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    The End of Life

    The End of Life

    When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight. ~Kahlil Gibran

    Research done over the past decade by Professor Bonnie Beaver of the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Texas A&M University in College Station has shown that cats are definitely living longer and healthier lives. In 1975, the average age for a cat was between three and fours years. Today, thanks to excellent nutrition, general care, and state-of-the-art veterinary medicine, cats are living well into their teens and some even into their twenties. As discussed in chapter 17, this extension of life has brought with it physical problems that were rarely seen a couple of decades ago. Owners need to be aware of what problems can occur and be ready to accommodate their homes to their cats' new physical limitations. Those with elderly cats must pay even closer attention to their health, including taking them to the veterinarian for general wellness checkups more often. It's a recognized fact that cats don't visit the veterinarian often enough. One of the reasons is that they are very good at masking their symptoms, leaving owners unaware of issues. As a concerned pet parent, it's our job to keep an eye on things by making sure our cats get a regular general wellness checkup. All of us who love and cherish our cats also need to prepare ourselves, as our cats age, for that final good-bye.

    More cats are now living into their late teens and twenties.

    The Winn Feline Foundation

    The Winn Feline Foundation is a nonprofit organization established in 1968 by the Cat Fanciers Association (CFA) and named after the CFA's longtime attorney and adviser, Robert H. Winn, to create a source of funding to support medical studies to improve cat health. Projects funded by the Winn Foundation provide information that is used every day to treat cat diseases. It is possible for cat lovers to make personal donations to this foundation and direct their donation to a specific cause. You can also create a virtual memorial for your pet on the organization's website. More information can be found online at www.WinnFelineHealth.org.

    The Senior Years

    Elderly cats, just like humans, slow down in activity and suffer from age-related sight loss and deafness, as well as from many other diseases associated with advanced years. However because, unlike humans, cats never go completely gray or show other cosmetic signs of aging, their owners have to watch closely for typical signs of old age. Aging also means more regular checkups with the veterinarian to determine what is going on with your feline. There are serious diseases experienced by elderly cats, such as cancer, diabetes, and kidney disease, and equally challenging albeit less dire ones, such as arthritis. In this section, we talk about some of the less serious problems, as well as what alterations you can make at home to accommodate your cat's physical changes. By making those accommodations, you can help your older cat enjoy her golden years.

    Regular Senior Checkups

    Cats are considered to be seniors from the age of seven years onward. While it's wise to have annual checkups throughout your cat's life, as already mentioned, it's a good idea to have an older cat checked out more frequently as she ages. Cats are very stoic about pain and very good at masking signs of distress and serious illnesses. It's not necessary to be an alarmist, but any noticeable changes in behavior or everyday lifestyle patterns are often a sign of something amiss. This is also the time to discuss with your veterinarian age-related diets. A simple dietary change, such as adding a little warm water to dry kibble to soften it a bit, can help an older cat eat more comfortably, especially if she has lost teeth. Because wet food has higher water content, your veterinarian may suggest offering an elderly cat both wet and dry foods. Remember to inquire about dietary supplements such as glucosamine and chondroitin that can aid joint mobility, and ask whether it is appropriate to continue giving her regular vaccinations. Some veterinarians consider it unnecessary to continue annual vaccinations, especially if the cat enjoys an exclusively indoor lifestyle. Many veterinarians have a high regard for various complementary modalities such as acupuncture and massage to offer physical comfort to an elderly pet, and it's worth discussing such options with regard to your cat, too. It may not be necessary to take your cat for weekly massage therapy treatments because simply working your hands in fluid movements over her body and limbs can help improve her circulation; you can do this when you stroke her. The pet industry also is very cognizant of the aging pet population and consequently is manufacturing accessories to support an aging lifestyle, such as special hand-held massagers and therapeutic memory foam beds.

    It's a good idea to take senior cats to the veterinarian for checkups more frequently than younger cats.

    Common Problems and Accommodations

    Here is a brief look at some of the common problems senior cats deal with and some of the accommodations you can make in your home to compensate for them. For a lengthy discussion about senior (or geriatric) medical problems, how to recognize them, and what treatments are available, "Life Cycle Needs," in the section titled "Geriatric Care".

    Problem: Being Less Active

    Just like their human counterparts, elderly felines tend to run about less and sleep more. This is a primary reason why older cats suffer from obesity and the various diseases associated with it, such as kidney disease and heart problems. Physical health is important for their overall well-being, and they need to be encouraged to get up and frolic (or just move about more).

    Accommodations:

    One idea to help initiate exercise is to pick up your geriatric cat and take her to the place in the home that is farthest from her food bowl. She will definitely gravitate toward it on her own. Two trips a day will increase her mobility. Encourage her to climb pet steps inside the home too (see below). You can also encourage her to play more games by playing with her more frequently rather leaving her to her own devices.

    If your senior cat has become inactive, try carrying her far away from her food bowl twice a day.

    Problem: Not Drinking Enough Water

    Senior cats often drink less than younger cats.

    Accommodations:

    Encourage greater water intake by placing more water bowls around the home for easier access. Often, installing a pet fountain (if you don't already have one) will be an incentive to more water drinking because many cats are drawn to running water.

    Problem: Stiffness and Lack of Mobility

    Geriatric felines can suffer from stiff joints and may suddenly have difficulty (1) getting in and out of a litter box, (2) lowering their heads or crouching down to eat food and drink water, and (3) grooming.

    Accommodations:

    1. Increase the amount of litter used in the box, raising the level on the inside, and consider adding a ramp for easier accessibility. Alternatively, place a puppy pee pad alongside the litter box for a pet to use who really has difficulty negotiating climbing in and out of a box at any height. These accessories are available from all pet and online stores. 2. Raised food and water bowls are an excellent option for elderly cats because they don’t have to bend down to access food. There is an excellent selection available in various heights. The correct height is determined by your cat’s sitting position. Look for bowls that are raised between three and a half and eight inches (9 and 20 cm) off the ground. This way, she is sitting to eat and not crouching. 3. When a cat suddenly stops grooming herself because she lacks the mobility to reach various parts of her body, it’s time for you to take charge. Give your cat a daily brushing and other general grooming. Specially formulated pet wipes are an excellent way of keeping dust and dirt off fur. Consider grooming sessions as a wonderful way of spending quality time together.

    You can also use grooming sessions as an all-over inspection of her body, looking for any changes such as the development of growths, swollen paws (which could be a circulation issue), or a sign of some other medical situation. Check her mouth too; swollen or inflamed gums are common in elderly cats and require veterinary attention.

    Problem: Not Able to Jump Anymore

    One of the biggest physical changes in senior cats is the loss of the ability to jump up on to counters and favorite napping places. This may also be caused by stiff joints or weak back legs as a result of diabetes.

    Accommodations:

    Invest in pet steps. There are many designs on the market. If you have a cat who has several sleeping places, such as the bed and a favorite chair in the living room, steps made from high-density foam are lightweight and easy to carry around the house and set up in different places. Or invest in more than one set. This simple accessory will improve your cat's quality of life and give her the independence to still enjoy her favorite places.Initially, an elderly cat may need some encouragement to use the stairs. Treats placed on the steps offer a positive incentive. Once you have successfully trained her to ascend, repeat the process in the other direction to teach her how to descend. Having steps also means your cat will also get some exercise using them.

    Problem: Feeling Cold

    Elderly cats often feel the cold (just as elderly people do) more than their frisky young counterparts do.

    Accommodations:

    You will probably see an increase in the number of sunny resting places your cat seeks out. Increase her comfort by adding a pet bed or a blanket in at least a couple of her favorite sunny locations. (Do the same if she enjoys napping outside on a sunny, secure balcony.) Wonderful orthopedic memory-foam beds are perfect for making elderly joints more comfortable. Consider purchasing a heated pet bed for your senior cat as well; many different kinds are available.

    A heated cat bed is just the thing for an older cat who has become sensitive to the cold.

    Problem: Loss of Hearing

    Elderly cats often lose their hearing.

    Accommodations:

    Little changes in routine will help a deaf cat greatly, such as always approaching her from the front and never from behind and giving her a fright. Cats all rely on vibrations to sense anyone approaching, so stepping firmly as you approach will alert her that someone is coming. This tactic will work for cats who suffer from impaired sight, too.

    Determining Deafness

    One sure way to establish whether an elderly cat is hard of hearing is by turning on a vacuum cleaner in the same room. If, in the past, the sound made her get up and go elsewhere and now she doesn't bother to move, that's a sure sign of a hearing problem. (Don't move the vacuum about because the vibration may wake her; just turn it on.)

    Problem: Loss of Sight

    Elderly cats often lose their eyesight.

    Accommodations:

    It's important not to move furniture or leave large objects lying around so that an elderly kitty with minimum or no eyesight can continue to negotiate her surroundings as before. Remember to engage a sight-impaired cat in games with toys that make a noise. If you previously allowed your cat access outside, sight and hearing disabilities mean that you need to restrict that access now and make your cat an indoors-only cat. She will no longer be able to protect herself outside, so even if she objects, to keep her safe, keep her inside.

    When It's Time to Say Good-Bye

    We are lucky today; we have more years with our cats than ever before. Yet no matter how much time we have to enjoy their company, it's never enough. There will come a day when you suddenly recognize that your ailing elderly cat is struggling more and more with all of her activities, from getting up from her bed in the morning to eating her food to using her litter box to simply walking a few steps. She may even refuse to take medications and supplements. This may be her way of letting you know that she is struggling and possibly suffering in silence. That is the day you will need to ask yourself the toughest question any cat lover must ask: What is the quality of my cat's life? Answering that question can be difficult because it demands that you not only be totally honest but also be completely selfless. You need to set aside your grief at the thought of losing your precious companion and think only of her pain and suffering. Ask yourself, how bad is it for my cat? Has it gotten so bad that she can no longer function unaided and without pain, even in the smallest thing that she does? If the answer is "yes," then it is probably time to ease her way to a better place, where she will no longer feel pain, where she will be at peace. As difficult as this decision is, no responsible pet parent wants to let a beloved pet suffer. You may want to consult your veterinarian before making your final decision. An end-of-life decision is one of the reasons it's so important to establish an excellent rapport with your veterinarian because a veterinarian who has overseen your cat's health and well-being over the years will be able to offer you an honest, well-informed medical opinion on your pet's condition and aid you in evaluating whether it is indeed time to say good-bye. The final decision is still yours, but having your veterinarian's opinion can help.

    Making difficult decisions for your cat is part of the responsibility of having a pet.

    Euthanasia

    Euthanasia is a peaceful and humane way to end your cat's suffering. If you decide it is time to let your cat go, discuss your options on where the procedure will take place and other details about it with your veterinarian. The staff of a veterinary clinic will always offer you and your pet the respect you both deserve in that final hour. The alternative is to ask your veterinarian it if can be done at home.Euthanasia involves administering an overdose of a strong anesthetic, which immediately stops the cat's heart and lungs from functioning. It is quick and painless and likened to going into a deep sleep. Effectively, it puts your cat to sleep. It's important to mention that when this happens, all the internal organs also relax and thus the period immediately afterward can be messy as bodily fluids are released. This is not something many loving and grieving pet owners are prepared for. So the facts should be discussed with your veterinarian if you want to be present throughout.Most veterinarians usually administer a strong sedative first and allow you to sit with your cat while it takes effect and then suggest that a veterinary technician takes your place for the final injection. Remember the effect of the sedative will make your cat unaware of her surroundings and you. She will already be at peace, and you will hold a perfect picture in your memory.

    Signs of Aging Ailments

    Senior cats often get very vocal. If they are suffering from impaired sight or hearing, it's their way of letting you know they are there. Be aware of how much your cat eats; sudden lack of interest in food or a dramatic drop in weight needs to be further investigated by your veterinarian.

    The other pets in your house will also grieve, so give them extra attention.

    The Final Arrangements

    Consideration also has to be given beforehand regarding your wishes for burial or cremation. This is something that the veterinary office can arrange on your behalf. Private cremations cost more, but you will get a certificate from the pet mortuary ensuring that the ashes presented to you afterward are those of your pet alone. Most veterinary offices can offer you a choice of a box or an urn for the ashes. If you want something special, however, there are many online pet stores that offer an excellent selection of commemorative urns and boxes with compartments in which you can place a collar, a favorite toy, and even a fur keepsake. This is something you should purchase in advance. The advantage of cremation is that no matter where you may move in the world, you can take your pet's ashes with you. Alternatively, there are many pet cemeteries and crematoriums around the country that will help you plan a service for your cat. These sensitive professionals can take care of the casket or urn, the service, and even a floral tribute. The International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories, a nonprofit organization, can help you find a reputable place in your area (visit www.iaopc.com). When selecting a cemetery, be sure to pick a place that you can visit regularly. A good pet cemetery will keep your pet's gravesite well maintained, which helps to make each visit a positive experience. Depending on where you live, some city municipalities allow pets to be buried on private property. Once again, you need to research this possibility in advance. Many pet stores and online stores sell either ready-made or customized memorial stones or plaques to mark the private burial site. Even if you choose burial in a pet cemetery or cremation, you can consider having a plaque made to place in your garden.

    Memorializing Your Cat

    A wonderful way to remember a special feline friend is to offer a memorial scholarship to a veterinary school. If your pet died of a particular disease or illness, think about creating a fund in her name so that you can be actively involved in raising money to aid future medical research. Even giving the medications she no longer needs to a welfare group is a way of memorializing her and helping others in her name. Consider donating a nice kitty condo to a shelter or even making a monetary donation in your cat's name. It doesn't have to be a huge amount; it's the thought that counts.

    Coping with Grief

    Losing a cat who has been both a best friend and a beloved family member leaves a huge void in the household. The empty bed or favorite snooze spot, her food and water bowl, and even special toys are a poignant reminder of the unconditional love you've lost and the huge empty space that remains. It's all right to grieve. A constant lump in the throat and uncontrollable tears are all normal signs of grief. It's also important to grieve so that you can come to terms with your loss and begin to heal. Don't be shy; let your family members, friends, and even coworkers know what you are going through. Other pet lovers will empathize and can be a wonderful source of support. You might even consider joining a pet-loss support group. Your veterinarian or local animal shelter can help you locate one.

    Helping Your Other Pets Grieve

    It's important to remember that other pets in the household, both cats and dogs, will be feeling the loss, too. It's not unusual for surviving pets to search the house looking for their missing friend. Some even stop eating, become listless and lethargic, and show other unusual behaviors. Comfort grieving pets by spending extra quality time with them. If you are thinking of introducing another pet to the household immediately, don't. Your other pets need time to adjust, too. Eventually, they will settle and stop searching. It's a cliché, but time does help you heal and put things in perspective. You will instinctively know when the time is right to consider adopting another cat and giving it a loving home. If incumbent cats in the household are seniors, they may bond better with an adult cat than with a curious and energetic kitten. And, because kittens usually find homes more quickly than older cats, your decision to adopt an older cat will be a good deed and could truly be life-saving. However, when the time comes, you will need to discuss your decision with a veterinarian who knows your other cats' health records and temperaments. Often a young kitten brought into a senior household will give older cats a new lease on life. I speak from experience!

    There are many pet cemeteries that will help you plan a service for your cat.

    From The Cat Bible, Copyright by Sandy Robins, licensed through ContentOro, Inc and used by arrangement with I-5 Press

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