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Senior Cat Health: What Cat Parents Should Know

How to Prepare for and Care for Your Cat in Their Senior Years

By Lauren Leonardi . December 20, 2012 | See Comments

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Senior Cat Health: What Cat Parents Should Know

As your cat ages, you can expect certain changes in their body and behavior. The aging process is normal, but that doesn’t mean old age has to be a pain. Here's how to watch for signs of problems and work with your vet to keep your senior cat happy and healthy.

Just like humans, cats are now living longer than ever. In fact, the number of cats living past age 6 has doubled just in the past decade, largely due to advances in veterinary science and knowledge on cat nutrition.

Of course, with advanced age, you can expect certain changes in your cat’s body and behavior. The aging process is normal, but that doesn’t mean old age has to be a pain. Many diseases and conditions common in geriatric cats can be held at bay with proper care.

Watch for signs of problems and work with your vet to keep your senior cat happy and healthy.

How Old is Senior?

It can be a bit tricky to pin down just when your older cat becomes an official senior. Many factors contribute to how early your cat will enter their senior years, including prior health history, the level of veterinary care your cat received over their lifetime, and the quality of your pet’s diet.

A cat who experienced few major health issues in their adult life, and was well cared for, may not experience age related changes until year 11 or 12. Cats with a less favorable history may begin to show signs of age at 7 or 8.

Signs of Older Age

Although each cat will show the signs of aging in different ways, you and your vet can look for a number of common signs that your cat is entering their senior years.

Activity Level and Weight:

To start, many older cats will become less active. They'll sleep more and play less. As a result, many cats will put on weight. This slowing down is a natural part of the aging process, but there may be underlying conditions that contribute to your cat’s drop off in activity. The onset of chronic health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or kidney disease can cause a cat discomfort and affect their energy levels.

On the other hand, signs of hyperthyroidism in older cats can include losing weight and an excessive energy level, resulting in hyperactivity and howling or meowing much more than normal. Be sure to note changes like this in your cat and report them to your vet.

Bones & Joints:

Senior cats can develop bone and joint conditions such as arthritis that can make it more difficult for them to move around. 

Kidney Disease:

Kidney troubles are common in senior cats, the signs of which are increased drinking and urination. Cats with kidney problems may start urinating around the house rather than the litter box.

Eyes and Teeth:

"Cloudy or bluish eyes," says Janet Tobiassen Crosby, DVM, "are a normal part of aging," and should not affect eyesight. "Thinning of the iris, which makes eyes look 'moth-eaten', may show up more commonly in cats with lighter colored eyes. This should also not affect quality of vision, though some cats may become more light sensitive." Neither of these issues should be confused with cataracts, which definitely can affect a cat's eyesight. "Cataracts are white and opaque," says Tobiassen Crosby. A veterinarian should be contacted right away if these spots appear.

Dental disease can occur more frequently in the senior years too, which may be painful for your pet and lead to loss of appetite.

Immune System:

Overall, an older cat is less able to fight off infections as their immune system weakens. As such, skin problems may develop as may infections of the ears and eyes. Vitamins can help boost the immune system.

Cognitive Disorders & Feline Dementia:

Finally, cats are subject to feline cognitive disorder, what some refer to as Alzheimer’s for cats. Changes in the brain can leave your pet confused, disoriented, and forgetful. Your cat may wander about the house aimlessly, meowing and seemingly lost. Such cats can begin to shy away from the family and become irritable when petted.

Tobiassen Crosby says a few of the main indications your cat may be suffering from feline dementia can include "loud or odd vocalizations, especially new sounds that are unfamiliar to you, lack of attention to grooming, and increased agitation, especially at night." She adds that, "New evidence, similar to findings in humans, suggests that antioxidants in the diet may promote cognitive health and slow the process of decline."

Talk to your vet about any behavioral changes like this, and they'll be able to help you decide if a course of treatment might be beneficial.

Senior Cat Care: At the Vet and at Home

Such changes in your cat’s health and behavior are common in the senior years, but this doesn’t mean that you should simply accept them as inevitable. Proper care can ward off many health problems before they occur or worsen.

To this end, your senior cat should begin seeing the vet twice a year rather than once. During these visits your vet will start testing your pet’s blood, feces, and urine to look for signs of diabetes, kidney disease, and other problems.

You should also become used to looking for possible trouble at home. Check your cat’s ears, eyes, and gums for signs of infection. While petting your cat, gently feel for any swelling or lumps. Watch for any decrease or increase in urination, drinking, and eating.

Should you notice any of these changes, schedule an appointment with your vet.

Changes in Routine for Your Senior Cat

Along with watching for symptoms of health problems, you may also need to make changes to your cat’s lifestyle as they age. Such changes can help your cat stay healthy and ease their transition into their later years.

If you notice your cat gaining or losing weight, you may need to change the amount your cat eats, as well as the food being supplied. Senior cats have different nutritional needs than younger pets.

If your cat develops joint pain, you can consider moving food dishes or litter boxes so they don’t need to jump or climb, should those activities appear to be difficult.

Last, make sure your older cat is getting enough exercise through play and interaction with you. Exercise stimulates the blood and organs, helps maintain a healthy weight, and invigorates the immune system.

More on Cat Care

Signs Your Pet Needs New Food
Food to Treat Kidney Disease in Cats and Dogs
Causes of Eye Infections in Cats and Dogs

This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian with respect to your pet. It has, however, been verified by a licensed veterinarian for accuracy.

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Senior Cat Health at a glance

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  • 1All cats will age differently, and at different rates
  • 2Know what conditions are common among aging cats, and look for telltale signs
  • 3Make some minor adjustments in your home to make aging easier for your kitty’s joints