When we talk about old cats, the image most people will have in mind is that of a cat curled up in a quiet spot, asleep in the sun. And let’s be honest here – that picture adequately covers 90% of a cat’s daily activities. Given their mostly sedentary and independent lifestyle it’s not surprising that we tend not to notice the important changes taking place in our cats as they age.

Our cats are living longer for many reasons – owners are sticking with good preventative medicine regimes, our understanding of feline nutritional requirements has improved and the range of options in terms of veterinary care available to our pets increases every day.

Understanding the changes that occur throughout the ageing process can help us to ensure that we maintain quality of life for them for as long as we can. We can’t stop the inevitable ageing, but we can minimize the rate of progression of change and enjoy life with them to the full.

To simplify the picture, we tend to classify any cat 7 years of age or older as “senior”. It’s around this time in life that the body starts to undergo many biological changes, all of which lead to a generalized decrease in the cat’s ability to deal with internal and external stress, making them more vulnerable to developing diseases. And unfortunately, once a problem develops in one system this increases the stress on all others and can lead to the development of multisystemic disease.

If we can change our management to accommodate the changes our cats are undergoing, we’ll have a better chance of reducing the “stresses” on their bodies.

Here’s an overview of some of the ageing changes that occur in cats and some tips on how to minimize their impact:

The body’s metabolic rate decreases, and so does activity levels.

A senior cat’s energy needs are 30 – 40% lower than a young cat.

  • If we don’t adjust dietary energy intake, obesity becomes a major issue.

Obesity predisposes cats to developing diabetes, as well as placing additional stress on old organs and bones!

Ageing changes in the liver alter the ability to digest and absorb nutrients and vitamins

Some vitamin requirements increase as a result, and more fibre is needed to aid digestion.

  • Older cats require a diet of different composition than younger cats to accommodate these changes – hence the range of “Senior” diets available. (These diets also accommodate the reduced energy requirements mentioned above!)

Intestinal function also changes with age and this has an impact on digestive capacity too.

  • Feed your older cat more frequently – give smaller portions of a Senior diet 2 to 3 times a day to aid digestion and keep nutrient levels stable.

Cats are very intolerant of oral pain – they soon stop eating and drinking if dental disease is a problem. Dental disease in an older cat can be one of the stresses that pushes them into a multisystemic disease state. Bacterial toxins are readily absorbed from diseased mouths, and bacteria present in dental disease can contribute to respiratory problems, heart disease and kidney disease.

  • Give hard dry foods regularly, offer raw chicken wings frequently and have your cat’s teeth checked regularly for signs of dental disease.
  • If necessary you can brush your cat’s teeth too using products suitable for cats (NOT human toothpaste) – but this is not an easy job!
  • If dental disease is significant, a thorough clean under anaesthetic may be necessary – and with appropriate pre-anaesthetic tests and intra-operative care, this procedure does not necessarily present any risks to your old cat!

Cats commonly suffer a decrease in kidney function with age – there is loss of functional kidney tissue and a decrease in the kidney’s ability to cope with internal changes. Water deprivation or short periods of inadequate water intake during illness can precipitate a crisis in older cats.

  • Always ensure your cat has free access to clean water.
  • Seek prompt attention for your cat if there is any change in their normal drinking habits – while a sudden decrease in water intake can unmask kidney disease, a subtle increase in water intake can be one of the first signs that the kidneys are no longer working as efficiently as they should.

Muscle mass and bone density decrease with age. This makes older cats more susceptible to trauma and arthritic change.

  • Indoor cats live longer than outdoor cats – consider keeping your old cat inside to minimize exposure to accidents and injuries.
  • Provide thick soft bedding for older cats – this is particularly important in winter, as older cats have less ability to regulate their body temperature so will be more susceptible to the effects of cold and arthritic pain will be exacerbated.

With age, cats become less fastidious in their general grooming habits. Their tears become thicker and more mucoid and they tend to produce more wax in their ears.

  • Groom your older cat regularly to prevent coat matting.
  • Check your older cat’s eyes and ears regularly, and clean them gently when necessary to reduce the likelihood of infections occurring.

The immune system becomes less effective with age. Older cats are more susceptible to infectious diseases and cancers.

  • Maintain regular vaccination boosters and preventative care regimes eg parasite control.
  • Consider bringing your older cat in for a health check at the 6 month mark between vaccination boosters.