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Recently I have been thinking a lot about how cats age. My Bengal cat is twelve years old but is still full of energy. However, I know friends that have cats much younger who spend much more of their days sleeping and resting. This got me thinking, when is a cat considered a senior?
There seems to be so much variation between cats, it’s hard to know when old age starts! However, according to vets, seniors are any feline over the age of eleven. With that being said, many argue changes in behavior and health are much better indicators of your cat’s seniority.
In this article, I run through all the signs of an aging cat that you can look out for. I also share my top tips on caring for seniors – with more limitations in terms of energy, mobility, memory, and awareness, our older cats need a little extra help to live comfortably.
Moreover, senior cats are more prone to developing certain medical conditions as their brains and bodies deteriorate. Therefore, I also look at these and the symptoms you can look for. This should make any illness easier to spot so the lifespan of your cat is extended.
When is a Cat Considered a Senior?
The general consensus is that cats over the age of eleven years old are considered seniors. In human years, this is equal to around the age of sixty. Cats are then considered seniors up until the age of fifteen, equivalent to age ninety-two in human years! At this point, they then become geriatric for the rest of their living years.
However, things aren’t always that black and white. Despite these age guidelines, some eleven-year-old cats will have many kitten-like behaviors and tendencies. Conversely, cats that are nine years old or even younger could act more senior than “seniors”. Therefore, it is more important to look at the signs of an aging cat rather than a specific age bracket.
What are the Signs of an Aging Cat?
A cat would be considered a senior when its mental and physical health starts to change. Sımilar to how humans age, senior cats will have reduced energy levels and start to show changes in behavior, learning, and memory. These things are a much better indicator of seniority than pinning it solely on the number of years they have been alive.
Below are some of the most common signs of an aging cat that indicate they are a senior. These all impact your cat’s life and the type of care they need from you.
1. Lower Energy Levels
Senior cats will have much lower energy levels than younger adults and kittens. As their minds and bodies age, they simply run at a slower rate and become less agile and active. You will notice that senior cats tend to sleep more of the day and move around at a slower and less urgent pace.
One of the reasons for these decreased energy levels is sickness. Elderly felines are more prone to developing medical conditions or diseases, including kidney dysfunction, hyperthyroidism, arthritis, heart conditions, and more. These all make a cat lethargic and weak. If you think your senior cat could be suffering from a medical condition, book an appointment with your vet.
2. Shorter Playtime
Because of their lower energy levels, elderly cats will play less and show more disinterest in their toys when compared to younger cats. When they do play, they will be less energetic and won’t be as quick to chase any toys.
If you notice changes in playtime routine, make sure you adapt the play sessions accordingly. Stick with shorter sessions and try to slow the pace down. This helps make playtime more suitable for your cat’s health and energy levels so it is more enjoyable. However, never stop playtime completely! Regular exercise can help your senior kitty keep as fit and healthy as possible.
3. Changes to Sleep
The older cats get, the more disturbed and broken their sleep typically becomes. You might find they senior cats wake up a lot more in the night as they become more restless. This can become quite disruptive, especially as they will often vocalize loudly when they wake up.
On the other hand, you might see your cat sleeping more than usual as it ages. Their increased amount of sleep partially compensates for their lack of energy that is brought about with old age. Senior cats often sleep for more hours per day and each sleep session is generally longer too.
Cats are pretty independent creatures for most of their lives. They find it easy to look after themselves and are very aware of their surroundings thanks to their highly attuned senses. Therefore, one of the most notable signs of old age is disorientation. This is a sign of cognitive decline, and it is normal for brain function to deteriorate in this way with age.
For example, cats may get confused when walking around your home and seem to forget where things are. Additionally, you will notice senior cats appear to get more muddled when carrying out even simple activities. For example, they may forget how to use the litter box or not know where to find their food bowls.
Even though it is common for senior cats to be disorientated, you should still take your cat to the vet for advice and help on how to deal with these behavioral changes.
5. Body Weight Changes
Changes to your cat’s weight can be another sign that they are entering their senior years. Usually, the reduced amount of exercise and lowered rate of metabolism means cats initially tend to gain weight. At least, this is the case until their diet and other factors are matched to their new lifestyle.
On the other hand, weight loss is also common in senior cats and is a normal part of the aging process. As cats gradually stop using their muscles as much for movement and activity, their muscles will start to shrink in size. For example, it is common to see an elderly cat losing weight in its hindquarters. This natural age-related muscle loss is known as sarcopenia.
With that being said, not all weight loss in senior cats is considered normal. Weight loss is common in sick cats, and the risk of developing illnesses or conditions is much higher in aging felines. If you’re thinking “my cat is so skinny I can feel her bones”, this is a sign of unhealthy weight loss. You should take your cat to the vet so they can examine your cat for any underlying medical conditions.
6. Behavioral Changes
As your cat gets older, you may also spot other behavioral changes. Some of these are related to learned behaviors. For example, senior cats may show a greater reluctance to use their litter box or cat flap. Many also groom themselves less frequently and need an extra helping hand.
The personality of senior cats can also change subtly. Is your cat so affectionate all of a sudden? It could be that in their old age they become clingier and need more attention. Conversely, some senior cats will become less tolerant and more withdrawn from their owners and other animals in the home.
This is all thought to be down to older cats being more set in their way and less adapted to cope with changes to their environment or routine. Thus, they become stressed more easily. Whether your senior cat becomes more affectionate or withdrawn simply depends on how they choose to deal with stress. If their anxiety seems severe, speak to your vet for advice.
How Do I Care for a Senior Cat?
As we have discussed, when a cat is considered a senior depends more on its behavioral changes than a certain age. If you notice any of the changes mentioned above, you may need to adjust the care you provide for your cat. This can go a long way in improving their quality of life, even with low energy levels and mental decline.
Below is a list of some of the things you can try at home to make your senior feline’s life that little bit easier and more enjoyable:
- Regular Veterinary Appointments: Cats age at a much more rapid rate than humans do and get more susceptible to developing health issues as they get older. Regular veterinary appointments can help catch any age-related illnesses early to improve the chances of survival. Vets are also the best people to ask for general advice on senior cat care.
- Monitor Weight Fluctuations: As weight changes are common in seniors, it is important to keep tabs on these. Doing so can make it easier for you to notice if there is an issue and if your cat is losing or gaining too much. You can then make appropriate adjustments to ensure they are the best health condition possible.
- Feed an Age-Appropriate Diet: As your cat’s body changes with age, as do its nutritional needs. In particular, protein and phosphorous levels are important. However, the best diet for a senior cat depends on their activity levels and any medical conditions. Always speak to your vet for advice and introduce any changes to their diet slowly to avoid all unnecessary stress.
- Choose a Low-Entry Litter Box: Senior cats often struggle to use their litter box because their reduced mobility can make it challenging and painful for them to climb in and out. Therefore, many stop using it altogether! Litter boxes for senior cats are designed with age-related issues in mind and have lower entrance points that are easier on their joints. Put their litter box in an easy-to-reach place with no stairs in sight!
- Purchase Pet Cameras: Senior cats do need more care than regular adult cats. However, we are busy and have our own lives to live. Purchasing a pet camera is, therefore, a great idea. You can monitor your cat by watching the live footage whenever you’re away from home. Not only does this give you peace of mind, but if anything was to happen to your senior cat you’d be able to get them the help they need quickly.
- Brush Your Cat Regularly: Regular brushing should be a part of your cat’s care routine throughout their lives. However, many senior cats stop self-grooming, often due to a lack of mobility. This means their coat quality quickly deteriorates. Regular brushing can help them maintain a healthy shiny coat well into their senior years and prevent a cat from shedding a lot of hair around your home.
Common Diseases for Senior Cats
Even with regular appointments with the veterinarian and good home care, senior cats will likely develop diseases that impact their health. Catching any disease early is important in extending the length and improving the quality of your cat’s life.
Here is a look at the most common examples for seniors and their symptoms so you know what you should be looking out for.
1. Dental Disease
As many as 80% of cats over the age of five suffer from some form of dental disease. This means that in seniors roughly over the age of eleven, dental conditions are extremely common. There is a range of possible different feline dental diseases, with the most common being tooth resorption.
If you notice an older cat not eating but drinking, dental diseases are a likely culprit. Eating can cause oral pain as they chew and swallow food, so cats avoid eating altogether. Alternatively, they may only eat wet food and refuse to eat any dry kibble. Other symptoms include:
- Bad smelling breath
- Red and swollen gums
- Weight loss due to a lack of appetite
- Difficulty and pain when eating
- Drooling from the mouth
- Pawing at the mouth or teeth
Arthritis is also common in senior cats, affecting 90% of cats age ten or older. Similar to the human condition, this is a degenerative disease that affects your cat’s joints. It is much more severe in senior felines, and cats over the age of seven with mobility issues should be considered for arthritis.
The main symptom of arthritis is reduced mobility. For example, your cat may struggle climbing up and down the stairs or in and out of its litter box. Movement causes them pain and so they simply refuse to do so! This sees a reduction in activity levels and your cat will spend more time sleeping and more time indoors.
A reduction in grooming is another common symptom as some of the positions put additional strain on the joints. This can make their coats look scruffy. Changes in temperament are also likely, and senior cats with arthritis tend to have a lower tolerance towards being held and stroked. They also seem to like spending more time alone.
Hyperthyroidism is an endocrine disease where the body produces too much of the hormone thyroid. Although the cause is not known, the disease affects around 10% of cats over the age of ten. Therefore, age appears to be a contributing factor and seniors are much more likely to be affected.
The hormone thyroid plays an important role in regulating physiological processes and metabolism. As such, some of the clinical symptoms cats with hyperthyroidism have include:
- Increased thirst and urination
- Weight loss despite an increase in appetite
- Hyperactivity and restlessness
- Unkempt or matted coats
- Vomiting and/or diarrhea
4. Kidney Disease
If you see an elderly cat drinking a lot of water and meowing, they might be suffering from kidney disease. This is where the function of your cat’s kidneys becomes impaired and they can no longer produce concentrated amounts of urine or remove toxins and waste from the body efficiently. There is an occurrence rate of 30% in cats over the age of 15 years.
Sadly, kidney disease is one of the biggest causes of death in domestic cats as the symptoms of the disease don’t often present until later on. However, keeping an eye out for even the smallest changes can mean the disease is caught early. Some of the clinical symptoms to be aware of include:
- Frequent and excessive urination
- Urinating outside the litter box
- Weakness and lethargy
- Unexplained weight loss
- Bladder and kidney infections
- Vomiting and/or diarrhea
It is estimated by vets that only 0.5% to 2% of cats will suffer from diabetes at some point in their lifetime. However, the majority of cases arise in older cats that have other underlying conditions such as hyperthyroidism or pancreatitis. These conditions and their medications can increase the risk factor for a cat developing diabetes.
Most senior cats diagnosed with diabetes can live full and happy lives for many years following their diagnosis. However, this condition must be noticed and treated; untreated diabetes can cause weakness and lead to malnutrition, ketoacidosis, and death. Some of the earliest and most notable symptoms of diabetes you should watch out for include:
- Increased urination
- Excessive thirst
- Unexplainable weight loss
- An increase in appetite
6. Feline Cognitive Dysfunction
Feline cognitive dysfunction (FCD) is a disease that affects the aging brains of cats. The exact cause is still not known. However, it appears to be related to age and a loss of brain activity and synaptic connections. This impairs your cat’s awareness and causes deficits in both learning and memory.
As such, some of the most common clinical signs are related to disorientation, confusion, and forgetting learned behaviors. For example, cats with FCD might show the following signs:
- Spatial disorientation around known environments
- Outdoor cats walking away from their usual territory
- Reduced interest in playing
- Excessive sleeping or disturbed sleep cycles
- Urinating outside of the litter box
- Long periods of staring blankly into space
Certain types of cancer also become more common as your cat enters its senior years. Lymphoma, squamous cell carcinoma, mast cell tumors, and bone cancers are four of the most prevalent cancers in cats. The most common symptom of most cancers is lumps under the skin, but other signs to watch for include:
- Lethargy and overall weakness
- Foul body odor
- Loss of appetite and weight loss
- Unexplained bleeding and persistent sores
- Difficulty going to the bathroom
Many of these symptoms are minor and a few come naturally with old age, plus cats are notoriously good at hiding when they feel sick or in pain. Therefore, it is super important to keep attending regular checkups at the vet. Many cancers can be treated if not well managed if the disease is caught early enough.
8. Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBS) is where your cat’s gastrointestinal tract becomes chronically inflamed. In turn, this impairs the function of their digestive system and results in a range of digestion-related clinical signs. For example:
- Vomiting and a gurgling stomach
- Abdominal pain
- Diarrhea and/or bloody stools
- Weight loss as nutrients are not being absorbed
- Decreased appetite and weight loss
- Lethargy and weakness
The precise symptoms and their severity will depend on which potion of the GI tract is affected. Because there is a huge overlap between the symptoms of IBS and many other medical conditions, it can be hard to diagnose. However, most cats with IBS will receive their diagnosis when they are middle-aged or when entering their senior years.
MY FINAL THOUGHTS
So, when is a cat considered a senior? If you want to put a figure on it, most veterinarians would consider any cat over the age of eleven to be a senior. However, some twelve-year-old cats will have kitten-like tendencies, whereas some ten-year-old cats will act very senior. As such, it is better to consider the health of your cat when determining how senior they are.
Some of the signs of an aging feline include lower energy levels, reduced mobility, and changes to sleeping patterns, body weight, and behavior. Spatial disorientation and deficits in learning and memory are other common signs. If you notice these signs, implement some of the care tips listed so your cat’s quality of life doesn’t suffer.