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Caring for Your Senior Cat

By Lorie Huston, DVM

Today, our cats are living longer than ever before — many times into their late teens and sometimes even into their 20s. However, with this shift toward older cats, we’re also seeing age-related conditions that were less common previously.


Source: American Association of Feline Practitioners Senior Care Guidelines; Jeanne Pittari, DVM, DAVBP (Feline) et al. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery; September 2009, vol. 11, no. 9, 763-778.

What is a Senior Cat?

Though there is not one age at which a cat is considered senior, the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) suggests the following classification: mature or middle-aged, 7 to 10 years; senior – 11 to 14 years; and geriatric – 15 years and older.

Senior 'Kit-izen' Problems

From arthritis to cancer, the illnesses and ailments affecting older cats are actually quite similar to what senior people deal with. Common diseases seen in senior cats include:

  • Dental disease and other oral diseases (e.g., periodontal disease, stomatitis)
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Kidney disease
  • Diabetes
  • Pancreatitis
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Constipation
  • Heart disease (e.g., cardiomyopathy)
  • Lung disease
  • Cancer
  • Deafness
  • Changes in vision and other eye abnormalities
  • Cognitive decline
  • Muscle wasting
  • Dehydration

Shoot for Early Detection

Signs and symptoms associated with many of these age-related diseases may be subtle and difficult to notice. Regular veterinary examinations are recommended, particularly for middle-aged and older cats. These examinations can often detect evidence of disease before the condition becomes serious. Early detection may mean better success in treating the disease and less discomfort for your cat as well as less expense for you. Sometimes something as simple as a dietary change is all that is necessary to make a big difference in your aging cat’s quality of life.

Watch for Subtle Changes

Be sure to mention any of following observations to your cat’s veterinarian:

  • Changes in routine (e.g., grooming patterns, litter box routines, sleeping patterns)
  • Changes in behavior (e.g., restlessness, irritability, unusual vocalizations)
  • Changes in activity level (e.g., lack of desire to play, move, or jump)
  • Changes in food or water consumption
  • Changes in bowel movements
  • Vomiting or nausea
  • Unexplained weight loss or weight gain
  • Loss of hearing
  • Loss of vision

Choose an Age Appropriate Diet

The best diet for your cat is a food that your cat will readily eat that is complete and balanced for the appropriate life stage to meet your cat’s individual nutritional needs, which can vary greatly depending on your cat’s body condition and overall health. Cats with health issues such as diabetes, kidney disease, arthritis, muscle wasting or obesity may have very different nutritional needs than a normal healthy cat. Your veterinarian can help you determine which diet is best for your senior cat.

Think Small

Feeding small meals frequently is healthier for most cats. Aim for three to four small meals daily. However, if possible, make these feeding changes gradual — over the course of weeks to months. Sudden changes in diet can lead to diarrhea, vomiting and/or loss of appetite. If a gradual change is not possible (due to illness or refusal to eat a particular diet) consult your veterinarian and follow their instructions.

Don't Forget the Water

Be certain your cat has access to clean fresh water at all times. Encourage water consumption by feeding your cat wet food, adding water to your cat’s food, providing water fountains, and/or leaving a water faucet drip. Older cats tend to be prone to dehydration which may have a negative impact on other health issues.

Make Your Senior Cat Comfortable

You'd be surprised how a few small things can go a long way to making your senior cat comfortable, especially if they suffer from arthritis. Start with changing their bedding to something a bit softer. Some cats may even prefer a heated bed. But be careful the heating element does not get hot enough to burn your cat’s skin. Does your cat enjoy perches or other high places? Install ramps or steps to make it easier to climb. Litter boxes are another spot that may need some rethinking. Remove any obstacles around the box and, if it is currently located on an upper floor on a multi-level house, bring it downstairs.

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