.
Cats live to be about fifteen to twenty years old, and we keep hearing about cats that are even older than that. (The worlds’ record longest living cat is 36 years.) Aging brings on problems in cats that are similar to those of aging people, such as stiff joints and failing eyesight and hearing.
Signs of aging include reduced mobility, diminished appetite and corresponding weight loss, and occasional incontinence. When you first notice one of these symptoms, ask the veterinarian to give your cat a physical and a blood test.
As your cat ages and has trouble getting around, there are several things you can do:
- Unless otherwise instructed by your veterinarian, feed your cat whatever she wants, whenever she wants—even “no-no” foods such as tuna or baby food. Feed her whenever she’s hungry because all too soon she will lose her appetite completely. Feed an older cat many meals a day so she doesn’t have to process so much food at once. Stop using low-fat or “senior” food—you now need to help your cat fight the tendency to lose weight.
- Don’t feed her dry food any more, it strains the kidneys which often are the first major organs to quit.
- Add a small amount of filtered water to any food you feed her to help hydrate her.
- To keep her fit, keep encouraging her to use the scratching post. Have one by her bed. You also should take her on short walks outside. But remember that she isn’t good at protecting herself now so be sure to supervise her at all times.
- Keep a litter box and water bowl on each level in your home. Asking an elderly cat to climb stairs (and relatively tall stairs at that) to relieve herself is unreasonable. Make toilet provisions on every level for a cat that has trouble getting around.
When we get old, everything we do is more of a challenge.
- Brush and massage your senior cat often. Elderly cats aren’t able to groom themselves as they once used to, and they will appreciate a tender, loving touch.
- Have a night-light so your cat can find her litter box more easily at night.
- Put a warm, draft-free bed at floor level so she doesn’t have to climb or jump to take her nap.
- Gently massage, or simply hold, her frail body whenever you have the time.
A Cat’s Final Days
When your cat’s appetite and bladder control are completely gone, her breathing is difficult, or she drinks constantly, she may be near the end. Check with the veterinarian.
Feed her as much food as she wants to eat, but that probably won’t be very much now.
As the end nears, you will need to make some horrible decisions. Dying at home in “her own time” is often not without suffering. You may want to consider euthanasia. It’s a difficult decision to let go, but sometimes it’s more humane to have a compassionate veterinarian gently put her to sleep.
If you decide to have her put to sleep, make arrangements with the veterinarian. Many veterinarians will come to your house, or you can take your cat to the vet’s office. (It’s best to have the vet come to your home, so she can die at home.) While you’re on the phone, discuss with the doctor what to do with the body. You can bury it, arrange to have it cremated, or let the veterinarian take care of the remains. Ask any questions now, especially delicate ones, because you won’t be in the mood to ask about them later.
When it’s time to go, take a blanket or towel with you so your cat can die on a soft bed rather than a hard table. If you decide to go to the doctor’s office (rather than having the vet come to your home), have someone else drive so that you can hold your cat in your lap. She’ll be so sick by that time that she won’t need a carrier unless you are driving alone. Have someone else drive so that you won’t have to drive home by yourself.
The veterinarian will ask you to sign a release form before starting. Ask him to not scruff your cat at any time. Let your cat’s last moments be as dignified as possible. Put the blanket under your cat on the table and spend some tender moments with her while the first shot, a sedative, is taking effect.
When you are ready to have your cat put to sleep, the veterinarian might need to shave the cat’s leg so that he or she can see the correct vein in which to make the injection. It’s okay if you leave before the vet administers the actual euthanasia shot, and it’s also okay if you stay. It won’t be easy either way. Go with whatever you think you can handle. If you do leave, don’t feel guilty later for not “being there”—your cat knows you love her.
Handling the Grief
It’s normal and perfectly all right to grieve the loss of your cat. Take all the time you need. It’s very difficult to lose a companion that you loved and lived with, even if that companion was not a human being. Many people don’t realize how sad they feel until the cat is truly gone. Don’t feel too bad when others don’t understand your grief—to many people, she was “just a cat.” If you are easily hurt by a lack of compassion, tell people that you lost a “close friend of the family” and leave it at that.
Some cat owners hold a memorial ceremony to help deal with the loss. Some write goodbye letters and bury the letters with the cat’s remains, along with a favorite toy. Others add a grave marker to identify the grave. Do whatever seems right to you.
Your local shelter may offer a support group where you can talk about your loss. You also may want to take anti-stress vitamins, get some exercise, relax in soothing hot baths, and eat as healthfully as possible so you don’t react to your cat’s death by getting sick.
Don’t adopt a new cat just because she looks like your old cat did—there is no way she’ll be like your old cat. Each cat is different. Look at her behavior, not her looks. See Adopting a Cat for more help.
It’s very easy to bring home the wrong cat shortly after losing one. To help avoid this, volunteer with your local shelter to foster cats for a few months. If you’re unsure about what kind of cats to foster, ask someone at the shelter about black cats. Then adopt the cat you love to live with!
When the time is right, think about getting another cat. It is very healing to have another cat to care for and love. Although many people may think they are paying tribute to old “Simon” by waiting to adopt, what about the new “Bruce” that’s waiting at the shelter for you today? Cats need you. Give another cat a chance to live in your home and experience your love and care. ‘Simon would have wanted it that way.’
- Floor-level, warm bed
- Extra litter box
- Whatever she will eat
- Special treats, such as tuna and baby food (chicken, beef, turkey)
- Blanket or towel
- Burial basket or box
- Grave marker