The last year that I commented in my annual Christmas newsletter to my friends that my cat Winston was still kittenish was 2005. At that time he was about 17 and a half years old. When I found him, in1988, he was so tiny he wasn’t able to jump up on the bed. Of course it was a only a matter of a day before he figured out how to clamber up by embedding his claws in the bedspread, always the clever guy able to get what he wants. In those days, what he wanted, if not to go to sleep in my arms, were vigorous cat-and-mouse games, in which I was the somewhat outsized mouse. Or sometimes he was the lion and I was the wildebeest…and I have scars to prove it.
I not long ago I noted in this blog that Winston has slowed considerably. Overall, for a cat approaching his 21st birthday (I would guess from his size and development on August 18th of 1988 that his birth anniversary is in early July) he’s doing very well.
But there have been a lot of changes for him, most of which his veterinarians don’t have much to say about. I Googled terms like “domestic feline” + geriatric, and turned up little other than herbal remedies for cat arthritis. Being the academic groupie that I am, I had been hopeful of finding soundly designed, statistically analyzed, data-grounded publications of research in peer-reviewed veterinary journals. Perhaps I wasn’t using the ideal key words. Yesterday I was inspired to try again with the less snazzy “elderly cat” and that was much more fruitful. What I turned up near the top of the page was an on-target article by a British charitable organization felicitously called “fab” or the Feline Advisory Bureau.
The article, “Behaviour of the Older Cat,” though based on a survey of owners rather than scholarly studies, addresses all the pertinent issues. The information was extremely helpful, as from it I determined that what Winston, and we, are going through is in fact exactly typical. It made me feel good that among the 1,236 feline subjects of the survey (not a bad sample size) 6 percent were more than 20 years old. That means the vast majority of cats exhibiting symptoms of superannuation were between 12 and 20, so I got quite a bit more than the average number of pre-senile years with my beloved kitty. The great outlier was a verifiably 26 year cat! I can imagine that cat’s owners, at least if they are realistic, are grateful every single morning when their cat gets up and asks for breakfast, and every evening when they come home from work and he’s still there, inspirited by life. At his point, Winston sleeps extremely deeply – in the old days I would never have been able to sneak up on him to take this photo– and so on the days when I’m home, I sometimes go check to see that he’s still breathing. And he is.
One of the things I’ve most enjoyed about Winston’s dotage is his noticeably increased lovingness. Or whatever it is that attention-seeking, staring into my eyes, lap-sitting, running to the door yowling at the top of his lungs when he realizes I’m home (so okay, maybe that’s hunger?) is. He was always interested in socializing with, and accepting affection in the form of discussion, play, brushing, scratching and massages, from the people he loves – me, KLK, his babysitter Alison (after the first few years of acting resentfully towards her) – but we’ve all seen how much more hugging he seeks now.
Another “behaviour” is not nearly so endearing. This cat was never talkative, but within the last two or three years, he’s developed a voice: an impossible-to-ignore voice so loud even the neighbors can hear, and that he especially loves to exercise between about midnight and 4:00 a.m.. According to fab’s survey, “Twenty eight per cent of cats called for attention at night and stopped only when they received attention or reassurance from their owners.” They surmise, “As a cats ability to protect itself declines there appears to be a higher dependency on their owners for security.” They go on to discuss this idea, and I think their consideration is reasonably convincing. But they fail to make a connection that we have made, which is that Winston’s yells and yowls can be calmed by feeding. All his life he had dry food available 24/7 and could eat in increments ad libitum. A year or two ago we noticed he was getting even skinnier (we would not have believed that was possible) and many more food crunchies were landing on the floor than in him. We successfully switched him to canned food that he gums pretty well, and that has enabled him to gain a little weight (but not meat on his bones – the weight is almost surely all better hydration, which in itself is a good thing). But it means we no longer leave food out for him to help himself. fab says, “Almost half of the owners surveyed had been ‘trained’ to feed their cat on demand” and we have been too, though we fought back in the middle of the night. If he starts to scream any time before 5:00 a.m. he gets locked out of the bedroom. So these days we rarely hear from him before 4:30 in the morning – a big improvement over 2:30!
Lest my readers point out that these, and the dry dandruffy fur apparent in the photo, are symptoms typical of the hyperthyroidism that affects many older cats, his last two sets of blood tests, from a couple of years ago but well after all this started, were absolutely normal in all dimensions: thyroid, kidney, liver, and glucose. He’s just an old, old guy, and we love him.