The health and behavioral changes your cat experiences as they age can be perplexing. It can be challenging to tell the difference between what’s normal for an aging cat and what isn’t. This guide will help you to better understand what you, as a cat owner, should come to expect as your cat becomes a senior feline.
There are many health and behavior indications of old age in felines, though not all of them are easily identified. Like humans, your cat will experience changes to their body and mind, including -
You will also likely notice that your cat is a bit slower and lazier as they advance in age, becoming less active and eating less often than they did when they were a younger adult cat. You may have to make adjustments to your cat’s environment and diet to accommodate these many changes.
- The deterioration of their senses
- The diminishment of muscle mass
- Dental problems
- Degenerative diseases
So, what does all of this mean in regard to the health and happiness of your older cat?
What can cat owners do to increase their pet’s comfort and quality of life as they grow old? Read on to learn everything that you need to know about a cat’s golden years and how you can maximize their quality of life during this time.
At What Age is a Cat Considered “Elderly?”
Cats are living a lot longer than they used to, thanks to the increased quality of care and nutrition that humans have learned to give to their feline pets. This means that what is considered “elderly” has changed quite a bit in recent decades. Generally speaking, a cat is considered to be approaching old age once they reach ten years old. However, this number is not definitive for every cat.
A veterinarian might not define your ten-year-old cat as a senior if they appear to be in overall good health. The breed and size of the cat will also likely influence your vet’s determination, at least to some degree.
There is also a second stage of old age that enters the equation as your cat nears the end of its natural lifespan. A cat is referred to as “geriatric” after the age of fifteen in most circumstances. This is the age where the feline is much more likely to show a host of ailments and very distinct behavioral changes. The older your cat becomes, the more apparent these will become to you.
Health Changes in Aging Cats
All animals experience changes in their health as they approach old age, and cats are no exception. It may happen slowly, or it may seem to happen over night, but your cat will eventually begin to show their age. When they do, it’s important to know what is happening so that you can address these health changes and adjust your pet’s lifestyle as necessary.
Have you noticed that your cat is becoming a skinny kitty instead of the robust and muscular pet that you had known him or her to be for years? Muscle wasting, also known as muscle atrophy or simply the loss of muscle mass, is common in aging cats. This tends to occur most obviously in the hind legs but can affect the cat’s entire body.
While muscle wasting is a common occurrence in aging cats, it can also be indicative of other health concerns, such as diabetes, which can cause some nerve problems that impact muscle mass in the hind legs. If your cat is suddenly losing muscle mass and struggles to walk or stand, this might be more than typical, expected muscle wasting and should be addressed by your veterinarian.
Deterioration of the Senses
The way that your cat perceives the world around them will change as they get older. Their senses will change, diminishing in strength and even drastically declining the older they become.
Eyesight in Aging Cats
Iris atrophy is a common condition that sometimes, arguably rarely, impacts the vision of elder cats. The iris is the colored ring around the pupil of the eyeball and is prone to atrophy as the feline ages. Where the coloration used to be, owners may see black dots or streaks instead. Fortunately, this condition does not typically indicate anything near blindness and often doesn’t affect most cats’ sense of sight.
Another condition that may look alarming but doesn’t actually impede a cat’s vision is lenticular sclerosis, which creates a cloudy effect over the pupil. This is not the same as cataracts, which can lead to blindness.
High blood pressure occurs often in senior cats and can lead to blindness due to retinal bleeding or detachment caused by the condition. High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, can be caused by kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, and heart disease. Unfortunately, a cat’s sudden blindness is often the first indication of hypertension that owners notice in their feline pets. To get the jump on this condition and ward off blindness, it is recommended to get your cat’s blood pressure measured when they reach senior age.
Hearing in aging cats
Cats have phenomenal hearing, and fortunately, it is very likely that your cat will keep their sharp hearing throughout their lives. Hearing loss is not at all unheard of, however, and can range from barely noticeable to complete deafness.
Oftentimes, the loss of normal hearing is associated with conditions that impact the functionality of the ears, such as:
- Growths appearing in the ear canal
- Skin cancer
The sense of smell in aging cats
A cat’s sense of smell is its most refined sense, as it relates directly to their interest in and ability to identify food. As a cat ages, cellular breakdowns occur that can adversely affect the cat’s ability to smell. While your cat isn’t likely to completely lose their sense of smell, it may grow weaker as they grow older.
What indicates this problem for many cat owners is their pet’s refusal to eat the food that they had previously loved – and presumably loved the smell of.
If you try giving your cat a food that possesses a stronger aroma, they may be more inclined to eat it because they can actually smell it. However, a diminished sense of smell is not the only age-related reason behind a cat’s reluctance to eat. If your cat is refusing all food outright, it is time to take them to a vet and see what you can do to ensure adequate nutrition for your furry friend.
The condition of the aging cat's teeth
Dental concerns are among the top most common reasons for owners of elderly cats to seek the help of a veterinarian. A cat’s teeth need to be strong and healthy so that they may adequately eat and sustain the standard of nutrition that their body needs.
Periodontal disease in aging cats
This dental disease is caused by the inflammation of the periodontium, the tissue around the teeth. The presence of plaque, the white buildup that forms on and around teeth due to the presence and growth of bacteria, is responsible for this common senior cat condition. The inflammation is triggered by the immune system in response to the plaque, which at its beginning stages is known as gingivitis.
Fortunately, gingivitis can be reversed. The second stage of periodontal disease, or periodontitis, is irreversible and requires more extensive treatment for the purpose of controlling the damage.
To treat periodontitis in cats, they may be subjected to x-rays, antibiotics, and cleanings conducted under anesthesia. Additional home dental care will be required to keep the condition from wreaking havoc on the cat’s mouth and, quite possibly, resulting in having to have one or more of their teeth pulled.
This condition can affect cats of any age but is especially prominent in older adult cats and seniors. Some studies have suggested that as many as two-thirds of all cats will experience tooth resorption, a painful condition that leaves the root of the tooth exposed as the cat’s body attempts to reabsorb the dentin of the tooth. Lesions appear on the affected tooth or teeth and require examination under anesthesia to be properly diagnosed.
Some signs of tooth resorption to look for are:
To prevent this problem from rearing its head in the first place, or from advancing to a painful stage, cats should get dental cleanings from a vet every six months. If the painful lesions of this condition are already present, removal of the full tooth (including root) or partial removal of the tooth may be a required course of treatment.
- Pain during eating
- Reluctance or refusal to eat
- Food falling out of the cat’s mouth while eating
- Behavioral changes, particularly aggression
- Increased salivation
- Bleeding of the mouth
- Pain when the jaw is touched
Whitening of the Fur
As your cat advances in age, you may begin to notice some silvery fur coming in. Just like humans and many other mammals, cats can “go grey” when they become older.
This isn’t necessarily a health concern, but it can be surprising – especially in darker cats, where the color change is often more visible. This loss of pigmentation tends to be more prominent around the eyes, nose, and mouth but can occur in patches over the whole body.
The aging process can be unkind, leaving cats vulnerable to a host of degenerative diseases as a result of their bodies’ internal changes.
Diabetes in aging cats
Diabetes presents itself with the same symptoms that it does in humans, including frequent urination, out-of-control hunger and thirst, and weight loss.
Most commonly this condition is diagnosed in male cats ten years of age or older, especially those that are over 15 pounds and have been neutered. Though senior cats are the most vulnerable to developing diabetes, it can happen to cats of any age.
Obesity is the greatest common thread among diabetic cats, so the best way to minimize the risk of your senior developing diabetes is to monitor their weight, make sure they have ample opportunities to exercise, and are fed a healthy diet – throughout their lives.
Blood and urine tests are required to diagnose diabetes. Once a diagnosis is made, your vet will teach you how to care for the condition at home, what elements to remove from or introduce to their diet, and other techniques to help promote their good health despite diabetes.
Arthritis in aging cats
Sometimes, cats can become afflicted with a condition that causes inflammation of the joints and the breakdown of cartilage that prevents bones from touching each other during the animal’s movement.
This condition is called arthritis and it is – perhaps surprisingly – common in senior cats. Unfortunately, cats are notorious for being subtle in their acknowledgment of physical pain, unlike dogs. This fact traces back to the history of cats as both predator and prey.
However, there are some indications of arthritis that you should be able to see if you look closely, including:
Arthritis can affect a cat’s shoulders, elbows, hips, and lower back the most often. This condition is best left to be diagnosed by a veterinarian. They will then be able to tell you which forms of treatment for the pain and inflammation are viable options for your feline companion.
- Behavioral changes
- Difficulty jumping or moving
- “Bathroom accidents” outside of the litterbox
- Changes in the cat’s grooming habits
One way to help arthritic cats, particularly during cold winter months, is by offering a heated bed for those aching joints. This one by K&H would be a good choice (Amazon link).
Kidney Disease in aging cats
Chronic, meaning long-term and degenerative, kidney disease occurs in up to 30% of geriatric felines and is one of the most common causes of death in older cats.
Kidney disease compromises the cat’s natural renal abilities to produce high-quality urine, eliminate protein wastes from the body, and balancing the water, salts, and acids found within the feline’s body.
Weight loss and increased frequency of drinking (and resulting urination) are often the first indications that an owner can see to suspect that something might be wrong with their cat’s kidneys.
Early detection of kidney disease is an essential part of helping the cat live their longest, fullest life. Treatment can often be done at home, though hospitalization may be required in some cases.
Heart Disease in aging cats
Cats experience the symptoms of heart disease in the same way that dogs do, but there is one key difference: Cats are much better at hiding their symptoms, thus prolonging their diagnosis in many cases. Some cats will never exhibit signs at all and will live for years with the condition.
Heart disease is something that a cat can acquire over time and can occur secondary to a number of conditions, including:
Maine Coon and Ragdoll cats are two breeds known to be especially vulnerable to heart disease, but any breed of feline can get it. Because cats often present no visible symptoms of the disease, a vet’s physical of your pet will likely be the first and most important step in diagnosing the condition. A murmuring of the heart and irregular heartbeats can suggest heart disease and prompt further testing.
- Heartworm infection
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Primary cardiomyopathy (a disease of the heart muscle)
- Diseased heart valves
- Thyroid disorders
Upon making the diagnosis, your vet will likely prescribe medication to promote healthier heart function. Unfortunately, there is no way to reverse the changes done to the heart after it has become diseased.
Senility in aging cats
Feline senile dementia sometimes accompanies the decline of cognitive abilities that cats begin to experience around the age of eleven and is directly related to the aging of their brain.
However, dementia doesn’t tend to become fully present until the cat reaches geriatric age, around fifteen years old. When it does, it will impact the cat’s memory, learning, responsiveness, and awareness of their surroundings.
There are many behavioral changes that you will likely observe as your cat reaches the farthest end of the age spectrum for felines:
Many of these symptoms are also present in other conditions that affect senior cats, like diabetes and arthritis, so your vet may want to run some tests to narrow down the exact cause before giving you a diagnosis of senility.
- Social avoidance
- Forgetting behaviors that they have learned
- Meowing more often
- Accidents outside of the litter box
- Reluctance to groom themselves
Unfortunately, there is no cure for this kind of cognitive decline, but your veterinarian can give you a lot of helpful advice to ensure that you know what kind of care to give your aging pal. There are also dietary suggestions that they could make to help bolster brain health.
Behavioral Changes in Aging Cats
As your cat gets older, you may notice that they are acting a little unlike themselves. They might even surprise you with brand new behaviors, some of which are troubling. Keep an eye out for these changes in his or her behavior as they get on in years, and never be afraid to go to the vet if you become worried about your cat’s health.
The pain that comes with arthritis, a very common condition in aged cats, can prevent your feline friend from jumping onto your lap – or pretty much anywhere. Quite simply, age takes a serious toll on our joints. That’s why you don’t generally see senior humans climbing around on jungle gyms. If your cat is in pain that’s related to their age, they might be reluctant to jump or find that it is impossible for them to jump to the desired height.
It might be tougher to realize that your cat isn’t jumping up as much if jumping was never a part of their routine. But if your cat has always loved to prance around on couches and counters and then suddenly stops, you should get them to a veterinarian for a proper arthritis diagnosis.
Many cat owners simply do not see the signs of this common kitty ailment, but this one can be fairly obvious – depending on the cat’s pre-existing patterns of behavior.
Just like humans, cats tend to slow down as they age. This is a normal and expected part of the aging process, but there could be underlying medical reasons to blame as well.
Arthritis is common in older cats and can slow them down drastically, but there are treatments available to help mitigate the progression of the condition and promote a better overall quality of life – and perhaps even higher energy, too, if their pain can be effectively managed.
If your vet has ruled out conditions that could be dragging your cat down, you might just have a sleepy senior kitty on your hands.
Dental health is among the top health concerns for aging felines and should be addressed as early as possible to minimize their pain and discomfort. Tooth or mouth pain can prevent a cat from eating well or even at all, which is absolutely a cause for concern that a vet should get involved in.
Cognitive decline in older felines presents itself much as Alzheimer’s Disease does in humans. What used to be a part of the cat’s daily routine could become forgotten and unfamiliar, including the location of their food bowl and litterbox.
This confusion can make a cat irritable as well, stressing them out even further. One thing that you should do is to keep their routine as solid as possible and make sure never to move the items that they need around the house (food, water, litterbox). If the cat is in a state of senility-induced confusion, they might not be able to find where you have moved their stuff.
There are numerous reasons why your aging cat might not seem so keen on using the litterbox, but rest assured that he or she is probably not trying to be outright defiant.
Mobility problems like arthritis, the confusion caused by senility, diabetes that can cause increased urination, kidney disease, and other medical conditions could be preventing your cat from eliminating in their box.
Increased Aggression (Grouchiness)
Has your happy-go-lucky adult cat become a grumpy old man? Well, you’d feel a bit touchy too if you found yourself feeling stiff, sore, or weak, or discovered that your senses aren’t what they used to be.
Cats suffering from cognitive decline may also become a bit more aggressive due to the disorientation and confusion that they’re experiencing as part of their advancing age. If your cat is settled into one spot comfortably, try not to bother or move them unless it’s absolutely necessary. Your cat needs extra love and patience as they settle into their twilight years.
What Can You Do to Help Your Aging Cat?
Older felines require greater care and consideration than the majority of younger adult cats. Because their bodies and minds are succumbing to the effects of aging, you may find that what used to be routine for your cat isn’t the best thing for them anymore. Making these adjustments to their lifestyles will help to keep them happy and healthy, even if they are slowing down.
Routine Vet Visits
Because older cats are especially vulnerable to a host of medical conditions and diseases, it is always best to take them into the veterinarian when they are exhibiting new and unusual behavior or medical symptoms.
Cats are experts at concealing the symptoms of something being wrong with them, medically speaking, so the average cat owner might not even have a suspicion that their cat is arthritic, diabetic, or suffers from periodontal disease.
The expert training and tools that vets have at their disposal should be your favorite and most trusted allies in determining the health of your aging cat.
Adjustments to Their Nutrition
Senior cats often need a more specialized diet due to the health problems that afflict them in greater numbers than younger adult cats.
Obesity and diabetes are very common in cats that have become too old to be as active as they used to be, so you may have to switch to a food that’s designed with these conditions in mind or take to a different feeding schedule. Cats with kidney disease may need to be placed on food that is low in salt and protein.
Because of the diminished muscle mass present in many senior cats, a higher-protein diet may be recommended by your veterinarian to preserve their muscles and encourage ongoing, healthy muscle growth.
Some conditions make it so that your cat’s body doesn’t absorb necessary vitamins and minerals as it should. In this case, you might be recommended to pick up some supplements for your feline friend.
Consult with your vet before making any drastic changes to your pet’s diet and always remember to keep water available to your cat to avoid dehydration.
Don’t Make Your Cat Jump
If your cat is feeling stiff, tired, sore or simply not up to much physical activity, like the jumping and playing that you observed in their younger years, don’t try to force it on them. This will only stress them out and could cause them to respond with aggression. Instead, work on getting down to their level and finding ways to engage with them that don’t cause them any additional pain or stress.
If your cat is showing signs of arthritis, consider offering pet stairs (Amazon link) to make it easier for her to get up on the couch or other favorite spots.
You might find that your once active, energetic playmate is now more content with being a lap kitty, and that’s fine. It comes with old age.
Offer lots of TLC - Tender loving care
All domestic cats need the love of their humans, elderly cats especially so. Don’t withdraw from your cat just because he or she has become grumpier and requires more downtime than they used to. Instead, interact with your cat on their terms.
If they just want to be petted, pet away! If they want to curl up on your lap while you read a book, enjoy the reading buddy! Even though your cat might be slowing down, that doesn’t mean that their love for you has diminished in any way. You just might need to adjust the way you show this affection to each other.
Enjoy time spent with your cat
You can and should enjoy that special feline-human bond regardless of Kitty's age. By following the advice given here, keeping a close eye on your cat's condition and turning to your veterinarian when needed, you can make sure your cat can enjoy his or her many golden years with you.