The elderly cat – what to do, when your cat is getting old
By:Dr. Kathryn Dench
Author: Dr. Kathryn Dench
Dr. Kathryn Dench is an experience veterinary with over 10 years' experience in small animal and exotic pet medicine. Kate qualified from Cambridge University Veterinary School in 2007. Kate has worked in a number of veterinary practices in the UK. She has extensive experience in the medical care of pet species, from dogs and cats to chickens and chameleons! In free time, Kate writes pet advice in order to ensure that owners are receiving the best possible information on how to care for their pets.View all 4 articles Learn about our editorial process
Updated on: 17/04/2020
Aging is one of those unavoidable facts of life. Sooner or later our feline companions will start to show signs of getting older. In this article we explore the topic of aging in cats, and what to expect as our cats start to experience old age.
How long do cats live?
Our domestic cats are closely related to small wild cats, such as the Leopard Cat living in the jungles of south-east Asia. These wild felines are thought to have an average lifespan of between two and 13 years, with the most common causes of death being injury and infection. In comparison, our domestic cats benefit from good nutrition, appropriate veterinary care, and the protection of our homes, and so it is not surprising that they live longer than their wild cousins. The average lifespan of a domestic cat is between 13 and 17 years, with some cats living into their 20’s. While our cats are clearly benefiting from our care and attention over the years, this longer lifespan means they will eventually experience signs of old age. As owners, it is important that we pay attention to these signals and do what is needed to keep our feline friends comfortable and healthy into their later years.
Domestic cats are often classed as “senior” from around 10 years of age. That is not to say that your cat will necessarily show symptoms of aging at that point, but changes to their joints and internal organs may already be starting at that age, and this is a good time to start making changes to their lifestyle to support their aging systems.
What happens to cats as they get older?
Some cats can live into their late teens still being as spritely as a kitten. However, many cats start to show signs of aging between 12 and 16 years of age. Cats are often so independent, it is possible to go for several days without really spending time paying attention to what your cat is doing. The more we pay attention to our older cats, the quicker we will notice any changes of routine or behavior that could indicate a problem. Make it part of your daily routine to spend at least 5 minutes focusing on your pet so you can easily spot any warning signals. Common symptoms spotted by owners of elderly cats are:
- Appetite changes, either eating more or less than before
- Drinking more than before
- Being less active, or not jumping as much as they used to
- Looking ‘scruffy’ or poorly groomed
- Overgrown claws
- Sleeping more
- Being more vocal
- Seeming confused or stressed
- Eyesight or hearing problems
- Lumps and bumps
- Smelly breath
If you notice any of these symptoms in your cat, it is a good idea to get them checked by your veterinarian, who will be able to assess your cat and determine if there is an underlying medical cause for your cat’s change in behavior.
What medical conditions can affect older cats?
There are certain conditions that cats get more prone to as they get older. These include:
Older cats can suffer from joint problems such as arthritis. Often the first symptom is that your cat isn’t as agile when they are jumping as they used to be. Another common symptom, which may not initially appear to be a joint problem, is that your cat doesn’t groom their fur as well anymore, particularly over their lower spine. This can be due to pain when twisting round to groom this part of their fur.
Cats can be prone to teeth problems as time goes on, particularly a type of cavity known as a Feline Oral Resorptive Lesion which can cause them a lot of pain. Your cat may refuse to eat dry food and may even salivate or paw at their mouth if the pain is severe. In more subtle cases, the only symptom may be a bad smell from the mouth. If you suspect your cat as a tooth problem, ask your vet to check as soon as possible.
There are a number of hormonal imbalances that can affect cats as they get older. These include diabetes and hyperthyroidism, amongst others. The symptoms can include drinking more, changes in appetite, urinating more, and behavioral changes such as becoming more aggressive or more lethargic. If you notice these symptoms, it is important to take your cat for a check-up where your vet will be able to assess them.
Internal organ problems:
As with all of us, as we get older, the effectiveness of cats’ internal organs can decrease as they get older. Kidney problems and heart conditions are not uncommon in older cats. Often treatment for these conditions is based on supporting organs to function to the best of its capacity, through medications, changes in diet and lifestyle.
Older cats can suffer from senile dementia, which can cause a range of behavioral changes from seeming grumpy or confused, sleeping more often, toileting in the house or aggression. However, as discussed above, some behavioral changes have underlying medical causes other than senile dementia or old age, so it is always a good idea to report any changes to your veterinarian so that any medical issues can be checked for.
What can I do to help my older cat?
As owners of an older cat, there are steps we can take to keep them in good health and make sure they are comfortable.
If your older cat is struggling to keep their coat in good condition, they may benefit a lot from you grooming them with a soft brush, particularly for longer-haired breeds. As cats get older, their claws are also prone to getting over-long, as they cannot retract their claws so well to release the outer layers of the claw as they grow. Left like this, the claws can actually grow around and end up digging into the paw. Check your older cats claws regularly, and if they are getting long make sure they have regular manicures. Your veterinary clinic will be able to help cut the claws or show you how to do it safely if you want to do it yourself at home.
Regular medical care:
Routine veterinary care, such as vaccinations and preventative medication against worms, fleas, and ticks are even more important in our elderly cats, as their aging immune system is sometimes unable to fight off infections as effectively as when they were younger. The specific medications that are recommended vary from one area to another depending on how prevalent different infections and parasites are from place to place, so your local veterinary clinic will be able to advise you best on what is needed to keep your older cat protected.
There are a number of commercial diets designed for senior cats, to support their internal organs as time goes by. For example, compared with standard adult cat foods, those for senior cats often contain easily digestible proteins to reduce the workload on the kidneys, and added vitamins and minerals to help keep joints healthy. Senior cats are often less active and at risk of becoming overweight, so many diets aimed at this age group are calorie-controlled to make sure they get the energy they need without gaining excess fat. Conversely, very elderly cats can have a reduced appetite and so need more calorie-dense food. It is recommended to feed your cat the diet suggested for their age, to make sure they are getting the correct nutrition.
Cats are prone to stress, and older cats even more so. Stress is often caused by a conflict with other cats for territory, food or litter trays, but can also be caused by changes in the home and loud noises. Keep an eye out for signs of stress in your cat, which could include being temperamental, urinating in the house, over-grooming and eating less. As well as trying to reduce stressful events for our older cats, your veterinary clinic or pet shop will be able to recommend hormone-based or herbal calming sprays that may help your cat relax.
Adjustments around the home:
If we stay in tune with our older cat, we can make adjustments in our homes to accommodate them as they age. For example, a cat who normally toilets outside but has started toileting indoors could benefit from a litter tray inside the house. Similarly, a cat who normally sleeps in a high spot on top of the cupboard but is having difficulty jumping may appreciate having a cozy bed set up somewhere more accessible. There are some good ideas for helping keep an older cat active on the International Cat Care website.
What happens if my cat is dying of old age?
While it is not something we want to think about, it is inevitable that eventually, our cats will pass away. For some, it can be a sudden and quick thing, with no real warning signs. For others, we may be aware that they are sick and even be under treatment for a period of time to help manage their condition. Sometimes, our cat’s quality of life can become so poor, either through sickness or mobility problems or confusion, that we have to make the decision to have them euthanized to stop them from suffering.
Whether the loss is an unexpected shock or something we have had the opportunity to prepare ourselves for, the reality of the sudden absence of our beloved pet from our lives is painful. Your veterinary clinic may have resources to help owners and their children during this time of grief, and there are also some online resources that might help. 
Whilst it is not possible to stop the clock for our older felines, by keeping a close eye on them and making adjustments to their lifestyle to help their aging bodies, we can keep them as healthy and comfortable as possible during their later years.
References and Further Reading
- Life Expectancy in Cats:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aging_in_cats
- Stress in cats:https://www.cats.org.uk/help-and-advice/health/cat-stress
- International Cat Care website:https://icatcare.org/advice/elderly-cats-special-considerations/
- Coping with losing a pet:https://www.helpguide.org/articles/grief/coping-with-losing-a-pet.htm
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