Caring for Your Senior Cat

Written by: Alison Laurie, Senior Consultant, Crown Vets Inverness

Advancing age is not a disease; ageing is a very natural process. Although many complex physical changes accompany advancing years, age in and of itself is not a disease. 

Even though many health conditions that affect older cats are not correctable, they can often be treated, then carefully monitored and controlled with medical treatments, a careful diet and adjustments to the home environment. The key to making sure your senior cat has the healthiest and highest quality of life possible in her older years is to recognise and reduce the factors that may be the high health risks, detect any disease process as early as possible, and control or delay the progression of any disease process if possible, and so improve or maintain the health of their ageing bodies systems.

What happens as my cat ages?

The ageing process is accompanied by many physical and also some behavioural changes:

  • The Immune System: Compared to younger cats, the immune system of older cats is less able to fend off any infection. Also chronic diseases often associated with ageing can impair your older cat's immune function even further.
  • Skin: The skin of an older cat is often thinner and less elastic; it has a reduced blood circulation, and so is more prone to infection. Also older cats groom themselves less effectively than do younger cats, sometimes this results in general hair matting, skin odour and inflammation and sometimes secondary skin infection. A regular groom with a soft brush and a fine comb will help keep this hair matting under control.
  • Claws: The claws of ageing cats are often overgrown, thick, and brittle. Elderly cats are less active and are less likely to keep their claws worn down, so do make sure that their claws are regularly clipped to avoid ingrown claws.
  • Toilet habits: older cats may become less inclined to toilet outdoors preferring an indoor litter tray to going outside.  Provide a couple of large, wide low sided indoor trays with softer cat litter for them for comfort.
  • Senility: In humans, ageing changes in the brain contribute to a loss of memory and alterations in personality, commonly referred to as senility. Similar symptoms can also be seen in elderly cats: with symptoms such as wandering, excessive ‘mewing’ and vocalisation, an apparent disorientation, and the avoidance of usual social interaction.
  • Hearing: hearing loss is also common in cats of an advanced age.
  • Eyes: Changes in the eyes. A slight cloudy, haziness of the lens of the eyes and a lacy appearance to the iris (the coloured part of the eye) are both common age-related changes, but neither seems to decrease a cat's vision to any appreciable extent. However, several diseases, especially those associated with a high blood pressure, can seriously and irreversibly impair a cat's ability to see. If you do notice your elderly cat suddenly struggling with her sight or notice large, widely dilated pupils do arrange an appointment to see us as soon as possible.
  • Teeth: Dental disease is also extremely common in older cats and can hinder eating and also cause significant discomfort and oral pain. Dental checks are therefore very important, drooling saliva, chattering of jaws and pawing at the mouth are all signs of oral and dental disease and pain.
  • Appetite: Although many different diseases can cause a loss of appetite, in healthy senior cats, a decreased sense of smell may be partially responsible for a loss of interest in eating. Sometimes softer food warmed to room temperature is preferred by older cats. However, the discomfort associated with dental disease is a more likely cause of reluctance to eat.
  • Kidneys: Feline kidneys undergo a number of age-related changes that may ultimately lead to impaired kidney function, kidney failure is sadly a very common disease in older cats, and its symptoms are extremely varied.  Monitor any noticed drinking as an increase in thirst is very often the first sign of kidney disease alongside weight loss and inappetance. Do encourage your older cat to drink though, offering plenty bowls of fresh drinking water and water-fountains are also useful.
  • Joints: Degenerative joint disease, osteoarthritis, is common in older cats. 80% of cats over the age of eight have some degree of arthritic changes in their joints. Although most arthritic cats don't become obviously lame, they may have difficulty gaining access to litter boxes and to food and water dishes, particularly if they have to jump up onto a surface or climb stairs to get to them. So keep their food bowls down at a comfortable level and provide flat, comfortable beds at ground floor level.
  • Hyperthyroidism, overactive thyroid gland/s, often result in over activity, constant pacing and excessive vocalisation, an unkempt coat, a ravenous appetite yet a dramatic weight loss.
  • Hypertension, high blood pressure, is usually a secondary result of either kidney failure and or hyperthyroidism.
  • Diabetes mellitus can be common in older cats resulting in a markedly increased thirst, dull, listless behaviour and weight loss.
  • Pancreatitis, triaditis and inflammatory bowel disease results in abdominal pain and vomiting and or diarrhoea.
  • Cancers are sadly more common in older cats.

All these are examples of some conditions that, though sometimes seen in younger cats; do become much more prevalent in cats as they age.

If you are concerned that your older cat may have any of these signs or symptoms do arrange an appointment with one of our vets for a general check-up. Early diagnosis and treatment is very important and can mean a longer and a better quality life for your ageing pet. 

We run senior health clinics for older cats. At these senior clinics after a general health examination, which may involve urine and blood tests and a blood pressure check, you will be given advice and recommendations for your individual pet.