What Happens to Cats As They Get Older?
Cat Health and Wellness

What Happens to Cats As They Get Older?

Growing old brings changes to a cat’s mind and body. Thanks to advances in nutrition, medical practice, and owner care, domesticated cats are living longer than ever. This makes it important to understand the changes experienced by senior cats.

The biggest adjustment that impacts senior cats is reduced mobility. Once your cat reaches double figures, arthritis becomes likely. Older cats also sleep more and may become a little grumpy. You’ll see some graying in the fur, while eyesight and hearing often diminish. You’ll also need to tailor your senior cat’s diet to its age.

Cats spend more time as seniors than any other period of life. Older cats may not be as playful as kittens, but they’re still wonderful company. Thank a cat for this companionship by tailoring your care to its age. This way, you’ll enjoy plenty more happy times together.

When is a Cat Considered Old?

Eventually, every cat starts to gray around the muzzle, sleep more, and engage less. This is part of the natural aging process.

This evolution happens at different times in different felines. Breed, lifestyle, diet, and experience will all impact this. On average though, most cats follow the life cycle described in the table below:

Newborn0 – 8 weeks
Kitten8 weeks – 12 months
Adult1 – 9 years
Senior10 – 14 years
Geriatric15 years and older

As you’ll see, a cat that reaches double figures in age is considered senior. This should be reflected in the way you care for your cat. This includes diet and nutrition, grooming and expectations of mobility. Some cats cat may enter senior status from age 7, but this is rare.

Many cats live as long as 20 years, or even longer. This means that seniority is nothing to fear. Most cats spend more time as a senior or geriatric than any other life stage. If the cat’s age is taken into consideration, it will continue living a full, happy life.

Aging in Cats

If your cat is lucky enough to get older, it will undergo a range of changes. These should be gradual and steady, in keeping with the aging process. Any sudden shift in your cat’s appearance or demeanor should be investigated by a professional. Such concerns include:

  • Sudden, inexplicable weight loss
  • Uncharacteristic aggression
  • Drastic alteration to sleep patterns
  • Constant hiding and refusal to interact
  • Hyperactivity

Cats enjoy consistency, so these immediate changes are concerning. Anything more measured is just part of aging. As a cat gets older, it will steadily come less active.

This does not need to be a bad thing. In most cases, it should be considered a compliment. The cat has spent enough time with you to feel confident and comfortable. It is now prepared to spend its golden years living the feline dream, napping and eating.

All the same, it is advisable to learn what changes senior and geriatric cats undergo. The older a cat gets, the more suspectable it can become to disease. By understanding the needs of older cats, you can keep your pet happy and healthy.

what happens as cats age?

Changes in Temperament

Older cats can become a little less patient and more cantankerous than they once were. If your cat is getting irritable, it may just be tired. Older cats like to spend most of their day sleeping peacefully. Keep an eye on your cat’s behavior, though.

A sudden change in attitude is concerning. Watch your cat carefully. Is it showing any warning signs that it is unwell or in discomfort? This may not be obvious. Cats have excellent poker faces, preferring to mask pain. This is seen as a sign of weakness by felines.

It is also possible that your cat just wants to be left alone. Bear this in mind if you are considering a second pet. On paper, the playfulness of a kitten will revitalize your senior cat. Annoyance is likelier than a new lease of life, though.

Most older cats are best left to their existing routine. Bringing a new cat into the home may cause dangerous, and avoidable, stress for your cat. Let your senior cat live out its golden years in peace, accepting belligerence with a smile.

Reduced Mobility

When your cat reaches its senior years, arthritis becomes likely. The BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Behavioral Medicine claims that 90% of cats aged 11 or over experience arthritis. This means that you’ll need to make your cat as comfortable as possible. Signs that your cat is arthritic include:

  • Lack of running and jumping
  • Reluctance to move unless strictly necessary
  • Slow, stilted movements, including lameness in the legs
  • Aggressive reaction to being touched or handled
  • Difficulty making it to the litter tray on time

Meanwhile, ways to aid an arthritic cat include:

  • Massage of the joints
  • Supplements to aid mobility
  • Easy access to food, water and litter trays
  • Soft furnishings to relax within
  • Warm spaces to relax
  • Avoiding unnecessary handling

Arthritic cats experience a range of difficulties associated with reduced mobility. It is your responsibility as an owner to manage this, lending a hand where possible. Cats can be proud and may initially reject help.

Difficulty Grooming

Grooming requires a great deal of dexterity from a cat. Felines need to contort themselves into a variety of positions to access different body parts. The older and stiffer a cat gets, the harder this becomes.

Lend your cat a hand with this. That means bringing grooming into your cat’s daily routine. Try to link with this petting. This means that your cat will consider grooming a source of pleasure.

The biggest priorities in grooming are brushing and cleaning fur. If a cat is unable to clean itself, the hair will become greasy and matted. Natural skin oils have built up on the fur. Grooming usually allows a cat to evenly distribute these oils throughout the body.

Brush your senior cat’s fur a minimum once a day. Double the grooming for longhaired breeds. This brushing will keep your cat’s fur glossy and minimize the risk of hairballs. You can also run an unscented wet wipe over the fur to clean it.

This is not just an aesthetic act, appealing to a cat’s perceived sense of vanity. It will also help keep the cat calm. Felines like to feel clean. This masks scent, and makes the cat feel less visible. This, in turn, helps the cat feel less vulnerable to attack from predators.

 Litter Tray Access            

As per The Veterinary Nurse, older cats are likelier to soil the house than younger counterparts. Sometimes, urinary or fecal incontinence is tied directly to old age. Senior cats lack the strength to hold their waste. Access to the litter tray also often plays into this.

Older cats have weaker bladders and bowels and move slower. These conditions make it a struggle to reach a litter tray on time. These difficulties are multiplied if the litter tray is difficult to access. High sides, for example, are tough for an arthritic cat to negotiate.

Work around this by giving your cat easy access to litter trays. Start by investing in multiple trays. At the very least, have one tray on every floor of your home. If possible, have one in each room. This may not seem hygienic, but it is preferable to accidents on the floor.

You will also need to provide litter trays with at least one low side. An arthritic cat will not be able to lift its legs high. If this is not an option, consider hooded boxes. These are easier to get in and out of for an immobile cat. They can also mask any scents.

Beds and Cushions

Comfort is critical for a cat with limited mobility. If the cat has aching limbs and joints, it needs to feel cozy when at rest. Given that senior cats spend most of the day asleep, this must be taken seriously.

Provide your cat with plenty of soft beds and cushions. These should be easily accessible, without the need to jump to gain access. If you can, invest in an orthopedic bed designed for arthritic cats. This will provide support where it is needed most.

In addition, consider the temperature of these resting places. Warmth helps to ease any aching joints in a cat. Apply a hot water bottle to a cat’s bed. This will help the cat relax and sleep away any discomfort.

Slower Reflexes

Limited mobility in a cat means slower reflexes. Cats are famed for their constant awareness and speed of thought. As a cat grows older, the body cannot keep up with the mind. This means your cat should be kept indoors for its own safety.

The biggest danger to outdoor cats is road traffic. Veterinary Record explains that each year a cat ages reduces the likelihood of road traffic accidents. This is presumably because older cats have experience of roads and understand the inherent dangers.

All the same, even the most senior of cats can have accidents. If your cat wants to cross the road, it will likely do so. Cats are strong-willed, especially when older.

If your cat is older, it may struggle to see or hear traffic coming. If a vehicle does approach, senior cats lack to reflexes to move. Younger cats can move like lightning. Older cats are less fleet of food, lacking the nimbleness required to avoid collision.

It isn’t just traffic that must be considered, either. Older cats may inadvertently wander into a neighborhood feline’s territory. Alternatively, it may encounter an aggressive wild animal. Senior cats retain fight-or-flight instinct but may not be able to escape quickly.

Keeping your cat home will drastically reduce these risks to a senior cat’s wellbeing. As the cat will spend most of the day sleeping, indoor life should be no hardship.

Sleeping More Often

We have mentioned a number of times that senior cats sleep more than younger felines. This is natural. In fact, most senior cats spend more time asleep than they do awake.

Quite understandably, senior cats tire easily. With aching bones and joints comes exhaustion. Every time a cat moves, it burns calories and uses significant energy. This is why all cats sleep a lot. Older cats need even more recovery time.

Feline sleep takes two forms – REM sleep and deep sleep. REM sleep is a light doze. You may notice your cat dreaming during REM sleep. This is because the cat is sifting through memories while it sleeps. The brain decides what to keep and what to discard.

REM sleep is important, but deep sleep is critical for older felines. During deep sleep, a cat’s body repairs itself. Aches and strains are relieved, and aging joints recover to an extent. Unlike REM sleep, a cat in deep sleep will not move or verbalize.

If your cat is in a deep sleep, never wake it up. This interrupts the healing process and disorients the cat. This can lead to instinctive aggression. Leave the cat to sleep, even if it is in your way. If this becomes an issue, encourage your cat to doze in assigned territory.

Graying Fur

As your cat grows older, you will start to notice a little gray around its muzzle. In some cats, this will spread throughout the body. In others, it will be concentrated on this single area. Either way, a steady and gradual descent into gray fur is natural for senior cats.

You’ll notice this more in black and dark brown cats. The reason for the gray is a decline in melanin. This pigment is created naturally in the feline body, providing fur with its shade. As a cat grows older, it creates less melanin. This means the fur will gradually become lighter.

As a result, a cat may not immediately turn gray. You may notice that your black cat becomes dark brown or rusty red. Equally, a brown cat’s fur may become a lighter shade of tan. Eventually, this will fade into gray.

There are other reasons for cat fur to change color, so watch its general behavior and demeanor. If your cat is not acting out of sorts, the graying is natural. Embrace it. Gray fur can look dignified in a feline.

Dental Problems

Cats of all ages can experience issues with teeth. In fact, it is rare for a cat to reach the age of 3 without any kind of dental problem. These concerns become more serious in senior cats, though.

Dental issues in cats are caused by bacteria in the mouth, leading to gum disease. Left untreated, these bacteria can spread throughout a cat’s body. As older cats have weaker immunity than their younger counterparts, this can be dangerous.

You’ll need to remain on top of brushing and cleaning a senior cat’s teeth. Professional tooth cleaning comes with significant risk for older felines. The older a cat is, the more pronounced the hazards associated with anesthesia. Do not allow the problem to go this far.

You also need to consider the quality of a senior cat’s teeth. Just like bones, teeth reduce in density and strength as a cat grows older. Factor this into your cat’s diet. Senior cats struggle to chew tough food and treats. Older cats can be prone to losing teeth.

Specialist Dietary Requirements

Older cats will often need to have their diet considered. A cat’s appetite is unlikely to decrease with age. Its activity levels, and thus calories burned, will drop though.

If your cat eats more calories than it consumes, it will grow obese. Heart disease and diabetes then become a significant risk. You can still feed your cat an appropriate amount of food. Just ensure that your senior cat receives appropriate vitamins and minerals.

As per the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, protein is the primary focus of senior cat food. If you head to a pet store, you will find senior-specific meals from all reputable brands. These foods are designed to meet the protein needs of older felines.

In addition, consider switching your cat from dry to wet food. As discussed, a senior cat’s teeth are often weak. Tough kibble can be hard to chew. A gradual transition to wet food will be easier for your cat to manage.

Most senior cat foods are soft and small. Many can be swallowed without mastication. This means that even a toothless cat can still obtain essential nutrition. Just because your cat is old, it should not be skinny. You just need to avoid dangerous weight gain.

Loss of Senses

Your cat is likely to experience some loss of sense as it grows older. Taste will remain unaffected. As per the Journal of Anatomy, a cat’s taste buds do not evolve over a lifetime. Equally, a cat’s keen sense of smell will be retained into its dotage.

This is a relief, as senior or geriatric cats often rely on smell. Just as with humans, older cats start to struggle with sight and hearing. These senses will gradually diminish over time.

Eyesight

Cats start to lose their eyesight as they grow older. The quality of the eyes degenerates with age. Unfortunately, unlike humans, cats cannot wear eyeglasses to make up for any shortfall.

It is typically easy to spot failing eyesight in cats. The cat will become reluctant to negotiate stairs or jump from furniture. It may also seem anxious and easily startled. Ways to test your cat’s eyesight include:

  • Place soft furnishings in a common route and see if your cat bumps into them
  • Use a laser pointer to attract your cat’s attention and check for response
  • Flick light switches on and off and check for dilation in the pupils
  • Hide a treat and see if your cat sniffs it out rather than searching by sight

As explained by The Journals of Gerontology, a senior cat’s balance can be impacted by blindness. This must be taken into consideration. Do not place your cat in positions where a fall is likely. While a cat’s tail is primarily used for balance, vision stabilizes the head.

Cats adapt well to losing sight. If the cat still has excellent hearing, it will barely notice a gradual descent into blindness. Cats tend to rely more on scent and sound to negotiate the world. Provide a clear, unobstructed path to food, water and litter and your cat will be fine.

cats aging process

Hearing

In addition to vision, some cats lose their hearing as they age. This can be slightly more problematic than blindness. All the same, as with vision loss, gradual deafness is manageable. The cat will learn to adjust its lifestyle accordingly.

It may not be immediately obvious if your cat is losing its hearing. Cats rarely approach when called – though you should notice some, subtle acknowledgment of your voice. Older cats may be asleep though, or just ignoring you. The cat will see what you wanted when it suits them.

Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice explains why older cats lose their hearing. The feline eardrum is filled with tiny hairs. These hairs vibrate upon picking up changes to air pressure, including sound. With age, these hairs are worn down and eroded.

To test your cat’s hearing, stand behind it and make a noise that few cats can ignore. Examples of these include:

  • Paper being torn in half
  • Squeaks of a favored toy
  • Rustling of tin foil or a similar material
  • Hissing

If your cat fails to respond to these stimuli, it is safe to assume that it is losing its hearing. Cats can and will adjust to this. You’ll just need to introduce more safety measures. A deaf cat must never roam outside. The inability to hear threats makes this too dangerous.

In addition, be careful not to startle your cat. Announce your presence through ground vibrations, such as stomping your feet. This ensures the cat knows you are coming, as it detects the vibrations through the paws. This, in turn, reduces the risk of bites or scratches.

Chronic Illnesses

Sadly, few cats pass away naturally of old age. In the majority of cases, disease eventually claims a cat’s life. This does not need to be a prolonged and painful end. With the right care, your cat will pass as it lived; peacefully and surrounded by love.

More importantly, early identification of sickness can prolong a cat’s life. All cats should attend an annual veterinary check-up. Senior cats should double this to twice a year. This way, scans and tests can be run as a preventative measure.

Renal Failure

Renal failure is the single biggest danger to senior cats. A cat’s kidneys start to lose effectiveness from a comparatively young age. This is known as chronic renal failure. This can start to manifest from the age of seven onward.

Chronic renal failure is divided into four stages. With each stage, a cat’s kidneys become less and less effective. Symptoms rarely manifest in stages 1 and 2. Even stage 3 can be hard to spot. Sadly, stage 4 renal failure is invariably fatal.

Take your senior cat for twice-annual veterinary check-ups. The kidneys will be paid particular attention during these assessments. A vet will be able to assess any potential damage. While renal failure cannot be cured, it can be slowed down.

As discussed in the Journal of Small Animal Practice, diet is key to this. If chronic renal failure is caught early, a specialist diet will be prescribed. If followed appropriately, along with lifestyle changes, this diet can add years to a cat’s life.

Heart Problems

Older cats have weak hearts. This means that stress must be kept to a minimum. Cats are easily startled and made to feel uncomfortable. If your senior cat experiences a sudden shock, it could trigger cardiac arrest.

As per the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, it is also important to keep your senior cat’s weight down. Excess body weight is intrinsically linked to heart disease in felines, especially purebred cats. Make regular weigh-ins part of your cat care regime.

Cancer

Cancer can strike cats at any age. The older a cat gets, though, the likelier a diagnosis becomes. In addition, cancerous tumors are increasingly damaging to senior felines. The older a cat grows, the less likely it is to respond to treatment.

While you are petting and grooming your cat, look for any unexpected lumps. If you find a lump, gently touch it. If the lump is solid, and your cat immediately flees, it is likely a malignant tumor. These are painful to the touch.

If the lump is flexible and your cat ignores contact, try not to worry too much. This may be an air cyst, or something equally benevolent. All the same, discuss the lump with a vet. The sooner a diagnosis is made, the faster your cat can be treated.

Cognitive Decline

If your cat has lived to reach geriatric status, then cognitive decline becomes likely. This is feline dementia. Your cat will begin behaving erratically and potentially become harder to care for. Common warning signs of cognitive decline in cats include:

  • Sudden, drastic personality changes and mood swings
  • General disorientation
  • Staring into space for hours
  • Reversed sleep-waking cycles
  • Increased anxiety and verbalization
  • Eliminating outside the litter box

There is no cure for feline cognitive decline. The degradation of your cat’s brain can be slowed down, though. A professional will prescribe drugs and recommend supplements for this.

In addition, encourage your cat to think. Talk to your cat and create puzzles, such as locating hidden treats. The more active a cat’s mind remains, the slower the descent into dementia will be.

It is important to remember that aging itself is not a disease. It happens to us all, including cats. With appropriate care, senior cats remain wonderful pets and enjoy pleasurable lives. Your cat has spent its life bringing you joy. Now, through its senior years, repay this with affection and effort.