Senior Cats



It’s important to know that being a senior cat isn’t a health problem. While “old age” used to be blamed for almost everything, we now know that in many ways, as the say goes, “age is only a number.” Determining a cat’s age in human years isn’t a simple equation. Many sources consider cats to be a “senior” when they reach 7 years, and according to the experts at Cornell Feline Health Center, a ten-year-old cat is approximately 53 in “people years”. With rescue cats, determining age is even more difficult as they can’t tell us how old they are. Veterinarians and those familiar with cats can make an educated guess, but they really are only approximations. What’s important to know, though, is that , as with humans, cats develop age related problems at different ages, so even if you know your cat’s exact age, you can’t predict how they’ll experience the aging process.As your cat gets older, it is, unfortunately, more likely to develop some diseases. Cats are living longer and as their guardians and caretakers, we need to make sure that the added years are quality time. It is important to try to decrease risk factors for disease and to recognize changes as soon as possible so that any disease process can be stopped or at least slowed down. Older cats have immune systems that are less able to defend them against diseases. Their skin becomes thinner, circulation poorer, and this increases their chances of infection too. Often they’re not able to groom themselves as well as they did when they were younger, so they might have fur that looks “prickly” or matted, and may even develop an odor. Hearing loss and visual changes are common and may actually be quite advanced by the time you’re aware of it because cats are experts at hiding these changes and adapting to them.

Dental disease is a frequent problem in older cats. If you’ve been diligent with dental care, your cat is less likely to have severe problems, but still can get infections and gum disease that can cause intense pain. If your older cat shows signs of decreased appetite, it is important to see your veterinarian because this could be the sign of dental disease, a loss of smell, or another serious disease.

Kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, diabetes, bowel problems, and cancer are all diseases that are more common in old age. Your veterinarian can diagnose some of these diseases with simple blood tests, while others require more extensive testing.

Just as humans can become “senile” (I’m not talking just “senior moments” here!), so can your cat. Sheffield, a friend’s elderly Siamese, often paces around the house, meowing, LOUDLY, and then looking around as though to say, “Ok, this place looks familiar, but where the heck am I?” He rarely cuddles up with the other cats anymore, and that’s common with older cats who have become forgetful.

Arthritis and joint problems are also seen frequently now that cats are living longer. There are some medications that your veterinarian can order to decrease kitty’s discomfort, but it’s also important to make adjustments around your home. Make sure that the sides of the litter box aren’t too high for kitty to crawl in with his creaky bones. You make also want to create steps so she can get up to her favorite places. Many pet stores carry heated beds and these can be a real comfort for kitty.

As kitty gets older, nutritional changes are also necessary. There are many quality diets for senior cats and even diets formulated for particular diseases. Ask your veterinarian’s advise regarding the best food for your cat.

One of the most important things to remember is not to assume that ANY change in kitty’s behavior is just due to “old age.” Any change should be reported to your veterinarian and the possibility of disease should be ruled out. If a diagnosis is made, your veterinarian will work with you regarding the best treatment. If, however, kitty checks out as healthy, take a good look at your home from your older kitty’s vantage point. Is there too much activity (or maybe not enough?)? Is the food bowl too high? Is the litter box in a convenient place for a “senior citizen”? Is kitty getting enough help from you to groom himself?

Because your close monitoring is the best protection your older kitty has, you may want to do periodic exams (at least once a week). You can do this during your brushing and cuddling time by just feeling kitty’s body all over. When you’re doing frequent checks, you’ll notice new bumps and lumps quickly if they occur. You can check out the mouth and gums while doing dental care. While stroking kitty’s ears, you can gently look into the part that’s visible to see if there are any changes. Even older cats need exercise, although you’ll have to adapt this as kitty gets older. During regular exercise times you can observe to see if there are any changes in the way kitty is moving. Your veterinarian can also teach you to do a mini-physical on kitty.

Nutrition, exercise, brushing, reducing stress, and regular veterinarian visits are all important to keep your cat healthy for as many years as possible. No matter how vigilant you are, though, there will come a day when kitty’s life with you will end. Keep watching our site, we’ll talk about kitty’s final days and how to deal with the grief that accompanies it.

How can you tell when your cat is getting old? On the outside, he may look much the same, and he probably still loves to bat his toy mouse around the kitchen floor and take naps sprawled across your hand-knitted heirloom afghan. But inside his body, time may be taking its toll. Become aware of what changes to expect in his health, behavior, eating habits, and energy level as he passes from adulthood to geriatric status. Meet his needs so that you and your family can deal with the end of his life.

The Middle Years

You may barely have noticed the subtle changes your cat went through in his first years of life, but when he approaches his equivalent of human middle age — somewhere between the ages of 8 and 12 — start paying extra attention. In fact, you should actually alter how you care for your cat, says Dr. Gary Norsworthy, a veterinarian and the editor of Current Feline Practice. “Middle-aged cats should have a normal level of activity and appetite,” he says. “But owners will find their veterinarian focusing on age-related problems, such as diabetes, kidney failure, and dental health.”
Your veterinarian may also recommend that you modify your cat’s diet as a preventive measure. “A balanced, easily digested diet can benefit his aging system,” says Norsworthy. “Many cats that die of so-called old age actually die of kidney or liver failure.”The Later StagesSome veterinarians believe that cats reach their geriatric years around age 12. Other experts are more generous, categorizing cats as being old at about 15. When your cat is between the ages of 12 and 15, be on the lookout for changes in behavior. You may notice that he catnaps a lot more. It’s normal for some old cats to sleep more than 18 hours a day.As a cat increases in age, his joints may stiffen and become painful to move, making him lethargic about many types of activities, even his grooming ritual. But before you decide to do a thorough brushing for him, ask your veterinarian to make sure your cat is not seriously ill — a lack of desire to groom can also be a sign of sickness.

Because an older cat rests more and moves less, he may need fewer calories. Your veterinarian can suggest ways to reduce his caloric intake and still make sure he gets all the nutrients his aging system needs. And however tempting it may be to treat him to table scraps, it’s really not wise. Overfeeding a cat at any age — especially with fatty foods — is actually setting him up for obesity and related health problems in the future.

Above all, you’ll need to start watching your geriatric cat very closely for hints of illness. “Cats tend to be more subtle than dogs when it comes to showing they’re sick” says Dr. Barbara Stein, owner of the Chicago Cat Clinic, “because instinct tells them that — as in the wild — to show some type of problem is to become prey.” After weeks of seeming healthy, a cat suddenly may display signs of being very ill, catching his owner off guard. Too often, pet owners hope a small problem will go away, only to seek their veterinarian’s advice when their cat is beyond help. Below is a chart that will help you track your aging cat’s health and promptly react to warning signals.

Eats more food than usual but is not gaining weight
Hyperthyroidism (a benign growth in the thyroid gland); early diabetes, parasites
See your veterinarian.
Drinks more water than usual or drinks more frequently (especially if muscles are weak)
Diabetes; kidney disease; hyperthyroidism
Note how much water is being consumed and how often, then consult your veterinarian.
Chewing is difficult; eats less; unable to hold food in mouth while eating; bleeding gums; bad breath; loose teeth
Gum disease; a mouth tumor; broken or diseased teeth
Have your cat’s teeth examined by your veterinarian; clean teeth and gums on a regular basis
Colon problems; poor diet; hairballs
See your veterinarian.
Frequent colds, infections, and generalized illness
Impaired immune system
Have your veterinarian test your cat for immune system disorders and feline leukemia virus.

Saying Goodbye

Even if your cat isn’t extremely old, you may have reason to consider the emotion-laden option of euthanasia — also called putting a cat to sleep or humanely destroying him. Dr. Stein reminds pet owners to put their cat first: “There is a difference between being alive and just living.”It may be time to end your pet’s life if his condition is irreversible and in spite of medical care, his quality of life is inadequate. But even knowing that these situations hold true for your cat doesn’t mean it’s easy to consider euthanasia. Many experts advise that the whole family should decide as a group whether to have their cat euthanized. Parents with younger children may choose to make the decision and then give the children a chance to say goodbye to their pet.

Be careful about using the phrase “put to sleep” when explaining the decision to children, who then may be afraid to sleep themselves or may expect the cat to wake up in the future. Tell them that the cat isn’t going to get better and that ending his life is a loving way to end his pain. Answer your children’s questions as honestly as possible, and let them cry and grieve. Some veterinarians let the pet owners be present when the cat is euthanized, but check with your veterinarian ahead of time if you would like to be there.

Thankfully, emotional support during this time is available. Take advantage of your local animal rescue group or your veterinarian. There are numerous books available to help you and your children cope with the loss. There are groups available through the Internet who are there to help you. Whichever way you choose, take advantage of it to help you and your family get through your grief.

Lifetimes …

  • Birth to 16 weeks: Kitten is just learning his way around; somewhat playful; often shy.
  • 16 weeks to 1 year: Still a kitten, cat is now very playful; should be spayed or neutered by 5 months of age to prevent pregnancy in females, fighting in males, and marking in both sexes.
  • 1 to 8 years: The young cat is in his prime; his personality emerges.
  • 8 to 12 years: The pregeriatric cat may start to slow down, but his behavior often doesn’t change much; preventive medicine may make a big difference at this stage of life.
  • 12+ years: Cat enters old age; health problems may show up (see “Signs of Seniority”); pace slows, sleeps more; may be easily irritated.

Ten Reasons Senior Cats Rule
By Jane Harrell, associate producer

As mom to three “older” cats, I consider senior-cat adoption a cause near and dear to my heart. If you have a friend who’s thinking of adopting — or if you’re considering adding a new cat family member yourself — read and share this list:

1. When senior cats are adopted, they seem to understand that they’ve been rescued, and are all the more thankful for it.

2. A senior cat’s personality has already developed, so you’ll know if he or she is a good fit for your family.

3. You can teach an old cat new tricks (I do every day with my own cats!): Senior cats have the attention span and impulse control that makes them easier to train than their youthful counterparts.

4. A senior cat may very well already know basic household etiquette (like not attacking your feet at night) anyway!

5. In particular, senior cats are often already litter trained and are less likely to “forget” where the box is.

6. Senior cats are often content to just relax in your company, unlike younger cats, who may get into mischief because they’re bored.

7. Speaking of relaxing, senior cats make great napping buddies.

8. Senior cats often know that scratching posts (not furniture) are for scratching and toys (not hands or feet) are for biting.

9. A senior cat won’t grow any larger, so you’ll know exactly how much cat you’re getting.

10. Senior cats are some of the hardest to find homes for – so when you adopt a senior cat, you are truly saving a life.

Back to blog