Elderly cats – special considerations

Cats are living much longer now than was the case 20 years ago, thanks to better nutrition, veterinary and home care.

In recent years, feline ages and life-stages have been redefined, cats are considered to be elderly once they reach 11 years with senior cats defined as those aged between 11-14 years and geriatric cats 15 years and upwards. When caring for older cats it sometimes helps to appreciate their age in human terms.

The formula for calculating the equivalent age is fairly simple:

the first two years of a cat’s life equate to 24 human years and every year thereafter is equivalent to 4 human years. For example, a 16 year old cat would be equivalent to an 80 year old human.

See our information on how to tell your cat’s age in human years

The effects of ageing

With increasing age there are many changes to a cat’s physiology, behaviour and vulnerability to particular illnesses. Physiological changes include reduced ability to smell and taste food, reduced ability to digest fat and protein, reduced hearing, immune function, skin elasticity and stress tolerance. 

Behavioural changes

As cats age their behaviour alters too, often as a direct result of the physiological changes taking place. The elderly cat adapts gradually to these changes and it may not be apparent unless you are specifically looking for signs of ageing. Older cats hunt less, spend less time outside, are generally less active and sleep for longer periods. They can have a reduced or fussy appetite, be less keen to play or groom and be more vocal. They also tend to become more insecure and therefore potentially more dependent on you.

Other behavioural changes can be seen as a direct result of disease, for example, increased thirst or appetite or aggression associated with pain.

Home care for the elderly

This is the time, more than any other, when your cat needs some essential care. As cats get older they will find it more difficult to maintain their own cleanliness and checking your cat regularly will enable you to detect problems that need to be tackled straight away. 

Claw trimming

For example, check your cat’s nails weekly. Elderly cats are less able to retract their claws and they may get caught in furniture and carpets. They can also overgrow and stick into their pads. Regular trimming will be necessary and with the right advice and training from your veterinarian it may be straightforward for you to perform this routine task and therefore avoid the need for a potentially stressful journey to the surgery. 

Grooming

Your old cat is less able to groom efficiently so you may need to wipe away any discharge around its eyes, nose or anus using separate pieces of cotton wool for each area moistened in warm water. You may also need to brush your cat using a soft brush and fine comb but care should be taken to ensure you are gentle, as older cats tend to be thin with very little padding over their bones so vigorous combing can be painful. At this time you can also check for lumps, bumps, sores or anything else that merits attention from the vet. Grooming shorthaired cats only needs to be completed thoroughly if there is any matting. This can often occur on the lower spine and hindquarters as your cat may be less flexible and therefore unable to reach these areas to self-groom. 

If your cat is longhaired and is having difficulties keeping itself clean it may be helpful to trim the coat around its anus, underside of the tail and back legs to avoid soiling or matting. If you find any matts then they should be teased out rather than cut with scissors as this can so easily damage the skin. If you have any concerns, consult your veterinarian as severe matts can be very uncomfortable for your cat. 

For more information, see how to groom your cat

Hairballs

Hairballs are a common problem in older cats as they often have sluggish digestions and hair ingested during grooming may cause complications such as chronic vomiting or constipation. Special supplements or foods can be purchased to assist with hairballs should this become a problem for your cat.

Toilet habits

Even if your elderly cat has access outdoors it is wise to provide an indoor litter facility as there will inevitably come a time when your cat just doesn’t feel inclined to toilet in cold, damp conditions outside. If you provide a litter tray you then have the opportunity to check your cat’s elimination habits for blood in the urine or stools, change in consistency of stools or other indicators of disease. 

See how to choose the right litter tray for your cat

Dental checks

Old teeth and mouths can cause problems so check your cat regularly for signs of any growths, reddening of the gums or evidence of dental disease. Halitosis (bad breath), drooling, a ‘chattering’ jaw, loss of appetite and pawing at the mouth may all be signs of dental disease, if in doubt, consult your veterinarian.

Regular health checks

Your veterinarian will advise the frequency of health checks that would best suit your cat, taking into consideration its age and general health. Although it’s good to know your cat will be regularly examined it shouldn’t prevent you from being a little more vigilant at home to spot the first signs that all is not well. There are a number of general warning signs that merit attention from your veterinarian, namely:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Drinking more often or drinking a larger amount per day 
  • Stiffness, lameness or difficulty in jumping up
  • Lethargy
  • Lumps or bumps anywhere on the body
  • Balance problems
  • Toilet accidents or difficulty passing urine or faeces
  • Disorientation or distress
  • Uncharacteristic behaviour, such as hiding, aggression, excessive vocalisation

Encouraging appetite

Your cat may have less of an appetite as it gets older as its sense of smell and taste diminishes or there may be occasions when your cat needs a little encouragement. There are various ways that you can stimulate appetite, for example:

  • Offer food little and often – for example four to six meals per day as a starting point - and choose a quiet area so that your cat isn’t distracted by noise and activity. Experiment with both familiar and unfamiliar food to tempt appetite
  • Consider the type of bowl used to offer food: your cat may prefer a wide, shallow bowl or one with a rim, for example.
  • Offer food at room temperature, gently warming food to just below body temperature can increase palatability
  • Experiment with the consistency of the food offered. Some elderly cats, especially those with dental problems, prefer soft food to lumps or dry biscuits. You could try adding a small amount of water to the food and mashing with a fork 
  • Raise the food bowl onto a box, for example, as this may offer more comfortable eating to a cat with osteoarthritis affecting the neck. 
  • Avoid leaving uneaten wet food out for more than an hour and don’t be tempted to leave a range of different foods out as this can be overwhelming.
  • Sitting with your cat whilst talking and stroking can increase appetite, you may even want to try hand feeding

Drinking

Elderly cats are more vulnerable to becoming dehydrated, especially if suffering from medical conditions such as chronic kidney disease, so always make sure that a variety of water bowls are available in the home in accessible areas away from the normal places where food is eaten. You may need to experiment with the type of container, for example, ceramic bowl, glass or drinking fountain and even the type of water, such as tap water, boiled water, filtered, spring etc. It may even be helpful to add a small amount of water to your elderly cat’s wet food. Water bowls, like food bowls, may be more comfortably used by the older cat if you raise it off the ground.

Elderly cat friendly home

All the recommendations for a cat friendly home will work as well for the elderly with a little modification. There is rarely the need to make drastic changes to the home to accommodate your cat as it gets older but small adaptations to the existing cat resources can make a significant difference to the quality of life. If your cat is finding stairs difficult to negotiate, for example, then it may be spending prolonged periods on one level, either up or down stairs. Ensuring that all your cat’s needs are met on that one level will avoid any risk of being unable to access important resources.

In order to make activity and movement in general easier for your older cat it is important that it feels comfortable walking. Laminate, tiled or wooden flooring can be slippery and old cats can become unstable on slippery surfaces making them less inclined to be active. Equally, carpet can catch on your cat’s claws that overgrow easily without regular stropping and remain protracted as the muscles weaken. Cut pile carpets are more comfortable for your cat than loop pile so if your flooring is the latter you can compromise by providing cut pile runners throughout the home to enable your cat to walk in comfort. This is also the ideal surface on which to play, particularly if your cat likes to lie down in the process.

Play

If your cat has a favourite toy there is no reason to discard it as he gets older. The larger toys can be useful to encourage your elderly cat to lie on its side, grab the toy with the front paws and kick with the back legs. This gives great exercise for stiff hind limbs and is a type of play enjoyed by many. The ideal ‘kick toy’ is rectangular or cylindrical, between 6 and 8 inches long (15-20cm) and made of a durable fabric such as drill cotton or towelling.  

The cardboard box is a real favourite for the cat but the principle may need adapting for the elderly. Older cats may like the idea of investigating but lack the flexibility to jump in and move around. Placing a large box on its side with the opening facing your cat will enable it to walk in and investigate. Carrier bags and paper bags can also provide opportunities for exploration, particularly if they crinkle, but handles should be removed to avoid any accidents as cats can easily get them caught round their necks.

Scratching

Elderly cats are less likely to use the tall activity and scratching posts as the stropping action on vertical surfaces can put strain on arthritic joints. Offering similar horizontal surfaces can satisfy those that still enjoy scratching and the action provides important exercise for the muscles of the forelimbs. 

Look-outs

Cats love to view outdoors and most enjoy sitting on high windowsills but jumping up can prove difficult if not impossible for some elderly cats, so provision should be made for easy access up to and down from these favourite look-outs. A series of shallow steps offer the best solution, ramps can be used but comfortably only if they are angled to represent a slight incline rather than a steep slope.

Puzzle feeding

Your older cat may enjoy the challenge of puzzle feeders but it’s important to monitor food consumption to ensure that the extra effort doesn’t dissuade your cat from eating. If this is the case, stick to bowls that are placed in your cat’s favoured spot.

Litter trays

Litter trays should normally be located well away from other resources, such as food and water but for the very elderly or those cats suffering from cognitive dysfunction it is appropriate for all its resources to be located in easy reach to avoid confusion. 

The trays should probably not be the covered variety as these can be difficult to negotiate. Open trays with low sides are ideal and they should be firmly fixed to prevent them from being tipped up if your cat is clumsy when using a tray. Polythene litter liners should be avoided as they can catch in your cat’s claws and any indoor trays should be cleaned regularly. If your cat is suffering from a condition that causes increased thirst and urination you may need to fill the tray to a depth exceeding the recommendation of 3cm – probably as much as 5cm in some cases. Trial and error is required as your cat may prefer a more shallow litter that is cleaned more frequently.

Beds

Many favoured locations for sleep are on raised surfaces, such as your bed or a window sill, so it may become difficult with time for your elderly cat to access these special places. The positioning of ramps, steps and platforms will enable it to reach the area in gentle stages rather than giving up due to stiffness or weakness in the joints. 

If your cat uses your bed, chair or sofa you may wish to provide a thermal blanket that is warm and washable. If your cat likes to sleep on window sills or other narrow platforms it is advisable to place a soft padded object underneath to prevent injury as many older cats have impaired balance and could easily fall. Ideally elderly cats should be encouraged to use secure or wider surfaces for sleep.

Private places

Your cat needs to be able to have uninterrupted rest so any areas chosen should be kept accessible and new ones created if lack of mobility prevents your cat from using those previously favoured. 

Cat flaps

Some elderly cats will reduce the frequency of excursions outside as a result of difficulty negotiating the cat flap. It may be helpful to build a step, inside and outside, to make it easier to use but eventually it is almost inevitable that the cat flap will be replaced by escorted trips into the garden via the back door. When this occurs, if no other cats in the household are using the flap, it would be advisable to block up or remove the flap to prevent invasion from other cats outside which would be distressing for your cat. 

Garden

There are a number of reasons why your cat may stop going outside as it gets older. A significant influence is undoubtedly going to be the presence of other cats in the territory and a sense that your cat is no longer able to actively defend its patch. If you are able to secure your garden (for more information see fencing in your garden) you can exclude other cats and contain your own cat within the safety of your own property. 

Holidays and celebrations

If your cat has always gone into a cattery when you are on holiday then there is no particular reason to change the routine. However older cats don’t cope particularly well with changes to their routine so there may come a time when your cat may prefer to stay at home with someone visiting, or staying over, to provide the necessary care. Ideally the cat-sitter should be someone with whom your cat is familiar. 

Older cats can find parties and general festivities at home a little overwhelming so you may find your cat benefits from a secure and quiet place to retreat to, where it has everything it needs, while the activity is happening in another part of the house.

Advice section: