Written by Dr. Leslie Brooks, DVM
These days, our cats are living longer, healthier, happier lives than in the past. With the advancement of pet healthcare and cats living with us as family members, many of our cats can live into ripe old age. Some senior cat care tips below.
While this is wonderful for the human-animal bond, it also means we need to be aware of normal aging changes and actions we can take as cat parents to make life a little more comfortable for our senior cats.
When is a Cat Considered a Senior?
Veterinary Senior Cat Care
Also, senior cats are prone to developing health conditions, such as arthritis, that need to be managed and monitored to make sure they are receiving the proper pain control and accommodations to keep them comfortable.
Health Conditions Associated with Senior Cats
While age is not a disease, there are certain health conditions that are more common in senior cat care than in younger cat care. Many of these are chronic conditions that should not be ignored just because a cat is older.
There are many safe medications and alternative therapies available these days for a variety of conditions that afflict senior cats. This is wonderful news, because it means we can also keep our kitties comfortable and living a good quality of life well into their older years.
Here are a few of the health conditions that are common in old age:
Arthritis in Senior Cats
Just like people, cats develop arthritis as they get older. Cats are better at hiding their pain, though, so it can sometimes be hard to recognize.
Watch out for the following signs:
- matted fur on their back,
- decreased ability to groom their entire bodies,
- pain when touched along the spine,
- urinating or defecating outside of the litter box,
- difficulty standing up or sitting down,
- being slow to rise in the morning,
- hesitation going up or down stairs,
- having decreased energy,
- Or all of a sudden being sensitive or even bite-y or growling when being touched.
If your cat is showing signs of arthritis, talk with your veterinarian. There are many safe pain medications and joint supplements available these days to help with this condition. There are also vet clinics that offer alternative therapies for senior cat care, such as massage, laser therapy, and other types of non-medicinal pain relief options for arthritis.
Cancer in Cats
While cancer can affect a cat of truly any age, it is more common in our older kitties. There are different types of cancers that cats can get.
The signs of cancer will depend on the type they get, but here are some things to watch out for:
- weight loss,
- decreased appetite, or even a drastic increase in appetite,
- nausea and vomiting,
- chronic diarrhea,
- fast growing tumors on the skin.
Again, depending on the type of cancer, your cat may or may not show one of the signs above. If you are concerned cancer could be a possibility, schedule an appointment with a veterinarian so they can examine your cat and discuss diagnostic tests with you.
Senior Cats with Dental Disease
As our cats get older, tartar and plaque tend to build up on their teeth. If they have had dentals throughout their life, this may be less severe. If they never had a dental, it is very possible they will have very stinky breath the older they get.
And when our cats are seniors, we are much more hesitant to risk putting them under anesthesia for a dental cleaning.
If your older cat has dental disease that is painful or causes tooth root abscess, there is a chance they may need to get a dental done to get have the problem teeth removed. You will be surprised at how much younger they actually act once their infected teeth are taken out! And they can eat surprisingly well without teeth.
Signs of dental disease include:
- a foul odor coming from their breath,
- difficulty eating or dropping food while eating,
- pawing at their mouth,
- rubbing their mouth/face on the ground,
- quivering of their teeth or mouth,
- bleeding from the mouth,
- chronic sneezing or nasal discharge,
- swelling on the face underneath the eye (tooth root abscess)
Heart Disease in Senior Cats
Heart murmurs and arrhythmias are also more common in senior cats. They can even develop a heart murmur in between one veterinary exam and the next without showing any symptoms, which is why having them examined twice a year once they become seniors is important.
There is no cure for heart disease, but there are medications that can help slow down its progression.
Signs of heart disease include:
- decreased energy,
- tiring easily,
- fainting/falling over,
- having a swollen belly or swollen limbs
Kidney & Liver Disease in Senior Cats
Senior cats can also develop kidney and liver disease. The good news is that cats with kidney disease tend to live years with the disease as long as it is managed appropriately with the right food and medications.
Signs of kidney disease include:
- increased thirst,
- increased urination,
- urinary accidents in the home,
- weight loss,
- nausea and vomiting
While liver disease is more common in older dogs, it still can affect senior cats. This typically requires monitoring liver enzymes (a blood test) on a regular basis and giving supplements that support the health of the liver.
Signs of liver disease include:
- weight loss,
- nausea and vomiting,
- pot-bellied abdomen,
- and sometimes there are not any signs at all
Neurologic Conditions in Senior Cats
Senior cats are also prone to having strokes (thromboembolisms). Strokes can affect your cat’s brain, or even their spinal cord. While your cat may seem normal mentally, they may not be able to walk correctly or may have lingering physical problems that affect their ability to get around for a while.
Some signs that could indicate your cat may have had a stroke include:
- all of a sudden not being able to use one of their legs correctly and instead of walking on it or holding it up, they drag their foot like they don’t even know it is there,
- a head tilt,
- circling and pacing in one direction,
- loss of the ability to use their back legs/dragging their back legs,
- all of a sudden going blind,
- one side of their face appearing droopy
There is usually not any treatment that can be done for a stroke. It is typically a waiting game to see if your cat improves with time, along with good nursing care. Also, it is very difficult to 100% diagnose a stroke in our cats, so we often don’t know for sure if that is what has happened, unless they have an expensive MRI scan performed.
Changes in the Home That Can Help With Senior Cat Care
Considering all of the health conditions listed above that could affect our senior cats, it may seem overwhelming to think about taking are of an elderly cat. However, there many things available these days to help you, your family, and your senior cat adjust to this new lifestyle.
Considerations for Senior Cats
Since senior cats are more subtle in showing any signs of arthritis or aging, you will need to be more proactive in making accommodations for them.
Offer them wider, more shallow litter boxes so it isn’t so difficult for them to get in and out of them. Alternatively, you can use a litter box with a small ramp. Read “How often should you change cat litter” here.
Easily Accessible Food and Water
Try to keep their food and water in an easily accessible location and make sure to have fresh water available at all times.
Accommodations for Getting to High Places
Cats love to climb up things and be in safe, elevated resting spaces. Even though older cats aren’t quite as able to jump like they used to, they still love to sit in high places. Try to have ramps, low steps, or other options available for your cat to be able to still get to high places without having to jump on or off of them.
Older cats have a more difficult time grooming themselves, especially on their back and near the base of their tail. This can cause their fur to become matted and get in tight tangles on their skin.
Try to brush your senior cat every day. Find a gentle brush with soft bristles and only do what your cat will tolerate. If you notice they are starting to get matted fur and can’t get them out on your own, you may need to schedule a grooming appointment so the matted fur can safely be removed.
Clip your cats toe nails regularly. Older cats’ claws tend to grow thick, curl around, and can grow into their paw pads. This can lead to pain and infection. If you have trouble clipping their toe nails, you will need to set up regular appointments with a groomer or at their vet clinic.
Find a Mobile Veterinary Clinic or Groomer to Help with Grooming
There are more and more veterinary clinics and groomers that do house calls these days. It is often more feasible and better for both you and your senior cat if you can have a groomer come to your home for grooming needs (nail trims, matted fur) and a veterinarian come to your home for veterinary needs.
Quality of Life Discussion for Senior Cats
It is always a difficult discussion to have, but a necessary one. As your senior cat begins to show aging changes, you should talk with your vet ahead of time to know what to expect with continued aging and how to know if they still are having a decent quality of life.
This will vary for every individual cat. It will depend on their health conditions, their ability to get around, and their mental state. This will also depend on your ability and capability to care for them.
There are many different factors to consider when discussing quality of life for our cats, so if your vet hasn’t already brought it up with you, start the conversation now so you can have time to prepare for when the time comes to discuss end of life care as well. Read “How often do you take your cat to the vet” here.
For more information on senior cat care, please visit the AVMA’s Senior Pet Care FAQ.
By Dr. Leslie Brooks