Just as people are living longer than they did in the past, cats are living longer too. In fact, the percentage of cats over six years of age has nearly doubled in just over a decade, and there is every reason to expect that the "graying" cat population will continue to grow.
So how old is my cat, really?
Cats are individuals and, like people, they experience advancing years in their own unique ways. Many cats begin to encounter age-related physical changes between seven and ten years of age, and most do so by the time they are 12. The commonly held belief that every "cat year" is worth seven "human years" is not entirely accurate. In reality, a one-year-old cat is physiologically similar to a 16-year-old human, and a two-year-old cat is like a person of 21. For every year thereafter, each cat year is worth about four human years. Using this formula, a ten-year-old cat is similar age wise to a 53-year-old person, a 12-year-old cat to a 61-year-old person, and a 15-year-old cat to a person of 73.
Advancing age is not a disease
Aging is a natural process. Although many complex physical changes accompany advancing years, age in and of itself is not a disease. Even though many conditions that affect older cats are not correctable, they can often be controlled. The key to making sure your senior cat has the healthiest and highest quality of life possible is to recognize and reduce factors that may be health risks, detect disease as early as possible, correct or delay the progression of disease, and improve or maintain the health of the body's systems.
What happens as my cat ages?
The aging process is accompanied by many physical and behavioral changes:
Is my cat sick, or is it just old age?
Owners of older cats often notice changes in their cat's behavior, but consider these changes an inevitable and untreatable result of aging, and fail to report them to their veterinarian. Failure to use the litter box, changes in activity levels, and alterations in eating, drinking, or sleeping habits are examples. While veterinarians believe that some behavior problems are due to the diminishing mental abilities of aging cats, it is a mistake to automatically attribute all such changes to old age. In fact, the possibility of some underlying medical condition should always be the first consideration. Disease of virtually any organ system, or any condition that causes pain or impairs mobility can contribute to changes in behavior. For example:
The take-home message? Never assume that changes you see in your older cat are simply due to old age, and therefore untreatable. Any alteration in your cat's behavior or physical condition should alert you to contact your veterinarian.
How can I help keep my senior cat healthy?
Close observation is one of the most important tools you have to help keep your senior cat healthy. You may wish to perform a mini-physical examination on a weekly basis. Ask your veterinarian to show you how to do it and what to look for. You will find it easier if you just make the examination an extension of the way you normally interact with your cat. For example, while you are rubbing your cat's head or scratching its chin, gently raise the upper lips with your thumb or forefinger so you can examine the teeth and gums. In the same way, you can lift the ear flaps and examine the ear canals. While you are stroking your cat's fur, you can check for abnormal lumps or bumps, and evaluate the health of the skin and coat.
Daily brushing or combing removes loose hairs, preventing them from being swallowed and forming hair balls. Brushing also stimulates blood circulation and sebaceous gland secretions, resulting in a healthier skin and coat. Older cats may not use scratching posts as frequently as they did when they were younger; therefore, nails should be checked weekly and trimmed if necessary.
Many cats tend towards obesity as they age. If your cat is overweight, you should ask your veterinarian to help you modify the diet so that a normal body condition can be restored. Other cats actually become too thin as they get older, apparently as part of the normal aging process. But progressive weight loss can also be caused by serious medical problems such as kidney failure, cancer, diabetes mellitus, inflammatory bowel disease, liver disease, hyperthyroidism, or some other condition. Subtle changes in weight are often the first sign of disease; ideally you should weigh your cat every month on a scale sensitive enough to detect such small changes. Keep a record of the weight, and notify your veterinarian of any significant changes. To ensure proper nutrition, select a nutritionally balanced and complete diet for your cat's stage of life, and one that is formulated according to guidelines established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). Specific dietary changes may be necessary for cats with certain medical conditions. Your veterinarian can be of invaluable assistance in helping you select the most appropriate diet for your senior cat.
Exercise is important, not only for weight control but overall health. Older cats frequently become less agile as arthritis develops and muscles begin to atrophy. Regularly engaging your cat in moderate play can promote muscle tone and suppleness, increase blood circulation, and help reduce weight in cats that are too heavy. During times of exercise, be alert to labored breathing or rapid tiring that may suggest the cat has a disease. It may also be necessary to relocate litter boxes to more accessible locations to prevent elderly cats from eliminating in inappropriate locations. Purchasing a litter box with low sides, cutting down high sides, or constructing a ramp around the box may help older cats gain entry more easily.
Reducing environmental stress whenever possible is very important since older cats are usually less adaptable to change. Special provisions should be made for older cats that must be boarded for a period of time. Having a familiar object, such as a blanket or toy, may prevent the cat from becoming too distraught in a strange environment. A better alternative is to have the older cat cared for at home by a neighbor, friend, or relative. Introducing a new pet may be a traumatic experience for older cats, and should be avoided whenever possible. Moving to a new home can be equally stressful. However, some stress can be alleviated by giving the older cat more affection and attention during times of emotional upheaval.
Cats are experts at hiding illness, and elderly cats are no exception. It is common for a cat to have a serious medical problem, yet not show any sign of it until the condition is quite advanced. Since most diseases can be managed more successfully when detected and treated early in their course, it is important for owners of senior cats to carefully monitor their behavior and health.
If you can't answer "yes" to all of the following statements, please call your veterinarian as soon as possible.
How can my veterinarian help?
Just as your observations can help detect disease in the early stages, so too can regular veterinary examinations. Your veterinarian may suggest evaluating your healthy senior cat more frequently than a younger cat-for example, every six months instead of once a year. If your cat has a medical condition, more frequent evaluations may be necessary. During your cat's examination, the veterinarian will gather a complete medical and behavioral history, perform a thorough physical examination in order to evaluate every organ system, check your cat's weight and body condition, and compare them to previous evaluations. At least once a year, certain tests-including blood tests, fecal examination, and urine analysis-will be suggested. In this way, disorders can be found and treated early, and ongoing medical conditions can be appraised. Both are necessary to keep your senior cat in the best possible health for the longest possible time.
This brochure was prepared by the American Association of Feline Practitioners and the Cornell Feline Health Center, Cornell University, College of Veterinary Medicine, Ithaca, New York 14853-6401. The center is committed to improving the health of cats by developing methods to prevent or cure feline diseases and by providing continuing education to veterinarians and cat owners. Much of that work is made possible by the financial support of friends. ©2002 by Cornell University. All rights reserved. Cornell University is an equal opportunity, affirmative action educator and employer.