Senior Cat Citizens

As preventative health care improves for cats, they are living longer and longer, with the average lifespan of an indoor, mixed breed cat being 15-20 years. As cats age, their nutritional and health requirements change as their body functions change.


Many older cats suffer from stiff muscles and joints. It is estimated that a significant percentage of cats (up to 90%) over the age of 12 are suffering from arthritis. One published study has suggested that there was evidence of osteoarthritis in 22% of cats over 1 year old.

Cats are particularly stoic creatures, since showing signs of pain could make a solitary survivor vulnerable. Therefore arthritis is often missed in cats because they don’t have an obvious limp. Instead, signs to look for include a reluctance or inability to jump onto furniture – some tend to put their front feet up then drag the rest of the body up, inability to use the litter tray, or get to toilet spots in the garden. A loss of muscle tone may be visible in the hindquarters and legs. Sometimes the only noticeable sign is a change in behaviour – the cat may be irritable, seem to resent handling or sleep more than usual.

There are treatments available for arthritis in cats including injections which improve the joint environment by restoring joint cartilage. A daily anti-inflammatory analgesic is available in a liquid form and is well-tolerated by cats when mixed in the food.

Food supplements containing chondroitin and glucosamine are also useful in treating arthritis as they assist in rebuilding the cartilage of the joint surface. There are prescription joint diets available containing these nutraceuticals, as well as EPA, an omega-3 fatty acid. Ask your veterinarian about what would be most appropriate treatment for your cat.

At home you can provide beds and litter trays that are easier to access – consider a ramp or small steps to access favoured spots.

Dental disease

Dental pain has been linked to an increase in irritable and even aggressive behaviour in elderly cats and commonly owners comment on the improvement in their cat’s temperament when dental treatment has been carried out.

As plaque and calculus accumulate on the teeth, gingivitis occurs followed by gum recession and loosening of the structures which surround the teeth. Bacteria enter the bloodstream through the inflamed gums and can lodge in places like the kidneys and heart valves, leading the kidney failure and heart problems. Therefore the health of the teeth has a significant influence on general body health.

To keep teeth clean and free of plaque and calculus, cats need to chew. Dental treats such as Greenies are available, or you can feed raw chicken wings and necks at least twice weekly, ensuring you take care with food hygiene to avoid making you or your pet sick. Since most cats need to be trained to do this from a young age, it is common for older cats to ignore the proffered chicken wings. In these cases, veterinarians can clean the teeth with an ultrasonic scaler, then polish the teeth. This procedure requires a general anaesthetic and is often an annual event for most older cats. Prescription dental diets are available to help limit plaque build-up. Daily toothbrushing at home is the best preventative option… if your cat tolerates it!

Kidney disease

As the body ages, the kidneys lose the function of their cells (nephrons) which are responsible for maintaining water and electrolyte balance in the body, as well as eliminating some waste products. Signs of declining kidney function start with an increase in thirst to compensate for an increase in urine production. Senior cat diets are formulated to ease the workload on the kidneys, and free access to fresh water must be provided to older cats.

Cognitive dysfunction (feline dementia)

Recent research has found that cats, like dogs, also suffer from age related changes in the brain. This is seen primarily as changes in the sleep/wake cycle accompanied by vocalisation. Disorientation is also common, along with changes in social interaction both with people and other cats in the household. There appears to be a later age of onset of cognitive dysfunction when compared to dogs which is possibly connected to longer feline life expectancy.

A combination of nutritional supplementation and appropriate medication (although there are no products specifically registered for cats at this stage) appears to be the most beneficial in managing the progression of the disease.

Other senior cat diseases

Other diseases more common in older cats include hyperthyroidism, cancer, and diabetes. It is not uncommon for cats to have more than one disorder at once. Some cats can become obese if they are inactive and eating the same amount and type of food as when they were younger. Others lose weight, which may be a sign of an underlying disease.

It is important to pay more attention to the eating, drinking and toileting habits of older cats in order to detect problems early, as well as general behaviour changes. If your cat is drinking more than normal, eating more or less, is not grooming itself, is having difficulty going to the toilet, is urinating or defecating outside of its litter tray, is becoming less interactive with the family, or becoming aggressive (often due to pain), then please call your vet for advice.

Dr Rebecca Bragg BVSc & Dr Julia Adams BVSc

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