Thanks to advances in veterinary medicine and pet care, our feline friends are living longer than ever before, with an average lifespan of 12 years (1).
Many things can significantly impact a cat’s longevity, ranging from feeding high-quality diets to spay and neuter procedures. In fact, Banfield’s State of Pet Health reported that spayed female cats live 39 percent longer than unspayed females and neutered males live a whopping 62 percent longer than unneutered males.
As cats live longer, pet parents need to adjust care routines to support a senior lifestyle. But how do you know that your cat is aging and approaching her golden years? Let’s look at defining senior age in cats and some subtle signs that your cat is getting older.
What is a Senior Age for Cats?
Cats are generally considered seniors at around 8 to 10 years of age. This can vary depending on a variety of factors including individual genetics, the presence or chronic diseases and the level of veterinary care the cat has received during her lifetime.
There are many 10-year-old cats that still act kitten-like without noticeable aging changes.
Signs of Aging in Cats
As pet parents, we spend every day with our feline friends, so the signs of aging in cats may be subtle or difficult to recognize. But these ten signs may signal that your cat is approaching the senior life stage and could indicate that it’s time to reevaluate how you care for her.
Many people attribute their cat’s slowing down to a normal part of the aging process. But a significant slow down is not normal and is often a sign of a painful condition. It is estimated that 90 percent of cats over the age of 12 have osteoarthritis (2), a chronic progressive degeneration of the cartilage and other components that make up joints. The joints most commonly affected are the hips, elbows, ankles and knees.
Since cats cannot tell us when they are in pain, it is important to watch out for the subtle signs of arthritis. If you notice that your cat is reluctant to go up or down the stairs or if your cat has to take breaks when using stairs, this is a good indicator of arthritis. Other symptoms of arthritis include difficulty jumping onto or off of furniture, difficulty chasing toys, or overall decreases in activity.
If you notice any of these symptoms, you should take your cat to a veterinarian. Your veterinarian may recommend taking X-rays to help confirm the diagnosis of arthritis. Treatment options for arthritis in cats includes weight loss (if your cat is overweight), nutritional supplements, prescription diets, and prescription medications.
If your cat appears thinner or bonier than usual, it may be due to weight loss. As cats age, they may lose muscle mass due to arthritis. Chronic kidney disease and hyperthyroidism are other conditions commonly diagnosed in senior cats which often lead to weight loss. If you notice that your cat is losing weight, a veterinary visit for an examination and blood and urine testing is needed to determine the cause.
Dental disease is the most commonly diagnosed disease among cats of all ages, affecting at least 70 percent of cats aged 3 or older, according to the American Veterinary Dental Society. If careful at home and professional dental care is not performed from an early age, many cats will have severe dental disease by the time they reach senior age.
Signs of dental disease include bad breath, red gums, tartar build up, and tooth loss. Most cat parents will not notice a change in eating habits until very severe dental disease is present. Having your cat examined at least annually by a veterinarian and performing daily home dental care will help to prevent dental disease and treat it before it becomes very painful.
Changes in Temperament
If your cat is acting grumpier than usual your cat may be getting older. Hyperthyroidism, a condition caused by an overactive thyroid gland, is a common disease seen in older cats. This condition can cause previously docile cats to become aggressive or agitated. A blood test is needed to diagnose hyperthyroidism. Medication is available to treat the disease.
Increased Vocalization and Disorientation
Other behaviors to watch out for as cats get old are increased vocalization (meowing), especially at night time, and acting confused or disoriented. In geriatric cats these are common signs of cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS), a condition similar to dementia in humans.
While there is not yet a specific treatment for CDS in pets, certain diets, supplements, and prescription medications may help to reduce the symptoms. Ask your veterinarian for recommendations.
Pet parents often notice that their cat’s eyes start looking hazy or cloudy with age. Most of the time this is not due to cataracts but due a condition called lenticular sclerosis. Lenticular sclerosis, unlike cataracts, does not significantly impair a cat’s vision. Almost all cats will have visible signs of lenticular sclerosis by 9 years of age and it often becomes more and more noticeable as the years go on. An eye examination is needed to distinguish between cataracts, a condition which may require medications or surgery, and lenticular sclerosis.
Partial or complete vision loss may occur in elderly cats and may be a sign of serious disease. If you notice your cat suddenly starts to bump into objects, has dilated pupils, or has difficulty making her way around the house, take your cat to a veterinary clinic immediately.
Sudden blindness may be a result of retinal detachment caused by hypertension (high blood pressure) and prompt treatment is necessary to improve the chances that vision will return. Hypertension may occur by itself or may be seen with hyperthyroidism or chronic kidney disease so laboratory testing is essential.
Are you filling up your cat’s water bowl more frequently? Is she begging to drink from the sink or are you catching her drinking out of the toilet? If so, your cat may be getting older and developing a chronic disease.
Diabetes will cause increased thirst but is more commonly diagnosed in middle-aged cats. Two common diseases diagnosed in senior cats which cause increased thirst are hyperthyroidism and chronic kidney disease. These diseases are diagnosed using blood and urine tests and, if caught early, can be successfully managed for years.
Frequent Urination or House Soiling
If you are seeing your cat urinating more often or urinating outside of her litterbox, she may be getting old. Increased urination is common in old cats with chronic kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, and urinary tract infections, among other issues. It is important to let your veterinarian know about these issues so that a proper diagnosis can be made and treatment can be started as soon as possible.
Changes In Appetite
Any changes in appetite could mean that your cat is getting older. An increase in hunger together with weight loss is a common symptom of hyperthyroidism or cancer. In an overweight cat, these symptoms would be concerning for diabetes.
A decrease in appetite is commonly seen in chronic kidney disease. Decreased food intake may also be present in cats with dental disease or cancer. Appetite changes should always be taken seriously and are cause for a visit to your veterinary clinic.
How to Care for Cats as They Age
The single most important thing you can do to improve your senior cat’s health and quality of life is to take him to a veterinarian for regular check ups and routine lab work. It is best for senior cats to be examined every 6 months, as this will ensure that any issues that may not be apparent to cat parents are caught and addressed early.
Your veterinarian can make recommendations on a senior-specific diet, supplements, or pain medications which can significantly improve your cat’s vitality and longevity.
Additionally, you can consider making modifications to your home to help your aging cat feel more comfortable. Consider a litter box with low sides that make getting in and out easier. Try pet ramps to help your cat climb up stairs or furniture easier or pick her up and carry her up stairs if she’s comfortable being held.
And to keep your cat’s mind sharp as she ages, make sure to block out plenty of time for interactive play and food puzzles.