Health and behavioural changes in ageing cat
Ageing is a normal process and most cats live long and healthy lives. You can help keep your cat well by understanding how getting older can affect your cat. As your get gets older you may observe some of the symptoms and behaviours below:
- Changes in usual appetite
- Drinking more or less
- Muscle loss, losing weight
- Change in sleep patterns
- Hearing and sight may be impaired
- Stiffness and arthritic problems
- Less grooming and cleaning
- Tooth decay and gum disease
- Less physically active
- Personality changes
How old is old? Senior and Geriatric cats
A cat is considered older (middle-aged) at around 7-8 years of age, at 11-12 years old your cat will be considered a ‘senior’ cat and at 15 years onwards your cat is termed ’geriatric’.
What happens as your cat ages
- Your cat may have a poorer appetite due to tooth or gum problems, and also due to the fact that older cats have less sense of taste and smell.
- As eyesight deteriorates your cat may be less confident to go out and may become more easily frightened by noises and new situations.
- Loss of muscle tone and stiff joints may mean that your cat will jump and run less. The majority of senior cats (12 years and older) will have some degree of arthritis.
- As in people, a less efficient immune system means they can pick up infections more easily and may find fighting off disease more difficult.
- Old cats can often drink more water due to kidney and urinary tract problems.
- Your elderly cat is likely to sleep a lot more, but may not sleep so soundly. Some elderly cats with dementia may have changed sleep patterns.
- Older cats may find grooming more difficult and their coat may lose shine and condition, also the skin becomes less elastic. Grey/ white hairs will appear as part of a normal ageing process.
- Some elderly cats may become over-weight as they slow down, but eat the same size portions.
- Teeth and gum problems are more likely, ask your vet to check your cat. Smelly breath can be an indicator of gum disease (but also other conditions).
- Your cat’s personality may change – they could become grumpy, although some older cats become more friendly and prefer to be in company and so demand more attention.
- Older cats may have memory problems –dementia is becoming more common in cats as they live longer. The symptoms can be very similar to humans. * see more detailed post on dementia.
- Sometimes swallowing can become more difficult for your cat as the mouth gets drier.
- The internal organs, heart, liver and kidneys may start to deteriorate.
- Claws can grow if your cat does not go out or use a scratching post; if left they can cause pain by sticking into the paw pads.
- Hair balls can be a problem as hair ingested during grooming may cause chronic vomiting or constipation due to your cat’s digestive system being less efficient.
Helping to care for elderly cats
- Older cats can lead happy and active lives – your vet can help with regular checks and there are many good treatments and medicines available to help your cat.
- You can help by providing a suitable diet, lots of interaction and play and ensuring that your cat has easy access to beds, hiding places and also provide a litter tray with shallow sides.
- Keep up vaccinations, flea treatments and worming.
Weight loss and gain in senior cats
How do I know if my cat is gaining or losing weight?
- Weigh your elderly cat every couple of months (weigh yourself and then hold your cat and weigh again is one possible solution if your cat is not co-operative). Weight loss can be a sign of illness, so it may be a good idea to keep a record. A sore mouth due to gum disease or infected teeth could be another reason for poor eating. It is common for older cats to develop medical conditions that cause them to lose weight, such as kidney and thyroid disease. If your cat has a poor appetite feeding small amounts more often may help.
- If your cat is losing weight, it is important to consult your vet as soon as possible so you can rule out any possible health issues. Should your cat have a disease or illness, if diagnosed early swift treatment will help to alleviate symptoms, pain and manage the issues more easily than if it has developed over a longer period of time.
- Overweight cats are unlikely to live as long as their slimmer friends and they are more prone to serious illnesses such as kidney disease, diabetes and arthritis- again very similar to us humans. Get advice from your vet and try to avoid giving too many treats. Older cats may forget they have just eaten.
- Never put your cat on a strict diet as this can be dangerous for cats – gentle and slower changes are more sensible and in the long term more effective.
- It may be better to follow one of the many senior diets, as they are lower in calories and reduce the likelihood of weight gain. Choose a good quality product without too much carbohydrate. Protein restriction has not been proven to be beneficial for healthy cats, however is helpful for cats with kidney problems. Ask your vet for advice on a suitable diet.
Kidney disease and cats
- Cats’ kidneys are responsible for filtering the waste products from their blood into their urine. Older cats may be affected by kidney disease caused by infections, blockages, tumours or toxins as well as age-related changes. Chronic kidney disease occurs when the kidney function deteriorates gradually over a period of time. Treatment depends on the cause and the extent of damage, but usually begins by flushing the kidneys using fluids, followed by special diets and medications. Unfortunately, kidney disease is irreversible, but with the right support many cats can enjoy a pretty normal life.
- Anti-freeze is well-known for causing many kidney/ poisoning problems in cats.
- Get your cat checked by a vet if they are drinking a lot more than usual.
Grooming and the older cat
- If your cat is looking unkempt or developing matted fur, go to the vet for a check-up. There may be dental disease or joint problems that are affecting his or her ability to groom. Regular grooming is important for your cat. Help your cat by daily brushing and grooming. This will also help keep a strong bond between you and your cat.
- If your cat is longhaired and is having difficulties keeping itself clean, it may be helpful to trim the fur around its anus, underside of the tail and back legs to avoid soiling or matting.
- Also check your cat’s ears as some older cats produce a lot of ear wax. Clean with cooled boiled water, but never poke into the ear canal.
Dementia in older cats
- Cats can suffer from reduced brain function as they age. With dementia your cat may seem confused, change personality, sleep poorly, meow more and have accidents. A blood test is required and similar drugs to those used with Alzheimer’s disease have been used in cats – and for some patients they work very well.
- *Other medical disorders also produce these symptoms, so your vet needs to examine your pet.
- Older cats can also suffer from diabetes. Symptoms may be difficult to interpret so always get expert advice.
Cat flaps and outdoor spaces
- Some elderly cats may stop going out as a result of difficulty negotiating the cat flap. It may be helpful to build a step or leave objects they can use, both inside and outside to make it easier for your pet to remain independent. Eventually you may need to escort your cat in and out of the garden.
- There are a number of reasons why your cat may stop going outside as it gets older. A significant influence could be other cats in the neighbourhood – your older cat will not be able to defend his or her ‘patch’ and therefore may be nervous. Spending time outside with you may alleviate this problem.
Caring for your cat’s teeth and gums as they get older
- The bacteria from infected gums can spread around the body and damage the liver and kidneys.
- If your cat is willing, brush the teeth and also feed some dry food to try to limit the build-up of plaque. Tooth or gum problems become common as a cat gets older, so they may not be able to chew harder foods which is why senior dry foods often have smaller, softer pellets.
- Take your cat for regular check-ups; if your cat does need treatment, with modern anaesthetics, age itself, is not necessarily a problem. Dental care under anaesthetic is now commonly carried out on older cats, once they have been checked out for any underlying diseases.
Things to look out for in an older cat
Go to the vet if your cat:
- is eating less
- not drinking
- is drinking more than normal
- has smelly breath
- has lost weight
- is stiff, limping, or having difficulty in jumping up onto things
- you find any lumps or bumps
- has become a lot less active
- is having trouble passing urine or faeces, or is soiling or passing water indoors
- is disorientated or is having trouble with balance
- seems confused or starts getting lost
If you feel something is not right –consult your vet. You know your cat best.
Older cats love comfort
- Older cats love their creature comforts, and will spend a lot of time sleeping in a warm and comfy spots. Beds that can be hung off radiators are often very popular; and if your cat is used to using a higher sleeping area he/she may appreciate some sort of step to enable them to climb up more easily. Cats like to hide away and a nice warm, safe place will always be appreciated.
- They can also enjoy more time spent with you and the stimulation of playing with new toys and activities.
Finally: Don’t forget to keep up vaccinations, flea treatments and worming.
Routine checks for older cats
- Blood tests: haematology, biochemistry, electrolytes and thyroid hormones. This is to assess the function of internal organs – in older cats is it wise to have your cat checked every 6 months if possible so that any problems can be picked up early
- Urine tests: to look for kidney problems, bladder infections and diabetes – all these health issues are much more common in senior cats
- Blood pressure: to check for high or low blood pressure