Caring for an older cat

As your cat gets older, you will start to notice physical and behavioural changes which should be addressed so he can continue to have a good quality of life. There are simple ways you can do this, from their exercise routine, to their diet and food supplements or medications. Age is not a reason to accept ill health, and old cats can lead happy, active lives.

Life expectancy

Just as people are living longer, so cats are also experiencing the ‘greying population’ phenomenon. This is owing to improvements in diet and medicine. Not all breeds of cats have the same life expectancy, but on average cats live 15 years.


Many cats begin to experience the effects of aging from around 7 years, and most will by the time they are 12 years old. These effects may not be outwardly obvious to owners, so it is important to know what to look out for. The sooner appropriate action can be taken to improve or maintain the health of the body’s systems, the better the result.

Remember aging is not a disease, and even though many conditions that affect older cats are not curable, they can often be controlled.

Avoiding stress in your older cat
One of the most important considerations in caring for your aging cat is to not cause them unnecessary stress. As cats age, they can exhibit behavioural changes such as inappropriate urination, excessive vocalisation, and decreased interaction with owners or hiding. Stress or rapid changes to their routine or environment can exacerbate these problems, so be sure to phase any adjustments in gradually. Introducing a new pet is a traumatic experience for older cats and should be avoided whenever possible.

Products are available that can help alleviate stress- these can be feline facial pheromone (Beaphar Cat Comfort) or valerian based (Pet Remedy). Simply plug in the diffuser in the cat’s usual sleeping area to help him destress.

Weight changes

As the cat reaches middle age, he will likely become less active, lose muscle and use less energy possibly resulting in weight gain. However, as they progress into older age, the reverse can often be seen- weight loss.
There are some medical conditions that aging cats commonly get which can cause them to lose weight; these include kidney disease, dental disease and an overactive thryroid (hyperthyroidism). If you notice any changes to your cat’s appetite- either increased or decreased, or his water consumption, you should have him checked out at your veterinary surgery. Hyperthyroid cats typically have a voracious appetite but lose weight and often appear overactive, restless or skittish.

Kidney disease

Chronic kidney disease is the second most common cause of death in cats (12%)[1] and around 32-42% of cats over age of 12 are affected [2]. Typically, there are no clinical signs shown until around 60-70% of kidney function is lost. The most common presenting signs are increased water consumption, reduced appetite and weight loss.
Kidney disease is something we should be actively looking for in our aging cats before these signs appear. Regular veterinary checks will enable early intervention to help preserve kidney function for as long as possible.

The mainstay of treatment of chronic kidney failure is dietary manipulation. Your veterinary surgeon will likely prescribe a special diet such as one of the Royal Canin Renal diets. These come in both wet and dry forms, to help stimulate appetite. It has been found that cats being fed such diets live twice as long following diagnosis than those on regular adult maintenance diets [3-5].

Joints

Osteoarthritis and joint problems are common in aging cats and can be made much worse if your cat is overweight. The signs are more subtle than in dogs- cats may not be overtly lame, but may have difficulty getting into the litter box (which may result in inappropriate urination), jumping or grooming, or they may just become more reclusive.

A visit to your vet for a full check-up and advice on diet, medication or joint supplements is a good idea. They may recommend a diet such as Royal Canin Mobility which is shown to improve mobility when fed daily. Never give your cat any of your own arthritis medicines or painkillers.

Dental health

You may notice that your cat has unpleasant smelling breath or shows reluctance to eat, (especially kibble), this can be due to dental disease. Bacterial plaque on teeth over time hardens to tartar; gums can become inflamed, infected and painful. Your vet may recommend an anaesthetic to give a full dental treatment that involves extracting infected or rotten teeth, scaling and polishing the healthy teeth. Many owners find that animals are happier and eat better after dentistry.

Mental health

Many old cats can seem confused- wandering, excessive meowing, disorientation and avoidance of social interaction. Cats do experience brain changes like those seen in people with Alzheimer’s disease, and they have similar effects on their behaviour. There may be medications that can help, so it is wise to speak with your vet.

Grooming

Old cats often do not groom themselves so well; this can be owning to stiffness, dental pain or underlying disease. Daily brushing will help remove loose hair and prevent matting. They may also use scratching posts less, so check that nails do not become overgrown or need trimming.

Your aging cat’s diet

As previously discussed, there are specially formulated diets available to help manage medical conditions, but these should be used under veterinary advice. If your vet has not prescribed a diet to help a specific age associated condition, a more generic Senior diet is recommended, such as the ‘Aging’ lines within the Health Nutrition range from Royal Canin. These diets are specifically formulated to support the aging process in cats. They have an adapted calorie content to maintain optimal weight and contain nutrients to support joint and organ function.

Key points – take your cat to the vet if he:

  • Is eating more or less, or drinking more than normal
  • Has smelly breath or a poor coat
  • Has lost weight
  • Is finding jumping difficult
  • Is urinating in unusual places
  • Is hiding or interacting less with you
  • Has any new lumps or bumps, especially if they are rapidly getting bigger

Do not be tempted to accept many changes associated with aging as inevitable. Aging is not an excuse for poor health and reduced well-being. Cats are experts at hiding signs of illness, so regular veterinary check ups are a good idea to catch potential issues early. With simple changes in diet and routine we can keep our pets feeling younger, longer.

1. O’Neill, D.G., et al., Longevity and mortality of cats attending primary care veterinary practices in England. J Feline Med Surg, 2015. 17(2): p. 125-33.
2. Marino, C.L., et al., Prevalence and classification of chronic kidney disease in cats randomly selected from four age groups and in cats recruited for degenerative joint disease studies. J Feline Med Surg, 2014. 16(6): p. 465-72.
3. Polzin, D.J. and J.A. Churchill, Controversies in Veterinary Nephrology: Renal Diets Are Indicated for Cats with International Renal Interest Society Chronic Kidney Disease Stages 2 to 4: The Pro View. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract, 2016. 46(6): p. 1049-65.
4. Elliott, J., et al., Survival of cats with naturally occurring chronic renal failure: effect of dietary management. J Small Anim Pract, 2000. 41(6): p. 235-42.
5. Ross, S.J., et al., Clinical evaluation of dietary modification for treatment of spontaneous chronic kidney disease in cats. J Am Vet Med Assoc, 2006. 229(6): p. 949-57.

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Written on February 15, 2022

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