Senior Cat Care

There isn’t one specific age that classifies a cat as a senior. Like people, some cats age faster than others. Generally speaking, however, older cats can be placed into one of three groups:

  • Mature or middle-aged: 7–10 years (44-56 years for humans)

  • Senior: 11–14 years (60-72 years for humans)

  • Geriatric: 15+ years (76+ years for humans)

You can increase your cat’s chances of living into his teens or early twenties by providing good care at home and regular veterinary care. As your cat ages, be prepared to see physical changes. It’s important to discuss these changes with your veterinarian to determine what is “normal” aging and what may be a sign of illness. With regular check-ups, illnesses can be diagnosed early and age-related health conditions can be delayed or managed.

 

Veterinary Checkups

It's very important to develop a close relationship with your cat’s veterinarian while he is still healthy. Your veterinarian can get to know your cat and detect subtle changes that may indicate a health condition or disease. As they get older or once they've gotten diagnosed with a disease or condition, your cat should visit their veterinarian more often, usually about every 6 months, even if your cat appears healthy. Please remember 6 months in cat years is roughly equivalent to 2 years for a person and a lot can change in that time.

Medical History

As your cat ages, be prepared to see physical changes. It’s important to discuss these changes with your veterinarian to determine what is “normal” aging and what may be a sign of illness. With regular check-ups, illnesses can be diagnosed early and age-related health conditions can be delayed or managed. Be prepared for your veterinarian to ask you specifically about changes in appetite, hydration, vomiting, diarrhea, vocalization, nighttime activity, mobility, vision, litter box habits, and grooming habits.

Some common aging changes include:

  • Changes in vision

  • Appearance of brown spots in the iris

  • Decreased sense of smell

  • Brittle or fragile nails

  • Decreased lung reserve

  • Heart or circulatory problems

  • Decreased digestion and ability to absorb nutrients

  • Loose, less-elastic skin

  • Reduced ability to handle stress

  • Changes in behavior

We all want to grow old with grace and dignity, and we want the same for our pets. Fortunately, expert understanding of cat health and advances in veterinary medicine means cats can live longer, better lives than ever before. As your cat’s caregiver, there’s much you can do to keep your cat healthy and happy.

 

Extra Focus During Checkups

With age comes more wear and tear on the body. Just like in humans, bloodwork and laboratory testing are recommended more frequently to screen for the onset of diseases and conditions that come often come with age. The earlier these issues are caught, the more likely they can be treated or at least slow down the progression with medication or other treatment.

During the examination, your veterinarian will be have increased focus on the abdomen, heart, lungs, thyroid, kidneys, eyes, and teeth. They will also assess the muscle and bones by performing a thorough pain and arthritis assessment which may include taking radiographs of suspect areas.

 
 

Vaccines and Laboratory Testing

The vaccines an older cat receives will be the veterinarian's discretion. Generally, the cat's age, chronic conditions, past vaccination history, and lifestyle are all taken into consideration. In an effort to prevent over-vaccination, there are 3-year options with some vaccines as well as titer-testing upon request. We do use the more cat-friendly PureVax vaccines that do not use adjuvants. An adjuvant is a substance that is added to a vaccine to enhance the body's immune response to the vaccine. Adjuvants have been associated with injection site reaction, injection site granuloma, and chronic inflammation in cats.

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What bloodwork and at what frequency a veterinarian recommends lab work for your cat will vary on a number of different factors. How old are they? Have they had irregular bloodwork in the past? Are they currently experiencing any issues? Are they on medication for any chronic conditions? Even if your pet's examination shows no obvious signs of disease or illness, it's important to keep tabs on how their organs are functioning. Bloodwork and urinalyses are tests that help your veterinarian diagnose or monitor common conditions like kidney disease/failure, thryoid disease, liver disease/failure, and diabetes.

Nutrition and Weight Management

Is your cat overweight? Do you know what a healthy body weight is for your cat?

The images of fat cats made popular in comic strips and internet memes have changed people’s ideas of a cat’s ideal or normal body weight. It’s quite possible your feline friend is carrying around a little (or a lot) of extra weight. Your veterinarian can help you figure out a healthy weight for your cat.

 

Did you know when cats are at ideal body weight, on average, they live longer lives? Not only that, but they tend to feel better too! Obesity in cats has been linked to many health concerns such as diabetes, liver disease, and heart disease, to name just a few.


Fat cells can release pro-inflammatory mediators into the bloodstream which predisposes cats to inflammation. This can increase many conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and asthma – two very common cat diseases.
As cats age, arthritis or degenerative joint disease (DJD), often becomes an issue. Cats tend to develop arthritis in the joints of their limbs and spine, which is made worse by extra weight on these joints.

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Obesity-Related Health Concerns
Diagnosis and Treatment of Obesity

If you are concerned about your cat’s weight, now is the time to take action. Start your cat on its way to a healthier and happier life.
Involve your veterinarian to make sure your cat loses weight in a safe and healthy manner. Together you can design a program with weight loss goals, make sure the weight is coming off at an appropriate rate, and ensure all of your kitty’s nutritional requirements are being met.

Diet

During your veterinary visit, discuss the type and amount of food your cat is eating.
Remember to share all the treats your cat receives, and yes, that includes any scraps of human food, too! There are many different types of foods that can create a healthier diet for your cat, including special prescription diets. You and your veterinarian figure out which works best for you both.


In multiple cat households, often one cat steals food from the other cats. This makes it difficult for you to regulate what your cat eats. Different strategies can be used such as controlled meal feeding in separate areas or putting food where only one cat can access it. There are even devices you can buy that only allow a specified cat to access the food based on an I.D. collar or microchip! Discuss the specifics of your situation during your veterinary visit to come up with creative solutions for your home.

Body and Muscle Condition Score
Treats & Rewards

It can be hard not to treat your feline friend with lots of food and treats. However, food is only one of the ways that you can spoil them.
You can reward your cat with catnip, play, or just plain-old loving attention.
Puzzle feeders can also be a great way to slow down eating and provide activity and stimulation.

Exercise

Just as with people, daily activity is an important part of your cats’ weight loss plan.
Indoor cats are particularly prone to inactivity. With a small amount of effort on your part, your cat can start to get more exercise which comes with the added bonus of being more mentally stimulated as well!
Read the AAFP’s “Your Cat’s Environmental Needs” brochure for cat caregivers, to learn how to set up an engaging environment for your cat to meet their physical and emotional needs.

How to Feed Your Cat
 

Diseases and Conditions

Here are a few signs and symptoms that indicate a number of different possible diseases or medical conditions and indicate that you need to take your cat to the veterinarian as soon as possible:

  • Blood in your cat’s urine

  • Coughing

  • Diarrhea

  • Fever

  • Hiding or being more antisocial

  • Not using the litter box

  • Increase or decrease in appetite

  • Increase or decrease in urination

  • Increased thirst or drinking

  • Increase or decrease in weight

  • Increased vocalization

  • Lethargy

  • Over-grooming

  • Poor coat condition

  • Vomiting

The following illnesses/conditions are not strictly age-related and are not certainly all-inclusive of the diseases that affect our feline friends. They are, however, fairly common among cats and early detection is key in managing them. Click the associated PDF to learn more about each disease and what you should look out for.

Degenerative Joint Disease (Arthritis)
Diabetes
Hyperthyroidism
Hypertension
Chronic Kidney Disease

Litter Box

Slowing down is often a sign your cat is experiencing underlying discomfort or pain. Arthritis (Degenerative Joint Disease) is present in most older cats. Appropriate treatment can help him remain active and engaged. If your cat has difficulty going up or down steps, does not jump like he used to, or isn’t using the litter box, talk with your veterinarian.

 
Look When You Scoop

Are your cat’s stools softer, harder, or changing color? Is he defecating daily? Constipation is a common, yet under-recognized, sign of dehydration in older cats. If attended to early, your veterinarian can help your kitty to feel comfortable again.
Has the amount of urine in the litter box changed? Increased urine output can signal some of the most common illnesses in elderly cats – from diabetes or an overactive thyroid gland to kidney disease and high blood pressure.

Take a “Cat’s Eye View” of the Litter Box.

If your cat starts to miss the litter box and or have “accidents” around your house, there may be a medical issue causing him to house-soil. Urinary infections, constipation, arthritis, and muscle weakness are just a few of the reasons an older cat can develop litter box issues.


Your veterinarian can look into medical issues and help you with home or environmental concerns that may be causing the changes in your cat’s behavior.

  • Is the litter box easy for your elderly cat to get in and out (i.e., there isn’t a high step into the box)?

  • Does the location make it easy for your cat to access so he doesn’t have to go up or down the stairs?

  • Is the litter box in a quiet area that is protected from other pets that may startle or frighten your older cat?

  • Are you scooping and cleaning the litter box often enough to keep up with that increased urine output?

  • Is the litter gentle on your senior cat’s paws?

 

Oral Health

Oral Health

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Kittens have 26 teeth, while adult cats have 30. That equals a lot of dental care! Periodontal disease is considered the most common disease in cats three years of age and older. Often there aren’t any obvious signs of dental disease. Most cats with dental disease still eat without a noticeable change in appetite. Discuss your cat’s teeth at their annual check-up.

Why Is Dental Care Important For My Cat?

Maybe you’ve never really thought about it before, but proper dental care is just as important for your cat’s health as your dental care is to your overall health.

 

Must-Know Information:

  • Plaque is a biofilm or mass of bacteria that is constantly piling up on your cat’s teeth. Over time, the plaque hardens and becomes tartar or calculus, which is a hard, brown material on the tooth’s surface.

  • Tartar and plaque contain bacteria. The bacteria invade the space under the gum line and cause destruction of the tissues that support the tooth. This can lead to periodontal disease, inflammation, or swelling of the tissues surrounding and supporting the teeth.

  • It is estimated that periodontal disease affects at least 70% of cats over 3 years of age. As periodontal disease progresses, it can result in bone loss and teeth that are mobile, both of which are painful.

  • Periodontal disease causes pain and is permanent once established, but it is preventable!

What Should I Do For My Cat’s Oral Health?
  • We recommend a home-care routine combined with regular dental examinations, cleanings, and procedures with your veterinarian. You can make a significant difference in your cat’s overall health and comfort with a home-care routine. The more you do at home, the less your veterinarian will need to do.

  • Brush your cat’s teeth

  • Tooth brushing is the single most effective way to decrease plaque and tartar.

  • We brush our own teeth on a regular basis to keep them healthy. Regular brushing also improves the health of your cat’s teeth.

  • Introduce a tooth brushing routine slowly. Use lots of patience, positive reinforcement, praise, and treats as needed.

  • Use a toothbrush that is comfortable for the small areas of your cat’s mouth and be sure to use toothpaste specifically for cats.

  • When you brush your cat’s teeth, you may catch the early signs of oral problems. You may also notice fractured teeth or teeth with tooth resorption, a painful dental disease that results in the loss of the tooth structure.

 

Cause for Concern

If your cat seems to have painful teeth, tartar, gingivitis (red gums), or if you notice a foul odor coming from your cat’s mouth, call your veterinarian. This indicates that your cat’s teeth should be professionally cleaned before you begin at home-care routine. Discuss your cat’s teeth and oral health care with your veterinarian at every visit. For more information on oral health, visit our dentistry page!

Steps to Brushing Cat Teeth
What Happens If My Cat Needs a Dentistry Procedure?

For a complete oral and radiographic evaluation (x-ray), general anesthesia is required. During the procedure, your veterinarian will:

  • Clean and polish his teeth.

  • Examine each of his 30 teeth as well as examine his gums, the roof of his mouth, the inside of his cheeks, and the back of his throat. (All findings are recorded in a dental chart.)

  • Look for gum recession, bone loss, areas of periodontal disease, tooth resorption, and oral masses.

  • Take x-rays (radiographs) of each of his teeth.

    • Dental x-rays allow your veterinarian to see the roots and surrounding bone of your cat’s teeth.

    • Over half of your cat’s tooth structure is beneath the gum line and can only be evaluated with x-rays.

  • Determine appropriate treatment for each tooth by combining the findings of the visual examination with the dental x-rays.

  • If oral surgery is required, your veterinarian may remove any painful, diseased teeth so your cat can be comfortable and not in pain.

 

Quality of Life/End-of-Life Care

As a cat caregiver, you want to provide the best quality of life for your cat and this includes end-of-life care. While it can be uncomfortable to think about, end-of-life care is just as important as regular checkups and having a Cat-Friendly home.

Discuss how to judge your cat’s quality of life (QOL) with your veterinarian so they can help you plan as needed. Analyzing your cat’s quality of life can include a series of questions that help you figure out if your cat is healthy, comfortable, or in pain, and able to participate in or enjoy life events.

Cats and Pain

As your cat ages, she will likely begin to have some pain due to natural body changes, possibly from getting older, disease, or illness. It can be difficult to tell when your cat is in pain because they naturally hide signs of weakness. Your veterinarian is trained to notice these subtle signs, so it is important to bring your cat in for regular checkups. During the checkups, talk with your veterinarian and to help determine your cat’s quality of life.

Quality of life is a way to think about or determine if your cat is living a happy and healthy life. This can be difficult to determine, so veterinarians have created a series of open-ended questions for you to think about and answer based on your cat’s behavior. In order to answer the questions, it is helpful to know your cat’s normal behaviors. It is recommended to keep a journal or record of your cat’s normal behavior. Begin tracking your cat’s behaviors when you first bring them home and update it throughout their life.

You can write this information down in a notebook or even a calendar. This can help you notice small changes that occur over time, which you can discuss with your veterinarian. Make sure to write down unusual behaviors, concerns, or questions you have for your veterinarian.

Here are some open-ended questions to explore with your veterinarian when thinking about your cat’s quality of life:

Quality of Life (QOL)
Topic and Questions to Explore

​Hurt

  • How can the pain be reduced or controlled?

  • What can we do to improve comfort?

Hunger

  • How can we improve appetite?

Hydration

  • How can we improve drinking/hydration?

Hygiene

  • How can we improve hygiene?

Happiness

  • What are your cat’s enjoyable activities?

  • Which people are deeply connected?

Mobility

  • How can we improve comfort?

More Good Days Than Bad Days

  • Good Day = normal activities and daily life.
    Bad Day = nausea, difficulty breathing, pain, discomfort, etc.

Adapted from “Shearer TS, ed. Palliative Medicine and Hospice Care, Veterinary Clinics of North America Small Animal Practice. 2011; 41(3):477-702″

Calendar

Here is a 12-month calendar to help you track your cat’s behavior. You can write down “good,” “bad,” or “average” each day in order to figure out your cat’s quality of life and provide helpful information in making future decisions.

Your cat may act differently at the veterinary practice because it is an unfamiliar place. You can also make a video of your cat at home and record activities, such as jumping or eating.

Making Hard Decisions and Creating an End of Life Plan

Saying goodbye to your cat is extremely hard, and creating an end-of-life plan may be even harder. However, taking these steps will help to provide a smooth transition for everyone including your cat. When creating a plan, it important to involve your veterinarian in all parts.

  • Consider end-of-life planning and decision-making before your cat’s health begins to decline.

  • Keep up-to-date records of your cat’s health, including test results from her checkups.

  • Prepare a backup plan for holidays or when your veterinarian’s office is closed; check with local veterinary practices and animal hospitals for emergency services and protocols.

  • Speak with your veterinarian about the euthanasia process. There are several euthanasia methods that may be used, and it may help to understand and anticipate the unique steps involved in each.

The decision to euthanize will be very uncomfortable, unpleasant, and emotionally taxing. Pre-planning and preparation can make this decision a little easier. Remember to talk with your veterinarian and ask any questions you have about your cat’s quality of life and end-of-life care.

Frequently Asked Questions

“I don’t know if it is time to euthanize my cat.”

  • Making the decision to euthanize your cat is not simple, but you don’t have to make this decision alone. Talk with your veterinarian and go through the questions in the table above to figure out your cat’s quality of life. You want to think about what makes your cat “unique” and whether they are still acting like their normal self.

  • Please know it is natural to feel guilt when considering whether or not it is time to euthanize your cat. You want to make sure they are not in pain or suffering unnecessarily by delaying this decision. Having a compassionate discussion with your veterinarian and coming together with a decision that removes regret will help.

“Should children/family be present at euthanasia?”

  • It is important for everyone in the family to say goodbye and have closure, including children. Attending the euthanasia lets children be involved in the decision and can offer them valuable lessons about compassion, commitment, and responsibility. Be honest with your child(ren) about how sick their cat is so they understand why their cat is being euthanized. Parents or guardians should make the decision whether they should be present at the euthanasia.

  • It is extremely important to prepare everyone in the family ahead of time on what to expect if they are going to be present. For children, avoid using phrases such as “putting their cat to sleep” to help minimize anxiety and stress about bedtime, especially in younger children. Showing sadness and grief in front of children also teaches them that it is okay to cry. Encourage the sharing of positive, happy memories about their cat.

“Should my other pets be present at euthanasia?”

  • Bringing additional cats to the euthanasia appointment may depend on the nature of their relationship and your veterinarian’s recommendations. A study by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals showed that many cats had a decreased appetite, prolonged periods of sleep, and increased meowing after the death of a companion.

  • Allowing housemates to see and smell the cat may be beneficial in helping them with closure. It is also important to understand that each animal is different in how they view a housemate that has passed. Some cats may hiss at the deceased pet, act indifferent, or they may sulk for days. Surviving animals may not show the same level of grief that you are exhibiting, and that is okay.