Our senior cats are living far longer lives than they used to due to advances in veterinary care and medicine, pet nutrition and diet research and development, and pet owner access to information. Today, our Pico Rivera vets discuss what to expect as your cat ages and share senior cat care tips.

How old is a senior cat in human years?

Each cat, like each human, ages differently. Many cats begin to exhibit age-related physical changes between the ages of 7 and 10, with the majority having done so by the age of 12. The commonly held belief that one "cat year" is equivalent to seven "human years" is incorrect; instead, the accepted wisdom is that a cat's first year is comparable to the growth of a 16-year-old human, and a cat at 2 years old is comparable to a human between 21 and 24 years old. Following that, a cat's year is roughly equal to four human years (e.g., a 10-year-old cat = 53-year-old human; a 12-year-old cat = 61-year-old human; a 15-year-old cat = 73-year-old human, and so on).

Cats are considered to be "senior" once they are about 11 years old, and "super-senior" when they reach over 15 years of age. When caring for older cats it sometimes helps to think of their age in human terms.

What happens as my cat ages?

Cats, like their owners, go through many physical and behavioral changes as they age. While aging is not a disease in and of itself, keeping your vet up to date on changes in your senior cat is an important part of their overall wellness care. Keep an eye out for the following changes:

Physical changes

  • Grooming & appearance. Matted or oily fur is caused by less effective grooming by an aging cat, which can result in painful hair matting, skin odor, and inflammation. Senior cats' claws are often overgrown, thick, and brittle, requiring more attention from their caretakers. Aging cats commonly have a slightly hazy lens and 'lacy' appearance to the colorful part of the eye (iris), but there is little evidence that this significantly affects their sight. There are, however, several diseases, especially those associated with high blood pressure, that can seriously and irreversibly impair a cat's ability to see. Unintentional weight loss or weight gain: In an older cat, weight loss can be a sign of any number of problems, from heart and kidney disease to diabetes. Dental disease is extremely common in older cats and can hinder eating, causing weight loss and malnutrition in addition to causing them significant pain.
  • Physical activity & abilities. Degenerative joint disease, or arthritis, is common in older cats, making access to litter boxes, food, water bowls, and beds difficult. This is particularly true if they must jump or climb stairs. Sleep changes are a normal part of aging, but a significant increase in sleep or depth of sleep should be reported to your veterinarian. Aging cats with a sudden increase in energy may be suffering from hyperthyroidism and should be evaluated by a veterinarian. Inappropriate weight loss or gain can indicate a variety of problems ranging from heart disease to diabetes. Hearing loss in geriatric cats is common for a variety of reasons and should be monitored by your veterinarian.

Behavioral changes

  • Cognitive issues. If you notice your cat becoming confused by tasks or objects that are part of their daily routine, this could be a sign of memory or cognition issues. Litterbox accidents or avoidance, new or increased human avoidance, wandering, excessive meowing, and appearing disoriented are all potential signs of mental confusion or feline senility and should be evaluated by your veterinarian.
  • Issues caused by disease. A cat may become aggressive as a result of pain from health issues such as dental disease or arthritis, so monitoring your cat's mood is critical because cats tend to hide discomfort. Diabetes and kidney failure, for example, can cause an increase in litterbox usage, which can lead to cats eliminating in inappropriate places. Cats with mobility issues due to joint inflammation may have difficulty accessing or even climbing into their litterbox, especially if stairs are involved. This may also cause your senior cat to eliminate in inappropriate places, which should be addressed by a veterinarian.

How can I help keep my senior cat healthy?

Some of the most important tools available to help keep your senior cat happy and healthy are your own observations. Simple changes to your grooming, feeding and general interactions with your cat can be a low-stress way to keep an eye out for any changes in your aging pet.

  • Grooming: Brushing your cat's fur, trimming their claws, and brushing their teeth are great ways to keep older cats clean and healthy, while also checking for changes in their fur, skin, nose, eyes, ears, and claws.
  • Nutrition: A lot of cats get heavy or even obese as they get older, which can be controlled with diet and activity if the weight gain is non-medical in nature. Other weight issues include elderly cats being underweight, which may be caused by a variety of medical conditions and should be assessed by a veterinarian.
  • Homelife: Changes in routine or household can make older cats more sensitive to stress. Patience and accommodations (extra affection, a favorite toy or blanket, a quiet room to stay in) can go a long way toward assisting your senior cat in adjusting to upsetting changes. Don't forget to keep playing with your cat as they get older; mental and physical stimulation is good for their health.
  • Vet care: Because cats are adept at hiding illness until it is advanced or severe, it is critical to take them to the vet for wellness checks on a regular basis, even if they appear perfectly healthy. Your veterinarian will also be able to monitor any conditions that your senior cat may have and identify any potential or emerging issues early on when they are more treatable.

How can a veterinarian help?

Regular wellness examinations, as well as your knowledge of your cat and observations, are valuable resources for your veterinarian. Depending on your cat's needs (for example, if they have a medical condition), your veterinarian may advise you to increase the frequency of physical examinations. A senior cat's wellness examination includes the vet checking the cat's weight, skin and fur condition, organ systems, and behavior, as well as running diagnostic tests for certain conditions that are common in older cats. The combination of homecare and collaborative veterinary care is an excellent way to ensure that your senior cat lives a healthier, happier life with you and your family.

Wondering how to care for a cat in its golden years? Get in touch with Pico Rivera Animal Hospital to book a wellness check for your senior cat today.