Hey there! This is Dr. Leslie Brooks 👩⚕️
Today we are going to discuss the average lifespan of cats.
If you have a cat, there is a good chance you will have a companion for quite a long time. Though they do not live as long as many pet birds, they do typically live longer than dogs.
Assuming your cat is generally healthy, they may even be part of your life for 20 years or more! In this article, we will talk about domestic cats’ lifespans and how they may be altered based on health and different living environments.
Cat Life Stages- the basics:
We will start by breaking down the general life stages of a cat into different categories:
Life Stage Category
Birth to 6 months
6 months to 1 year
1 to 8 years
Middle-Aged to Older Adult
8 to 12 years
Senior to Super Senior
12 to over 20 years (but less than 30 years)
For the most part, kittens are extremely playful, curious, and social. As they go through their juvenile time period and become adult cats, they will start to develop their more unique, individualized personalities.
As cats grow and develop throughout each life stage, their behavior and personalities can sometimes change as well. Kittens, who were once care-free and easy-going can sometimes become anxious or even protective of their space.
Cats who did not like being pet or held when they were younger, may in their older years, seek out affection and companionship all the time when they are in their senior years.
This is a very normal behavior for cats, and it will vary cat to cat. Occasionally, it could also mean there is an underlying medical condition going on, which we will discuss later on.
Factors that determine how long a cat may live:
There are a number of things that may contribute to how long a domestic cat may live. Even though there are some cats who live longer than 20 years, there are also ones who do not make it past their first year of life.
Here is a list of factors that determine how long a cat may live, which we will discuss in more detail below:
- Genes (their genetic makeup from their parents)
- Congenital abnormalities (things they are born with)
- Exposure to infectious diseases
- Vaccination status
- Spay or neuter status
- Whether they are mainly an indoor cat verses an outdoor cat
- Whether they are an owned cat verses a feral or stray cat
- Exposure to toxic substances
- Their weight
- Development of negative health conditions
- Their behavior
All of the items listed above will combine to determine your cat’s individual lifespan. Some cats, unfortunately, just get the short end of the stick in regards to genetic makeup, while others seem to truly have nine lives.
Much of how long a cat will live is determined by their genetic makeup. Their genetic makeup is what their parents passed down to them. This means there is not much control you have over this when it comes to your cat’s lifespan.
Genetic things that can be passed down include their susceptibility to certain detrimental health conditions, including heart disease.
Their genetic makeup could also make them more or less likely to develop cancer and certain auto-immune diseases later in life.
Maybe They’re Born with It: Congenital Abnormalities
Congenital abnormalities, on the other hand, are abnormal things they are born with. These are not necessarily passed down to them in their genetic makeup, but just sort of flukes of life.
For instance, a kitten developing in their mother’s womb may grow an abnormally shaped leg, which could affect their ability to get exercise or run away from danger.
Congenital heart defects are conditions where kittens’ hearts do not fully develop properly. Some kittens may be born either blind or deaf. If a cat is born the runt of the litter, they may not be strong enough to nurse properly and may fail to thrive.
A fairly common congenital abnormality is “cerebellar hypoplasia”. This condition occurs when a part of the kitten’s brain, the cerebellum, does not fully develop while in the womb. It can cause incoordination, and they do not have much balance when they walk.
Infectious Disease Exposure
Even though there are vaccines available for the most common feline infectious diseases, there are some infections that we do not have vaccines for. If your cat is unfortunate enough to be exposed to some of these life-threatening infectious diseases, it may shorten your cat’s lifespan or make them more susceptible to other infections.
Some of these infectious diseases include:
- Feline Immunodeficiency Virus
- Feline Leukemia Virus (There is actually a vaccine for this one! Unfortunately, it is still a cause of shortened lifespans in many cats)
There are other infectious diseases that are fairly common in the cat population, and most cats live their life being infected with them without negatively impacting their health. However, in some cats, these common infections can run rampant, mutate to a lethal form, or cause too much of an immune response in a susceptible cat.
Some of these infectious diseases include:
- Feline Coronavirus (the cause of Feline Infectious Peritonitis)
Vaccines and Health Screens
In addition to the infectious diseases mentioned above, there are other infections that can cause early death in cats. The good news is that we have vaccines to prevent this from happening! That’s why it is so important to make sure your cat’s vaccines are kept up to date.
Infectious diseases to vaccinate for:
- Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis (Feline Herpes Disease)
Rabies is still a cause of death in cats in the U.S. and other parts of the world. Therefore, it is extremely important to keep their rabies vaccines up to date.
Herpes virus and Chlamydophila are fairly common in cats, though rarely a cause of early death. However, cats that are not vaccinated against them can get much sicker than those who are.
Calicivirus and Feline Panleukopenia Virus are deadly feline diseases that are very easily preventable with vaccines.
Yearly check-ups with your cat’s veterinarian are good ways of catching any developing health problems in their tracks. Prevention is key. Your vet will examine your cat, check their weight, check their teeth, listen to their heart, and check routine bloodwork to let you know of any health concerns to stay on top of as they get older.
Catching health conditions, such as kidney or dental disease, early on can allow you to start medications, special foods, or schedule a dental cleaning before things deteriorate and affect your cat’s quality of life, and thus their years spent with you.
Spaying and Neutering
Spaying your female cats and neutering your male cats tends to affect how long they live as well. There are different reasons for this.
Female cats that are not spayed are at risk of developing mammary and uterine cancer at much higher rates than female cats who are spayed.
Also, intact female cats that become pregnant always run the risk of having complications from pregnancy and delivery, which can shorten their lifespan.
Neutering your male cat has the potential to increase his lifespan. This is because he will be less likely motivated by testosterone and more inclined to stay inside or near your house.
Intact (not neutered) male cats tend to wander, trying to find a female. This makes them more at risk of getting hit by a car or attacked by a bigger animal.
Indoor VS Outdoor Cats
Many cats are fine living their entire life indoors and have no desire to go outdoors. But there are some cats you just can’t keep inside, no matter how hard you try. They yearn to run up trees, be outdoors, and lay belly up right under the sun.
Because of the inherent risks to cats being outside, oftentimes indoor-only cats on average do tend to live longer than cats that go outside.
This has nothing to do with their health, however. It’s mostly just because cats that go outside have a higher risk of being hit by a car, getting attacked by a dog or a wild animal, or getting stuck somewhere.
That being said, if your cat has good “street smarts 😎” and can avoid all of these hazards when outside, they are perfectly capable of living as long as, if not longer than, any indoor-only kitty.
Feral, or Stray Cats
Cats who are not necessarily owned, but roam the streets, do have shorter lifespans than cats who are owned.
They are usually exposed to extreme temperatures without consistent places of shelter. Even though they may know which houses to get food at, they do not necessarily have a consistent source of food and water.
They are at the same risks as any cat that goes outside of getting hit by a car or being attacked by another animal.
They are also less likely to be up to date on vaccines, so more at risk of infectious diseases. Additionally, they usually do not see a vet throughout their life, if at all. Compared to an owned cat, a stray or feral cat’s lifespan is, on average, about 5-7 years shorter.
Exposure to Toxins
Toxins can kill cats of any age, and within a very short period of time. To help your cat live a longer life, it’s important to make sure they are not exposed to anything that could be toxic to them.
Here are some of the more common toxins to keep far away from cats:
- Lily plants
- Tylenol (acetaminophen)
- NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications)
- Flea medication labeled for dogs only
- Essential oils
Overweight cats tend to develop more health problems as they get older than healthy weight cats. They are more prone to arthritis, diabetes, feline asthma, and cancer. All of these things can shorten their lifespan.
Keeping your cat at a healthy weight with an active lifestyle is one of the best things you can do to help them live a long, healthy life.
This will involve playing with them and feeding them nutritious food in the right quantity and frequency.
You should always talk with your veterinarian about what the best food for your individual cat should be. They can also let you know exactly how much food your cat should eat each day to maintain a healthy weight.
Common Feline Diseases
As cats grow into their middle-aged to senior years, they are at risk of developing certain health conditions. The most common ailments affecting older cats are:
- Kidney Disease
- Heart Disease
Each one of these diseases has the potential to shorten your cat’s lifespan. However, if they are caught early enough and properly treated, your cat can still live a decent length and quality life.
Finally, behavior. It is unfortunate, but some cats who have negative behaviors may be more at risk of dying younger than other cats due to euthanasia.
The most common negative behaviors are urinating outside of the litter box, aggression, and biting/scratching.
Some cat owners do everything they can, working with their vet to try to solve the issue. But still, some behaviors may not change, and unfortunately, the cat owner may make the decision to euthanize.
How long can a cat live?
This depends on a number of factors. Generally speaking, a healthy, indoor-only cat can live for up to 20-25 years!
What can I do to help my cat live a long life?
- Keep your cat at a healthy weight
- Help your cat live an active lifestyle
- Have your cat examined by a veterinarian at least once a year
- Address any health problems that come up right away
- Try to keep them indoors
- Keep them up to date on their vaccinations
- Have them spayed or neutered before they reach sexual maturity
- Keep things that are toxic to cats put away in a secure location
How long do stray or feral cats live?
Stray or feral cats have a lifespan that is typically about 5-7 years shorter than owned cats.
If I let my cat go outside, will it shorten their lifespan?
It depends. Letting your cat go outside for short, supervised periods of time will likely not affect the lifespan of your cat. It only shortens their lifespan if they are allowed long lengths of time unsupervised outside.
And this is just because they are more at risk of external threats, such as being hit by a car or attacked by another animal.
Cats are amazingly tough creatures. If you make the most of what you have control over to keep your cat healthy, you may have a companion for a good amount of your life. Cats can live a long time! It may even be a good idea to have your cat listed in your will to make sure there is somewhere safe for them to go just in case they outlive you.
Article by Dr. Leslie Brooks 👩⚕️