Our Apple Valley vets discuss at what age an old cat is considered a senior, the signs of aging to look out for, and the special care requirements that an aging cat might need.
How old is a senior cat?
Since cat owners spend so much time with their pets, it can be hard to notice the signs your cat is getting up there in age. Make no mistake - your cat's body goes through changes as it ages, just like a person's body does.
In another similarity to humans, aging cats experience these changes uniquely. Many cats begin to show age-related physical changes by the time they are between 7 and 10 years old, and most will have by about 12 years old.
People often think that one "cat year" is equivalent to 7 "human years", but this isn't quite accurate. Instead, it's generally accepted that a cat's first year is similar to the development that would occur in a human by the time they reach 16 years old. So, a cat at 2 years old is more similar to a human between 21 and 24 years old.
After that point, one "cat year" is equal to roughly four human years (for example, 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, etc.)
You'll be the proud owner of a senior cat by the time they hit about 11 years old. If a cat lives beyond 15 years of age, it'd be a "super-senior". When caring for older cats, it sometimes helps to think of their age in human terms.
What happens as my senior cat ages?
Cats experience many behavioral and physical changes as they age, just as we do. While aging in cats is not a disease in itself, keeping your vet up to date on changes in your senior cat's body and personality will go a long way to ensuring they receive the most comprehensive wellness care possible. Some changes to keep an eye out for include:
Grooming & Appearance
Aging cats may be less effective at grooming, which can lead to matted and/or oily fur. Painful hair matting can result in inflammation and skin odor. Senior cats' claws also often become thick, brittle, and overgrown, and will need more attention from caretakers.
An old cat's eyes and vision may also change - they commonly have a slightly hazy lens and 'lacy' appearance to the iris (the colorful part of the eye), but there is little evidence that their sight is significantly impacted by this alone.
However, numerous diseases, especially those related to high blood pressure, can seriously and irreversibly affect a cat's ability to see.
Physical Activity & Abilities
Arthritis or degenerative joint disease often becomes a problem for older cats. This condition makes it difficult to access food and water bowls, beds, and litter boxes. This fact is especially true for a cat that needs to climb stairs or jump.
While changes in sleep are a normal aspect of aging, a significant increase in sleep or depth of sleep is a concern and your vet should be notified. If you notice your senior cat's energy has suddenly increased, this may indicate hyperthyroidism and should be checked by a vet.
Geriatric cats also commonly lose hearing for several reasons. If this happens for your cat, it's another reason to visit your veterinarian.
Unintentional Weight Loss or Gain
If your senior cat is losing weight, this can point to any number of problems, from diabetes to kidney and heart disease. Dental disease is also extremely common in senior cats. As they age, dental issues can impair eating, causing malnutrition and weight loss along with causing significant pain in their mouths.
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.
How can I help keep my senior cat healthy?
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 so your vet can provide geriatric care geared to your pet's needs.
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.
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.
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.
A lot of senior cats get heavy or even obese as they age, 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.
How can a veterinarian help?
Your knowledge of your cat's activities, health, and personality, and any observations you may be able to offer will serve as an important guide for your vet. These should be paired with regularly scheduled routine exams. Depending on your senior cat's age, lifestyle, health status, and a few other factors including any ongoing needs they may have in terms of medical conditions, your vet can tell you how often to come in for a visit and may recommend increasing the frequency of physical checkups.
Our vets at Bear Valley Animal Hospital have the experience and care necessary for caring for aging and geriatric cats.