To you, she looks pretty much the same as when she was a kitten. Her fur is still brightly striped. Her eyes are still grass green. But shes definitely acting older. Perhaps she seems to get lost in familiar surroundings. Or shes reluctant to jump like she did when she was younger. And she doesnt keep herself quite as clean as she used to.
As much as you want to deny it, your cat is undergoing age-related changes, both physical and mental. Veterinarians define a geriatric cat beginning anywhere from seven to 12 years old. But according to surveys, the percentage of cats living over the age of six years has nearly doubled in just over a decade, and almost everyone knows of a cat that lived late into his teens or even early twenties.
Although aging is a natural process, it can be frustrating for your cat, as well as for you. It helps to know what to expect – and also your options for treatment or keeping her comfortable – so you and your cat can better enjoy her golden years together.
Common Changes in Senior Cats
Cats go through many of the same changes as people as they age. But dont assume that changes you see in your older cat are simply due to old age and are untreatable, says James Richards, DVM, director of the Cornell Feline Health Center of the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. Be alert to slight changes in your cats condition or behavior, and report any changes to your veterinarian.
One important change is your cats immune system, which weakens as he ages and makes it easier for illness to strike. Some diseases that afflict older cats include kidney and liver disorders, cancer, diabetes, hyperthyroidism (often resulting in overactivity) and inflammatory bowel disease.
Arthritis is a common condition, but its often overlooked by cat companions, says Dr. Richards. Feline arthritis is most often caused by a combination of wear and tear and age-related changes to joint cartilage. Cats may not only experience joint pain and tenderness, but also have trouble getting around, especially jumping onto high places they once easily pounced up to. And even though noticeable lameness is rare, some cats have a hard time getting in and out of a high or covered litter box, and may hesitate to use it. Your cat may also flinch or cry from being picked up.
Aging can also impact your cats eyes and ears. Vision usually remains adequate throughout later life unless your cat experiences certain diseases, especially those associated with high blood pressure, which can seriously damage your cats vision. And if you find your older cat responding less to your call, hearing loss may be the culprit.
Growing older alters the skin, fur and nails of cats. Illness causes dehydration, which diminishes blood circulation and immunity, says Dr. Richards. An older cats skin is thinner and less elastic, making it more prone to infection and slower healing.
Older cats also groom themselves less effectively than their younger peers. Therefore, you may find your cat with matted hair for the first time. (Some cats even develop an odor because their fur is not as clean as it should be.) Nails problems may also occur. The claws of your older feline may become overgrown, thick and brittle, requiring more care from you or your veterinarian.
Dental disease is very common in older cats. Periodontal disease – inflammation of the gums, bones and other supportive tissues around the teeth – and disease of the teeth themselves can lead to tooth loss and severe pain in your cat, especially during eating. This often results in loss of appetite, and some cats may become aggressive because of dental pain.
Instead of trying to figure out if your cat has a specific disease, be alert to the signs that generally indicate illness. Some changes can be pretty subtle in cats, says Dr. Richards. Its important to monitor your cat closely.
Notice if your cat loses weight, which can indicate any number of conditions. For example, you may feel his spine sticking out more than usual. Watch for changes in thirst and appetite, increased or decreased use of the litter box and any obvious signs of illness, such as vomiting, breathing difficulties, limping, lethargy or significant changes in behavior towards you or other family members or pets. The sooner you report any signs, the greater the chance for successful treatment.
Mental Changes May Also Occur
The good news is that cats are living longer; the bad news is that the longer they live the more likely they are to develop signs of senility. We assume that about 60 percent of cats over the age of nine or 10 years display some cognitive dysfunction – the same rate as dogs, says Eric Christensen, DVM, consultant with the Cornell Feline Health Center and a clinician at the Cornell University Hospital for Animals.
There are a number of signs of cognitive dysfunction in older cats. They include constant meowing, wandering aimlessly, staring off into space, not using the litter box, irritability or unusual aggression. Cats may also experience decreased appetite or water consumption – because they forget where their feeding dishes are located, says Dr. Christensen. Other cats become lethargic or disinterested in interacting with other members of the family.
Because many of these behaviors can result from painful conditions or other diseases common in old age (like diabetes, hyperthyroidism or kidney failure), it may be difficult to determine whether cognitive dysfunction is solely responsible. If an underlying disease is found and corrected – yet the behavior persists – your veterinarian may suggest using a medication to help curb the yowling, irritability or wandering.
Keep Your Cat Comfortable
You cant prevent aging, but you can increase the comfort of your cat as he ages. One way is through altering your cats environment to meet her changing needs. If your cat has trouble getting to the litter box, keep several litter boxes around the house, and make sure at least one is available on every floor. The same goes for food and water dishes, says Dr. Richards. Is your cats favorite spot on the window sill? Make a ramp or some steps so your cat can more easily get there. If your cat has trouble bending down to eat or drink, use a platform to raise her feeding dishes.
Daily brushing is more important than ever at this time. It removes excessive loose hairs, preventing them from being swallowed and forming hair balls, says Dr. Richards. Brushing also stimulates blood circulation, resulting in a healthier skin and coat. And grooming increases your personal interaction between you and your cat, which can be a pleasure and comfort to both.
Monitor your cats weight about once a month on a scale sensitive to small weight changes. If your cat becomes overweight, ask your veterinarian to help you manage his diet. On the other hand, losing weight can often be the first sign of serious illness. If your cat seems to be getting thinner, consult your veterinarian right away. As your cats nutritional needs change in his senior years, ask your veterinarian about a diet best suited to your cats medical requirements.
A very important but often overlooked part of your older cats health and well-being is exercise. Exercise is not only good for weight control, but also helps cats retain their mobility. Even if your cat has arthritis, movement will help your cat stay somewhat agile. And theres something else quite special about cats as they age: They never forget how to play. So if your senior cat is in reasonable good health, play with him regularly; its what will truly make his later years golden for both of you.