Caring For The Senior Cat
Dr Caity Venniker
The average lifespan of a cat in the UK is 14 years, with mixed breeds living a little longer than pure breed cats in general(3). There is of course much variation in longevity, and many factors play a role. Indoor(3) and neutered(1) cats tend to live longer than roaming and unsterilised cats. The good news is that, coinciding with improvements in veterinary care as well as diet, the life span of our pets appears to be on the rise, with one study showing that cats gained on average an extra year of life between 2002 and 2012(1).
As our feline friends age better and live longer, there is a greater need to recognise the special needs of geriatric cats. These silver fox felines are often the most established family members in our homes, and with careful monitoring and a little bit of TLC, we can ensure that their golden years are some of their best.
What Changes Occur as Cats Age?
As cats age various physiological changes occur which affect both their risk of developing certain conditions and also commonly their behaviour. Hearing may deteriorate as well as the sense of smell (which can have a negative impact on the appetite). Older cats are prone to developing arthritis which can cause pain and decrease mobility. Changes in the brain can cause signs of senility and dementia. The immune system naturally declines, and older cats are at increased risk of developing dental problems, kidney disease, diabetes and hyperthyroidism, among other health issues.
Common Problems Encountered in Old Cats
Cats are experts at masking illness and pain, so often the physiological effects of age are only apparent in unexpected and sometimes subtle changes in their behaviour. Paying close attention to these changes is the cornerstone of caring for older cats, as early detection and treatment or management can stop the progression of potential disease and greatly increase quality of life.
Below are some signs to look out for in elderly cats:
1. House soiling – This is one of the most common problems encountered and different factors can contribute to it. Arthritic cats may find it difficult to get into the litter box, especially if the sides are high, or if it requires moving a far distance and is not easily accessible. Cats with cognitive dysfunction (senility) may be disorientated and struggle to find their tray; or they may be less inclined to go outside to do their business due to feeling vulnerable and insecure. Certain conditions increase urination, so in these cases the litter will become saturated sooner than usual and many cats will then avoid it.
2. Increased vocalisation, especially at night – This can be a sign of hyperthyroidism, hypertension, or cognitive dysfunction. It warrants a visit to the vet for a check-up.
3. Matted or rough coat – Older cats often struggle to groom themselves adequately, especially those with long hair. This can be due to having less energy; or being too stiff to perform the yoga grooming poses they could in the past! A rough coat can also be a sign of underlying illness.
4. Overgrown nails – Older cats tend to sleep more and do not engage in as much scratching behaviour, so their claws do not wear down as well. They also tend to have thicker and more brittle nails which need to be trimmed and monitored to ensure that they do not curl over and grow into the toe pad below.
5. Weight changes – Older cats can be prone to weight gain due to lethargy and lowered levels of activity. Obesity increases pressure on joints which may already be under stress from arthritis; and heightens the risk of developing diabetes. Conversely, many cats lose weight as they get older. This can be due to various diseases, or from the muscle wasting associated with ageing.
How To Manage the Older Cat
Environmental Factors: As cats age they can benefit hugely from a few tweaks to their home environment. Providing at least one litter tray per storey and ensuring that they are easily accessible helps to avoid soiling problems in the home. Carpeted ramps to reach litter trays or favourite areas are also advised. Older cats tend to struggle more with cold, so warm resting areas will improve your cats’ comfort. Positioning some of these near windows to allow surveillance of the outside can stimulate cats who have become less inclined to play. Leaving a light on at night can also help elderly cats with failing vision(3).
Owner Factors: Gently grooming your older cat will help to prevent mats and can offer a wonderful way to spend time together while promoting skin and coat health. It is also important to keep an eye on their claws for overgrowth. (For some help on these take a look at our blogs, Nail Clipping 101 and Dishing the Dirt on Grooming Cats.)
Older cats tend to be less resilient to change than young cats and so stressful disruptions to their daily lives should be avoided when possible. For this reason, introducing kittens into the homes of geriatric cats is not recommended, and with any change in routine pheromone therapy may be helpful. As cats age they may become more needy or more distant; and being sensitive to their preferences for attention or a quiet and peaceful environment is highly beneficial to their wellbeing.
Dietary Factors: A highly nutritious diet of the correct calorie allowance will help to optimise the immune systems of older cats and also maintain their target weight. Wet food provides the benefit of helping to prevent dehydration and constipation, and a high protein diet will combat muscle wasting. Some conditions require specialised prescription diets, and these cases will be advised by your veterinarian.
Veterinary Factors: Many veterinary practices recommend a more thorough examination at the annual check-up for cats seven years or older. This may involve blood or urine tests to screen for certain diseases. As cats get older, it is worth having a check up every six months, with every second visit including screening tests. Diagnosing health problems earlier rather than later can make all the difference to the outcome. There are many options available for the treatment and management of various conditions, and your vet may be able to slow down or reverse the course of disease processes or provide relief for symptoms such as pain and signs of senility.
As cats enter their golden years there is much that can be done to maintain their quality of life. Attention to detail in the home environment and a willingness to invest in guidance from your veterinarian can ensure that the last part of your cat’s life is as happy and healthy as possible.
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- Banfield Pet Hospital. (2013, May 8). Spaying and neutering may contribute to longer lifespans. Retrieved from: https://www.banfield.com/about-us/news-room/press-releases-announcements/spaying-and-neutering-may-contribute-to-longer-lif
- Cornell Feline Health Center. (2016). Loving care for older cats. Cornell University. Retrieved from: https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/loving-care-older-cats
- Vets Now. (2020, September 1). How long do cats live? Vets Now. Retrieved from: https://www.vets-now.com/pet-care-advice/how-long-do-cats-live/