By Dr. Ken Lambrecht
My 15-year-old cat, Lance, sits next to me as I write this piece. He is special to me because he is the oldest of my four cats and we have shared quite a bit of time together. Caring for him helps me to cross-check the guidance I give to anyone who is sharing their life with a senior cat and wants to provide them with the very best care. Owner observations and vigilance, regular veterinary exams, and wellness testing are the four cornerstones of excellent senior cat care.
According to the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) Senior Care Guidelines, older cats are classified as mature or middle-aged at 7 to 10 years old, as senior cats at 11 to 14 years old, and geriatric from 15 to 25 years old.
Many in the profession begin treating a cat who is 7 years and older as senior cats, and begin doing wellness exams every six months instead of yearly. Those who work closely with cats are very aware how subtle the signs of illness in cats are and how well cats can hide their (often multiple) illnesses.
As many diseases are more common in older cats, our vigilance in observing their day-to-day habits needs to be intensified after age 7 to be sure we can prevent and catch problems early.
What to Watch for in a Cat’s Senior Years
- Weight loss or gain: both overall weight and body condition score should be monitored
- Litter box habits: increased size of clumps or frequency of litter box use
- Mobility: decreased ability to climb stairs easily and jump up
- Behavior: changes pertaining to resting, sleeping, hiding, personal interactions with family members
What Are the Most Common Diseases Seen in a Senior Cat?
- Dental disease: Dental resorptive lesions are one of the most common diseases, affecting over 80 percent of cats at 5 years of age.
- Osteoarthritis: Arthritis in cats is a degenerative joint disease that affects over 90 percent of cats at 10 years of age.
- Kidney disease: Kidney disease in cats is found in over 20 percent of all cats. Symptoms of kidney disease in cats can be as subtle as increased drinking or larger clumps of urine in the cat litter box, (a great reason to use clumping cat litter!) inappetence or slight weight loss.
- Hyperthyroidism: Weight loss, increased appetite and vocalization are hallmarks of hyperthyroidism in cats.
- Inflammatory bowel disease: Vomiting, diarrhea and weight loss are the most typical symptoms of this very common middle-age and senior cat problem.
- Diabetes: This is a common disease of older cats, especially those that are overweight.
- Cancer: Intestinal, mammary and oral cancers are all more common in senior cats.
- Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome: 80 percent of cats have cognitive dysfunction at 15 years of age and older.
Your Veterinarian’s Role
A complete physical exam is recommended every six months for all cats over 7 years. If that seems like a lot, consider that biannual vet visits would be the equivalent of a human seeing their doctor every three to four years. Since cats are notorious for hiding their diseases and often have more than one problem, exams and wellness testing are the cornerstones of keeping a senior cat healthy.
During a basic wellness exam for older cats, a chemistry panel should always be performed, which includes a thyroid level check, a complete blood count, urinalysis and heartworm/Felv/FIV screening.
Routine blood pressure checks are advised in all cats over 10 years of age and in cats with diseases commonly associated with hypertension (kidney, diabetes and hyperthyroidism). Additionally, abdominal ultrasound or chest or abdominal radiographs are indicated to help screen for disease.
How Can You Keep Your Senior Cat Healthy?
- Make sure you are meeting all your cat’s needs (water, food, litter box, social interactions and resting, sleeping and hiding spaces).
- Going to regular veterinary visits yearly up to age 7 and every six months after are the absolute best things a pet owner can do.
- Use the tips offered by AAFP to make those trips easier for you and stress-free for your cat.
- Regular weigh-ins at home are very helpful. Buy a good-quality baby scale to catch sudden weight loss early and easily. A scale that weighs accurately to an ounce or less is best.
- Observe your senior cat closely. Any change can mean something is going on. With cats aging five to seven times as fast as humans do, any change is important to take note of.
- Easy access to fresh water. Use wide bowls to avoid “whisker fatigue,” and avoid plastic bowls to help prevent chin acne.
- Low-entry litter boxes will make it easier for older cats to get in and out. If your cat is arthritic, make sure the litter boxes are placed in easily accessible areas, without your cat having to climb a bunch of stairs to get to one.
- Video cameras can help you keep tabs and ease your mind when you are away. PetCube Bites Wi-Fi pet camera is my favorite, as it even dispenses cat treats.
- Invite cat-friendly neighbors/friends to pet-sit while you travel.
What Is the Best Nutrition for a Senior Cat?
Your cat’s annual blood work is a great way for veterinarians to determine if a change in nutrition is needed for your senior cat. Protein level and phosphorous levels are two of the most critical analyses that need to be considered.
If a cat has renal disease or a history of bladder stones, a canned food diet fed in small but frequent portions is a great way to encourage water consumption and achieve a diet that is close to the natural diet of a cat.
Any diet switch should be done slowly in cats, especially seniors, and is best done with the guidance of your veterinarian based on physical exam and wellness test findings.
In short, all of these things can help to create a cat-friendly care plan, diet and home environment for senior cats. With this guide, you can catch problems early so your kitty will truly enjoy those golden years!