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When Cats Grow Old

[Skin Disorders]  [Concerning Fleas and Other Pests]  [Diseases of the Eyes]  [Diseases of the Ears]  [About Operations]  [The Importance of Nursing]  [On Neutering Cats]  [Dangers That Await Our Cats]  [When Cats Grow Old]  [More Cat Articles] 

( Originally Published 1936 )

Compared with the normal span of a human life, old age and death come pathetically soon to cats. Ten years is the average length of the cat's life, and it is the tragedy of becoming attached to a pet that you must part with it in such a short time.

However, as some cats die before they are ten, some live longer. It is not unusual for them to last twelve or fourteen years, and in various authentic instances they have doubled the natural span. Every one of these ancients that I have interviewed had been of regular and temperate habits. I only know of one, Mr. Nathaniel Winkle, a cat who lived twenty years and six months, and had the further distinction of wearing a wooden leg, who ever drank whisky, and he took it only when he was recovering from the amputation of his leg.

Mr. Winkle's story appeared in the New York Sun in November, 1928 It was told by his mistress, Jennie Correll Bartleman, whose companion he be came when both of them were very young. "He was the nearest thing to my heart always," she says. "I rarely moved without him. He went with us to our country place in Pennsylvania. Of a delightful disposition, of uncanny intelligence, it is no wonder that everyone fell in love with him."

When Mr. Winkle was seventeen years old, but still agile, he was chased by a playful terrior and fell backward from a tree, dislocating a shoulder and breaking an ankle. A veterinarian pulled the shoulder into place, and said that nature would take care of the ankle. Apparently it did, but in fact one of the small bones failed to knit, and after many futile attempts to heal the lump that formed, the leg was amputated by Dr. Charles J. McAnulty of Ventnor, New Jersey. Mr. Winkle was under ether three quarters of an hour, but he revived and became well and strong. His mistress's brother, a surgeon, devised a wooden leg, which Mr. Winkle wore with dignity and dexterity till the end of his days.

There was wide interest in the case; medical journals both in this country and in Europe commented admiringly upon it. And well they might. I never heard of another cat with a peg leg, and very few have lived as long as he. His faculties were unimpaired to the last, though he was, judged by human standards (calling the human span threescore and ten), almost one hundred and fifty years old.

At the 1933 show of the Boardwalk Persian Cat Club, in Atlantic City, a twenty-year-old male tiger cat, Jack, was exhibited by his owner, Mrs. Laura E. Warthman. He was in excellent shape and appeared to be going strong. A nineteen-year-old cat, Captain Jinks, died recently in the home of his owner, Mrs. F. A. Rogers, of Jamaica, Long Island. He, too, was bright and active, with good sight and hearing, till his last sickness came. One of the youngest old cats I ever saw was a roof acquaintance I had in Washington Heights, New York City. His owners would bring him to the roof for an airing, and his coat was so glossy, his eyes so bright, and he played so gaily with his ball that I guessed he was about six years old. No, they said, he was more than twenty years old, and they brought evidence to prove it.

When my Mimi the Second had to be put to sleep, at the age of seventeen years, it was not because of old age but because of a growth in the groin. She relished her dinner to the last, and there was no failure of her faculties save an inability to see clearly at a little distance. And she slept more. She would sit herself in a Morris chair in exactly the human attitude, her back against the back of the chair, her head up, her hind paws stretched out in front and the forepaws crossed on her stomach, but soon, to her embarrassment, she would begin to nod. And like an old lady she would catch herself and give me a look as much as to say, "You are mistaken, I was not asleep."

Cats do not show senile decay as dogs do. Old dogs sometimes get gray; cats do not. The coat may roughen and thin in old age, but not, I think, if it has always been groomed. I have known well-cared-for cats to have beautiful coats when quite old.

As a cat gets old the teeth begin to look worn and lose their whiteness; a yellowish stain shows at the gums and creeps toward the points. The flesh falls away a little along the spine and around the eyes. The joints stiffen, though not so badly as in old dogs, probably because cats do not run around in the cold and lie out in the wet as much as dogs do. A cat is more careful of its health, and in old age it reaps the reward. Except when disease or infirmity assails them, there is no reason why old cats cannot be quite as happy in their own way as young ones.

They just need a little special attention. Their food should be cut finer and should have (unless their digestion is too delicate to stand it) some extra richness and stimulation: raw beef juice on the chopped meat, a little cream in the milk. They want a warm corner in winter, and in summer they should be guarded against exertion and excessive heat, for old cats, like old people, are sensitive to both heat and cold. I once knew a granny cat (quite shrunken with age she was, and touched in the temper, but her owners loved her) who always wore a little sweater on bleak days and when it was hot had a tiny icebag for her head. And why should she not have been made comfortable? She had always done her duty, and her days had been long in the land.