The population of mature and senior cats is increasing. 35-40% of cats in North America are at least 7 years of age, and it’s not uncommon for cats to live well into their twenties. Better nutrition, safer lifestyles, and improvements to preventive health care have contributed to this trend. While old age is not a disease in itself, the body changes associated with ageing can make older cats more vulnerable to medical problems and disease.
What are the stages of a senior cat’s life? How to spot signs of ageing?
Cats are considered to be mature when they’re 8-13 years of age. They become a senior when they‘re over the age of 13.
The common signs of ageing include:
Change in nutritional needs: Obesity is one of the main health problems of middle age cats. Older cats do not digest and absorb fat as well as younger cats do. Older cats may need to consume either more fat or fat that is more digestible to get the same amount of energy.
Skin and hair coat changes: Some older cats may start to show grey hair. The hair coat may become thinner and duller. Older cats may need to be groomed more often, with special attention given to the anal area. The skin of the older cat may become thinner and thus, more subject to injury.
Brittle nails and thickened foot pads: You may see thickening of the foot pads and brittle nails.
Decreased mobility and arthritis: Arthritis in cats may only cause a slight stiffness, or it can become debilitating. Cats may have difficulty jumping onto favourite perches or going up and down stairs. They may avoid using the litter box. Older cats tend to lose muscle mass and tone. This may make it more difficult for them to move.
Dental disease: Dental disease is one of the most common changes we see in older cats. Studies show that 70 percent of older cats exhibit signs of gum disease.
Hearing loss: Often, hearing loss is severe before the owner becomes aware of the problem. The first sign noticed may look like aggression. In reality, it may be the cat was unaware of a person’s approach, became startled when touched, and instinctively reacted.
Changes in the eye and vision loss: You may notice your cat no longer follows a toy with her eyes as you move it across the floor. She may have difficulty finding her food dish or may bump into furniture that has been moved out of its usual place.
My senior cat is losing weight, what can I do?
There are many reasons for a senior cat to lose weight and any weight loss should be investigated by your veterinarian to determine the underlying cause and the most appropriate course of treatment.
Many ageing cats are affected by osteoarthritis, which contributes to a lack of activity and thus muscle loss. Inappetence or lack of desire to eat may develop in some senior cats, this is due to their decreased ability to smell and taste the food and/or periodontal (dental) disease. Intestinal function, including the ability of the intestines to absorb nutrients, is reduced in many older animals.
Changes in the liver, kidneys and/or endocrine system can also result in inappetence, muscle wasting, and weight loss.
How can I care for my senior cat?
Most cats age gracefully and require very little. Since older cats do not generally respond well to change, it is important that any changes be introduced slowly. Elderly cats should have easy access to a warm and comfortable bed, situated where the cat can sleep safely without fear of disturbance.
You should feed your older cat a high quality, digestible senior diet food. Senior cats should always have easy access to fresh drinking water.
As cats age, some will experience a reduced ability to control urination and defecation. In order to reduce the risk of accidents, it may be necessary to provide multiple litter boxes. They should be located on each floor of the house and near their favourite sleeping and eating areas.
Because most of the chronic diseases we see in senior cats are slow to progress, early recognition is usually only possible through diagnostic tests. Therefore, it is recommended that senior cats have regular health checks (every six months). Senior care programs should include a thorough physical examination, blood work screenings, and urine tests. Body weight should also be recorded regularly to monitor for increases or decreases in weight.
What are some common health issues?
The major health problems seen in older cats are:
Obesity, periodontal disease, hormonal disorders (hyperthyroidism and diabetes mellitus), kidney disease, liver disease, heart disease, cancer and osteoarthritis.
Why is my senior cat having behavioural issues?
It is not unusual for behaviour problems to develop in older cats, and often, these behavioural changes are a result of multiple underlying conditions. Some behavioural changes may not seem significant, but even a minor change in behaviour might indicate an underlying medical problem or a decline in cognitive function.
Changes in the household and/or environment (moving, a change in schedule, a family member leaving, or new additions to the family) can lead to problems regardless of age. However, older cats are often less able to adapt to change, thus are even more likely to be affected by a change.
As pets age, they are susceptible to an increasing number of medical and degenerative problems. Problems with one or more organ systems may play a role in the development of a wide variety of behaviour problems. For example, diabetes or diseases of the bladder, kidneys, liver, or intestinal issues that can lead to house soiling. Diseases of the endocrine organs such as the thyroid gland and pituitary gland can lead to a variety of behavioural and personality changes.
A decline in the senses (hearing and sight), painful conditions, and those that affect mobility may cause the pet to be more irritable or more fearful of approach and handling. As with other organs, the brain is also susceptible to age-related degenerative processes that can affect the pet’s behaviour, personality, memory, and learning the ability.