There’ll come a time when that mewling little fluff ball of a kitten you adopted passes their tenth, twelfth, or even fifteenth birthday. Or, maybe you’re a first-time cat-parent and have been smitten by a senior cat at your local animal shelter and wondering just how do you care for an old cat?
Senior cats have many distinct needs. From nutrition to mobility changes to chronic conditions like arthritis, caring for an elderly cat comes with its challenges. But don’t let that scare you away.
There’s no feeling quite like the happiness you get from knowing you’re giving a senior kitty love, comfort, and joy in their golden years!
In this guide to caring for older cats, we’ll explore:
- Preventative care for senior cats
- Nutrition needs
- How to adapt your home environment to your senior cat
- Behavioral changes
- And more!
When is a cat considered “old”?
According to the American Association of Feline Practitioners, cats become seniors when they turn eleven years old. When they reach fifteen, they’re considered geriatric or “super” seniors.
What happens to my cat’s body as they age?
As your cat goes from an adult to a senior cat, some significant changes happen inside and outside their body.
Natural changes in the aging process include:
- Weaker immune system
- Thinner, less elastic skin
- Slower blood circulation
- Reduced vision and hearing
- Weaker taste buds
- Memory or cognitive difficulties
- Muscle weakness and joint pain
What’s the best way to care for your senior cat? Preventative care! Here’s what we mean.
Regular veterinarian visits
Regularly taking your cat to the vet for wellness checks is one of your priorities as a cat parent.
Senior cats ideally should have at least two vet visits a year. Or, one appointment every six months.
These visits often include blood tests and checking your cat’s teeth, ears, urine, and weight. All are indicators of general health and can catch serious diseases or illnesses early.
If your senior cat begins acting unusual, don’t hesitate to take him to the vet. In some cases, immediate treatment is necessary.
Red flags that indicate medical problems
- Straining to urinate, or urinating very small or bloody amounts in the litter box
- Difficulty breathing and lethargy
- Repeated vomiting and diarrhea
- Excessive coughing
- Drooling and foul breath
- Drastic weight loss
- Sudden collapse or unconsciousness
- Inability to eat or drink water
- Swollen abdomen
Regular veterinarian visits include x-rays and a full examination of your cat’s teeth. This can catch dental disease or gingivitis before they get too far.
Scheduling regular teeth cleanings are one of the best preventative measures you can take. Our resident vet tech recommends having a dental cleaning done when you’re cat is still a “young” senior at 10-12 years old. This way their teeth are totally clean and in good shape before any serious senior health issues come up and prevent your car from safely undergoing anesthesia.
If your cat is drooling, is refusing to eat, or has red, swollen gums, bring them to the vet immediately.
As fastidious as cats are, as they age, their standards for grooming may drop.
Joint pain, muscle stiffness, and arthritis may make it difficult for your older cat to groom themselves.
Because of their reduced flexibility, they may develop painful, matted knots in their fur, especially if they’re a long-haired cat. They may also get fecal matter trapped in the hair around their rear end or discharge around the eyes and nose.
You may need to clean their fecal matter and discharge, as well as gently comb out the knots in their fur.
In their old age, cats have thinner skin and less fat than younger cats. If your cat’s fur is seriously matted, you may need to enlist the help of your veterinarian or a professional groomer. You may harm your cat if you forcefully try to comb out the tangled clumps of hair on your own. Also, avoid using scissors to cut mats. You may inadvertently cut your cat’s skin, something you definitely don’t want to do.
Grooming also reduces hairballs. Old cats have slower digestive systems and may have difficulty expelling their swallowed hair through their feces like younger cats. This could lead to life-threatening intestinal blockages. Routinely brushing your senior cat (or taking them to the groomer) could prevent this.
It becomes more challenging for senior cats to retract their claws.
Senior cats may also struggle with brittle, overgrown, and ingrown nails. This can cause their claws to get stuck in furniture or rugs. Or their paw pads, making it painful for them to walk.
For these reasons, senior cats require more frequent nail trimming than cats at other life stages. Many veterinarians offer free or reduced-cost nail trimming clinics for their feline patients. Many are also happy to help teach you the best way to clip and maintain your kitty’s nails on your own. If you’re wanting to trim your cat’s claws yourself, check out our guide on how to safely clip your cats’ nails.
Making a home environment that’s senior cat-friendly is easier than you think. Here are some tips!
Extra pillows, blankets, and cat beds
Along with maneuverability and easy access to their food and litter box, comfort and coziness are the next priorities for your senior cat.
Adding more thick and fuzzy cat beds and blankets throughout your home for your senior kitty to snuggle up into is one of the kindest things you can do for them as their cat parent!
Extra soft, padded layers in window seats, on furniture, and in their cat beds are especially good for senior cats who are underweight and bony. Or for cats with neurological problems who are prone to losing their balance and falling easily.
You could also consider investing in cat-sized thermal blankets and heating pads, especially if you live in areas where the winters and autumns are cold!
Easy access to litter boxes
Toileting for senior cats isn’t as easy for kittens or adults, especially if they’re getting on in years. Decreased mobility, incontinence, and cognitive or memory problems can all make it difficult for your cat to do their business.
You may also want to reconsider the type of litter you use. Cat paws are sensitive to texture. That combined with achy or sore joints may make it difficult for your old cat to dig and scratch in certain types of litter. Unscented finely textured clay-based litters tend to be the easiest for senior cats to use. Good choices for older cats include hypoallergenic litter.
Litter box placement and ease of access are also important. Depending on the size of your home, you may need to add additional litter boxes throughout the house.
Using puppy training pads or diapers, particularly for cats who are incontinent or have trouble with their bladders, is also helpful.
Senior-friendly food and water bowls
It’s not just what you feed your older cat that is important. But how you feed them too!
You may think feeding your senior cat is as simple as buying a cute food bowl, popping open a can of wet food, or a bag of kibble and calling it a day.
Well, not exactly. The bowl you use does matter.
Raised bowls are ideal for senior cats. They make it easier for cats with osteoarthritis or neck pain to access their food.
Old cats don’t have the best digestive system. The elevated position of raised bowls helps your cat eat in a natural crouch position while reducing the likelihood of vomiting up or regurgitating their food.
Ramps or stairs
Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of sharing their life with a cat knows that felines love high places.
This affinity for heights and raised spaces often endures even when your kitty is well into their teen years. However, weak or sore joints, arthritis, instability, and impaired balance make it difficult for aging cats to reach those areas.
This is where cat-sized ramps and stairs come in handy! These give your cats a helping paw to get to their favorite spaces without causing them stress or pain.
Rugs and non-slip flooring
One of the last things you might consider when you think about senior cat-proofing your home is your flooring! Much like elderly humans, senior cats may have difficulty navigating floor surfaces or rugs.
Certain materials may be a danger for aging cats. Shag rugs may snag your senior kitty’s claws and cause them to fall or stumble, while laminated tile or wood may pose slipping hazards.
Adding non-slip rugs to problem surface areas and swapping out highly textured rugs for simpler, flatter ones reduce the chances of accidents.
Play and enrichment
If your old cat has a favorite toy, let them continue to play with it! If they once loved jumping around after a wand toy, why not “convert” that toy into one you can instead drag on the floor, so your kitty can “catch” their “prey” that way?
Fabric catnip-filled toys are also still fun for many senior cats, who enjoy swiping them around the floor or carrying them around in their mouth.
Pillowy kicker-style toys are also a good choice for senior cats. These toys help them stretch out their muscles without straining and express pent-up energy.
If your senior cat is overweight, easily bored, or not the biggest fan of mealtime, it might be time to try a puzzle feeder.
Also known as slow feeders, these bowls are designed to give your cat a fun challenge. Engaging and interactive puzzle feeders help keep your aging cat’s brain sharp, combats boredom, and encourages them to eat just the right amount!
Catios and window perches
Ideally, senior cats should be kept indoors. That doesn’t mean that they have to be under house arrest, though!
Catios, or cat patios, are a great way to give your kitty access to the outdoors in a safe, enclosed space. They can breathe the fresh air, bask in the sun, and survey the neighbor’s frisky squirrels and twittering birds all from their cozy catio.
If you don’t have space or funds to build a catio, don’t underestimate the power of opening a screened window or setting up padded window perch!
These alternatives are an excellent way for your kitty to safely engage with the outdoors and watch the world around them.
Cardboard scratching pads
Flat, horizontal cardboard scratching pads are excellent for senior cats. They allow your cat to stretch out their forearms without putting strain on arthritic joints. Because these are made from cardboard rather than thick, dense, and rough carpeting or rope in verticle scratching posts, these are also easier for your senior cat to scratch and help them keep their claws from getting too sharp.
Cat grass is one of the easiest and most effective environmental enrichments for senior cats!
Often consisting of wheatgrass, oat grass, barley grass, or a combination of many cereal grains, cat grass is a good source of nutrients. It’s simple to grow and easy to care for, even if you’re notorious for killing plants. Cat grass is entertaining and has also been known to fight bad breath (a problem in some old cats)!
In their senior years, cats have distinct dietary needs because of their slowed metabolism, loss of lean muscle mass, and difficulty digesting fats.
High protein diet
The best foods for senior cats are high protein and low carb foods made from energy-dense meats. Vitamin-rich organ meats like turkey liver and easy-to-digest animal proteins like deboned chicken and eggs are excellent choices for old cats.
You want to make sure the food you buy your elderly cat is considered complete, balanced, and appropriate for seniors. Excellent food choices can be found in our “Best Cat Food for Older Cats” and our “Best High Protein Cat Food” round-ups.
Senior cats also have vitamin, mineral, and nutrient needs that are different than those of kittens and adult cats. Phosphorus and sodium levels are especially important. High amounts could worsen medical conditions like hyperthyroidism, urinary tract disease, and kidney disease.
Wet canned cat food tends to be best for older cats because of its high moisture content (many wet food cans contain up to 80% water), protein-packed recipes, and smooth texture. It’s also easy for cats with sensitive or missing teeth to eat to chew.
All cats need constant access to clean, fresh water and should drink about 1 cup of water a day. It’s vital for older cats to get their daily dose of H2O. Especially if they have kidney disease or endocrine system disorders like thyroid dysfunction.
If your senior cat is fussy about water, you can entice them to drink it by adding automatic cat water fountains and multiple bowls of water throughout the house. This is also very helpful for senior cats with mobility problems.
Keeping an eye on your aging cat’s oral hygiene, including their teeth, gums, and breath, can help you catch medical conditions like gingivitis, mouth ulcers, and decaying teeth.
Excessive drooling can indicate an abscessed or decaying tooth, tumors, or periodontal disease.
Inflamed gums can be a sign of gingivitis, while pale gums are common in anemic cats.
Bad breath, also known as halitosis, may be a sign of liver disease, while fruity, sickly-sweet breath can indicate diabetes or potentially fatal ketoacidosis.
Could it be Dental Disease?
Feline Periodontal Disease is a disease is found in about 85% of cats age six and older.
Periodontal disease occurs when layers of plaque build on your cat’s teeth surface and harden. This creates large amounts of bacteria that crowd into your cat’s gums, causing them to become inflamed and your cat to develop gingivitis.
This bacteria can also penetrate the roots of your cat’s teeth, causing agonizing abscesses in their gums and their teeth to rot or decay. The only solution to these abscessed teeth is to have them extracted.
Thankfully, Feline Periodontal Disease is one of the more treatable conditions that senior cats can develop. A thorough teeth cleaning, removing the infected teeth, and prescribing a few rounds of powerful antibiotics are all ways to treat and cure Periodontal disease.
Along with oral hygiene, there are a few other health concerns to keep in mind when caring for a senior cat. Here are three conditions or diseases most commonly found in old cats.
Feline Cognitive Dysfunction
Feline Cognitive Dysfunction (FCD) is essentially the feline version of human Alzheimers and dementia. This decline in memory, awareness, and sensory perception is most often linked to aging. About 55% of senior cats between the ages of 11 – 15 experience some FCD.
Cats with FCD may become easily disoriented, forget where their litter box is, and have problems with their hearing and vision.
FCD causes anxiety and sudden bursts of aggression in some cats. While in others, it can cause excessive sleepiness, frequent meowing, and long periods of staring at nothing.
Also known as Degenerative Joint Disease (DJD), arthritis is common in senior cats, especially those twelve and older. This occurs when the cartilage around your cat’s joints wears away over the years. When this tissue is gone, there’s nothing to protect or cushion your cat’s bones from rubbing or bumping against each other.
This causes sharp shooting pains and inflammation with movement. Areas commonly affected by this condition are your cat’s knees, shoulders, hips, wrists, and elbows.
Stiffness, difficulty climbing and jumping, and poor grooming are signs of arthritis and DJD.
Kidney Disease and Kidney Failure
Chronic Kidney Disease, or CKD, is one of the most common diseases in older cats. Often occurring in cats aged twelve and older, CKD is when your cat’s kidney function begins to decline. (Some studies have found CKD appears in as many as 3 out of every ten geriatric, or super senior, cats.)
Kidneys are vitally important for your cat. They’re essential in filtering out waste and toxins from their blood and releasing them through their urine. They also help regulate the salts, acids, and nutrients in their body.
When their kidney function slows or fails, waste builds up inside their bloodstream, and they begin to pee out important vitamins and proteins. Weak or failing kidneys puts stress on your kitty’s other organs and can also lead to fatal acidosis, heart problems, high blood pressure, and anemia.
Signs of CKD include excessive thirst, weight loss, poor appetite, and lethargy.
There is no cure for CKD, but treatments, therapies, medicines, and foods can help improve and extend the lives of cats with kidney problems.
Behavioral changes in elderly cats range from the subtle, like napping for longer periods throughout the day, to impossible to ignore, like yowling their heads off at 3 am.
Here are a few behaviors you might notice in your old cat.
Increased meowing and yowling
While all cats are individuals with their own personalities, old cats tend to be more vocal than younger cats. Feline health and behavior experts chalk this chattiness up to a few things: the need for attention and reassurance, loneliness, and potentially memory disorders.
Elderly cats often need to rely on their human caregivers more than younger cats, and meowing (or yowling) is the best way to express their needs.
However, it’s important to keep tabs on an increasingly vocal senior cat, especially if you notice that they seem confused or disoriented. This could be a sign that they’re developing Feline Cognitive Dysfunction.
Sleepier and less active
Just like elderly humans, senior cats are prone to being sleepier with a lower activity level. A healthy senior cat can sleep up to 20 hours in a 24 hour period!
But, there are some red flags to look out for. If your cat is suddenly sleeping way more than usual, they may be in pain from arthritis or ill. Or if it’s the opposite and they’re sleeping a lot less than usual, they may have hyperthyroidism.
Use your common sense and good judgment when considering if your cat’s sleeping patterns are normal or abnormal. Never hesitate to contact your vet with questions and concerns.
Finicky with food
Many a cat parent has noticed that their elderly cats are suddenly fussy about what they eat. Well, when your senior reaches their golden years, their senses begin to dull, and their tastebuds change!
A cat who has loved one brand or flavor of food for years may suddenly start to snub it.
This is normal.
Thankfully there are hundreds of options of high-quality cat foods out there with different flavors and textures for all cats. Experimenting with new foods provides a nice change of pace and a break from the same old mealtime rut!
If your old cat has a smaller appetite, there’s a solution for that too.
Many cat food brands now have small “appetizer” or “snack” sized helpings to supplement your kitty’s diet.
A series of tiny meals throughout the day, as long as they’re considered nutritionally balanced and complete, is just as effective as feeding your kitty a single breakfast and dinner. RAWZ cat food pouches are a great choice for smaller protein-rich meals.
End of life
There comes a point when you need to start preparing for your senior cat’s final years. End-of-life care, also known as pet hospice care, is just that.
Whether they have a terminal illness, like kidney disease, or are naturally losing their functioning due to advanced aging, the most important thing is minimizing any stress and making sure your cat is as comfortable and pain-free as possible.
You may want to talk to your vet about humane euthanasia, especially if your cat has a poor quality of life and is suffering. This isn’t a decision to be taken lightly, nor is it easy.
Having to say goodbye to our kitties is hard. But we don’t have to face it alone. There’s help for coping with grief, including support groups, books, websites, hotlines, and more.
Key takeaways on caring for old cats
There’s nothing quite like the joys or the feel-good emotions that come with spending your life with a senior cat. Whether you’ve raised them from kittenhood and have been together throughout the years or fell in love with them at your local rescue while they were already well into their golden years, old cats have a magic all their own.
Now you have a solid grasp on creating a senior cat-friendly home and know about the dietary needs, changes in behavior, and health conditions that go along with aging cats, you can head into the future with your elderly feline friend and face these adventures and challenges head-on!