Getting older is a normal, natural part of life for all of us. Today domestic cats are living longer than they ever did in the past—thanks to improved nutrition and better food, improved medical care, and more people keeping their cats indoors. But advancing age does not necessarily mean automatic degeneration. And aging does not necessarily mean inevitable disease. Many cats do grow old remaining relatively healthy into their geriatric years, while other cats in their senior years develop chronic or degenerative diseases. And know that even cats that do develop chronic diseases can live well into their late geriatric years—or 20+ years old—given excellent care and attention.
Never assume that changes in your older cat are simply due to “old age,” then write it off as normal aging for them. Most likely there is an underlying medical condition that is causing the changes you are observing in your cat’s behavior or physical appearance. That should always be the first consideration. The main thing is to give your cat the healthiest and best quality of life possible—by watching them closely, noticing any changes that take place, then getting them to a veterinarian to get the medical help they need.
Cats age much faster than humans, and they hide illness and pain very well, plus they aren’t able to tell us when and where something hurts, or if they feel sick, or when they want to see a doctor. So it’s up to us to pay attention, pick up on the early signs that something is wrong and is changing for them, and get them to a vet for help.
What is Old Age in a Cat?
So what is old age in cats? Senior cats are typically considered between the ages of 11 and 14 years old, and geriatric cats are thought to be between the ages of 15 to 25+ years old. Yes, some cats actually do live that long! So, a 12-year-old cat is equivalent to 60 human years, and an 18-year-old cat is equivalent to 88 in human years. And like humans, every cat is unique, and each one experiences aging in a different way. Some cats can stay physically healthy well into their senior or geriatric years, and other cats acquire chronic illnesses and disease much earlier in their older years. But in every case, getting old is a natural process and you want to make your older cat as comfortable, healthy and happy as possible!
Signs That It’s Time to Take Your Cat to the Vet!
If your senior or geriatric cat exhibits any of these symptoms or signs, then it’s time to take your cat to the vet for a checkup and get diagnostic tests done. Each of these below can be symptomatic of a chronic disease or a possible medical problem that needs to be treated so your cat can be more comfortable and not suffer:
- Cat is losing weight, has lost 1-2 pounds in the last year
- Cat is losing its appetite and is eating less
- Cat is having trouble eating, eating less, lost his appetite – may be losing his sense of smell
- Cat has started vomiting regularly, or is vomiting more often
- Cat is howling and meowing (this is a new behavior), especially at night
- Cat is limping, having difficulty walking, or walks with more stiffness (is arthritic)
- Cat’s weight has changed, either increased or decreased, fairly significantly or noticeably
- Cat is drinking an increased amount of water, has an abnormal level of thirst, is always at the water bowl
- Cat is peeing more often, and there are larger pee amounts in the litter box
- Cat is having trouble peeing, or pees with difficulty, or pee has a strong odor, or urine color is not normal
- Cat is having trouble defecating, or is defecating less often, has constipation or diarrhea
- Cat’s gums appear pale (not pink and healthy) and show a red line at gum line or are bleeding, or cat is having difficulty eating
- Cat’s coat is dull, has mats, is excessively shedding and losing hair
- Cat has some bumps or abnormal swelling under the skin, is sensitive to the touch there, or has sores that are not healing, or has discharges from any opening
- Cat is drooling excessively or drooling at all (except when being petted)
- Cat is scratching its ears, shaking its head, scratching often, licking or chewing skin or fur excessively
- Cat is having trouble hearing, having trouble seeing, eyes are cloudy, cat is more fearful of places
Symptoms and Signs of Physical & Behavioral Changes in Older Cats to Watch Out For
Loss of Appetite, Changes in Weight and Eating Habits
If your cat is eating less than he used to, has lost his appetite, or has been losing weight—then these are signs that something is not quite right. This is not a normal part of “aging.” Often these symptoms are associated with specific chronic diseases common to older cats including hyperthyroidism, chronic kidney or renal disease, dental disease, pancreatitis, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), or possible cancer. Dental disease can be extremely painful and can hinder eating, so it can be a common cause for your cat’s loss of appetite. With any of these symptoms, it’s best to schedule a routine exam with your veterinarian. Get a full checkup including diagnostic blood and urine tests, and any other tests that your vet suggests is needed.
Less Mobility, Changes in Activity Level, Walking More Stiffly, Having Difficulty Jumping
Degenerative joint disease, osteoarthritis or arthritis—is more common in older cats. Arthritis can be caused by wear and tear, injury, genetics, immune-related diseases, obesity or being overweight. The most common areas affected are the elbows, hips and spine areas. Sometimes you may see your cat walk then sit because it’s painful for them to walk; or walk very short distances then stop; or walk stiffly; they may avoid jumping or running like they used to; or avoid higher places they commonly frequented before; or they may limp. If you see your cat exhibiting these physical symptoms, then it’s time to visit your vet. Arthritis is painful, and it’s not healthy for your older cat to avoid exercise or live in pain. A vet will check the flexibility and mobility of your cat’s limbs, they will take X-rays to diagnose arthritis or joint disease and identify where it is, they may do a senior blood panel, and they will likely prescribe some remedies to reduce your cat’s pain and discomfort. These can include a joint supplement or glucosamine/chondroitin for cats (Dasuquin for cats); recommend weight loss or a diet plan; may give them pain relief injections (like Adequan for cats); prescribe fish oil or Omega 3 supplements (like OMEGA 3 Fatty Acid gel capsules by Vetoquinol); or may recommend osteoarthritis drugs like Pentosan Polysulfate given in a series to help joints repair and improve, if their arthritis is severe enough.
Increased Thirst, Increased Appetite, Weight Loss, Muscle Wasting, Vomiting, Poor Hair Quality, Restlessness, Panting – Fast Heart Rate
These are common symptoms of hyperthyroidism, which is typically a disease of older cats over the age of 10. It’s very rare in younger cats. The thyroid gland regulates the speed of all chemical reactions in your cat’s body, and when your cat’s thyroid glands start over-producing the tyrosine hormone, it starts to affect every major organ in your cat’s body including the kidneys, liver, heart, muscles, digestive system and nervous system. All the major organs are basically over stimulated. Hyperthyroidism can start slowly and become more severe over time. There are two known causes of hyperthyroidism: PBDEs (Polybrominated diphenyl ethers) found in plastics, polyurethane foams, textiles, furnishings, couches, flame retardants and fish that are high up in the food chain—and BPA (Bisphenol-A) that is used to coat the inside of large steel or tin cat food cans (the 12.5 oz. size). Also, cats fed canned or dry cat food with fish are often more susceptible or prone to getting hyperthyroidism. The typical treatment for hyperthyroidism is giving Methimazole, or Felimazole (coated Methimazole) every morning and night depending on the severity of the disease and their weight, but I like using Methimazole in the transdermal gel form that is applied to the inside flap of the ear AM and PM, and is much easier on them. If you notice any one or more of these signs in your cat, it’s time to take them to your vet for a checkup, and get routine diagnostic tests, and specifically—a T-4 blood test.
Frequent Urinating, Excessive Thirst, Weight Loss, Decreased Appetite, Bad Breath, Vomiting, Weakness, Muscle Wasting, Prior Kidney Infections
Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) or Chronic Renal Failure (CRF) is more common in older cats, and statistically 3 in 10 geriatric cats get it. Kidney function can slowly decline for months or years in older cats, but it’s important to see the signs of kidney disease as early as possible—when there is the best chance to treat it and slow its progression. It is not a death sentence, but rather a very treatable disease that cats when treated properly, can live with for many years. When you notice signs of weight loss, large clumps of litter in the litter box, and a diminished appetite—it’s really time to go to the vet. Further signs of CKD are bad breath, physical weakness and if your cat is sleeping more than usual. At the vet’s office, your vet will perform a urinalysis and a senior blood panel to check the levels of creatinine and BUN (blood urea nitrogen). Contributors to CRF or CKD are dental disease (left untreated), age, prior history of urinary tract infections or kidney problems, eating an acidified diet, and low potassium blood levels. Cats can live many years after the diagnosis of early kidney disease. But with early detection, proper diet for CKD, good hydration, possibly some added subcutaneous fluid therapy, and regular medical checkups—your cat can live a long and happy life.
Vomiting, Diarrhea, Weight Loss, Bloody Stools, Lethargy, Decreased Appetite, Weakness
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) is a condition where your cat’s gastrointestinal (GI) tract becomes chronically inflamed and irritated. The disease is more common in older cats. IBD is where the walls of the intestines can become thickened causing disruption in the GI tract that impairs the proper digestion and absorption of the food they eat. There are different regions of the GI tract that can have the inflammation—the stomach, the small intestine, or the large intestine or colon. But like with people, the condition can be uncomfortable and painful, and cause nausea, and be stressful for your cat. Depending on how severe the case is, the symptoms may just be just one or two of these, or in more severe cases—all of these. But if any of these symptoms occur for any period of time, it’s time to get your cat to the vet for a checkup and routine diagnostic tests. Your vet will likely recommend a full blood panel, fecal exam, X-rays or ultrasound—an ultrasound being the best detector and most detailed analysis providing the most accurate result. If the case is severe, Intestinal Lymphoma (a form of cancer) may be a consideration. Your vet will also want to rule out parasites. With IBD cats treatment depends on the severity of the case, but can include: a diet of “novel protein” like rabbit, venison or duck, that the cat has not eaten before or is new to the cat; a micronized protein diet food that your vet will carry; medical treatment that can include a prescription of Metronidazole (antibiotic and anti-inflammatory), Prednisolone (a corticosteroid that has anti-inflammatory properties); the use of probiotics added to wet food; B-12 injections weekly then monthly; and Omega-3 supplements added to wet food daily.
Loss of Appetite, Head Shaking When Eating or After Eating, Pawing at the Mouth, Drooling or Excessive Drooling, Eating Only on One Side, Avoidance of Dry Food, Redness or Bleeding of Gums
Dental disease is extremely common in older cats, especially if the cat has not had periodic dental cleanings earlier in their life. Studies report that between 50 and 90 percent of cats older than four years of age suffer from some form of dental disease, so it is highly preventable, and very treatable. Like with people, cats get gingivitis, but when it’s not treated, it can progress to a much worse condition that causes inflammation and bacteria that can cause disease in other parts of the body. Severe gingivitis can be very painful for cats, but the condition is treatable at your vet’s office with a good dental cleaning under anesthesia, the possible extraction of diseased teeth and roots, and a round of antibiotics to prevent infection and reduce inflammation, and a soft wet food diet for several weeks until their mouth has fully healed.
Tips for Providing the Very Best Care for Your Senior or Geriatric Cat
- Schedule routine veterinary checkups with your vet every (6) months, for a minimum. Older cats need to be monitored by a vet more often, even if it’s just a “head-to-toe” exam. You can do a yearly senior exam with diagnostic tests—urinalysis, senior blood screen, blood pressure test, and head-to-toe checkup exam; and then just a routine checkup at the 6-month mark.
- Increase hydration by adding warm water to wet food every day. You can use an electric water kettle to heat up and warm water in seconds, then add some to their wet food. Heating up food releases aromas and is more appealing for them, plus it’s a great way to get added hydration into them—which really benefits their health and kidneys.
- Prevent dehydration by providing multiple water bowls in various places of your home that your cat likes to frequent—and keep them refreshed daily.
- Provide the best quality, nourishing, healthiest, moisture-rich wetfood for your cat, that is as close to human grade as possible. Be sure that it doesn’t contain meat byproducts, meat meal, byproduct meal, colorings, dyes, flavoring, artificial preservatives, grains, soy, wheat, and fillers. Dry foods can be very processed and be metabolically stressful, so avoid them. Plus they are dehydrating to your cat, so add to the cause of CKD and other chronic illnesses. Here are some helpful websites that I recommend about food: www.reviews.com/cat-food, CatInfo.com, NaturalCatCareBlog, Cornell Feline Health Center. Overall, feed less or no dry food as it’s dehydrating and less healthy for them, plus harder to digest and feed more or mostly wet food, and the highest quality you can afford to buy.
- Add a probiotic, like FortiFlora, every day to their wet food to keep your cat’s immune system strong and prevent digestive disorders, or to help with digestive disorders.
- Add an Omega 3 fatty acid supplement to wet food every day (like Vetoquinol OMEGA for cats and dogs).
- Add glucosamine and chondroitin to wet food every day for arthritis (like Dasuquin for cats).
- Add a general health supplement to your cat’s wet food like Standard Process Feline Whole Body Support, Immune Support, and Renal Support.
- Keep your cat comfortable and warm with soft cat beds where they can sleep comfortably and have easy access to.
- Keep your cat safe inside or indoors—your older cat is now more vulnerable outside to threats.
- Make sure to have cat scratching posts (the higher the better), catnip toys, balls, lots of environmental enrichment and things they enjoy around the home, play is good!
- Keep your home stress-free and quieter for your old cat—play soft background music, allow him some hiding places—minimize your cat’s stress level and maximize their comfort.
- Keep to routines, your older cat is particularly sensitive to you maintaining a regular feeding schedule and predictable routines for them. Older cats may need more feedings—more often. I buy Gerber’s baby food (chicken and turkey) and give my oldest guys a jar in between their breakfast and dinner to get them through, and give them more hydration, and I also add warm water to it.
- Provide easy access to litter boxes, and make sure there is one on every floor of your home – make litter boxes easy to access for them. Keep them clean and located in a quiet place. If your cat is arthritic, you may need to use a plastic box with low sides, and spread newspaper around the base to make it easier for them to get in.
- For arthritic cats, provide a ramp at the foot of the bed, or pet stairs/steps, or use a chair, stool or short ladder so your cat can easily access higher places like counters, window sills, and beds—safely.
- Brush your cat gently more often, many older cats don’t groom themselves as often as they used to. This will benefit them by removing loose hair, preventing hairballs, stimulating circulation, and giving them enjoyment.
- Older cats often need more emotional support, just like older people do—so pet them more, keep them close to you, help them up, love them more—they can become more dependent on us than before and need more of our loving attention and security.
- Trim nails regularly so they don’t get caught in material or fabric, and twist their paws or legs and hurt them.
- Use pheromone products like Feliway (plug-in diffuser or spray) to help them relax and reduce stress and anxiety.
- When you’re away, keep a quiet radio station on playing new age, jazz or classical music—keep it on low, or stream Pandora, or have the TV on a low volume. Just quiet background noise, but pleasant, can help.
- Don’t forget to give them their medications just as prescribed! They are depending on you!
Most importantly, at the first sign of any behavioral or physical signs of change in your cat, contact your veterinarian. Help your cat live longer and be healthier by scheduling a veterinary checkup, and then schedule regular six-month checkups to monitor and maintain the very best health possible for them. By watching your cat closely and observing any signs of change and being alert to changes—then getting them the professional medical care they need—will give your cat the best possible health for the longest time possible, and make them more comfortable and happier.
P.S.: At this time, I have six geriatric cats and three senior cats at home that I care for every day. All were homeless and abandoned before rescuing, medically rehabilitating, and caring for them for most of their lives. I have had several geriatric cats that have passed on and all have lived between 19 to 21 years of age. I have literally lived through all the major chronic diseases that often come with old age in cats mentioned above. So this article was written from my personal experience, my extensive experience working with my wonderful veterinarian Four Corners Animal Hospital in Concord, CA over many, many years, and this is what I practice and do for my senior and geriatric cats at home, every day to keep them as healthy, comfortable and happy as I can.
- Cornell Feline Health Center, Cornell University, College of Veterinary Medicine. Loving Care for Older Cats.https://www2.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/loving-care-older-cats
- Lorie Huston, DVM. Tips for Caring for Senior Cats. PetMD.com. https://www.petmd.com/cat/care/evr_ct_caring_for_older_cats_with_health_problems
- Cornell Feline Health Center, Cornell University, College of Veterinary Medicine. The Special Needs of the Senior Cat. https://www2.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/special-needs-senior-cat