The very long goodbye: Living with a geriatric pet

No one prepared me for this. When you go to the rescue and pick out a cute, playful little kitten or pup, no one there talks to you about the not-so-cute later years. It’s all about vaccination schedules and proper diet and neutering, training and housebreaking.

Nobody warns you about the incontinence and the “accidents” you’ll be cleaning up, sometimes multiple times a day. No one tells you about the horrible fur mats they’ll develop when they cease self-grooming or cleaning, and how food and feces get caked in their hair.

They don’t tell you that, like an aging parent, caring for an elderly pet demands extraordinary reserves of patience, energy and love. They don’t tell you it can become back-breakingly exhausting, mentally and physically. And expensive.

High-maintenance doesn’t begin to describe it.

I’m a lifelong cat person. Not to be confused with a “cat lady.” I’m a one- or two-at-time feline mom. All of my previous cats died young or relatively young, and it was almost always something sudden or dramatic. Acute kidney failure. Feline leukemia. Congenital heart defect. There was no long, agonizingly slow decline. As rough as it was emotionally, it didn’t test me physically or financially.

All I heretofore imagined about old cats was that they probably slept most of the time, maybe were a little grouchy, and extra-finicky eaters.

I had no idea.

It’s a near daily gross-out.

My current cat, Tedi, is nineteen years old. She is semi-continent, if there’s even such a word. It just means she sometimes makes the litterbox and sometimes doesn’t. One vet told me dementia might be involved. Others have said kidney issues.

Hint: Puppy pads are your friend.


I give her steroidal medication daily for an unrelated issue, but I’ve been doing that for about eight years.

She suffers from mobility issues and has to be lifted onto the bed because she can’t jump that high anymore due to arthritis or joint degeneration. I purchased pet stairs but she’s clueless as to using them.

She’s gone from a kitty of 12 pounds in her prime to barely more than five. It’s not because she’s not fed early and often.

She has lost interest in even the most minimal grooming—something her vet told me is not uncommon in older cats—which means I have to wipe her down with kitty wipes (which she vocally dislikes) or give her baths as you would a dog, which she tolerates a bit better. I have to try to remove her abundant fur mats best I can. She barely tolerates being brushed or even petted much anymore, which is why it’s hard to prevent them.

This was a cat that was straight-up OCD about self-grooming in her younger years. Now I have to wipe the food off her face after she eats.

To be painfully honest, sometimes it’s kind of gross to look at her.

If she were human, she’d be wearing Depends. But I can’t quite deal with pet diapers yet. (Yes, they do make them.) Which is why there has to be a litter box in pretty much every room so she doesn’t have far to travel. She still doesn’t always make it.

Hint: Vinegar is your friend.


I don’t often have company, which is probably a good thing.

I find myself musing about a time when my life will be cleaner and better-smelling and less labor-intensive. Then feel guilty about it.

The reason I’m writing all this is because many pet owners and would-be pet owners have no idea what they are in for long term, and they should. It’s not on the radar when they decide to take on the responsibility of adopting a furry friend.

And this is why many senior pets are abandoned at shelters, where they are virtually unadoptable because they already have expensive health issues and/or behavioral issues. Who wants a cranky old cat who sleeps all the time? So they live out their final years in cages.

I know that many other owners would have had Tedi put down a long time ago. Her vets have been hinting for years that it might be the best thing—more for my sake than hers. To make it clear, she is not suffering or in apparent pain or unhappy. Her routine checkups are generally good; her health is average for her age.

I’m not one of those pet owners who “can’t let go” and prolongs their pet’s existence past the point it has any quality of life. I am not in denial. She is just in a slow, steady decline.

How do you know when it’s time? I’m hoping that when that time comes, she will let me know and I will let her go. But she is not letting me know yet. I will not put her down just for being old.

I was raised to believe that pet ownership is a lifetime commitment, not only for as long as the pet is young and healthy and cute. Not only for as long as it’s convenient. This is the first time this principle instilled in me has been tested.

I would never discourage pet adoption nor suggest that adoption facilities do so. But before they make that commitment, pet owners should know what they can expect throughout the animal’s entire life cycle. Keep it real.

I’m sure other pet parents can relate to this, but when I look at Tedi’s soiled little face I don’t see a geriatric cat that is a nonagenarian in people years. I see my baby, my faithful little companion of 17-and-a-half years. I’m in it for the long haul.

We are growing old together. It is what it is.



Filed under: aging, animal welfare, pets

Tags: animal welfare

Leave a comment