The Special Needs of the Senior Cat
Just as people are living longer than they did in the past, cats are living longer too, and there is every reason to expect that the "graying" cat population will continue to grow.
How old is my cat in human years?
Cats are individuals and, like people, they experience advancing years in their own unique ways. Many cats begin to encounter age-related physical changes between seven and ten years of age, and most do so by the time they are 12. The commonly held belief that every "cat year" is worth seven "human years" is not entirely accurate. In reality, a one-year-old cat is physiologically similar to a 16-year-old human, and a two-year-old cat is like a person of 21. For every year thereafter, each cat year is worth about four human years. Using this formula, a ten-year-old cat is similar age wise to a 53-year-old person, a 12-year-old cat to a 61-year-old person, and a 15-year-old cat to a person of 73.
Advancing age is not a disease
Aging is a natural process. Although many complex physical changes accompany advancing years, age in and of itself is not a disease. Even though many conditions that affect older cats are not correctable, they can often be controlled. The key to making sure your senior cat has the healthiest and highest quality of life possible is to recognize and reduce factors that may be health risks, detect disease as early as possible, correct or delay the progression of disease, and improve or maintain the health of the body's systems.
What happens as my cat ages?
The aging process is accompanied by many physical and behavioral changes:
- Compared to younger cats, the immune system of older cats is less able to fend off foreign invaders. Chronic diseases often associated with aging can impair immune function even further.
- Dehydration, a consequence of many diseases common to older cats, further diminishes blood circulation and immunity.
- The skin of an older cat is thinner and less elastic, has reduced blood circulation, and is more prone to infection.
- Older cats groom themselves less effectively than do younger cats, sometimes resulting in hair matting, skin odor, and inflammation.
- The claws of aging felines are often overgrown, thick, and brittle.
- In humans, aging changes in the brain contribute to a loss of memory and alterations in personality commonly referred to as senility. Similar symptoms may be seen in elderly cats: wandering, excessive meowing, apparent disorientation, and avoidance of social interaction.
- For various reasons, hearing loss is common in cats of advanced age.
- Changes in the eyes. A slight haziness of the lens and a lacy appearance to the iris (the colored part of the eye) are both common age-related changes, but neither seems to decrease a cat's vision to any appreciable extent. However, several diseases, especially those associated with high blood pressure, can seriously and irreversibly impair a cat's ability to see.
- Dental disease is extremely common in older cats and can hinder eating and cause significant pain.
- Although many different diseases can cause a loss of appetite, in healthy senior cats, a decreased sense of smell may be partially responsible for a loss of interest in eating. However, the discomfort associated with dental disease is a more likely cause of reluctance to eat.
- Feline kidneys undergo a number of age-related changes that may ultimately lead to impaired function; kidney failure is a common disease in older cats, and its symptoms are extremely varied.
- Degenerative joint disease, or arthritis, is common in older cats. Although most arthritic cats don't become overtly lame, they may have difficulty gaining access to litter boxes and food and water dishes, particularly if they have to jump or climb stairs to get to them.
- Hyperthyroidism (often resulting in overactivity); hypertension (high blood pressure, usually a result of either kidney failure or hyperthyroidism), diabetes mellitus; inflammatory bowel disease; and cancer are all examples of conditions that, though sometimes seen in younger cats, become more prevalent in cats as they age.
Is my cat sick, or is it just old age?
Never assume that changes you see in your older cat are simply due to old age, and are therefore untreatable. Owners of older cats often notice changes in their cat's behavior, but consider these changes an inevitable and untreatable result of aging. However, any alteration in your cat's behavior or physical condition should alert you to contact your veterinarian.
Disease of virtually any organ system, or any condition that causes pain or impairs mobility can contribute to changes in behavior. For example:
- A fearful cat may not become aggressive until it is in pain (e.g., from dental disease) or less mobile (e.g., from arthritis).
- The increased urine production that often results from diseases common to aging cats (e.g., kidney failure, diabetes mellitus, or hyperthyroidism) may cause the litter box to become soiled more quickly than expected. The increased soil and odor may prompt cats to eliminate in inappropriate areas. .
- Many cats that do not mark their territory with urine may begin to do so if a condition like hyperthyroidism develops.
- Cats with painful arthritis may have difficulty gaining access to a litter box, especially if negotiating stairs is required. Even climbing into the box may be painful for such cats, prompting them to eliminate in inappropriate areas.
- Older cats may be more sensitive to changes in the household since their ability to adapt to unfamiliar situations diminishes with age.
How can I help keep my senior cat healthy?
Close observation is one of the most important tools you have to help keep your senior cat healthy. You may wish to perform a basic physical examination on a weekly basis. Ask your veterinarian to show you how to do it and what to look for. You will find it easier if you just make the examination an extension of the way you normally interact with your cat. For example, while you are rubbing your cat's head or scratching its chin, gently raise the upper lips with your thumb or forefinger so you can examine the teeth and gums. In the same way, you can lift the ear flaps and examine the ear canals. While you are stroking your cat's fur, you can check for abnormal lumps or bumps, and evaluate the health of the skin and coat.
Daily brushing or combing removes loose hairs, preventing them from being swallowed and forming hairballs. Brushing also stimulates blood circulation and sebaceous gland secretions, resulting in a healthier skin and coat. Older cats may not use scratching posts as frequently as they did when they were younger; therefore, nails should be checked weekly and trimmed if necessary.
Daily Tooth Brushing
Brushing your cat's teeth with a pet-specific toothpaste or powder is the single most effective way to prevent dental disease. Dental disease is more common in older cats and can lead to other health problems, so maintaining oral health is important. Most cats will allow their teeth to be brushed, although it may be necessary to gradually introduce your cat to tooth brushing over several weeks to months. Watch this video for instructions on how to brush your cat's teeth.
Many cats get heavier or even obese as they age. If your cat is overweight, you should ask your veterinarian to help you modify the diet so that a normal body condition can be restored. Other cats actually become too thin as they get older. Weight loss can be caused by a variety of medical problems such as kidney failure, and special diets may be helpful in managing these problems.
Reducing environmental stress whenever possible is very important since older cats are usually less adaptable to change. Special provisions should be made for older cats that must be boarded for a period of time. Having a familiar object, such as a blanket or toy, may prevent the cat from becoming too distraught in a strange environment. A better alternative is to have the older cat cared for at home by a neighbor, friend, or relative. Introducing a new pet may be a traumatic experience for older cats, and should be avoided whenever possible. Moving to a new home can be equally stressful, however, stress can be alleviated by giving the older cat more affection and attention during times of emotional upheaval.
Cats are experts at hiding illness, and elderly cats are no exception. It is common for a cat to have a serious medical problem, yet not show any sign of it until the condition is quite advanced. Since most diseases can be managed more successfully when detected and treated early in their course, it is important for owners of senior cats to carefully monitor their behavior and health.
How can my veterinarian help?
Just as your observations can help detect disease in the early stages, so too can regular veterinary examinations. Your veterinarian may suggest evaluating your healthy senior cat more frequently than a younger cat. If your cat has a medical condition, more frequent evaluations may also be necessary. During your cat's examination, the veterinarian will gather a complete medical and behavioral history, perform a thorough physical examination in order to evaluate every organ system, check your cat's weight and body condition, and compare them to previous evaluations. At least once a year, certain tests, including blood tests, fecal examination, and urine analysis, may be suggested. In this way, disorders can be found and treated early, and ongoing medical conditions can be appraised. Both are necessary to keep your senior cat in the best possible health.
Should I adopt an older cat?
A special group of senior cats that deserves particular attention is older cats in shelters. While young cats and kittens are attractive to most potential adopters due to their cuteness and playfulness, senior cats are often overlooked by people considering adopting a cat. If people keep their minds open, they will find that there are countless older cats that would make excellent pets and would brighten up any home. Older cats in shelters are often more calm, are more likely to be litter trained, and can provide wonderful companionship to anyone kind enough to take them into their home. The next time you are at the shelter, take some time to check out these mature felines. Taking them home can make both of your lives richer, happier, and more satisfying.
Updated December 2016