Thanks to advancements in veterinary care, pet nutrition and accessibility to information for pet owners, senior cats are living longer than ever. Our Santa Cruz County vets talk about how to care for your senior cat.
How old is my cat in human years?
Like humans, each cat experiences aging differently. Many cats start exhibiting age-related physical changes between 7-10 years, and most have by about 12 years old. The common understanding that one "cat year" is equivalent to 7 "human years" isn't quite accurate; instead, the accepted wisdom is that the first year of a cat is similar to the growth of a 16-year-old human, and a cat at 2 years old is more similar to a human between 21-24 years old. After that, each year for a cat is equal to roughly four human years (e.g. a 10-year-old cat = 53-year-old human; a 12-year-old cat = 61-year-old human; a 15-year-old cat = 73-year-old human, etc).
Cats are considered to be "senior" once they are about 11 years old, and "super-senior" when they reach over 15 years of age. When caring for older cats it sometimes helps to think of their age in human terms.
What happens as my cat ages?
Just as their owners do, cats experience many physical and behavioral changes as they age. While aging itself is not a disease, keeping your vet updated on changes in your senior cat is an imperative part of their overall wellness care. Some changes to keep an eye out for include:
- Grooming & appearance. Matted or oily fur is caused by less effective grooming by aging cat, which can result in painful hair matting, skin odor, and inflammation. Senior cats' claws are often overgrown, thick, and brittle, requiring more attention from their caretakers. Aging cats commonly have a slightly hazy lens and 'lacy' appearance to the colorful part of the eye (iris), but there is little evidence that this significantly affects their sight. There are, however, several diseases, especially those associated with high blood pressure, that can seriously and irreversibly impair a cat's ability to see. Unintentional weight loss or weight gain: In an older cat, weight loss can be a sign of any number of problems, from heart and kidney disease to diabetes. Dental disease is extremely common in older cats and can hinder eating, causing weight loss and malnutrition in addition to causing them significant pain.
- Physical activity & abilities. Older cats often experience degenerative joint disease, or arthritis, which makes it difficult to gain access to litter boxes, food and water bowls, and beds. This is especially true if they have to jump or climb stairs. Changes in sleep are a normal part of aging, but a significant increase in sleep or depth of sleep could be cause to contact your vet. Aging cats that suddenly have an increase in energy may have signs of hyperthyroidism and should be seen by a vet. Inappropriate weight loss/gain can be a sign of issues ranging from heart and kidney disease to diabetes. Hearing loss is common in geriatric cats for a number of reasons and should be monitored by your veterinarian.
- Cognitive issues. If you notice that your cat has started being confused by tasks or objects that are part of their daily routine, this may be a sign of issues with memory or cognition. Behavioral changes such as litterbox accidents or avoidance, new or increased human avoidance, wandering, excessive meowing, and seeming disorientated, are also potential signs of mental confusion or feline senility and should be examined by your vet.
- Issues caused by disease. A cat may become aggressive due to pain from health issues like dental disease or arthritis, so keeping an eye on your cat's mood is important because cats tend to hide discomfort. Diseases and disorders affecting urination (e.g. diabetes, kidney failure) can cause an increase in litterbox usage, which may lead to cats eliminating in inappropriate areas. Cats that are experiencing mobility problems due to joint inflammation may have challenges accessing or even climbing into their litterbox, especially if stairs are involved. This may also lead to your senior cat eliminating in inappropriate places and should be addressed by a vet.
How can I help keep my senior cat healthy?
Your own observations are some of the most important tools available to help keep your senior cat happy and healthy. Incorporating simple changes to your grooming, feeding and general interactions with your cat can be a low-pressure way to watch for any changes in your aging pet.
- Grooming: Brushing your cat's fur, trimming their claws, and brushing their teeth are great ways to keep older cats clean and healthy, while also checking for changes in their fur, skin, nose, eyes, ears, and claws.
- Nutrition: A lot of cats get heavy or even obese as they get older, which can be controlled with diet and activity if the weight gain is non-medical in nature. Other weight issues include elderly cats being underweight, which may be caused by a variety of medical conditions and should be assessed by a veterinarian.
- Homelife: Older cats can be more sensitive to changes in routine or household, which can lead to stress. Patience and accommodations (extra affection, a favorite toy or blanket, a quiet room for them to stay in) go a long way to helping your senior cat adjust to upsetting changes. Don't forget to keep playing with your cat as they age; mental and physical stimulation is beneficial for their well-being.
- Vet care: Because cats are adept at hiding illness until it is advanced or severe, it's important to take them regularly to the vet for wellness checks even if they seem perfectly healthy. Your veterinarian will also be able to monitor any conditions that your senior cat may have, and catch any potential or emerging issues early when they're more treatable. their behavior and health.
How can a veterinarian help?
Your knowledge of your cat and your observations are an important resource for your vet, as are regular wellness examinations. Depending on your cat's needs (e.g. if they have a medical condition), your vet may suggest increasing the frequency of physical evaluations. A wellness examination of a senior cat includes the vet checking the cat's weight, skin & fur condition, organ systems, behavior, and running diagnostic tests for certain conditions that are common in older felines. The combination of homecare and cooperative veterinary care is a great way to help ensure your senior cat has a healthier, happier life with you and your family.