With advancements in veterinary care and medicine, diet research and development, pet nutrition, and accessibility to resources for pet owners, our senior cats are living much longer than they used to. Here, our Bellevue vets discuss what you can expect as your cat ages and share tips on how to care for a senior cat.
How old is my cat in human years?
Each cat experiences aging differently, much like their human counterparts. Many cats begin to change physically between the age of 7 and 10 years old, and most will by approximately 12 years old. While many people follow a common rule of thumb that one "cat year" is equivalent to 7 "human years", this isn't quite accurate/ Instead, we should remember that a cat's first year is similar to the development of a 16-year-old human. At 2 years old, a cat is more similar to a human between 21 to 24 years old. After that, each year for a cat equals roughly four human years (for example a 10-year-old cat= a 53-year-old human; a 12-year-old cat = a 61-year-old human; a 15-year-old cat = a 73-year-old human, etc.)
Once they hit about 11 years old, cats are considered to be "senior". You've got a "super senior" cat if your kitty is over 15 years of age. When caring for older cats, it's sometimes helpful to think of their age in human terms as it may help you to better understand potential health issues in relation to years lived.
What happens as my cat ages?
Cats can experience many changes in their physicality and behavior as they age, just like their humans. While aging is not a disease in itself, keeping your vet abreast of changes in your senior cat will play an integral role in ensuring they receive the most comprehensive geriatric wellness care possible. Some changes to watch for include:
- Grooming & appearance. As cats age, they may become less effective at grooming for a few reasons and develop matted or oily fur. This can result in odors on the skin, inflammation, and painful hair matting. Senior cats' claws are also often overgrown, brittle, or thick and will need more attention from their caregivers. You might also notice the iris (the colorful part of the eye) develops a lacy appearance or slightly hazy lens. While there is little evidence that their sight is significantly impacted, several diseases such as those related to high blood pressure can severely and irreversibly impair a cat's ability to see.
- Unintentional weight loss or gain. Older cats may lose weight. This can point to numerous problems, from kidney and heart disease to diabetes. Aging cats also commonly develop dental diseases, which can hinder eating and lead to weight loss and malnutrition. Oral health problems can also cause significant mouth pain.
- Physical activity & abilities. Degenerative joint disease or arthritis often becomes an issue for older cats who may have difficulty accessing water and food bowls, beds, and litter boxes. The need to jump or climb stairs may further hinder their ability to reach essential places. While changes in sleep patterns are a normal part of aging, a significant increase in sleep or depth of sleep may be cause for concern and be a reason to contact your vet. A marked increase in energy may point to hyperthyroidism and should also be looked at. Hearing loss is also a common health issue in geriatric cats for many reasons and should also be checked by your veterinarian.
- Cognitive issues. If you notice that your cat has started being confused by tasks or objects that are part of their daily routine, this may be a sign of issues with memory or cognition. Behavioral changes such as litterbox accidents or avoidance, new or increased human avoidance, wandering, excessive meowing, and seeming disorientated, are also potential signs of mental confusion or feline senility and should be examined by your vet.
- Issues caused by disease. A cat may become aggressive due to pain from health issues like dental disease or arthritis, so keeping an eye on your cat's mood is important because cats tend to hide discomfort. Diseases and disorders affecting urination (e.g. diabetes, kidney failure) can cause an increase in litterbox usage, which may lead to cats eliminating in inappropriate areas. Cats that are experiencing mobility problems due to joint inflammation may have challenges accessing or even climbing into their litterbox, especially if stairs are involved. This may also lead to your senior cat eliminating in inappropriate places and should be addressed by a vet.
What are your best tips on how to care for a senior cat?
When it comes to looking after a senior cat, they will have different care requirements than kittens or even middle-aged cats. Your observations are some of the most important tools available to help keep your senior cat happy and healthy. Incorporating simple changes to your grooming, feeding and general interactions with your cat can be a low-pressure way to watch 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. 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.
- Home life: Older cats can be more sensitive to changes in routine or household, which can lead to stress. Patience and accommodations (extra affection, a favorite toy or blanket, a quiet room for them to stay in) go a long way to helping your senior cat adjust to upsetting changes. Don't forget to keep playing with your cat as they age; mental and physical stimulation is beneficial for their well-being.
- Vet care: Because cats are adept at hiding illness until it is advanced or severe, it's important to take them regularly to the vet for wellness checks even if they seem perfectly healthy. Your veterinarian will also be able to monitor any conditions that your senior cat may have, and catch any potential or emerging issues early when they're more treatable. their behavior and health.
How can a veterinarian help?
Your knowledge of your cat and your observations are an important resource for your vet, as are regular wellness examinations. Depending on your cat's needs (e.g. if they have a medical condition), your vet may suggest increasing the frequency of physical evaluations. A wellness examination of a senior cat includes the vet checking the cat's weight, skin & fur condition, organ systems, and behavior, and running diagnostic tests for certain conditions that are common in older felines.
The combination of homecare and cooperative veterinary care is a great way to help ensure your senior cat has a healthier, happier life with you and your family.