Moving with an elderly, medically and emotionally fragile cat
June 5, 2022 9:54 PM   Subscribe

My cat is nearing 17 years old, with various medical conditions, and is super-susceptible to stress. We've lived in the same house for the entire time we've had him, over 10 years. It's looking like we'll have to move. He is possibly the most important thing in my life other than my spouse. I'm worried.

I'm hoping for tips, anecdotes and success stories that he will be able to reestablish himself and regain his equilibrium in a new place.

I'm particularly interested in success stories of cats moving in old age and being happy. Cats, in my experience, are much more location-focused than dogs.

He's already on gabapentin for arthritis, which does confer some anti-anxiety benefit. Sadly, in our experience, Feliway doesn't work with him.

We have two other cats as well. He is currently top cat simply due to his age, but I worry that the social order might reshuffle and result in bullying. The other cats have all their claws and teeth, which he does not, and are much younger and spryer.

I really don't want to upend his life and have his final years spent in confusion or unhappiness.
posted by Sockrates to Pets & Animals (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Are your cats indoors only, or do they go outside?
posted by Zumbador at 10:01 PM on June 5, 2022

Response by poster: They are indoors-only.
posted by Sockrates at 10:15 PM on June 5, 2022 [1 favorite]

I can't help with moving advice but will be watching this with interest because I may be in a similar situation soon.

But there are some other calming options to consider (discuss with your vet):
* Royal Canin Calm dry food (Rx; also comes in a Urinary+Calm formula)
* Zylkene supplements (OTC; same ingredient used in the RC food)
* Composure treats (OTC; it's cheaper to buy the small dog size and split in half - formula's the same)
* Kitty antidepressants (Rx of course; there are multiple options and as with humans you may need trial and error to find the right one. Just beware not to mix multiple SSRIs - some are prescribed for other common cat maladies and you may need to remind the vet to check for interactions.)

My kitty's been on all of these at different times (along with gabapentin) and while it's hard to say whether the supplements definitively helped, they definitely haven't hurt. The prescriptions were a life saver for her.
posted by bunnysquirrel at 10:39 PM on June 5, 2022

Can you somehow create a space for him that you can easily re-create in the new place? This could be

- An area defined by a little enclosed "house" for him, your sofa, table, and a rug that the other three items surround;

- A special blanket (or two, so you can wash them alternatingly) on your bed, with a bed cover that you will definitely take with you;

- A special cat perch high up that you will take with you.

Then, when you move, you can approach it like any new cat welcome: start him off in a very small room, like a walk-in closet or a bathroom, that you've aired out and cleaned with your usual cleaners (with as much familiar stuff in as much of a familiar arrangement as possible), and leave him there for a good long while while he relaxes into it. I'm talking about days. Then let him explore and claim whatever territory he wants.

Don't let the younger cats out of their (probably separate space) until after senior cat has claimed the space he wants and feels reasonably confident.

In general, cats are going to feel safe in small, dark places, where they can see out but you can't easily see in, so provide those.

I know I bring up clicker training all the time, but one thing it does do is increase confidence like you would not believe. It lets the cat really connect with you, which lets him really trust you and feel like he has some control over his world. I think it might be a huge help with a move like this.

I'm talking about just "fun" clicker training: high five, sit, come when called, or my favorite jump-through-hoop-for-treat trick that doesn't necessarily use a clicker. Bonus: you can also get your cats to go into a cat carrier on command, which is way less stressful than stuffing them in, and could be a more pleasant beginning to their relocation.

Then, when you're in the new place, once the kitties have calmed down a little, revisiting your training tricks could really help them feel settled.

One more thing: there are two main pheromones being simulated in different products. Figure out which one is not in Feliway, and then you can try it.
posted by amtho at 10:45 PM on June 5, 2022 [2 favorites]

Last year I suddenly regained ownership of the oldest family cat, who was then 16. This meant he left the home he'd spent his entire life in (give or take vacations at a summer cottage). He was fragile after two years of no vet treatment, arthritic, half-blind and losing weight quickly due to what turned out to be bad teeth. I had to bring him into the same space as FOUR rambunctious year-old tomcats who had been feral at 4 months old and now were barely domesticated. I was terrified.

It took him exactly 15 minutes to establish who was Top Cat, despite his mobility challenges - no claws or teeth were involved, just force of personality. And after having his teeth mostly removed plus a course of Solensia for his arthritis pain, a year later he's happily jumping places, commanding the best sunning spots and spending quality time grooming his now-impressive fur. He just turned 17 and his blood and ultrasound results are those of a cat 5 years younger. The boys follow him like ducklings and have taken to imitating his cuddly ways.

Trust your cat. That "attachment to place" thing is highly overrated.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 11:45 PM on June 5, 2022 [9 favorites]

Trust your cat. That "attachment to place" thing is highly overrated.

On the other paw, "attachment to stuff" is near the top of the list IME. When Bruce (10yo, f) and I moved from a first-floor apartment with a large balcony (and a way to get on the roof and roam the entire block) to a corner house with a small garden and a shed/garage, her first reaction was "WHAT DID YOU DO TO THE HOUSE?". But after finding out that the couch was the same one as before, all was fine.

We've also moved with a slightly older cat, but he had a few house moves under his belt already and there was little that would upset him anyway.
posted by Stoneshop at 1:40 AM on June 6, 2022 [3 favorites]

It sounds like you are his person. So he is going to look to you to know how to behave. The best thing you can do, besides keeping a bunch of soft surfaces he favors uncleaned and smelling like him and set up in his new home base, is to keep calm and act like the new place is yours. If you are acting confident, and not scared, and relaxed, and not secretly freaking out about all the changes, chances are that he will look to you and go, “okay this is weird but Sockrates seems fine? And my shelf is here with the blanket all my fur is ground into, so I guess it’s fine?” It will probably take a few weeks, but it’ll happen.

If you aren’t his person, whoever is needs to be the one to act super chill and not be overly excited. Like, if you have kids and he has latched on to one, a kid might have a lot more trouble channeling that kind of vibe for him to follow. In my experience, the people who are family but not a cat’s special bestie typically can act pretty much however, as long as they aren’t too loud or in their space.
posted by Mizu at 3:17 AM on June 6, 2022 [3 favorites]

I know my cat hates when things are moved or changed around. I'm planning my first move with him, and my plan is to keep him closed off somewhere (like the bathroom) while I do as much as the initial unpacking as possible in my bedroom, then let him into the bedroom for a day or two while I do most of the unpacking in the rest of the apartment, then let him explore everything else.

Since you're worried about him maintaining his spot in the hierarchy with the other cats, consider letting him have run of the house for a little while and keep the other cats in a separate room. This way, he can sort of claim his favorite spots, become more comfortable, and establish his scent.

And the point above about his "person" is a good one. Despite the fact that my cat doesn't like change, I know that he's very attached to me - a complete "velcro" cat - so I think he'll adapt just fine as long as I'm there with him and I seem calm. He takes his emotional cues from me. If I'm upset about something, he'll run and hide and act like somethign horrible is happening.

I can't help on the medically fragile/elderly cat part of it though. Might be worth discussing with the vet as well? I know cats often don't like their environment changed, but I think they all will generally settle down pretty quickly if they have their "people" with them and if their toys and furniture and stuff are there in the new place as well.
posted by litera scripta manet at 4:59 AM on June 6, 2022 [1 favorite]

I moved with my cat . . . too much probably, and at least once most of the furniture was new. THAT was the move she spent under the bed, honestly; once the stuff in the house was "hers" she was much more cool with moving. She passed before my last, most recent big move, but practically speaking, this is what I did:

1) Pack stuff up on a long timeline if possible; the boxes are less stressy if they don't all just appear one day. I am a planner and I started packing weeks in advance, so she eventually adjusted to boxes being in her life. This is good for the move-in since all your stuff won't magically unbox itself.

2) Day of Move: Have the cat in the bathroom or other small room the movers will NOT be entering. If someone can stay with the cat and provide pets and entertainment. Maybe a boring but slightly fun, low-impact job for a helper. My friend watched TV on her phone while this was all going on, it was fine.

3) Get all the stuff to the new house and (in my experience anyway) the movers generally help you set stuff up, in terms of rolling out the rugs and putting your couch where it goes, getting the bed set up, etc. Hopefully they do help with that, if not at least get your bedroom or some other area clear and calm enough for the cat to be in there while you're doing all the other bangy and loud stuff elsewhere.

4) Set up the cat things - litter box, cat tree, food, etc. and favorite blankets/beds in the "quiet space." Now you're ready to release the cat to the new space. Make sure there is somewhere for him to hide -- I made the mistake of letting my cat get under the bed and it was distressing since I couldn't really get her out without a lot of stress for us both.

5) Let him do his thing. If he meows and is looking for comfort, you'll know to go say hi and give pets and love; if he is wanting to hide, letting him do that is fine too. He will come out.

Pre-move I would ask the vet if he can have more gabapentin to help with keeping calm.

Good luck! You love the little bug, so you're going to do the best you can. That's all anyone can ask.
posted by Medieval Maven at 6:22 AM on June 6, 2022 [2 favorites]

We did this about 5 years ago, in a very similar situation -- but with two cats my elderly boy lived with plus bringing two new, younger cats into the house. Xander also had arthritis and was top cat mainly due to age (he was 18.) I know how you feel because Xander was with me for twenty years and I would have destroyed worlds for him.

But he was fine! It took some getting used to, probably about a week or two, and he never warmed up to one of the new cats, but he was definitely content as long as I did exactly what he told me to do, as soon as he told me to do it. He switched over to mostly staying in my bedroom, which was his choice, not enforced by closed doors or anything. But he was perfectly happy, slept and cuddled with me, and purred, and did not seem overly stressed.

He lived another two years that way, seeming perfectly content to boss me and the others from his room at the top of the stairs. At one point we switched him to a different arthritis med, and he actually started coming downstairs more and hanging out with me and his friend cats when I was on the sofa. I caught him playing with a catnip toy a few times, though each time he denied it with overwhelming dignity.

As I recall, our method of dealing with the move was to keep the cats mostly separated the first couple of weeks - by originating household, so Xander and his two friends in one part of the house, the two newbies in another. One litterbox per cat plus one for good measure - and I made sure Xander had easy access to his. We used a lot of feliway, but it's never really made much of a difference as far as I can tell.

I spent as much time with Xander in my room as I possibly could, so he didn't think he was alone in a strange new world, and I suspect that more than anything made the difference. There was different furniture, but it was MY room with MY stuff (read as: HIS room with HIS stuff) because everything smelled like him and me. Maybe think about NOT doing your laundry before you move - or wearing some old t-shirts a few days before the move that you don't mind donating to a cat bed/cat spot. I would NOT suggest putting him alone in a space other than yours, if he's used to being with you. Your bedroom with a closed door will likely be plenty small enough, and won't make him feel caged.

The more familiar things are, the faster he'll decide it's how it's Always Been, and the better off he'll be. Oh, and access to a sunbeam or two would probably help!
posted by invincible summer at 8:00 AM on June 6, 2022

Response by poster: Thank you all, so much. This is really helpful and I feel a little better about it.
posted by Sockrates at 9:41 AM on June 6, 2022

When my sister died, the person who'd promised her she would take my sister's geriatric brother kitties told me that she just wouldn't take them after all, because one of them had allergies and one puked all the time and she couldn't deal with it. So she'd lied to my sister, who'd also left a stipend in her will for their continued care, until she was gone and then immediately broke her promise. Neither my dad nor I could take them, and everyone we knew in her city was maxed out on pets, and we just couldn't find anyone to take these two geriatric bonded puke machines, no matter how hard we tried and how wide a net we cast.

One of her friends who'd moved all the way to North Carolina stepped up and flew to California to pick them up--one of the last things I did was take them to the vet to see if they were capable of flying back with her, because they were that old and fragile and had never known any home but their one house. The vet certified them, sis's saint of a friend took them back there (I was SO worried, because there were no direct flights and it would be a day-long trip), and one of the cats became besties with friend's german shepherd--and they had been terrified of dogs before. The other one tolerated the dog, but friend told us that they both snuggled on the bed with her and the dog every night, they were healthy and the puker had stopped puking, and the allergies of the other one vanished in his new environment. I thought for sure they would die on the trip, especially the very fragile puker, or when faced with a dog, or any number of things, but he thrived for his last year or so of life, and they both were very happy for the short extra time they had.

Cats can surprise you. I try to remember sis's cats whenever I worry about my own very fragile, grumpy boy now that he's getting up there and so am I. One thing your little buddy has is you, and that's the most important--my sister's cats were so confused and sad when she went away, and yet they still found some happiness; so I think with you around, and some familiar things, he will probably do okay.
posted by kitten kaboodle at 11:51 AM on June 6, 2022 [2 favorites]

Nthing that 'same stuff which smells like his home' and 'small, safe-to-a-cat starting room' help. Cats usually aren't that attached to a location but to a safe territory, i.e. one that smells like a safe, happy them. Feliway didn't help us one bit, but putting out extra towels in beds or nap spots and not washing any pet bedding for a few weeks prior to the move did. Rescue Remedy did also help, but looking at the ingredients I think that was mostly just my cat being an affectionate drunk? It halved the panic attacks so well worth it, but you can kill 2 birds with one stone by getting the cat checked out pre-move and getting some safe anti-anxiety medication.

Pets and kids both take their cues from the people in charge of their lives. Practice feeling and sounding calm, confident and in control. I know that sounds absurd, but this was actually the most helpful thing in postponing panic with my cat. If he panics, don't let it panic you, monitor symptoms so you can deal with anything truly concerning and keep going. My elderly cat sounded like he was actually going to die for the last 2 hours of his last move, and after a night in the new place he was absolutely fine (or at least, as fine as he ever got at that age).

Lastly...I hate that this is true, but sometimes the elderly are simply to fragile to move. Definitely get him to a vet, get him checked out.
posted by Ahniya at 12:29 PM on June 6, 2022

Older kitty? I'd pick up a couple heated pads/cat beds, just as a rule of thumb.
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:04 PM on June 7, 2022

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