How to Best Care For Your Cat As They Enter Their Senior Years

A cat is a lifetime commitment—although it’s rare, there are instances of cats who have lived to 30 years old! From their gentle purring and sandpaper kisses to their playful, video-worthy behavior and snuggly leg hugs, cats make this well worth it. As a caring cat owner who has turned to the internet for information on senior cat care, you’ve already shown that you are hoping to give your furry feline the best life possible well into the gray whisker years. There are many things you need to know and that you can do to ensure your cat transitions into their senior years with relative ease. Owner observations and vigilance, regular veterinary exams, and wellness testing are the cornerstones of excellent senior cat care

According to the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) Senior Care Guidelines, older cats are classified as mature or middle-aged at 7 to 10 years old, as senior cats at 11 to 14 years old, and geriatric at 15 to 25 years old.

Many in our veterinary profession begin treating a cat who is seven years and older as senior cats and start doing wellness exams every six months instead of yearly. Those who work closely with cats are very aware of how subtle the signs of illness in cats are and how well cats can hide their (often multiple) illnesses.

As many diseases are more common in older cats, our vigilance in observing their day-to-day habits needs to be intensified after age 7 to be sure we can prevent and catch problems early. Any time we can diagnose a problem early on, the prognosis is nearly always going to be better than if we catch the disease in later stages.

What to Watch for in a Cat’s Senior Years

There are things that you as the cat owner can look for at home to help us do our job as veterinarians. Again, the vigilance on your part about watching any sort of change in your cat’s behavior could be the thing that saves your cat’s life.

As the cat gets into their senior years, here is what you should be looking out for at home:

  • Weight loss or gain: both overall weight and body condition score should be monitored
  • Litter box habits: increased size of clumps or frequency of litter box use
  • Mobility: decreased ability to climb stairs easily and jump up
  • Behavior: changes pertaining to resting, sleeping, hiding, and personal interactions with family members

The Most Common Diseases Seen in a Senior Cats

Although cats can get diseases at any age, they are much like humans in that they are more prone to illnesses as they age.

Some of the more common diseases seen in senior cats are as follows:

  • Dental disease: Dental resorptive lesions are one of the most common diseases, affecting over 80 percent of cats at 5 years of age.
  • Osteoarthritis: Arthritis in cats is a degenerative joint disease that affects over 90 percent of cats at 10 years of age.
  • Kidney disease: Kidney disease in cats is found in over 20 percent of all cats. Symptoms of kidney disease in cats can be as subtle as increased drinking or larger clumps of urine in the cat litter box (a great reason to use clumping cat litter!), inappetence, or slight weight loss.
  • Hyperthyroidism: Weight loss, increased appetite, and vocalization are hallmarks of hyperthyroidism in cats.
  • Inflammatory bowel disease: Vomiting, diarrhea, and weight loss are the most typical symptoms of this very common middle-aged and senior cat problem.
  • Diabetes: This is a common disease of older cats, especially those cats who are overweight.
  • Cancer: Intestinal, mammary, and oral cancers are all more common in senior cats.
  • Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome: 80 percent of cats have cognitive dysfunction at 15 years of age and older.

Your Veterinarian’s Role

We recommend a complete wellness exam or physical every six months for all cats over seven years. If that seems like a lot, consider that biannual vet visits would be the equivalent of a human seeing their doctor every three to four years. Since cats are notorious for hiding their diseases and often have more than one medical issue, exams and wellness testing are the cornerstones of keeping a senior cat healthy.

During a basic wellness exam for older cats, lab work with a chemistry panel should always be performed, which includes a thyroid level check, a complete blood count, urinalysis, and heartworm/Felv/FIV screening. Routine blood pressure checks are advised in all cats over 10 years of age and in cats with diseases commonly associated with hypertension (kidney, diabetes, and hyperthyroidism). Additionally, abdominal ultrasound or chest or abdominal radiographs are indicated to help screen for disease.

How To Keep Your Senior Cat Healthy

Again, there are many things you can do as your cat’s “person” to ensure their transition into their senior years goes as smoothly as possible. Keeping your cat healthy and happy will certainly contribute to their longevity, so you want to be aware of the things you can do to help aid in this—and thankfully, many of them are simple tasks.

Some things you can do to keep your senior cat healthy are:

  • Ensure you’re meeting all your cat’s needs (water, food, litter box, social interactions and resting, sleeping, and hiding spaces).
  • Going to regular veterinary visits yearly up to age seven and every six months after are the best things a pet owner can do. Use the tips offered by AAFP to make those trips easier for you and stress-free for your cat, including conquering the cat carrier.
  • Regular weigh-ins at home are very helpful. Buy a good-quality baby scale to catch sudden weight loss early and easily. A scale that weighs accurately to an ounce or less is best.
  • Observe your senior cat closely. Any change can mean something is going on. Because cats age five to seven times faster than humans do, any change is important to take note of.
  • Easy access to fresh water.
  • Use wide bowls to avoid “whisker fatigue,” and avoid plastic bowls to help prevent chin acne.
  • Low-entry litter boxes will make it easier for older cats to get in and out. If your cat is arthritic, make sure the litter boxes are placed in easily accessible areas, without your cat having to climb a bunch of stairs to get to one.
  • Video cameras can help you keep tabs and ease your mind when you are away. PetCube Bites Wi-Fi pet camera is a great option, as it even dispenses cat treats.
  • Invite cat-friendly neighbors/friends to pet-sit while you travel.
  • Try to keep your cat physically and mentally stimulated with toys and interactive puzzles.

The Best Nutrition For a Senior Cat

Your cat’s annual blood work is an ideal way for veterinarians to determine if a change in nutrition is needed for your senior cat. Protein and phosphorous levels are two of the most critical analyses that need to be considered.

If a cat has renal disease or a history of bladder stones, a canned food diet fed in small but frequent portions is the perfect way to encourage water consumption and achieve a diet that is close to the natural diet of a cat. Any diet switch should be done slowly in cats, especially seniors, and is best done with the guidance of your veterinarian based on physical exam and wellness test findings.

In short, all of these things can help to create a cat-friendly care plan, diet, and home environment for senior cats. With this guide, you can catch problems early so your kitty will truly enjoy those golden years! If you have any further questions about how to keep your senior cat happy and healthy, please call your vet. Don't have one yet? We can help you find a local veterinarian


Contributing DVM