Signs of an old cat

Senior Cat Problems: What You Should Know About Aging Cats

You and your kitty have been together through thick and thin. As the years stretch into a decade, it can be easy to forget that your faithful companion isn’t the spry kitten she once was. She may not show any obvious signs of slowing down, but perhaps her last health check has you facing the fact that you love an aging cat that needs to be handled with extra care. Senior cat problems aren’t always easy to spot if you don’t know what to look for. Read on to learn how to recognize aging cat issues and how to best care for your senior cat.

Is Your Cat a Senior?

While once cats were considered “senior” at the ripe old age of eight, thanks to advancements in nutrition and veterinary medicine and more and more cats being kept indoors, it’s no longer unusual for a cat to live well into her teens or even into her twenties. However, despite the lengthened lifespan, cats still reach their senior years around the age of 7. While this seems very young for a cat that might have more than half of their life left to live, it is important to realize the changes in their biology. Think of it this way: even though humans are living longer these days (some into their 90s or 100s), they are still considered a senior citizen between the ages of 60 and 65. Even if you do not see any physical changes, it is still important to think of your cat in her proper part of her life cycle.

Signs of Aging in Cats

Typically, as a cat heads into the senior years she begins to show signs of slowing down. She may be less active and sleepier, points out Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. She might also be less inclined to jump or climb, and might even have difficulty getting to hard-to-reach places. Older cats are more prone to weight gain, although some aging cats lose weight instead. While some of these changes could simply be caused by your aging kitty having less energy than she once did, they shouldn’t be ignored. Any such symptoms could be signs of a serious health issue and should be discussed with your veterinarian.

Common Senior Cat Problems

Aging cat issues are often similar to those faced by humans. Older cats are susceptible to such problems as arthritis, obesity, vision and hearing problems and dementia, as well as a host of diseases such as diabetes, cancer, kidney or liver disease and thyroid problems. Aging cats are susceptible to dental issues like gum disease and feline tooth resorption, a disease in which teeth dissolve at the roots. Here are some signs that your cat might be experiencing one of these common senior cat problems:

  • Difficulty or reluctance to try jumping or climbing
  • Changes in weight
  • Strange lumps or bumps
  • Failing to use the litter box
  • Appetite loss
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Incontinence or lack of urination
  • Lethargy or listlessness
  • Forgetfulness
  • Excessive meowing, yowling, or other vocalizations
  • Runny nose or eyes
  • Cloudy eyes
  • Bumping into objects
  • Pawing at her eyes
  • Excessive blinking

Caring for Your Senior Cat

While your older cat might not show any obvious visible signs of aging, providing her with proper care at this advanced stage of life can go a long way toward prolonging her life and making her senior years comfortable.

Nutrition and Exercise. Feed your cat a high-quality cat food that’s specially formulated for senior cats. Talk to your vet about your cat’s nutrition needs at this age and how much you should be feeding her. If she has an underlying health condition, your vet might decide to place her on a therapeutic pet cat food such as Hill’s® Prescription Diet® to help control her condition.

It’s also important for aging cats to drink plenty of clean, fresh water to help improve kidney function and prevent dehydration. Be sure water is plentiful and easily accessible. Older cats may sometimes forget to drink, so consider either adding wet food to your cat’s meals or switching to it altogether to help ensure she gets plenty of fluids.

Despite their tendency to be less active, older cats still benefit from regular exercise. Encourage your cat to move and play as much as she’s willing to. But don’t push, especially if she shows signs of joint pain or discomfort.

Joint Care: You can help reduce the risk of arthritis and joint problems by feeding a cat food that contains omega-3 fatty acids as well as supplements that promote joint health, such as glucosamine and chondroitin. If her food doesn’t already contain these supplements, you can give them to her separately. Regular exercise may also promote healthy joints. Think about ways to make it easier for your senior cat to get around, as well. Plus, weight loss and weight control are the best ways to help address or prevent joint problems in cats. If her food and water dishes sit up high, they may need to be lowered to the ground. Similarly, keep her bed in a spot that’s easy to get to. If she struggles to use the litter box, consider getting a shallower box with lower sides that are easier for her to step over.

Health Checks: Cats are masters at hiding their pain, so any signs of problems might go unnoticed until they become too pronounced to ignore. This is why it’s important to take your aging cat for regular health checks. Your vet might be able to spot problems that you miss and catch serious issues before they become life-threatening or do too much damage to her. Pay close attention to your aging cat’s behavior patterns and report any changes to your vet.

Dental Care: As your cat gets older she should also be taken for regular dental checkups and cleanings. Dental diseases and infections can threaten your cat’s overall health if they’re not detected and treated. You can help prevent tooth problems and detect them early by establishing an at-home dental hygiene routine and regularly brushing your cat’s teeth.

It’s not easy to face the prospect of seeing your cat enter her golden years, but with proper care you can help enhance, and possibly extend her life. Arming yourself with a better understanding of the senior cat problems she’s likely to face will help you be a more vigilant pet parent and make it easier to give your aging cat the best quality of life. Senior cats aren’t necessarily at the end of their life — they’re just learning how to live it differently, so you and your cat still have plenty of time to do all the human-cat things that best friends like to do.

Contributor Bio

Jean Marie Bauhaus

Jean Marie Bauhaus is a pet parent, pet blogger and novelist from Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she usually writes under the supervision of a lapful of furbabies.

Weight loss is one of the most common signs of cat aging. Photo: fjhony

Our cats are living longer and longer. Veterinary medicine, educated pet parents and nutritional advances have greatly increased the lifespan of our beloved furry felines.

We get to enjoy our cats for a longer time, and many of our cats experience a good quality of life well into their geriatric years.

What is an old cat, anyway?

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The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) and the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) divide a cat’s life into 6 stages:

Here’s what this looks like in chart form:

Cat aging chart via Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery

As a cat reaches the twilight years, people often say the cat is “slowing down.”

What does that mean? It can certainly mean your cat is getting older, but “slowing down” should not be excused away as the normal course of aging.

Remember, too, that cats are as individual as humans. One 14-year-old cat can look like some other 8-year-old cat. These life stages are general.

Even as the popularity of cats as America’s favorite pet continues to rise — with as many as 86 million cats kept as household pets versus up to 78 million dogs — people still take their dogs to the veterinarian twice as often as they do cats.

Cats also like to mask their diseases, making early detection of many geriatric problems difficult to notice.

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People should become more aware of what to look for in the older cat and realize how important veterinary checkups are as their cat ages.

Here are some of the biggest reasons to pay special attention to the signs of cat aging:

  • Improve quality of life and increase longevity
  • Detect diseases earlier and lessen pain and suffering
  • Reduce long-term health care costs and hospitalizations by early intervention

To improve your cat’s quality of life, pay attention to the signs of cat aging. Photo: StockSnap

Top 4 Signs of Cat Aging

Let’s look at the 4 most common and significant signs of aging in cats:

1. Weight Loss and/or Decline in Body Condition

When you live with a pet day in and day out, it can be difficult to pick up on subtle changes in weight.

Awareness of weight change can be particularly difficult with older cats if they are obese, if the cat free feeds or if the cat lives in a multi-cat household.

Twice-yearly vet checks will monitor your cat’s weight effectively. As a veterinarian, I have found that people who have not been in for 6 months to 1 year are truly surprised to hear their geriatric cat has lost 10% of their body weight.

Changes in body condition may also be so subtle as to go unnoticed by someone who looks at their cat every day. Actual weight may not change, but a cat can begin to lose muscle mass and tone. Their skin can become thinner, or their hair coat dulls. These are not “normal” changes and should not be dismissed because the cat is aging.

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A decrease in weight signals a medical or cognitive problem.

Obviously, a decreased appetite leads to weight loss, but some older cats continue to eat fairly steadily but show weight loss. This weight loss comes from the cat’s inability to absorb and use nutrients from food.

Dental or metabolic disease, GI disease, cancer, inflammatory or immune disease, neurologic problems, orthopedic disease or changes in cognitive function can lead to weight loss.

In other words, just about anything going on inside your cat’s aging body or mind can show up as weight loss.

  • Don’t change your aging cat’s diet based on age alone.
  • Don’t feed a “senior” or reduced-protein diet to an older cat unless your vet has diagnosed a disease that requires such a diet change. Many aging cats require more or a better source of protein, as well as supplements, to keep weight on and body condition up.

2. Changes in Thirst

Aging cats may be going to the water bowl more or less often.

  • When a cat begins to drink a lot of water, most people notice this and bring them to the vet. The thirsty cat may have been drinking more water in secret, however, for several months before it became obvious. Routine geriatric blood tests and urinalyses can pick up on a cat’s excessive thirst before you ever notice it. Many diseases cause increased thirst, and all of them have a better prognosis if caught early.
  • When a cat begins to drink less water, you may not notice. Getting to the bottom of this is twofold: We should find out not only why the cat is drinking less, but also counteract the dehydration that an inadequate amount of water intake can cause.

The cat may be going to the water bowl less because they don’t feel well, they’re losing some cognitive function and forget to drink, or they may be arthritic enough to forego that necessary trip to the water and just stay sleeping.

An older cat who stops drinking adequate water can become dehydrated more easily than a younger cat. If the cat has a smoldering illness, lack of water and dehydration can set the cat into crisis. Continual, low-grade dehydration is also a frequent cause of constipation in older cats.

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In this video from Dr. Greg Martinez, DVM, an older cat was dehydrated and needed blood tests and rehydration to help her out:

3. Behavioral Changes: Cognitive Dysfunction (CD)

As our feline population lives longer, with many approaching or reaching 20-plus years, more and more people are observing major behavior changes and/or loss of cognitive function in their geriatric kitties.

Reporting and discussing these behavior changes with your vet is very important. Your observations matter most!

Behavior changes may signal an illness or cognitive dysfunction (CD), a form of feline dementia. Regardless of the cause, your vet can help improve quality of life for both you and your cat by treating the illness or the loss of mental capacity.

A change in vocalization is an important signal that something is wrong:

  • If the sound of the meow is different, it could mean a medical problem. Your vet will do a thorough oral and throat exam and recommend further testing.
  • If your elderly kitty begins to vocalize strangely, often at night, this could be a senile change, but medical conditions such as hypertension and hyperthyroidism can cause intense vocalization.

Many people hearing strange yowling worry their cat is in pain. While it is probably not intense physical pain, it clearly means the cat is experiencing anxiety — either from illness or loss of cognitive function.

Diagnosing the common medical conditions associated with vocalization is crucial. Early detection can prevent a serious event such as a stroke or cardiac event. Again, diagnosing and treating the vocalization improves quality of life for your cat and you.

Temperament changes, restlessness, changes in sleep patterns or changes in litter box behavior are common signs of reduced cognitive function.

These cats do best with very little change in environment. Trips to the vet should be as stressless as possible. Keeping anxiety to a minimum is one of the big challenges in this geriatric population.

4. Arthritis

Any changes in mobility should not be dismissed as “old age.”

Older cats may have severe arthritis, often in the hindquarters and/or the spine, that can be treated.

Many cats stop jumping to their usual spots or sometimes act aggressively when you try to move them. These subtle changes may mean the cat is experiencing chronic pain from osteoarthritis, and it should be addressed.

Don’t dismiss changes in mobility as being just “old age” in your cat. Painful arthritis can be treated by your vet. Photo:

Older Cats Need Dedicated People

The thoughtful person with a geriatric cat will go to the vet at least twice a year; be observant of subtle changes in their kitty; and try to maintain a consistent, stress-free home environment.

Treating an older cat is a challenge. Many of our old boys and girls have multiple problems, adding to what vets call polypharmacy — meaning the cat should be on several medications.

Vets are highly aware that giving medications to cats is not easy. We have solved some of these problems by using compounding pharmacies. These special veterinary pharmacies can be helpful:

  • Multiple medications can be put in a single capsule.
  • Medications can be made into transdermal gels, which get absorbed into the skin.
  • Meds can be flavored or put into a suspension.

Be aware that compounded meds are more expensive, though.

In the 1980s, my “old cat patients” were 14, maybe 15 years old. Now? They are 17, 18 and even 21.

We’ve come a long way, kitty! Let’s work together to keep up a happy, long life.

+ Click to see the sources for this article.

This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was last reviewed April 30, 2019.If you have questions or concerns, call your vet, who is best equipped to ensure the health and well-being of your pet. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. See additional information.

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Loving Care for Older Cats

When your favorite feline friend is aging, give some extra TLC.

Not long ago, cats were considered seniors at eight years old. Today, it’s not unusual for veterinarians to have feline patients in their twenties. Thanks to improved nutrition, living indoors, and advances in veterinary medicine, cats live longer and are now considered older at 12 to 14 years, says Richard Goldstein, DVM, assistant professor in small animal medicine at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, whose oldest feline patient reached a healthy 22 years old.

“Growing older is not a disease,” he emphasizes. “While it’s true that senior cats are more likely to get different conditions, some older cats are perfectly normal and don’t change at all.”

Older cats tend to be less active and playful, they may sleep more, gain or lose weight, and have trouble reaching their favorite places. Don’t chalk up health or behavior changes – often gradual – to old age, however. Such changes can be signs of common diseases or dental problems that should be addressed by your veterinarian.

Making sure older cats have easy access to the things they enjoy and/or need is critical, says Emily Levine, DVM, animal behavior resident of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. “We remember to give them medications, but we tend to forget about addressing food, water and litter box issues,” she says.

Indeed, many cat owners don’t realize the practical things they can do for their aging cats. To help your older cat enjoy her golden years, consider these simple suggestions.

See the vet. Schedule regular veterinary exams to enhance your older cat’s well-being. “Six-month checkups for geriatric cats are great,” Dr. Goldstein notes. “For healthy cats, a yearly geriatric exam – including blood work and X-rays – along with a smaller exam in between, is ideal,” he recommends.

Think warm. Cats like to seek out warm places to rest. Make sure your older cat’s favorite soft bed or resting place is not in a drafty area of your home. Too much heat, though, can potentially burn a cat who can’t move quickly, so be sure to think warm, not hot.

Provide easy access to basic needs. As cats age they are more prone to getting arthritis and may have reduced control over their bowels and bladder, Dr. Levine says. It’s a good idea to install litter boxes on every floor to make them easy to reach. In addition, some older cats may climb into a normal litter box to urinate but not to defecate. To help solve this problem, use a litter box with very low sides (try a large cookie sheet) or place newspaper around the litter box, she advises. “Older cats should have easy access to food, water, and litter boxes, so if they choose not to climb stairs they don’t have to,” she adds. This may mean placing food and water bowls in more than one place as well.

Help him get there. If your older cat can no longer jump on his favorite windowsill, create box steps, ramps, or purchase pet stairs that allow him to safely reach a special spot on his own. This also works for a cat that wants to reach a favorite chair or sofa. The idea is to provide firm footing; for example, cover steps or a ramp with carpet to prevent slipping.

Gently groom. Older cats can benefit from more frequent hands-on help if their self-grooming begins to wane. (Be aware that a sudden lack of grooming may signal a health problem.) This is particularly crucial for longhaired cats who become uncomfortably matted. Gently brushing or combing removes loose hairs and stimulates circulation and sebaceous gland secretions, returning luster to the coat.

Turn on a light. Nightlights help older cats with poor vision or eyesight problems navigate at night. If your cat is blind, try to keep your cat’s environment as stationary and consistent as possible, including litter boxes and furniture, Dr. Levine recommends. To avoid disorienting or startling a blind cat, do not pick him up unless necessary and call his name before approaching him.

Give a deaf cat a point of view. You should approach a cat with hearing problems from the front rather than behind to avoid startling or scaring him. Keep him safely inside your home to protect him from cars and predators.

Keep her kitten-free and playful. “I do not recommend getting a young kitten to rejuvenate your older cat – a rambunctious kitten climbing all over your cat may be more detrimental than helpful, and people have a tendency to focus on the young cat and ignore the older one,” Dr. Levine says. Instead, find gentle ways to encourage your older cat to play with you, she suggests. Try waving a wand, going for a walk with your cat inside your home, and playing chase the kibble, one piece at a time.

Don’t forget the basics. Fresh water and good food are vital to cats of any age, but may be particularly important for older cats. Your veterinarian can offer advice on choosing a diet that provides appropriate nutrition and the right amount of calories for your aging cat. “It’s especially important that senior cats have easy access to clean water because kidney function frequently deteriorates in older cats,” Dr. Goldstein says. “Consider mixing canned and dry food to let your cat absorb the water canned food offers,” he suggests.

Finally, older cats cherish predictable days more than younger cats do. “Just as we become set in our ways as we get older, cats do too,” Dr. Goldstein says. “Some cats may need more emotional support as they age and others may prefer to be left alone,” he explains. “They may become more dependent on relationships and require more attention. It may be harder for them to deal with changes.” Sticking to normal routines reassures them, he adds.

“Older cats enjoy spending time with their human family members, Dr. Levine concludes. “It is important to give them the extra tender loving care that they’ll need for many years to come.”