As cats age, their bodies change. To help your kitty navigate their golden years, it’s so important to be observant, keep an eye out for issues, and continue vet wellness visits, along with basic diagnostics like bloodwork.
During this My Lovely Feline Zoom call, Indiana small animal veterinarian Dr. Leslie Brooks explains how to best take care of senior cats.
She highlights common problems, what to look for, and how different conditions are treated. My Lovely Feline content contributor Liz Italia also joined the call to share her point of view from a behavioral standpoint.
Here’s everything you need to know to keep your kitty healthy, happy, and comfy as they get older.
Note: We host these interactive calls exclusively with some of our customers—every single week 🙌
Typically, cats are considered senior starting at 10 years of age, although not every cat will show signs of slowing down until later in life – each cat is different. Here are common health-related changes and conditions to keep in mind.
Cats get arthritis in the joints of their legs as well as their spine. Even if they don’t show symptoms, many still have it. In addition to changes in mobility, moving slower, and having problems getting in and out of the litter box, you may also notice changes in their fur and weight.
Many times, it’s harder to groom the base of their spine, causing dirty or matted fur. When you brush them, they may show signs of discomfort or sensitivity. To help manage this, find a brush that’s comfortable and gentle, like the rubbery one from My Lovely Feline. Try to brush in short amounts of time, but frequently, to prevent mats from forming.
You also may notice your cat thinning out. They’ll start to lose muscle mass as they age, which is harder on their joints, and can lead to more arthritis. You’ll likely notice this around the hind legs, hips, and spine.
How to Help with Arthritis
Supplement - Cosequin
Nutramax Laboratories has a joint supplement with glucosamine called Cosequin. To administer Cosequin, open the capsule and mix the powder in your cat’s food 2x a day. You will eventually be able to space it out. Don’t be concerned if you don’t see immediate improvement – this is a supplement that takes time to show results.
A quick note about Nutramax Laboratories. Human and animal supplements aren’t regulated, so you normally have no way of knowing if the ingredients listed are really in the pill, or even if the supplement actually does what it claims.
Nutramax Laboratories has published, controlled U.S. studies, so their products are manufactured following similar standards as the pharmaceutical industry. This means they have proven their products are effective and they follow strict quality control guidelines ensuring the ingredients listed and the amounts are accurate.
If you can tell your cat is clearly in pain, talk to your vet about pain meds. One of the more common ones is buprenorphine. Just squirt it in their mouth and it gets absorbed through their gums (they don’t even have to swallow it). It’s a safe option and can be given as needed.
Check your senior cat’s toe nails regularly and cut them at a minimum of once a month to prevent them from getting too long. Older cats tend to grow thicker nails, so regularly cutting them will help remove dead pieces of nail.
Arthritis and aging joints can make it more difficult to get in and out of the litter box. You might notice they aren’t using the box as much or are going outside of it.
Get your cat a more shallow or bigger box, and consider trying different litters that are softer on their paws. Another option is to look for a litter box that’s designed for senior cats, or place puppy pads around the litter box to catch any accidents.
One customer on the call recommended a litter called Pretty Litter that changes color based on the pH level. It indicated early kidney disease for one of her cats and it helped her get care right away. It only gets changed once a month, and can be a tool you use to monitor your cat’s kidney health.
You may notice your cat’s iris looking speckled, which is called iris atrophy, and it’s a normal part of a cat aging. There can be certain cancers that affect the eye, so you can Google some images of iris atrophy, and if your cat’s eyes look different, call your vet.
As long as your cat doesn’t have any chronic issues, you can choose a geritratic food for them. They often have extra fish oils, glucosamine, and protein in them to help your cat with joint and muscle support.
What Health Conditions to Watch for in Aging Cats
Constipation & Obstipation
Constipation is extremely common in older cats. Vets aren’t fully certain why it’s so common, but they think it’s related to not drinking enough water, changes in their metabolism, and changes in the way they absorb nutrients. Miralax is okay to give regularly as long as it’s suggested by your vet.
In severe cases, a cat’s gut mobility (movement in intestines) stops, which is called obstipation. Those cats need regular enemas or may even require surgery to remove their colon.
Signs of constipation in older cats are:
- Straining to defecate.
- Going in and out of the box often.
- Crying out when trying to go.
- Diarrhea - It goes around the constipated hard stool inside the intestines.
- Vomiting - If a cat hasn’t pooped in a while, they’ll start vomiting.
Other ways to help cats with constipation:
- Administer subcutaneous fluids you receive from your vet on a regular basis. These are most commonly delivered with a needle inserted on the back of their neck. Ask your vet for a clear demonstration on how to do this.
- Add water to a cat’s food.
- Incorporate wet food into their diet.
- Consider food with higher protein or fiber.
- Give 1 tsp. of pure pureed pumpkin.
- Talk to your vet about prescription foods to see if they’re an option.
- Try probiotics designed for pets - FortiFlora by Pruina or Proviable by Nutramax Laboratories.
- For major issues, cisapride is a drug that increases motility in the upper GI tract, and your vet may recommend it.
Liz also recommended a company called AnimalBiome that works on balancing healthy gut bacteria in cats and dogs that have microbiome that’s out of balance. This is a newer science, but so far, shows a lot of promise (in humans too). It involves sending in a stool sample to be analyzed, and then you receive a report of the bacteria found.
To treat, the company sends capsules containing healthy gut bacteria. If your cat is having digestive issues, Liz recommends at least looking into the company, as it helped two of her cats with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
IMPORTANT: If a cat has poop in their system too long, the bacteria can cross into the bloodstream and they can get septic. Don’t ignore signs of constipation because the result could be fatal.
Cats can get severe dental tartar and dental disease. They’re great at hiding conditions, even eating while they’re in pain. Some cats will swallow their food whole to avoid chewing, which makes digestion a little more difficult (whole pieces are harder to digest than chewed pieces).
You might not notice it until you smell something in their mouth, they have an abscess on their face, or you see a tooth poking out in the wrong direction. Best case scenario is bad rotten teeth fall out on their own.
To get a dental cleaning, a cat needs to go under anesthesia, so it’s better to get a dental cleaning done when they’re younger, like around 8-10, because anesthesia can be risky with older cats. If anything about a cat makes going under anesthesia risky, they may go on antibiotics and pain meds on an as-needed basis.
Brushing your cat’s teeth can help manage tartar buildup. Always use products that have the seal of approval from the Veterinary Oral Health Council, which indicates they have been tested and are safe to use on your pet.
Here’s a list of accepted cat products: http://www.vohc.org/accepted_products_cats.html
And lastly, remember anger and aggression can come from pain, so if your cat is suddenly acting different, look at their teeth.
High Blood Pressure
Sometimes, high blood pressure is linked to chronic kidney disease, hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid), or heart disease, but sometimes it’s just a condition in and of itself. Once your cat reaches 10-12, your vet may recommend checking blood pressure every time your cat comes in for a visit. It’s just a preventative measure to catch it early.
Cats will have a higher blood pressure at the vet than they do at home, but vets know this and will account for it. Cats’ blood pressures are numerically the same as people, so 120/80 is good.
Without your vet checking blood pressure, it’s very difficult to tell if your cat is struggling with high blood pressure, however these symptoms can indicate it:
- Dilated pupils - Can also lead to blindness because it causes the retina to detach and break away from the blood system.
- More restless and anxious
- Pee more, drink more
It’s more common for cats to develop heart murmurs later in life. Depending on the degree, your vet may say it’s common, and not to worry about it. If the heart murmur is loud, your vet might recommend an ultrasound of the heart or an echocardiogram to make sure they aren’t developing a clot in one of their heart chambers.
Clots can lead to saddle thrombus, where the clot breaks away from the heart chamber, goes down their spine, and cuts off the circulation to their back legs, causing pain and inability to walk.
It can be life threatening. While there isn’t a cure to remove the clot, time will help. The cat’s body may break down the clot on its own or your vet may recommend medications that help with blood circulation around the clot. Unfortunately, if it doesn’t resolve, it can lead to euthansia.
As a side note, some cats have the heart murmur but never develop the clot and others don’t have a heart murmur but develop a clot, making it a frustrating disease.
Other Diseases to Look for in Senior Cats & Cats of Any Age
An elderly cat that’s peeing more, drinking more, and has a sudden weight loss should have bloodwork done to check for:
- Chronic kidney disease
- Thyroid disease
How much is diet related to these diseases?
Dr. Brooks: I wish we had more research on that. Diabetes and kidney disease are so common in cats, so I wonder if there’s something in our food that we’re not doing or doing wrong that we need to adjust. We don’t know.
With hyperthyroidism, there are a lot of theories that it’s related to flame retardant in furniture, and since cats are always down on the ground, it could contribute to it, but dogs don’t get it as much as cats do. Another theory is it’s related to wet food aluminum cans.
Diabetes in cats is type II which is lifestyle and diet related, so I wonder if we aren’t creating food correctly.
My cat has what the vet thinks is a fat pocket on the side of his stomach. She removed some fluid from it and the results were inconclusive. Is that common with age?
Dr. Brooks: Your vet is probably referring to a lipoma, which is a benign fatty tumor. Keep a close eye on it for any growth or changes. We see fatty tumors all the time in dogs, but they are rare in cats. If it changes in any way, feels firmer or has grown, ask the vet to get another sample.
If it hasn’t changed at all or has gotten smaller, I wouldn’t worry about it. Every now and then older cats can get cysts on their skin, but we still check those out because lumps on cats just aren’t normal.
What do you recommend for upper respiratory infections?
Dr. Brooks: It depends on the underlying cause. If they’re having a lot of green, gross mucus, your vet may put your cat on a round of antibiotics.
For a flare up of the feline herpes virus (kitty cold), a supplement like lysine can sometimes help. Occasionally, older cats can develop autoimmune inflammatory conditions in their nose, which can be relieved with anti-inflammatory drugs, or meds that decrease the immune system’s response.
Upper respiratory infections aren’t more common in cats with flat faces, like Persians, but they are more severe.
Nasal cancer is also common in cats, so if an older cat isn’t getting over a respiratory infection, or has bloody discharge, have cancer ruled out. The only way to diagnose that is sedating the cat and using a scope to look inside the nose and take a biopsy.
Elizabeth Ann: From fostering, I’ve treated a ton of upper respiratory infections in cats because they come from the shelter and stress brings out feline herpes virus. If I think it’s only viral and the mucus is clear and moving, I usually steam up the bathroom with a hot shower a few times a day to help keep airways clear.
I also use children’s nasal drops to keep the nose clear. And then, I keep an eye on their hydration, because a lot of times they stop eating because they can’t smell. Another thing I’ve seen success with is the antiviral famciclovir.
Aging with Grace
Now that you know what to look for, you can make sure your kitty ages with grace. Keep an eye out for any changing behaviors that could indicate pain or another issue, and always be sure to take your cat to the vet at least once a year for wellness exams.
If your cat is 10 or older, ask the vet to run bloodwork, because many times that’s the best way to catch a condition early. Last, but not least, love them and enjoy them everyday you have them, because tomorrow is never guaranteed, but you can always make the most out of today.