Senior and elderly cats are precious to millions of owners, for so many reasons. Especially if they have been a companion for a very long time, and they become even more dear in their tender golden years. It’s important to have a realistic outlook on how much time remains for the dearly beloved elderly cat. It’s good to have a vet visit regarding this, with a list of questions, but the truth is, you are most familiar with your own cat’s behavior, and although the vet can tell you what to look for, and his or her assessment during an exam, the decisions are always yours. If your elderly cat is hiding away from all contact, especially in a very removed, unusual place, this is cause for concern. Your vet will advise when it’s more humane to have a peaceful euthanization, than to keep the cat in pain or infirmity, just for the sake of keeping kitty alive. I don’t mean to be light about this, it is to me the hardest decision a cat lover can ever make. Although it’s distressing to consider that, there’s still a lot than can be done to extend an elderly cat’s time, and to make that time as pleasant and cozy as can be.
I have known many elderly cats, including some of my own, who have lengthy golden years, many in their 20s. Helping them along just takes focused attention and pro-active arrangements on our part. You should assume that an elderly cat has even more issues than those you are already aware of. Cats are the ultimate experts at hiding weaknesses, and in the senior years a whole host of things are possible like arthritis, general pain and shutting down in organs, loss of sight, loss of hearing, balance issues and more. They cope as much as they can, yet a little foresight and adjustment on our part goes a long way.
I find that when I move and walk slowly and deliberately around them, it is less stressful. If you can remain in the same general spot tending to the cat for a while, then the cat doesn’t have to move around excessively, to get comfortable if they want contact or to snuggle. If they like to follow you, remember it’s even harder to do so in the later years. When they do move, watch for stiffness in walking, and signs of difficulty or pain. Also, making their environment as easy as possible to navigate, like having everything nearby (litter box, food bowls, water, beds). A ramp or pet steps help if kitty still likes to be on your bed. There are different stages of disability, and even in the milder stages it’s never too early to rearrange things for them. Some cats will have too hard a time climbing up and going down stairs, so there’s a point where it makes more sense to have them remain on one floor. You can see that point in the way they come down stairs, the level of difficulty, slowness and hobbling.
As far as petting and physical contact: chances are, they feel pain when touched in the wrong place or often anywhere at all. Some elderly cats just can no longer be touched in the ways you would think a cat wants. The cat will let you know what he or she does or doesn’t like, so don't be surprised to hear a cry or yap if you've touched them in a sensitive place. You can only find out by trying and seeing what is liked or even tolerated. Less is always better than more, and a very light touch is the best. Let them set the degree of intensity as to how hard or soft they want to rub up against you. There are all kind of things that could provide them comfort from neck scratches to belly rubs, careful back stroking to light forehead massage, ear rubbing and more. Many elderly cats I’ve worked with only allow facial touch and massage. Each creature is different, with a different set of circumstances. Sometimes just holding a brush near the underside of their chin or face will give them an opportunity to rub up against it. When an elderly cat is very arthritic, it's a balance between not touching at all, and not creating any discomfort, finding what is tolerated and giving the most possible. All of the elderly cats I've had have shown some degree of wanting reassuring massaging and cuddling.
In an elderly cat, the smallest, simplest contact, slowly repeated, can do a lot of good. Another issue is their difficulty in keeping warm, and often a heating pad on low setting or even good quality blankets that are easy to flop on (or both!) can give comforting options. Just remember, everything is reduced for them— comfort, vision, ease of movement. They deserve as much time you can give at this point in their lives. You will be doing the ultimate goodness for them, and it will comfort you. Nothing is more gratifying than bringing gentle, empathetic comfort to an elderly feline!