Winter … just the word conjures up the idea of shorter days and longer, icy cold nights. And just like we feel the cold in the chilly season, so do our senior furry friends. Cats are creatures of comfort and with their self-appointed royalty, they should certainly be kept warm, cosy and pampered in the cold, especially when they get older.
1. Watch that weight
Much like with people, in winter senior cats’ activity levels often decrease, while their nutritional needs may increase in the effort to keep warm. An important thing to monitor is their food intake – your cat should be on a good-quality senior diet and you need to regulate the amount she eats in accordance with her body condition.
The ultimate senior food is one that contains factors promoting joint care and kidney care, which are two of the most common issues older cats face. A fat cat is not a cute cat! It is very dangerous for older cats to be overweight, as they are prone to becoming diabetic as a result of the excess fat blocking insulin receptors.
Diabetes can be life-threatening and very difficult and expensive to manage. Some cats don’t have a ‘stop’ button, and if you leave food out ad-lib, they will overeat. If your cat is slightly on the podgy side, chat to your vet about the right diet and a feeding regime that will get her back in shape and prevent diabetes.
2. Stay active
Encourage your cat to be more active by providing structured, stimulating playtime with you. Start with a 10-minute session once a day. Get creative and use some common household items to make a cat dangler or use something as simple as a ball of wool to get her activity levels up. You will be amazed at the positive behavioural stimulation this gives your cat, as well as helping to keep her in shape.
Carrying a bit of extra weight will also increase the chance of a cat getting arthritis, as well as the severity of said arthritis. All cats older than seven years should be screened by a vet once a year to check for age-related conditions, of which arthritis is one of the most common ones. Signs to look out for include:
- Increased lethargy
- Reluctance to jump onto the counter, couch or bed like she used to
- A stiff, slower gait than when she was a youngster
- Sometimes a sign as subtle as excessive licking over a particular joint area may be all you will see
3. Joint supplements
A good joint supplement goes a long way in keeping your older cat more comfortable in winter. However, some cats need more than just a supplement to keep them pain-free, and need to be on chronic pain medication as well.
4. Too skinny
Too skinny is also a big concern. If your cat is very thin or has recently lost weight (even a little can be significant), this can point to common conditions such as kidney failure, sore teeth or hyperthyroidism.
Hyperthyroidism is common in older cats and will cause them to have a ravenous appetite, lose weight and sometimes be intolerant of heat – the opposite of what an older cat needs in winter. If you think your cat shows any of these signs, head to your vet as soon as possible for a check-up. It might not be just the winter weather at play, but something more sinister like an overactive thyroid condition!
5. Winter warmers
A good way to help your cat stay warm in the chill is to place her favourite bedding in a sunny spot in the house and to encourage her to lie in the sun while indoors. You can also make hot-water bottles or use electric heating pads, but you need to remember that cats have very thin skin, and what we perceive as only warm might be too hot for them and may result in burn wounds. When making a hot-water bottle for a pet, I normally recommend putting in half boiling water and topping up with half cold tap water. Also make sure your cat can move off the heat source easily should she wish to, and be careful with anything with a cord that she could chew on.
If you offer soft food, your cat will appreciate it if you warm it up for a few seconds in the microwave before you serve it – not too hot, just nice and warm. Often, if the soft food is too cold, cats won’t eat it.
6. Drinking water
Remember to check your cat’s water sources daily. Make sure her water bowls don’t freeze and the water is fresh and not too cold. It is essential for older cats to take in enough water to maintain good kidney function and keep them well hydrated. If the water is too cold, they will drink less, which could be damaging to their health.
7. Look for signs
Lastly, remember that cats are masters of hiding things from us – just because they can. So often subtle changes in their behaviour or routines can point towards the start of a medical condition. Increased lethargy in winter could be just that, because it’s cold, or it could be an early tip-off that something else is going on. Pay attention to abnormal behaviour, even if it seems insignificant, and contact your local vet for advice.