Senior Cats can become Very Old

These days, senior cats live well into their twenties or even thirties.  This is mainly due to advances in optimum nutrition, cat care and careful home care. 

Cats are elderly at 11 years, but the real senior years or super-senior years start at the age of 15. From the age of 10 years, these older cats require special health care to promote good quality of life and longevity. 

There are many changes to a cat’s physiology, behaviour, and vulnerability to particular illnesses with increasing age. 

sleepy cat

Older Cats

Signs of your Cat’s old age

In the wild, elderly cats are vulnerable and more likely to be preyed upon,  as such, they typically hide visible signs of weakness, sickness and pain.  Appropriate nutrition, exercise, mental stimulation, pain control and veterinary care are the top recommendations for cat care.  Seek advice from your veterinarian about your elderly cat, symptoms, response to any treatments, and monitoring end-of-life behaviour.

Many complications of old age can be successfully managed, and the cat’s health changes are often treatable.  For example, cats suffering from joint pain have more pain management options than in the past.   New treatment options are available all the time, and early diagnosis and treatment or management can help your cat enjoy the twilight years in comfort. 

Hospice care is a growing area of veterinary medicine. This may be appropriate if the owner lacks time, perhaps due to work or family commitments.  The vet has an important role in supporting this decision and can reduce suffering with expert pain control and measures to maintain oxygen levels and hydration. 

Some people prefer to choose an elderly cat for adoption. Ageing cats can be less energetic than younger cats, and they tend to spend more time at home, making them wonderful and affectionate companions.

It is useful to consider the comparative age of the cat in human terms:

Age of CatHuman AgeAge of CatHuman AgeAge of CatHuman Age
0-1 month0-1 year4 years32 years15 years76 years
2 months2 years5 years36 years16 years80 years
3 months4 years6 years40 years17 years84 years
4 months6 years7 years44 years18 years88 years
5 months8 years8 years48 years19 years92 years
6 months10 years9 years52 years20 years96 years
7 months12 years10 years56 years21 years100 years
12 months15 years11 years60 years22 years104 years
18 months21 years12 years64 years23 years108 years
2 years24 years13 years68 years24 years112 years
3 years28 years14 years72 years25 years116 years

How I can care for my senior cat?

sleeping cat

Older cats slow down and may spend most time sleeping in a  favourite warm spot.  The sun is healing older bones, and the cat’s bed should be warm enough and placed somewhere quiet and draught-free, and at an easy height for the cat to reach.  

As older cats feel the cold, they should be kept indoors at night.  Pet bed heaters are ideal in cold weather and use little electricity. Hammock-style radiator beds are especially warm, and ideal for ageing cats.  Many cats love an electric blanket placed underneath the bed.  The Hide & Sleep, allows elderly cats to sleep as well as allow them to hide.  A slightly raised platform also helps cats with mobility issues. 

Cats can lose their coordination and can easily fall,  and cushions should be placed underneath window sills for safety.  Upright scratching posts can present difficulties; a cardboard box or carpet is ideal as a horizontal scratching surface. 

Confusion and senility are very common in senior cats.  To provide reassurance, the daily routine and location of everyday items should never be changed.  Food bowls, water and the litter tray should be kept in the same place, where they can easily be found.

Toilet accidents can be a sign of medical conditions such as diabetes, which increases urination.  Age-related confusion may make the cat forget the location of the litter tray, and arthritis may reduce the ability to get there.

Feeding Older Cats

As the cat ages, there may be appetite changes and how much water they drink. Stiffness and aching joints may dissuade them from drinking and eating sufficiently. Water and food bowls in several easy-to-reach spots around your home, both upstairs and downstairs, can make access easier.

Physiological changes include reduced ability to smell and taste food, and reduced ability to digest fat and protein. As your cat gets older, it will benefit from food specially formulated for elderly cats. This will meet their specific nutritional needs, including higher levels of good-quality protein. A vet’s recommendation will assist in choosing an appropriate diet for the cat.

Overweight cats benefit from exercise, such as interactive toys, food puzzles, supervised access to the outdoors and cat leash walking. These provide entertainment as well as help burn excess calories and keep muscles and joints healthy.

Gentle play can include waving a wand, feathers on a string, going for an indoor walk with your cat, and playing chase the kibble. Keeping the cat’s weight in check also helps to reduce arthritis pain.

The cat may suffer a diminished sense of taste and smell and need extra encouragement to eat.

Owners can try feeding foods with a stronger aroma that the cat can smell better.  

With a little effort, mealtimes can be made more enjoyable :

  • Encouragement at mealtimes by talking to and stroking the cat, and rewarding each mouthful
  • Soften food with water, and mash it with a fork
  • Warm food slightly
  • Small amounts with four to six small meals a day
  • Experiment with different flavours to keep meals interesting
  • Keep dishes spotlessly clean

Dental problems frequently cause a reluctance to eat and are outlined below.

The Quality of Life in Cats

Many cats begin to lose control of their bodily functions when they get older. They may not get to the litter tray in time and any accidents may upset them. Two litter trays in the house or apartment can shorten the distance to get to the tray. The cat may need the toilet more or less as its bowel and urinary systems change.

The cat may struggle to climb stairs, and all its essential items should be kept on one level. Elderly cats may appreciate some assistance reaching their favourite spot on the sofa or bed, and strategically placing a low stool or platform can help. Alternatively, place favourite baskets and beds on ground level.

senior cats

Psychological signs of ageing may become apparent. Any changes in behaviour, such as aggression, confusion, forgetfulness, increased dependence on the owner, or being louder than usual. The cat may seem confused or forget where the litter tray is.

In later life, cats may find their mobility affected by arthritis, and not be able to climb the furniture or wash thoroughly. The vet can offer remedies to improve the quality of life with these problems.

Tips on Carrying Senior Cats

Carrying your cat in a basket can be a highly stressful experience, even more so if the journey entails a car ride.

This is often because it triggers the unpleasant memory of the last vet visit. Allow your cat to associate the basket with pleasant experiences as soon as possible by placing food and catnip inside. Leave the basket on the floor for at least a day, door open, without taking the cat anywhere, so that it can be inspected.

Once the cat is comfortable in the presence of the basket, load the cat, and take it for a short journey; first around the home, and another day, in the car. After the journey, always reward the cat to reinforce the positive experience.

Do not allow the cat to eat during the hours preceding the journey, as it may be sick.

It is important to groom the cat daily as it loses mobility and joints become stiff. This will also help prevent the build-up of fur balls. Either side of the spine is a problem area, and particularly difficult for the cat to reach. Never brush along the bony spine, the brush strokes should be on either side.

Hairballs are a common problem in cats as they often have sluggish digestions and hair ingested during grooming may cause complications such as chronic vomiting or constipation. Hairballs can be kept in check with special supplements. Alternatively, feed oily fish such as sardines in olive oil, every week.

Any matted fur should be teased out or removed with clippers. The skin of the cat is very mobile and fine, as such scissors should never be used. Many emergency vet visits have been the result of attempting to trim cat fur using scissors.

Brush the cat gently using a soft brush and fine comb, cats tend to be thin with very little padding over their bones so vigorous combing can be painful. At this time you can also check for lumps, bumps, and sores which may need veterinary attention.

If the cat’s coat looks increasingly unkempt, it may be a sign of pain associated with the joints or the mouth. A vet should be consulted.

Check the claws every week, and if necessary trim the tips. Elderly cats are less able to retract their claws and they may get caught in furniture and carpets. They can also overgrow and stick into their pads.

Use separate pieces of cotton wool moistened in warm water to wipe away any discharge around the eyes, nose or anus.

The cat may experience pain and discomfort when bending the neck to eat and drink. This can be solved by raising the bowls on a platform or box or using a customised raised bowl. If the cat is constipated, a little bran can be mixed with the food. Canned food helps the cat stay hydrated and reduces constipation.

By providing a litter tray, you can check for blood in the urine or stools, change in the consistency of stools or other early indicators of disease.

The Health of the Older Cat

A cat with deteriorating senses will feel more vulnerable outside and may prefer to stay indoors. Deafness may occur in later life, and cats with total hearing loss may meow silently or howl very loudly. There is a risk of road accidents, and it is safer for the cat to stay indoors if it has become slower or slightly deaf.

Confusion and senility may cause the cat to stray or become lost outdoors. Microchipping, and fencing the garden, are sensible precautions.

the health senior cats
the health of cats

Cats abhor a change of routine and ideally should be fed and groomed at the same time each day. If the owner is going on holiday, a cattery can be a very stressful experience. It is better to ask a neighbour to visit and feed the cat in its familiar environment.

Senior Cat Illnesses

Kidney disease – as many as three-quarters of cats suffer kidney disease. Symptoms are increased water consumption and weight loss. Speciality formulated cat foods are available, controlling the problem and enabling the cat to live a long and happy life.

Diabetes – if the cat eats and drinks more, but loses weight, the cause may be diabetes. This can be controlled by diet or homoeopathic remedies.

Gingivitis – Gingivitis is inflammation of the gums caused by a build-up of tartar. Symptoms are eating less, dribbling, bad breath and blood in saliva. The vet can clean the teeth thoroughly, and if necessary remove a tooth under anaesthetic.

Cancer – cancer may occur between 10 and 15 years and can be treated with chemotherapy, radiotherapy or surgery.

Hyperthyroidism – Hyperthyroidism is when the thyroid gland speeds up the metabolism, and this can be treated homoeopathically, or by chemotherapy, radiotherapy or surgery.

Heart disease – heart disease can be caused by a diseased heart muscle or valves, high blood pressure, thyroid disorders and heartworm infection.  A vet can prescribe medication to control this condition.

Any of the common illnesses in later life, although serious, will not usually prove fatal, provided veterinary attention is sought in time.

Problems such as diarrhoea and cystitis usually take 48 hours to respond to treatment.  Chronic problems such as kidney disease or arthritis require continuous or repeated treatments.  Injuries like sprains and strains, and bites may need about 10 days to recover.

Older cats may lose pigmentation around the eyes, nose and mouth.  Grey fur may start to grow through, which is more noticeable in darker cats.

Arthritis

Arthritis is inflammation of the joints and a breakdown of the cartilage that cushions the bones.   The most affected areas are the lower back, shoulders, hips and elbows.  Cats become less active and more sedentary as they advance in age.  They are less inclined to jump onto laps, couches and beds, and may have difficulty climbing into the litter tray.  Stiff, aching joints can make cats grumpy and less sociable.

Stools and boxes can help the cat to reach higher places around the home.  The vet can prescribe treatments to help to contain and improve arthritis.

Signs are arthritis are :

  • Difficulty moving and jumping
  • Limping
  • Reduced grooming
  • Toilet outside the litter tray
  • Behavioural changes

Symptoms of Dental Problems

Dental Health

Dental checkups will be needed more regularly. Check the cat’s mouth regularly for growth, or reddening of the gums. Bad breath, drooling, difficulty eating, loss of appetite and pawing at the mouth may all be signs of dental disease.

Dental check-ups will be needed more regularly, ideally every six months.  Check the cat’s mouth regularly for growth, or reddening of the gums. 

  • Difficulty eating
  • Loss of appetite, reluctance or refusal to eat
  • Food falling from the cat’s mouth
  • Bleeding from the mouth
  • Bad breath
  • Drooling
  • Pawing at the mouth
  • Behavioural changes and aggression

Periodontal disease

Gingivitis is the treatable first stage of periodontal disease when the tissue around the teeth becomes inflamed.  This is caused by a reaction of the immune system to the presence of bacteria.

Periodontitis is the second stage of periodontal disease and is more difficult to control.  Treatment involves X-rays, antibiotics and regular cleanings.

Tooth resorption

Tooth resorption is a common and painful condition which can be prevented with six monthly dental cleanings.  The root of the tooth becomes exposed when the cat’s body attempts to reabsorb the dentin. 

Deafness

Some older cats do not suffer reduced hearing ability, while others become completely deaf.

Conditions that cause hearing loss include :

  • Infections
  • Growths in the ear canal
  • Parasites
  • Skin Cancer

Deteriorating EyeSight

Sudden blindness may be an indication of hypertension caused by high blood pressure.  High blood pressure can be caused by hyperthyroidism, kidney illness and heart disease.  As a precaution, the vet will measure the blood pressure of the senior cat.

Atrophy of the coloured iris may affect the vision of older cats.  Streaks or black dots may appear in the coloured ring.  This will not cause blindness, and many cats will not suffer any change in vision at all.

Lenticular sclerosis, causes the pupils to cloud over but does not affect the cat’s vision.

Muscle Wasting

Muscle atrophy or loss of muscle mass is common in older cats.  The hind legs are often the most affected, as well as the rest of the body.

Sudden loss of muscle mass and inability to walk and stand should be investigated by the vet.  Diabetes can cause nerve problems, and diminish muscle mass in the hind legs.

How to know when to visit the vet?

Old Cat at the Vet

– Unexplained weight loss
– The cat eats or drinks more than usual
– Eating or drinking less than usual
– Lethargy
– Stiffness, lameness, difficulty jumping up
– Loss of balance
– Disorientating and distress
– Toilet accidents
– Difficulty defecating or urinating
– Any change in behaviour – hiding, aggression, increased vocalisation

Ideally, the cat should have a veterinary check-up twice yearly, or once a year as an absolute minimum. Regular weight checks are important, as are booster vaccinations to support your cat’s immune system. If the cat finds the trip to the vet stressful, a house visit can be arranged at a little extra cost.

Problems such as diarrhoea and cystitis usually take 48 hours to respond to treatment. Chronic problems such as kidney disease or arthritis require continuous or repeated treatments. Injuries like sprains strains, and bites may need about 10 days to recover.

Veterinary treatment in elderly cats is often palliative and provides physical comfort and pain-relieving medications. Understanding the cat’s changing health needs will help the cat be more comfortable towards the end and will give an idea of what to expect as the final stage of life approaches. The vet is an invaluable resource for helping to make decisions based on the cat’s specific profile.

End-of-Life Behavior

A cat that has little time left, will seek out hiding places, spend most time sleeping and even isolate itself. This is a natural, instinctive behaviour and in no way reflects the level of affection for the owner. Ensure that the cat has somewhere warm, quiet, easy to access and draft-free to rest.

Place the litter tray and feeding bowls within easy reach. At this point, the cat may eat and drink very little, but food and water should be available. Make sure food is wet and soft. Any accidents can be avoided by placing absorbent, waterproof pads under the cat and the bed.

In the final hours, it is a comfort for the cat to have the owner near, soothing, stroking and playing music so she knows she’s not alone. There may be laboured or decreased breathing sounds as the end draws near.

Signs that the cat may be suffering:

  • Needing assistance to stand up
  • Frequent toilet accidents
  • No longer playing with favourite toys
  • Isolating itself and seeking seclusion
  • Loss of appetite

Euthanasia

When is euthanasia the most humane option?

old cat

If a vet recommends euthanasia, the advice is not given lightly. It is the most humane option when the cat is in so much pain, or its quality of life has deteriorated to such an extent, that it would be cruel to keep it alive. Knowing when to release the cat from pain, is the greatest demonstration of love.

The vet injects a large dose of anaesthetizing barbiturates. Within 5 seconds the cat is drowsy, and within 10 seconds it is asleep, and for another 5 seconds it has passed on. The devastation and grief over the death of a much-loved cat are natural. Guilt is a natural part of the grieving process, it is important to remember your cat was a friend and companion for many years. Your cat has happy memories of your time together. You may grieve the loss of your beloved cat for six months or more, and acceptance will only come with time.

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