How to Create an Accessible, Safe Home for Senior Cats

By PetMD Editorial on Dec. 18, 2018

Reviewed and updated for accuracy on December 18, 2018, by Katie Grzyb, DVM

You may have started to notice that your senior cat doesn’t move as quickly or easily as she once did. Older cats are at increased risk for conditions like arthritis, bladder issues, and vision and cognitive problems, so navigating the home can be tricky and even dangerous for them.

Making a few easy adjustments to your home can make your cat more comfortable and safer during her golden years. Before rearranging anything, be sure to discuss your cat’s specific needs with your veterinarian. Here’s a guide for making your home more accessible for senior cats.

Don’t Assume

Your cat’s senior years are not the time to become complacent, says Pam Johnson-Bennett, owner of Nashville-based Cat Behavior Associates. “Don't assume your cat is slowing down or sleeping more just because she's old. The decrease in mobility and increase in sleeping may be due to pain, such as from cat arthritis. Don't assume any irritation or aggression on your cat's part is due to her just being a cranky old cat. There may be an age-related medical reason for the behavior.”

Become a vigilant observer. For example, “Look for changes in their ability to get onto and off the furniture, in and out of the litter box, difficulty with eating or dropping the food—all those things,” says Dr. Sonja Olson, a senior clinician in emergency medicine for BluePearl Veterinary Partners. 

There is no set period in which these changes will occur. Cats age differently (like we do), so while some might slow down at 8, others might still be full of energy at 14, Dr. Olson adds.  

Provide Easy Access to Your Cat’s Favorite Places  

Older cats enjoy privacy just as they did when they were younger. “Cats love to get up high and have perspective on their world, but they may not be able to climb and leap as high as they used to. Consider getting some carpet-covered cat steps so they can get to that spot they really love, or climb onto the bed to snuggle with you,” Dr. Olson says. The Frisco 2-in-1 Pet Steps might do the trick.

Don’t forget to make ground-level spaces accessible too. “Since a senior cat may have declining senses, it's important to be sensitive to that. For a cat with limited or no vision, keep furniture in the same place so the cat doesn't have to get used to a new traffic pattern. Senior cats with impaired vision often do very well because they're so used to the way the house is set up. This isn't the time to rearrange furniture. Also, don't leave items in the middle of the cat's path,” says Bennett. You can also place several night lights around the home to help guide your cat.

If your senior kitty is disoriented and you fear she might injure herself, you might want to consider installing a cat gate, like the Carlson Pet Products Flexi extra tall walk-thru gate with pet door or Carlson Pet Products extra tall walk-thru gate with pet door to restrict her access. A cat gate is also a great option for aging kitties that may have physical limitations because they can allow you to make staircases and other dangerous obstacles off limits to them. If you use a dog gate in your home, make sure it has a cat door for your senior cat to easily enter and exit.

Place multiple feeding stations throughout the house so your cat doesn’t have to travel far for her cat food and water, recommends Dr. Donna Stephens Manley, a veterinary industry consultant and 2012 AAFP President based in Charlottesville, Virginia. She also suggests a raised cat bowl. “Elevate both food and water resources to decrease the need for your cat to crouch—which puts stress on her elbows and hips—or flex her neck (arthritic pain). A height level that allows your cat to assume a normal sitting or standing position is preferred. In addition to elevating food and water bowls for comfort, utilize steps or boxes to provide easier/more comfortable access to your senior cat's favorite perching (window, bed, etc.), as arthritic pain can limit their jumping ability too.”

Rethink Your Litter Box Setup

The cat litter box should be large. “Not having to crouch, hide or curl up to go potty is much more comfortable for cats, especially those with arthritis,” says Dr. Andrea Sanchez, senior manager of operations support for Vancouver, Washington-based Banfield Pet Hospital. She recommends providing a cat litter box that is twice as long as your cat’s body (from nose-to-tail).

Your cat should be able to easily access it. “Be concerned about providing easy access coming in and out of the litter box. Consider buying a litter box with one side that has a lower edge to ease access, or a litter box that has a ramp,” offers Dr. Olson. Examples include the PetFusion BetterBox non-stick cat litter box and the Lucky Champ cat litter pan.

Increase the number and locations of cat litter boxes (experts generally recommend one box per cat plus one extra) to accommodate older cats who are less mobile and have less bladder control, advises Johnson-Bennett. “Seniors with hearing decline may sleep so soundly now that they may not get the message in time that the bladder is full. It will be very helpful if kitty doesn't have to walk far to get to the litter box.”

This is especially important in multicat households, says Dr. Manley. “It ensures old cats have accessibility to an unguarded litter box. Multiple resources can minimize bullying, competition for resources and overall stress.”

Provide Comfort for Your Old Cat

Senior cats often have decreased body conditioning and muscle mass, says Dr. Manley. She says it can be beneficial to add more padding and even a heating source to make them more comfortable in their favorite resting and perching areas. “Be sure to only use those approved for pets and that have a preset temperature, like the K&H Pet Products pet bed warmer.”

There are many great cat bed options, says Dr. Sanchez. “These include orthopedic cat beds, heated beds (if you’re in a colder climate), and various other cushy, cozy, supportive beds that can be great for those with or without arthritis.” The Frisco orthopedic sherpa cuddler dog and cat bed, for example, provides both comfort and support.

You can also make use of a natural heat source by placing a bed where it will catch some sunlight. “Sunbeams are very popular with cats, and the older they are, the more they seem to enjoy them,” says Dr. Olson. “With their decreased body condition and older circulatory systems, the warmth of the sun feels lovely.”

Keep Your Older Cat’s Mind Active

Experts recommend continuing to engage your cat’s mind as she ages. “Conduct interactive play sessions that are customized to fit your cat's physical ability,” recommends Johnson-Bennett. “You may need to do some toy testing because your cat may no longer prefer the [same] type of interactive toys as when she was younger.”

A cat puzzle toy that dispenses food or a few yummy cat treats will physically and mentally engage your senior cat. They range in levels of difficulty so you can match your cat’s skill level, she says. “Hunting for food is a natural concept for a cat ,and even your senior cat will enjoy getting a food reward for a job well done. If you don't think your cat will take to puzzle feeders, start off in the most basic way by placing a little food in each compartment of a muffin tin. After your cat has gotten the concept down, you can start using a more challenging puzzle feeder. Never choose one that will cause frustration, though. Always keep things fun and rewarding.”

Examples of cat interactive toys designed to promote mental stimulation include the Trixie Activity Fun Board 5-in-1 interactive cat toy and Trixie Mad Scientist turn around interactive cat toy, which reward a kitty for problem-solving.

You owe it to your cat to make her senior years as comfortable, convenient and safe as possible. Making just a few simple changes in your home can help your older cat not only stay healthy, but also thrive during her mature years.

By Paula Fitzsimmons

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