Due to improved veterinary care and dietary habits, cats are living longer now than they ever have before. One consequence of this is that cats, along with their owners and veterinarians, are faced with a whole new set of age-related conditions. In recent years there has been extensive research on the problems facing older cats and how their owners and veterinarians can best handle their special needs.
When does a cat become "old"?
It varies, but cats and small dogs are generally considered geriatric at the age of 7. Owners tend to want to think of their pet’s age in human terms. While it is not as simple as “1 human year = X cat/dog years”, there are calculations that can help put a cat’s age in human terms:
Cat Years to Human Years:
- 7 = 45
- 10 = 58
- 15 = 75
- 20 = 98
What kinds of health problems can affect older cats?
Geriatric cats can develop many of the same problems seen in older people, such as:
- heart disease
- kidney/urinary tract disease
- liver disease
- joint or bone disease
I know my cat is getting older. How do I help them stay happy and healthy for as long as possible?
Talk to us about how to care for your older cat and be prepared for possible age-related health issues. Senior cats require increased attention, including more frequent visits to the veterinarian, possible changes in diet, and in some cases alterations to their home environment. Here are some basic considerations when caring for older cats:
Increased veterinary care: Geriatric cats should have semi-annual veterinary visits instead of annual visits so signs of illness or other problems can be detected early and treated. Senior cat exams are similar to those for younger cats, but are more in depth, and may include dental care, possible blood work, and specific checks for physical signs of diseases that are more likely in older cats.
Diet and nutrition: Geriatric cats often need foods that are more readily digested, and have different calorie levels and ingredients and anti-aging nutrients.
Weight control: Weight gain in geriatric dogs increases the risk of health problems, whereas weight loss is a bigger concern for geriatric cats.
Parasite control: Older cats’ immune systems are not as healthy as those of younger animals; as a result, they can’t fight off diseases or heal as fast as younger cats.
Maintaining mobility: As with older people, keeping older cats mobile through appropriate exercise helps keep them healthier and more mobile.
Vaccination: Your cat’s vaccination needs may change with age. Talk to your veterinarian about a vaccination program for your senior cat.
Mental health: Cats can show signs of senility. Stimulating them through interactions can help keep them mentally active. If any changes in your cat’s behavior are noticed, please consult your veterinarian.
Environmental considerations: Older cats may need changes in their lifestyle, such as sleeping areas to avoid stairs, more time indoors, etc. Disabled cats have special needs which can be discussed with your veterinarian.
Reproductive diseases: Non-neutered/non-spayed senior cats are at higher risk of mammary, testicular, and prostate cancers.
My older cat is exhibiting changes in behavior. What's going on?
Before any medical signs become apparent, behavioral changes can serve as important indicators that something is changing in an older cat, which may be due to medical or other reasons. As your cat’s owner, you serve a critical role in detecting early signs of disease because you interact and care for your cat on a daily basis and are familiar with your cat’s behavior and routines. If your cat is showing any change in behavior or other warning signs of disease, contact us to provide a list of the changes you have observed in your cat. Sometimes, the changes may seem contradictory – such as an older cat that has symptoms of hearing loss but also seems more sensitive to strange sounds.
Is my cat becoming senile?
Possibly. Once any underlying or other disease causes have been ruled out, there is a chance your cat may be experiencing cognitive dysfunction. Studies conducted in the early 1990s were the first to identify brain changes in older dogs that were similar to brain changes seen in humans with Alzheimer’s disease. Laboratory tests were also developed in the 1990s to detect learning and memory deficits in older dogs. Recently these studies have started on younger dogs in order to fully understand the effect of aging on the canine brain. Similar studies in young and older cats are also ongoing.
While researchers are still not able to identify any genetic cause of why certain animals develop cognitive dysfunction, there are drugs and specific diets available that can help manage cognitive dysfunction. If you think your cat is becoming senile, discuss it with us.
What are the common signs of disease in an older cat?
The signs you might see will vary with the disease or problem affecting your cat, and some signs can be seen with more than one problem. As the cat’s owner, you can provide your veterinarian with valuable information that can help them determine what is going on with your cat.
How common is cancer in older pets?
In cats, the rate of cancer increases with age. Cancer is responsible for approximately half the deaths of cats over 10 years of age. Dogs get cancer at roughly the same rate as humans, while cats tend to have lower rates of cancer. Some cancers, such as breast or testicular cancer, are largely preventable by spaying and neutering. A diagnosis of cancer may be based on x-rays, blood tests, the physical appearance of tumors, and other physical signs. The ultimate test for cancer is through confirmation via a biopsy.
Top 10 Common Signs of Cancer:
- Abnormal swellings that persist or continue to grow
- Sores that do not heal
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Bleeding or discharge from any body opening
- Offensive mouth odor
- Difficulty eating/swallowing
- Hesitation to exercise/loss of stamina
- Persistent lameness/stiffness
- Difficulty breathing, urinating, or defecating
My cat seems to be in pain, and isn't as active as they should be. What should I do?
First, talk to your veterinarian and have them examine your cat. Your cat might have arthritis. This chart provides the basic signs you might see if your cat has arthritis; you might see one or more of these signs in your cat.
Signs of Arthritis
- Favoring a limb
- Difficulty sitting or standing
- Sleeping more
- Seeming to have stiff or sore joints
- Hesitancy to jump, run or climb stairs
- Weight gain
- Decreased activity or interest in play
- Attitude or behavior changes (including increased irritability)
- Being less alert
Signs of arthritis often are similar to signs of normal aging, so if your cat seems to have any of these symptoms for more than two weeks, the best thing to do is to have your veterinarian examine them, and then advise you as to what treatment plan would be best to help your cat deal with the pain. Arthritis treatments for cats are similar to those for humans, and may include:
- Healthy diet and exercise to help maintain proper weight.
- Working with your veterinarian to find a drug treatment that helps relieve the pain.
- Over-the-counter pet treatments
- A veterinarian-prescribed NSAID and an over-the-counter treatment that together may help decrease pain and disease progression.
- Diets with special supplements may also help decrease the discomfort and increase the joint mobility
Do not give human pain medications to your cat without first consulting us. Some human products, including over-the-counter medications, can be fatal for cats.
When should we euthanize a cat? How will we know it's the right time?
This can be an incredibly difficult question for both the owner and the veterinarian and is often a very tough decision to make. Sometimes, euthanasia is obviously the best thing to do for your cat. At other times, however, it can be less clear. An open discussion with us, including an honest evaluation of your cat’s quality of life, should help you make the decision.