Senior Cats

Cat age: 11-14 years

Human equivalent: 60-72 years

Older and wiser, senior cats have been there and done that already and often embrace a quieter, calmer lifestyle. Although the occasional mouse may still grace your doorstep, most senior cats prefer the comforts of home and lounging in the sunshine. Having spent the past 10 years actively training us to meet their every need, they now enjoy a more supervisory role when it comes to interacting with people and other cats. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security however – they’ll still happily let you know when your service isn’t quite up to standard! A lot can change in a short period of time when it comes to the health of senior cats so more regular monitoring is recommended.

Recommended Veterinary Care

What needs to be done?How often?*
Health check/physical examEvery 6 -12 months
Weight checkEvery 6-12 months
VaccinationEvery 1-3 years according to individual risk assessment
WormingEvery 3-12 months as required by lifestyle
Flea treatmentMonthly, if you choose to treat, otherwise flea comb monthly
Nail trimCheck nails at least every 3 months, trim as necessary
Blood pressure checkEvery 6-12 months
Urine testEvery 6-12 months
Blood testEvery 6-12 months
Pet InsuranceIf you have pet insurance, think very carefully before switching policies as previous treatment may exclude future coverage

*Please note, recommendations may differ between vets and there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer, these are just our suggestions based on our desire to keep our cats safe but avoid over-treatment at the same time!

How You Can Help At Home

Understand their need for consistency and predictability

  • Senior cats are creatures of habit – they are generally less tolerant of new things and changes in routines can bring about stress. This is especially true for cats who may not be able to see or hear as well as they used to.
  • It is particularly important to make sure that your cat’s core resources (food dish, water bowl, litter tray and sleeping areas) remain consistent if at all possible. Keeping to a regular time schedule can help as well. As far as the senior cat is concerned, if they recognise a particular item or event, it’s one less thing to worry about!

Be mindful of their ageing bodies

  • As senior cats spend a large percentage of their day sleeping, make sure they have plenty of warm, soft places to lie down. Those with painful joints may prefer a heated bed, just be careful to cover the heat source with blankets to avoid burns. In the summer, cool mats and easy access to shady areas can help them keep cool.
  • Hiding places are essential for all cats but are especially important for older cats who may need to escape from the activity of a busy family life so make sure your cat has several easily accessible quiet, enclosed places where they can watch the world go by in peace and comfort.

Don’t forget about their teeth

  • Regular dental checks are essential for senior cats as dental disease is unfortunately very common at this age. We all know how painful dental disease can be but it’s important to remember that cats rarely change their eating habits as a result of dental pain – it’s up to us to monitor their teeth and get them help when they need it.
  • Although old age is not a reason to deny your cat any necessary dental treatment, it does increase the risk associated with anaesthesia so do not wait until things get worse to sort out a painful mouth, get your cat the treatment they need sooner rather than later.

Look out for signs of joint pain

  • It has been shown in recent years that between 60-90% of cats over 12 suffer from degenerative joint disease such as arthritis. Joint pain in elderly cats can be incredibly difficult to spot because they usually don’t limp or cry out in pain. In fact, detecting joint disease in your cat is more about what the DON’T do anymore than what they DO do.
  • Does your cat hesitate before jumping up on or down from their favourite chair? Are they sleeping downstairs now when they used to regularly visit you upstairs in the bedroom? Do they prefer to use the litter tray rather than go out the cat flap into the garden to toilet? These are all signs of joint pain and shouldn’t be ignored.
  • There are many options for treating painful joints, from liquids and tablets to acupuncture and heated beds to environmental modifications that make it easier for your older cat to live their life without stressing their ageing joints so if you think your cat may be in pain, please speak with your vet.
  • For additional help on deciding whether or not your cat may be in pain, take a look at our article on Pain Recognition.

Give them a litter tray

  • Although all cats should have access to a litter tray indoors, it is becomes even more important the older they get. Better yet, put one on each floor of the house. Would you send your elderly grandmother out an awkward, elevated, spring-loaded door (to hit them on the backside as they try to exit) in the middle of the night to use a toilet at the back of the garden?
  • Large trays with high sides will help avoid accidents but make sure there is a low area for them to enter without having to jump in which can be difficult on painful joints. Large plastic storage boxes with doors cut into them are a great DIY option or there are many different types available for purchase online.

Pay close attention to their fluid intake

  • Maintaining hydration is more important at this stage, so take extra care to ensure plenty of fresh water bowls throughout the house. Offer several different options, such as pint glasses, ceramic bowls or water fountains, and place them strategically throughout the house, near sleeping areas and away from food if possible. Make sure water dishes are filled to the brim as cats hate getting their whiskers wet! Raising food and water bowls off the floor by a few inches can ease the strain on a sore back and neck. Continue to add extra water to the wet food too.
  • It’s very important that you let your vet know if your cat starts to drink or urinate more than they used to as this can be a sign of any number of underlying metabolic diseases such as kidney disease, hyperthyroidism or diabetes. Despite drinking more, these cats are usually dehydrated as they can never take in as much water as they need.
  • Dehydrated cats have a tendency to become constipated, which you may notice as smaller, drier stools, not going as often, or increased straining whilst defecating. Constipation can cause significant discomfort and distress, even if your cat just seems to get on with it. Encourage your older cat to drink as much as possible and if needed, speak with your vet about adding a bit of constipation medication to your cat’s food as this is usually well-tolerated and can make them much more comfortable.

Keep them active, both mentally and physically

  • Even senior cats often like to play, but you may need to adapt the style of play to their ageing bodies so use your feather wand toy on the ground rather than up in the air, etc. Catnip is a great way to get even the most sedentary cat into a more active mood. Puzzle feeders are not only a good way to keep your cat active and slow down their meals but they’re good fun too.

Keep an eye on their ability to groom themselves

  • As cats age, they can lose flexibility and may prefer to spend their days sleeping rather than grooming. If you start to see mats or dandruff in the fur of a cat who used to be a fastidious groomer, ask your vet to assess them for signs of dental or joint pain. Once this is treated effectively they should be better able to maintain their coats but you can help them by regularly brushing them and combing out any small mats or hair clumps that do occur.
  • Decreased grooming often also means that senior cats have trouble caring for their nails. Claws can become thicker as they fail to shed, and can grow so long that they curl around and grow into the pads, a very painful condition that can mimic signs of arthritis. Your cat won’t tell you that their nails are too long so it’s important to check them regularly and give them a clip every 3-6 months. If you are unsure of how to do this yourself, ask your vet nurse for a demonstration or arrange for them to be clipped by the vet or groomer regularly.

Feed a high quality, varied diet

  • Remember that cats, even senior cats, are strict carnivores – they are built to eat other animals or in other words, meat. Although most cats can tolerate grains and starchy foods to some extent, some cannot. Unless your vet has specifically recommended a particular diet for medical reasons, you are generally safe to feed your cat the highest meat content food you can afford and avoid foods with a lot of grains (carbs) or fillers (NOTE – ‘grain-free’ does not necessarily mean high in meat so check the ingredients list carefully).
  • The one exception to this may be cats with kidney disease, although this is currently up for debate. Many vets recommend special ‘renal’ or kidney diets for cats with kidney disease and there is nothing wrong with this, especially for cats already on a standard higher carb diet, because they are clinically proven to help cats with the condition. For cats eating a high quality, low carb diet already however, it may make more sense to use readily available and palatable phosphate binders and omega-3 fatty acid supplements instead. There is no right or wrong answer here, not even the nutritionists agree, just make an informed decision and at the end of the day, go with the food your cat chooses to eat because it is far better for them to eat the ‘wrong’ food than not eat the ‘right’ food!
  • Similarly, some food brands offer a ‘senior’ variety, for cats over 7 years old. While these may be appropriate for an overweight, inactive mature cat, they are not necessarily the right choice for an active cat or one who may be losing weight as they age. If the foods you feed your cat come in a senior variety then feel free to use them but don’t feel like you have to switch to a lower quality food just because it says ‘senior’ on the label. Many of the higher quality foods don’t need a senior version because their diets are more nutritious anyway and therefore suitable for all life stages.
  • In general, wet foods are closer to the natural diet of a cat than dry foods and also help prevent dehydration so they are usually a better choice for the majority of your cat’s diet. This is particularly important for senior cats so back off on the biscuits if possible.
  • Even if they start to become fussy with their foods, make sure the majority of the food you feed your cat says it is ‘complete and balanced’, as feeding too many ‘complementary’ foods can result in dietary imbalances. Do your best to provide a high quality, balanced diet but for particularly fussy eaters, the best food for your senior cat is probably the one they will eat that day.

Actively monitor for signs of illness, including those that you may not be able to see

  • The older your cat gets, the more likely they are to develop long-term or chronic illnesses. Slight changes such as increased thirst, weight loss, decreased activity level, no longer spending much time upstairs or changes in appetite might not seem like much at first but are actually the first signs of illness. If you notice anything unusual about your cat’s behaviour, it’s worth bringing it to the attention of your vet.
  • Even if your cat seems perfectly happy at home, regular blood, urine and blood pressure checks are highly recommended because cats are masters at hiding their illnesses. Screening tests are important because the earlier these conditions are caught, the easier they are to treat and the less of an impact they will have on your cat’s quality of life. No cat deserves to suffer in silence and even the grumpiest old cat can provide a urine sample at home or even a blood sample with a touch of light sedation so don’t give up, ask your vet about the most appropriate monitoring schedule for your cat.
  • Just like in people, high blood pressure (hypertension) can be a silent killer in older cats. Not only can it give them a whopping headache, making them more vocal, more irritable and less likely to interact with their family or environment, but it can have serious effects on the heart, kidneys and other organs including the eyes, where it can cause blindness. High blood pressure can be caused by kidney disease, and can be related to hyperthyroidism and other diseases as well as being a medical condition in its own right. The older your cat is, the more likely they are to have high blood pressure and chances are you won’t be aware that your cat has hypertension until things go horribly wrong so it is important to have it checked regularly.

Good To Know

One of the most common misconceptions amongst cat owners is that it is normal for cats to lose weight as they get older. Although weight loss in senior cats is common, it is NOT normal and can be due to any number of conditions including chronic kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, cancer or arthritis. If your senior cat is losing weight, please bring this to the attention of your vet so the necessary diagnostic tests can be run. The sooner these conditions are diagnosed and treated, the more comfortable your cat will be.

Another common myth about senior cats is that it is normal to ‘slow down’ or be ‘a bit stiff’ or sore. Pain is never normal and treatment is often easier and safer than you may think. Some vets don’t realise this and may say there is nothing you can do about it – if this is the answer you are given, use the iCatCare website to find a more feline-friendly vet near you.

Senior cats may groom themselves a bit less than they used to, resulting in a slightly dull appearance or the development of small mats of fur as the loose hairs aren’t removed as effectively as before. Mild changes may be normal and you can help them maintain their coats with regular brushing and adding a high quality essential fatty acid supplement to their food. Significant matting along their back, however, may indicate dental or back pain and a flaky coat could mean that their diet is inadequate so if your cat experiences more than mild changes in the quality of their coat, ask your vet for advice.

If they become unaware that their food is being served or startle easily when approached, their hearing may not be as good as it used to be. Poor vision may result in decreased activity at night or hesitation when entering a room. Cognitive dysfunction, or feline dementia, can result in odd behavioural changes such as staring at walls and forgetting that you already gave them dinner. Urinary tract infections can mimic dementia and also cause inappropriate urination in the house. These changes are not normal so if you have any concerns about your cat’s behaviour, speak with your vet.

Senior cats may, for one reason or another, become more fussy with their food. Perhaps they feel unwell, or their senses of taste or smell are not as good as they used to be. They may happily eat one type of food one day, then turn their nose up at it the next. Don’t get angry or give up, simply put the rest of that variety in the cupboard and try again in a few weeks, chances are they’ll try it again later. Although it is normal for cats to prefer a varied diet, a change in your cat’s eating habits, particularly a decrease or increase in the amount of food that they eat in a day, may indicate a health problem so it’s worth bringing this to the attention of your vet.

Hard, dry stools are NOT normal and should be brought to the attention of your vet as this is often a sign of other health problems.

Although slight changes in vision (especially at night) can be normal for senior cats thanks to age-related clouding of the lenses, poor vision or blindness is not normal and in fact may be a sign that your cat has severe hypertension. Until about 10 years ago it was uncommon to regularly check older cats for high blood pressure so if you previously had an elderly cat go blind, there is a good chance that this was the cause.

Howling loudly at night is a common concern with older cats but again, this does not mean that it is normal. Crying out at night can be a sign of high blood pressure, deafness, hyperthyroidism, pain or cognitive dysfunction amongst other things so if your cat becomes more vocal as they age, have them checked by your vet.

This guide is based on the AAFP-AAHA Feline Life Stage Guidelines publication, as well as recommendations made by the ISFM CatCareforLife and iCatCare websites – please visit these highly informative websites for additional information.