Cornell Feline Health Center
The Special Needs of the Senior Cat
Courtesy of Cornell Feline Health Center and the American Association of Feline Practitioners
Just as people are living longer than they did in the past, cats are living longer too. In fact, the percentage of cats over six years of age has nearly doubled in just over a decade, and there is every reason to expect that the “graying” cat population will continue to grow.
So how old is my cat, really?
Cats are individuals and, like people, they experience advancing years in their own unique ways. Many cats begin to encounter age-related physical changes between seven and ten years of age, and most do so by the time they are 12. The commonly held belief that every “cat year” is worth seven “human years” is not entirely accurate. In reality, a one-year-old cat is physiologically similar to a 16-year-old human, and a two-year-old cat is like a person of 21. For every year thereafter, each cat year is worth about four human years. Using this formula, a ten-year-old cat is similar age wise to a 53-year-old person, a 12-year-old cat to a 61-year-old person, and a 15-year-old cat to a person of 73.
Advancing age is not a disease
Aging is a natural process. Although many complex physical changes accompany advancing years, age in and of itself is not a disease. Even though many conditions that affect older cats are not correctable, they can often be controlled. The key to making sure your senior cat has the healthiest and highest quality of life possible is to recognize and reduce factors that may be health risks, detect disease as early as possible, correct or delay the progression of disease, and improve or maintain the health of the body’s systems.
What happens as my cat ages?
The aging process is accompanied by many physical and behavioral changes:
- Compared to younger cats, the immune system of older cats is less able to fend off foreign invaders. Chronic diseases often associated with aging can impair immune function even further.
- Dehydration, a consequence of many diseases common to older cats, further diminishes blood circulation and immunity.
- The skin of an older cat is thinner and less elastic, has reduced blood circulation, and is more prone to infection.
- Older cats groom themselves less effectively than do younger cats, sometimes resulting in hair matting, skin odor, and inflammation.
- The claws of aging felines are often overgrown, thick, and brittle.
- In humans, aging changes in the brain contribute to a loss of memory and alterations in personality commonly referred to as senility. Similar symptoms are seen in elderly cats: wandering, excessive meowing, apparent disorientation, and avoidance of social interaction.
- For various reasons, hearing loss is common in cats of advanced age.
- Aging is also accompanied by many changes in the eyes. A slight haziness of the lens and a lacy appearance to the iris (the colored part of the eye) are both common age-related changes, but neither seems to decrease a cat’s vision to any appreciable extent. However, several diseases—especially those associated with high blood pressure—can seriously and irreversibly impair a cat’s ability to see.
- Dental disease is extremely common in older cats and can hinder eating and cause significant pain.
- Although many different diseases can cause a loss of appetite, in healthy senior cats, a decreased sense of smell may be partially responsible for a loss of interest in eating. However, the discomfort associated with dental disease is a more likely cause of reluctance to eat.
- Feline kidneys undergo a number of age-related changes that may ultimately lead to impaired function; kidney failure is a common disease in older cats, and its symptoms are extremely varied.
- Degenerative joint disease, or arthritis, is common in older cats. Although most arthritic cats don’t become overtly lame, they may have difficulty gaining access to litter boxes and food and water dishes, particularly if they have to jump or climb stairs to get to them.
- Hyperthyroidism (often resulting in overactivity); hypertension (high blood pressure, usually a result of either kidney failure or hyperthyroidism), diabetes mellitus; inflammatory bowel disease; and cancer are all examples of conditions that, though sometimes seen in younger cats, become more prevalent in cats as they age.
Is my cat sick, or is it just old age?
Owners of older cats often notice changes in their cat’s behavior, but consider these changes an inevitable and untreatable result of aging, and fail to report them to their veterinarian. Failure to use the litter box, changes in activity levels, and alterations in eating, drinking, or sleeping habits are examples. While veterinarians believe that some behavior problems are due to the diminishing mental abilities of aging cats, it is a mistake to automatically attribute all such changes to old age. In fact, the possibility of some underlying medical condition should always be the first consideration. Disease of virtually any organ system, or any condition that causes pain or impairs mobility can contribute to changes in behavior. For example:
- A fearful cat may not become aggressive until it is in pain (e.g., from dental disease) or less mobile (e.g., from arthritis).
- The increased urine production that often results from diseases common to aging cats (e.g., kidney failure, diabetes mellitus, or hyperthyroidism) may cause the litter box to become soiled more quickly than expected. The increased soil and odor may cause cats to find a bathroom more to their liking.
- Many cats that do not mark their territory with urine, even if exposed to intruding cats, may begin to do so if a condition like hyperthyroidism develops.
- Cats with painful arthritis may have difficulty gaining access to a litter box, especially if negotiating stairs is required. Even climbing into the box may be painful for such cats; urinating or defecating in an inappropriate location is the natural result.
- Older cats may be more sensitive to changes in the household since their ability to adapt to unfamiliar situations diminishes with age.
The take-home message? Never assume that changes you see in your older cat are simply due to old age, and therefore untreatable. Any alteration in your cat’s behavior or physical condition should alert you to contact your veterinarian.
How can I help keep my senior cat healthy?
Close observation is one of the most important tools you have to help keep your senior cat healthy. You may wish to perform a mini-physical examination on a weekly basis. Ask your veterinarian to show you how to do it and what to look for. You will find it easier if you just make the examination an extension of the way you normally interact with your cat. For example, while you are rubbing your cat’s head or scratching its chin, gently raise the upper lips with your thumb or forefinger so you can examine the teeth and gums. In the same way, you can lift the ear flaps and examine the ear canals. While you are stroking your cat’s fur, you can check for abnormal lumps or bumps, and evaluate the health of the skin and coat.
Daily brushing or combing removes loose hairs, preventing them from being swallowed and forming hair balls. Brushing also stimulates blood circulation and sebaceous gland secretions, resulting in a healthier skin and coat. Older cats may not use scratching posts as frequently as they did when they were younger; therefore, nails should be checked weekly and trimmed if necessary.
Many cats tend towards obesity as they age. If your cat is overweight, you should ask your veterinarian to help you modify the diet so that a normal body condition can be restored. Other cats actually become too thin as they get older, apparently as part of the normal aging process. But progressive weight loss can also be caused by serious medical problems such as kidney failure, cancer, diabetes mellitus, inflammatory bowel disease, liver disease, hyperthyroidism, or some other condition. Subtle changes in weight are often the first sign of disease; ideally you should weigh your cat every month on a scale sensitive enough to detect such small changes. Keep a record of the weight, and notify your veterinarian of any significant changes. To ensure proper nutrition, select a nutritionally balanced and complete diet for your cat’s stage of life, and one that is formulated according to guidelines established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). Specific dietary changes may be necessary for cats with certain medical conditions. Your veterinarian can be of invaluable assistance in helping you select the most appropriate diet for your senior cat.
Exercise is important, not only for weight control but overall health. Older cats frequently become less agile as arthritis develops and muscles begin to atrophy. Regularly engaging your cat in moderate play can promote muscle tone and suppleness, increase blood circulation, and help reduce weight in cats that are too heavy. During times of exercise, be alert to labored breathing or rapid tiring that may suggest the cat has a disease. It may also be necessary to relocate litter boxes to more accessible locations to prevent elderly cats from eliminating in inappropriate locations. Purchasing a litter box with low sides, cutting down high sides, or constructing a ramp around the box may help older cats gain entry more easily.
Reducing environmental stress whenever possible is very important since older cats are usually less adaptable to change. Special provisions should be made for older cats that must be boarded for a period of time. Having a familiar object, such as a blanket or toy, may prevent the cat from becoming too distraught in a strange environment. A better alternative is to have the older cat cared for at home by a neighbor, friend, or relative. Introducing a new pet may be a traumatic experience for older cats, and should be avoided whenever possible. Moving to a new home can be equally stressful. However, some stress can be alleviated by giving the older cat more affection and attention during times of emotional upheaval.
Cats are experts at hiding illness, and elderly cats are no exception. It is common for a cat to have a serious medical problem, yet not show any sign of it until the condition is quite advanced. Since most diseases can be managed more successfully when detected and treated early in their course, it is important for owners of senior cats to carefully monitor their behavior and health.
If you can’t answer “yes” to all of the following statements, please call your veterinarian as soon as possible.
- is acting normally; seems active and in good spirits
- does not tire easily with moderate exercise
- does not have seizures or fainting episodes
- has a normal appetite
- has had no significant change in weight
- has a normal level of thirst and drinks the usual amount of water (about an ounce per pound of body weight per day, or less)
- does not vomit often
- does not regurgitate undigested food
- has no difficulty eating or swallowing
- has normal appearing bowel movements (formed and firm with no blood or mucus)
- defecates without difficulty
- urinates in normal amounts and with normal frequency; urine color is normal
- urinates without difficulty
- always uses a clean litter box
- has not developed any new offensive behavioral tendencies (such as aggression or urine spraying)
- has gums that are pink with no redness, swelling, or bleeding
- does not sneeze and has no nasal discharge
- has eyes that are bright, clear, and free of discharge
- has a coat that is full, glossy, and free of bald spots and mats; no excessive shedding is evident
- doesn’t scratch, lick, or chew excessively
- has skin that is not greasy and has no offensive odor
- is free of fleas, ticks, lice, and mites
- has no persistent abnormal swellings
- has no sores that do not heal
- has no bleeding or discharge from any body opening
- has ears that are clean and odor free
- doesn’t shake its head or scratch its ears
- hears normally and reacts as usual to its environment
- walks without stiffness, pain, or difficulty
- has feet that appear healthy, and has claws of normal length
- breathes normally without straining or coughing
How can my veterinarian help?
Just as your observations can help detect disease in the early stages, so too can regular veterinary examinations. Your veterinarian may suggest evaluating your healthy senior cat more frequently than a younger cat—for example, every six months instead of once a year. If your cat has a medical condition, more frequent evaluations may be necessary. During your cat’s examination, the veterinarian will gather a complete medical and behavioral history, perform a thorough physical examination in order to evaluate every organ system, check your cat’s weight and body condition, and compare them to previous evaluations. At least once a year, certain tests—including blood tests, fecal examination, and urine analysis—will be suggested. In this way, disorders can be found and treated early, and ongoing medical conditions can be appraised. Both are necessary to keep your senior cat in the best possible health for the longest possible time.
Prepared by the Cornell Feline Health Center, Cornell University, College of Veterinary Medicine, Ithaca, New York 14853-6401. The ultimate purpose of the Feline Health Center is to improve the health of cats by developing methods to prevent or cure feline diseases and by providing continuing education to veterinarians and cat owners. Much of that work is made possible by the financial support of friends. ©1999 by Cornell University. All rights reserved. Cornell University is an equal opportunity, affirmative action educator and employer.