Senior Cat Care - Special Considerations

By Malcolm Weir, DVM, MSc, MPH; Krista Williams, BSc, DVM; Ernest Ward, DVM

There are now more pet cats than dogs in North America. Improved nutrition, infectious disease prevention, and advances in veterinary medicine have resulted in our cats living longer and healthier lives. In the last decade in North America, there has been a 15% increase in the number of cats over ten years old and up to 14% in cats over fifteen.

What are some of the changes that occur in aging cats?

Many changes can occur in aging cats, including:

  • Many aging cats are affected by osteoarthritis (OA), which contributes to decreased activity. The lack of activity then contributes to the stiffening of the joints and worsens the symptoms of OA.
  • Reduction in exercise may result in reduced muscle tone, which further reduces the cat's ability to jump, climb, or exercise.
  • The lack of exercise results in a fall in energy requirements of up to 40%. If a cat maintains a good appetite, his daily food intake must be reduced to prevent excessive weight gain, as it can cause obesity-related health issues.
  • Inappetence or lack of desire to eat may develop in some senior cats since the senses of smell and taste become dull with age.
  • Periodontal (dental) disease is common in senior cats and can cause organ dysfunction, possibly thromboembolic events (strokes), and may contribute to inappetence.
  • Intestinal function, including the intestines’ ability to absorb nutrients, is reduced in many older animals.
  • Geriatric or degenerative changes in the liver, kidneys, and endocrine system (hormone system) will decrease the efficiency of digestive and other processes in the body.
  • Thirst is often decreased, causing an increased risk of dehydration, especially when combined with concurrent renal insufficiency, a type of kidney disease common in older cats.
"Reduction in exercise may result in reduced muscle tone, which further reduces the cat's ability to jump, climb, or exercise."

How can these aging changes affect my cat's response to medication?

Changes in how your cat’s body functions as she ages affect food and nutrient absorption and how drugs are metabolized. Liver and kidney disease occur commonly in older cats. When coupled with mild dehydration, these can increase drug levels in their bloodstream. When treating geriatric patients, some drugs’ doses and dosing frequency may need to be altered.

Does my senior cat still need to have regular booster vaccinations?

It is recognized that immune function changes with increasing age in cats. This may reduce the ability to fight infection or destroy cancer cells. Based on your cat's lifestyle, physical condition, and risk of exposure to common preventable diseases, your veterinarian will advise you on the most appropriate vaccination program.

My senior cat becomes very distressed when we try to medicate her. Should we keep trying when it upsets her so much?

There is no simple answer to this question, and it should be discussed with your veterinarian. The proper advice for your cat depends on the specific disease being treated and whether the treatment may lead to a cure or is aimed at controlling clinical signs. It also depends on how ill the cat is. Often, older cats do not tolerate excessive physical handling or environmental change, so while medications may be able to offer complex therapeutic options, these may not be an option for your cat. Each case must be assessed individually. Treatment should not be attempted where it will be poorly tolerated for medical or temperamental reasons. Always ask your veterinarian if there is another way to give medication. Some medications can be compounded in a transdermal form that can be rubbed on the skin.

"Always ask your veterinarian if there is another way to give medication."

What diseases commonly affect senior cats?

The major health problems seen in older cats are:

  • obesity
  • periodontal disease
  • hormonal disorders, such as hyperthyroidism and diabetes mellitus
  • kidney disease
  • liver disease
  • heart disease
  • neoplasia or cancer
  • infections, such as feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV)
  • osteoarthritis

Though young cats usually have only one disorder at a time, this is often not the case in older patients, where diagnosis and treatment may be complicated by several concurrent disease processes.

What can I do to make my senior cat as happy as possible?

Most cats age gracefully and require very little. Since older cats do not generally respond well to change, any changes must be introduced slowly.

Elderly cats should have easy access to a warm and comfortable bed where they can sleep safely without fearing disturbances. They should also always have easy access to fresh drinking water.

You should feed your older cat high-quality, easily digestible food recommended by your veterinarian. Although specific nutrient requirements are not yet determined for senior cats, it should be assumed that any older cat has some degree of subclinical or underlying disease, particularly of the kidneys and liver. Hence, a diet with moderate phosphorus restriction is usually recommended.

"You should feed your older cat high-quality, easily digestible food recommended by your veterinarian."

As cats age, some will experience a reduced ability to control urination and defecation. To reduce the risk of accidents, provide multiple litter boxes located on each floor of the house that your cat may use and near favorite sleeping and eating areas.

My veterinarian mentioned a Senior Wellness Program. What does this involve?

Any senior care program aims to maintain the quality of the pet's life and to slow the progression of age-related diseases. Because most of the chronic diseases we see in senior cats are slow to progress, early recognition is usually only possible through diagnostic tests. The earlier a disease is diagnosed, the more likely its progression can be slowed or reversed, and a high quality of life for your senior cat can be maintained for longer. Senior cats should have regular health checks twice yearly.

Senior care programs usually include a thorough physical examination, blood and urine screening, and chest or abdominal radiographs (X-rays). Body weight should be recorded regularly, and booster vaccinations should be given as determined by your cat's lifestyle. Additional details about your veterinarian’s senior care programs will be provided to you.

While it is true that old age is not a disease, older pets do merit special attention. This is important so that if your cat develops a disease, it can be recognized and treated as early as possible, thereby maintaining her quality of life for as long as possible.

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