Senior Cat Care: How old is a Senior Cat?

Due to the advancements that have been made in veterinary medicine and care, senior cats are living longer. Here, our Sacramento vets explain what you can expect as your senior cat gets older and share tips for taking care of them.

How Old Is My Cat In Human Years?

Like humans, every cat experiences aging differently. Lots of cats start displaying age-related physical changes when they are between 7 and 10 years of age, and most cats will show these changes by the time they are 12 years old. The common understanding that one "cat year" is equivalent to 7 "human years" isn't quite accurate; instead, the accepted wisdom is that the first year of a cat is similar to the growth of a 16-year-old human, and a cat at 2 years old is more similar to a human between 21-24 years old. After that, each year for a cat is equal to roughly four human years (e.g. a 10-year-old cat = 53-year-old human; a 12-year-old cat = 61-year-old human; a 15-year-old cat = 73-year-old human, etc).

Cats are considered to be "senior" when they are approximately 11 years old, and "super-senior" when they are over 15 years of age. When caring for older cats it sometimes helps to think of their age in human terms.

What Happens As You Cat Ages

Just like their owners, cats experience many physical and behavioral changes as they age. While aging itself isn't a disease, keeping your veterinarian updated on any changes in your senior cat is an important part of your kitty's overall wellness care. Some changes to monitor for are:

Physical changes

  • Grooming & appearance. Matted or oily fur is the result of less effective grooming in aging cats, which can result in painful hair matting, skin odor, and inflammation. Senior cats' claws are often overgrown, thick, and brittle, requiring more attention from their caretakers. Aging cats often have a slightly hazy lens and 'lacy' appearance to the colorful part of the eye (iris), but there is little evidence that this significantly affects their sight. There are, however, several diseases, especially those associated with high blood pressure, that can seriously and irreversibly impair a cat's ability to see. Unintentional weight loss or weight gain: In an older cat, weight loss can be a sign of various issues, such as heart and kidney disease and diabetes. Dental disease is extremely common in older cats and can impact their eating, causing weight loss and malnutrition in addition to causing them significant pain.
  • Physical activity & abilities. Older cats often experience degenerative joint disease, or arthritis, which makes it hard for them to access litter boxes, food and water bowls, and beds. This is especially true if they have to jump or climb stairs. Changes in sleep are a normal part of aging, however, if you notice a significant increase in your cat's sleep or the depth of their sleep, you should call your vet. Aging cats that suddenly have an increase in energy may show signs of hyperthyroidism and should be seen by a veterinarian. Inappropriate weight loss/gain can be a sign of issues ranging from heart and kidney disease to diabetes. Hearing loss is common in geriatric cats for a number of reasons and should be monitored by your vet.

Behavioral changes

  • Cognitive issues. If you notice that your cat has started being confused by tasks or objects that are part of their usual everyday routine, it may be a sign of memory or cognition issues. Behavioral changes such as litterbox accidents or avoidance, new or increased human avoidance, wandering, excessive meowing, and seeming disorientated, are also potential signs of mental confusion or feline senility and should be addressed by your veterinarian.
  • Issues caused by disease. A cat may become aggressive as the result of pain from health issues like dental disease or arthritis, therefore monitoring your cat's mood is important because cats tend to hide discomfort. Diseases and disorders affecting urination (e.g. diabetes, kidney failure) can cause an increase in litterbox usage, which may lead to cats relieving themselves in inappropriate areas. Cats that are experiencing mobility problems due to joint inflammation may have challenges accessing or even climbing into their litterbox, especially if stairs are involved. This may also lead to your senior cat eliminating in inappropriate places and should be assessed by a vet.

How To Keep Your Senior Cat Healthy

Your own observations are some of the most important tools available when it comes to helping your senior kitty stay happy and healthy. Incorporating simple changes to your grooming, feeding and general interactions with your cat can be a low-pressure way to watch for any changes in your aging pet.

  • Homelife: Older cats can be more sensitive to changes in their routine or household, which can cause them stress. Patience and accommodations (extra affection, a favorite toy or blanket, a quiet room for them to stay in) go a long way to helping your senior cat adjust to upsetting changes. Don't forget to keep playing with your cat as they age; mental and physical stimulation is beneficial for their well-being.
  • Nutrition: A lot of cats get heavy or even obese as they get older, which can be controlled with diet and activity if the weight gain is non-medical in nature. Other weight problems include elderly cats being underweight, which can be caused by a range of medical issues and should be attended to by a veterinarian.
  • Vet care: Because cats are skilled at hiding illness until it is advanced or severe, it's important to bring them to the vet regularly for wellness checks, even if they seem healthy. Your veterinarian will also be able to monitor any conditions that your senior cat may have, and catch any potential or emerging issues early when they are easier to treat.
  • Grooming: Brushing your cat's fur, trimming their claws, and brushing their teeth are great ways to keep older cats clean and healthy, while also checking for changes in their fur, skin, nose, eyes, ears, and claws.

How Your Veterinarian Can Help Your Senior Cat

Your knowledge of your cat and the observations you make are an important resource for your veterinarian, as are regular wellness examinations. Depending on your cat's needs (e.g. if they have a medical condition), your vet may suggest increasing the frequency of their physical evaluations. Wellness exams for senior cats include checking your cat's weight, skin & fur condition, organ systems, and behavior, and running diagnostic tests for certain conditions that are common in older felines. The combination of homecare and cooperative veterinary care is a great way to help ensure your senior cat has a healthy and happy life with you and your family.

Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.

Contact our Sacramento vets today and schedule a routine examination for your senior kitty.