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Caring for a Senior Cat

As natural predators cats are good at hiding that they are in pain and any signs of weakness. When an older cat hides their pain and discomfort, how do you give them the help they need? It’s important that all senior cat owners learn the differences between the normal signs of aging compared to the signs of poor feline health. By understanding the normal behaviors of a senior cat and the health risks, you can better meet your cats needs as they age.

When is a Cat Considered a Senior?

With improvements in veterinary care and better nutrition, cats are living much longer than ever before. The average lifespan of a cat is around 15 – 17 years old. Starting at 11 years old a cat is considered a senior. Cats that live to be 15 years or older are categorized geriatric or a “super senior.”

Around the age of 7 most veterinarians will begin to treat a mature cat as a senior. At this point the annual checkups and wellness exams are typically scheduled every six months instead of every year. More frequent checkups give a vet the opportunity to look for key health indicators and behavioral changes that are typical in elderly cats. More frequent exams means the subtle signs of illness in cats, and the symptoms cats are so good at hiding, are spotted sooner. 

Signs of Aging in Cats

Aging will impact a cat in many ways. It’s important to understand the signs your cat is getting older. Slowing down in elderly cats is normal in aging felines. However cats often compensate for illness so well that cat owners are completely unaware that their cat isn’t feeling well. Detecting a disease or health problem earlier leads to a more successful outcome. In order to help your senior cat live a long, happy life you need to understand what the normal signs of aging in cats are and what is an indicator that your cat isn’t feeling well. 

Normal Signs of Aging in a Healthy Cat

  • Change in activity level – older cats will rest more often and be less active than they were as kittens. It’s a cause for concern when a cat seems reluctant to move or stops jumping very suddenly. 
  • Changing in sleeping patterns – older cats will sleep more often. Cats that are suddenly awake all night and sleeping during the day will need to be assessed by a vet.
  • Graying fur – a slightly duller coat or gaining a few white hairs is nothing to worry about. However, if a cat’s coat is noticeably thinner or growing patchy it’s time to visit the vet.

Tip: Feeding an older cat smaller, nutrient rich food 3-4 times will make it easier to digest.

Health Indicators in Senior Cats to Pay Attention to Include:

  • Changes in thirst – an unhealthy cat may change the frequency they drink water or how much water they drink everyday
  • Loss of appetite – a reluctance to eat or eating less can be an indicator of many different feline health issues. Although senior cats may require less food than a growing kitten, a refusal to eat is not normal.  
  • Weight fluctuations – sudden weight loss or weight gain can indicate that a cat may be unwell. Cats with obesity are at a high risk of developing a whole host of medical conditions including diabetes, lameness, and arthritis. 
  • Constipation or diarrhea – changes in bowel movements such as how often your cat poops, straining to go, or being unable to poop are signs that your cat is ill. 
  • Behavioral changes – always pay attention to changes in your cat’s behavior. Shifts in a  cat’s sleep pattern, hiding more often, and how they interact with their family members can offer insight into changes in your cat’s health. 

If your cat experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above, you need to schedule a veterinary exam. Early detection of these warning signs will allow for quicker treatment and higher chance of a positive outcome. Unsure if you should be concerned about your cat’s behavioral changes? Talk to your veterinarian. They will let you know if it’s a normal part of your cat getting older or if it’s a sign of something more serious.

6 Common Health Concerns in Senior Cats

Feline Arthritis

Arthritis in cats is a larger problem than you might expect. According to Dr. Linda Simon, MVB, MRVS, “Feline arthritis is a largely under-diagnosed medical issue. While up to 90% of cats over the age of 12 are affected, many of their owners are unaware of their affliction. This is largely due to the fact that their signs can be subtle and they are experts at masking their symptoms.” Although arthritis in cats is prevalent it often goes undetected. Since cats hide when they are in pain, degenerative joint disease and arthritis frequently go undiagnosed in cats. The signs of arthritis in cats occur slowly and may be too subtle for cat owners to detect right away. 

Joint health and feline mobility are closely connected, a cat experiencing joint issues will become less active and exhibit noticeable changes in their daily routine. Changes in behavior and activity such as a reluctance to jump long distances, avoiding heights, and a reluctance to climb the stairs are all indications of cat joint pain. The risk of osteoarthritis in elderly cats is increased if the cat is also overweight. Simple changes can be made to manage your cat’s weight. By avoiding table scraps, maintaining a healthy diet, and providing cat joint supplements you can promote good joint health in your cat.

Kidney Disease and Kidney Failure in Cats

Feline kidney disease occurs in around 20% of all cats. The signs of chronic kidney disease may not show until a cat is older. However it’s highly likely that the changes in the kidney began when the cat was middle-aged. To diagnose renal failure veterinarians assess a cat’s blood pressure, serum creatinine levels, and urine proteins. There are telltale symptoms of kidney failure in cats. Common signs of feline kidney failure include: bad breath (usually caused by mouth ulcers), appearance of the coat, lethargy, and weight loss. 

Cat Paralysis

Sudden hind leg paralysis in a cat is very serious. Paralysis in cats occurs when a feline is unable to move their leg or body. Most often cats become paralyzed in their hind legs although their neck, tail, and other body parts can be affected as well.


Cats with an underactive thyroid will experience weight loss, an increased appetite, and will cry or meow more often. Cats with feline hypothyroidism experience a reduction in thyroid hormones which can slow the cat’s metabolism. Making the cat more likely to gain weight, experience neurological changes, and become less active. 

High Blood Pressure

Hypertension in cats and high blood pressure, are secondary symptoms caused by a different underlying health condition. Kidney disease, a heart condition, or thyroid issue can all impact a cat’s blood pressure.  Unlike human blood pressure, stress is not a factor in cats. A cat who is overweight is more apt to have blood pressure issues than a cat at a healthy weight. Cats with hypertension are at an increased risk of vision loss or retinal detachment. 

Cancer in Cats

A cancer diagnosis in a pet is devastating. Early detection is vitally important in the treatment of a cat’s cancer. Regularly examining your cat for lumps and bumps is important. There is no one reason why a cat is diagnosed with cancer. Past viral infections, such as the feline leukemia virus, along with inherited risk from certain genetic markers may indicate a higher risk of the cat developing cancer. Feline cancer cases are less common than in dogs, but as cats are living longer there has been an increase in cat cancer. Common feline cancers include:

  • Lymphoma
  • Osteosarcoma or bone cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Sarcoma
  • Carcinoma
  • Leukemia

The type of cancer, if the cancer has spread, and where the cancer is located will all determine the course of treatment. Surgery, chemotherapy drugs, and radiation are all possible cancer treatments for cats. Like other feline conditions, the symptoms of cancer in cats are subtle. The best course of action is to visit your veterinarian every 6 months for regular exams.

Final Thoughts

Managing your senior cat’s health through diet, weight management, and twice annual exams are simple things you can do to enhance your cat’s quality of life. Feeding a senior or geriatric cat an age specific diet helps them to better manage their weight, maintain a healthy coat, keep bodily functions working normally, and help increase the cat’s lifespan. Always monitor any behavioral changes in elderly cats and let your vet know immediately if your cat’s activity level decreases drastically. By promoting a healthy lifestyle and keeping your cat active there is no reason why your cat can’t live a long and happy life.

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