Cat Senior Care
Caring For Mature, Senior, and Geriatric Cats
As someone who is doing the research on caring for their aging cat by turning to the internet for answers, you've already shown your willingness to put in the work to ensure your feline has a long and healthy life. Just as caring for a kitten presents challenges, caring for a senior cat can mean some extra preparation, so it makes sense that you have questions. At GeniusVets, we firmly believe that petcare information should come from veterinarians and not from “Dr. Google.” That’s why we’ve taken FAQs on caring for senior cats, sent these questions to renowned veterinarians across the U.S., and compiled their replies to get you valuable information that you can trust.
While we've sourced all of the senior cat care information and recommendations below directly from leading veterinarians across the country, please make sure to seek out the advice of your own veterinarian or find a trusted vet near you using the GeniusVets Directory.
Old age itself is not a disease because everyone ages differently, and that's true of our cats as well. However, just as with people, everything slows down a bit. As cats get older, they might want to play less. Their nutritional needs will change. Arthritis tends to develop, they can have vision or hearing problems, and they can experience kidney disease, thyroid issues, and some grooming or litter box issues. Kitty owners should be aware that with arthritis comes mobility issues, so it may be time to assess your cat’s arrangement to ensure they have easy access to their litter box, food, and water.
Nutritional needs vary based on your cat’s age and lifestyle. You started with a kitten-formulated food with more calories and different kinds of vitamins and minerals. As they age to adults, they have different protein, fat, calorie, and vitamin requirements. Then you get to your senior geriatric stages, in which the cat may need some things like joint supplements, probiotics, and other vitamins that help them continue to thrive.
There are many senior foods on the market, but most veterinarians will you that you don’t necessarily have to switch to these when your cat's considered a senior. It comes down to what their health and lifestyle are like, and then we make choices based on that. For example, if your cat's showing signs of early diabetes or kidney disease, we might elect to change them to a diet consistent with those diseases’ needs. Or if we have a kitty that's having more grooming issues, we might switch to a hairball diet to support that.
Lastly, you have to realize that as cats age, they aren't as active, and we see a lot of weight gain. Obesity is a genuine concern because the extra weight may cause issues with grooming themselves. They may be at higher risk for other diseases so that a prescription diet might be warranted.
Signs of slowing down are individual to the cat. Some kitties are active while others are couch potatoes, just like the rest of us, so things that can be indicative of slowing down are if all of a sudden our interactions with our cat change. For example, if you have a kitty that’s usually a lap cat but they're spending more time by themselves, that could indicate something is going on. For kitties that go outdoors, they may not want to do so as much. Cats with arthritis may be hesitant to jump on a counter or a table to look for stuff and investigate, and they may even begin to sleep on lower surfaces. Many cats begin to hide more as they age, although that can also indicate that they have pain or aren’t generally feeling well.
As veterinarians, we'd rather know about any behavior changes as your kitty gets older, as we can figure out if there’s some sort of medical issue sooner rather than later. In other words, don’t just chalk up a change in behavior to old age. For example, a cat that has a painful tooth that needs to be extracted may be acting older than they are due to the pain but, once that tooth is pulled, you could end up bringing home a cat that acts much more youthful than they have been in the recent past thanks to that pain management.
One of the most significant issues we see in older cats beyond arthritis and mobility issues is kidney disease. A cat can get kidney disease at any age, but the onset is typically during the senior years. And that's often manifested as weight loss, vomiting, or changes in urine output. Your cat might start drinking and urinating more. We could also see issues with the thyroid gland (usually hyperthyroidism) in which the gland becomes overactive, and that's manifested as a ravenous appetite. In these cases, the cat will sometimes even act hyperactive, and with that, we could see vomiting and weight loss.
The other significant issue we see in older cats is dental disease. Cats’ teeth can develop tartar and gingivitis that can both lead to periodontal disease. And the most critical thing for cat owners to realize with dental disease is just because the cat is still eating doesn’t mean the disease and pain associated with it don’t exist. Cats are very resourceful and know they need to eat to survive, so they’ll figure out ways to eat with their teeth that aren’t painful. You need to watch out for food coming out of their mouths as they eat and drooling.
Other things we might see in an aging cat are:
- Hearing loss
Preventative care is a multi-pronged approach. A thorough physical exam by your veterinarian twice a year is essential for senior cats to assess health and keep up with age-appropriate vaccines. There are also specific blood tests to screen for those diseases we mentioned. As we also discussed, cats are good at hiding issues that, if they are showing symptoms, the disease is typically much further along. If we can detect these problems from a blood screen, urine tests, and x-rays before they become clinical or the cat loses weight, it often carries a better prognosis. We’ll also continue to check your senior cat for parasites and provide regular dental cleanings to prevent painful extractions.
There are many things that you can do at home to keep your cat healthy. Ensure that they don't have to work too hard to get to their litter box or their food and water. Perhaps they’ve always had to go downstairs to use the litter box; we may need to consider moving a litter box or adding a litter box to the floor where they spend most of their time. The same goes for food—if they usually eat on a counter, we may either need to help them up on the counter or consider putting their food on the floor. Also, exercise and enrichment are still critical to keep your cat stimulated, even into their senior years. Just as in humans, if cats don’t use it, they lose it.
As we mentioned earlier, many underlying issues present during these exams that owners may not have noticed, as the cat and owner are together every day. It’s easy to miss things that come up gradually. And one of the main things we hear as veterinarians is, "Oh yeah, they're getting older, and they're slowing down." Remember that they could be slowing down due to more than just the aging process—it could very well be that they're constantly in pain, but they hide it so well.
We can find things like a painful tooth or underlying blood work during the wellness exams that could show us a troubling trend. We trend the blood year after year because, remember, cats age faster than us. If we do blood work one year and we say, "Hey, those kidney values are normal, but they're looking a little higher." And we follow it up within six months or a year and say, “That graph is trending up,” so we take action and do something as simple as changing the food. This simple act could save years of the cat’s life and many hospital visits.
The most important thing to remember about caring for a senior cat is that you're their best advocate, and you know them best. Cats can be challenging to diagnose because they're secretive creatures and can effectively hide dental disease, renal disease, and even arthritis. The better you know them as their pet parent, the better you're going to be able to tell when something's off—having that intimate knowledge of your cat's personality and normal activities can make a huge difference. If you notice any changes in their interactions, routines, appetite, grooming, or litter box habits, then your veterinarian will want to see them. They’d honestly prefer to hear from you once a week than have you wait until the problem has progressed so far that there is nothing they can do.
Some signs that your cat might have dental problems are if they’re drooling, dropping food, only eating wet versus dry food, and perhaps bad breath or other odor.
Most veterinarians vaccinate for the cat’s health risk. More so than using age as a factor, we determine what your pet is exposed to and recommend appropriate vaccines. Now, rabies is recommended for everyone across the board—every cat, no matter their age or lifestyle. But there are certain vaccines, like feline leukemia, that we don’t typically recommend if your pet is strictly indoors and no other cats are coming in and out of your home. Vaccinations are dependent on the cat. We have that conversation with you as a client and determine what is best for your pet.
The AAHA also has its own list of FAQs on both senior cat and dog care. If you have any further questions about getting senior cat care, ask your veterinarian. If you don’t have one yet, we can help you find a local veterinarian!