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Geriatric Feline Health Concerns


Special Needs of the Older Cat

Cats are individuals, and, like people, they experience old age in their own individual ways. Fortunately, advances in feline health care have helped to extend the cat's normal life span. Today, it is not unheard of for cats to live to be twenty years old, although the average feline life span is from twelve to fifteen years. Providing good health care for your cat through all its stages of life is the best means of assuring an optimum life span.

Aging is a natural process, producing changes in body metabolism, hormone balance, and sensory perception. There is an overall gradual decline in the body's metabolic rate. Decreased drug tolerance, inability to regulate body temperature, decreased caloric needs, and decreased immunity to diseases accompany the decline. Progressive degeneration of hormone-secreting organs (e.g., thyroids, adrenals, pancreas, and kidneys) can result in associated diseases (e.g., hypo- or hyperthyroidism, hypo- or hyperadrenocorticism, diabetes mellitus). The ability to taste, smell, see, and hear also diminishes with age.

Physical and behavioral signs may reflect some of these bodily changes. Physical signs can include a cloudiness of the eyes; a thinning hair coat; decreased tolerance of the cold; flabby skin; prominent spine and hips; joint stiffness or lameness; graying of the muzzle; muscle atrophy; and deafness. Behaviorally, the older cat is less tolerant of environmental changes, sleeps more and is less active, and may seem more irritable.


After they reach eight or nine years of age, cats are more susceptible to the diseases associated with aging. Therefore, it is advisable to have older cats checked yearly or more often by a veterinarian. At each visit samples of blood, urine, and feces may be taken for laboratory examination. Also, keeping current on vaccinations helps to protect your cat against panleukopenia (feline distemper), respiratory diseases, feline leukemia, and rabies.


Special Care for the Elderly Cat

Close observation by the owner and quick veterinary attention when required are important to the health of the older cat. Early detection and early treatment of disease are particularly important for older animals, since their resistance is often reduced.



Dietary changes may be necessary if the cat has developed diabetes, heart or kidney disease, or obesity. Older cats lose their sense of smell, which may affect their interest in food. Strong aromas may be required to entice the cat to eat. To ensure proper nutrition, select a cat food that states it is a "complete and balanced product for maintenance" and that meets the requirements of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), preferably by animal-feeding trials.

The veterinarian may also recommend vitamin and mineral supplements according to the individual cat's needs. However, if a cat is voluntarily eating a balanced diet, supplements are not necessary and could even be counterproductive by destroying the nutritive balance of the diet.

Because older cats are less active and have a reduced metabolic rate, many tend to become overweight, and the owner must adjust the amount of food to the cat's decreasing activity level. Progressive weight loss also can be a very serious problem in an older cat; it may signal kidney failure, presence of a tumor, diabetes mellitus, liver disease, or other conditions. Therefore, owners should check their pet's weight every few months and keep a record of any changes.



An older cat becomes less agile as arthritis develops and muscles begin to atrophy. Accordingly the cat will limit its physical activity. However, regularly engaging your cat in moderate play can promote muscle tone and suppleness, increase blood circulation, and improve gastrointestinal motility. During times of exercise be alert to labored breathing or rapid tiring that may suggest the cat has a disease. It may be necessary to relocate food dishes and litter boxes for cats with advanced arthritis and muscle atrophy.



Daily brushing and combing removes loose and dead hairs before they can be swallowed by the cat during self- grooming. Grooming thus minimizes the formation of hair balls. Hair balls can cause problems for an older cat because its gastrointestinal tract is often less motile, favoring impactions and other obstructions. Brushing also stimulates blood circulation and sebaceous-gland secretions in the skin, creating a healthier skin and hair coat.

While you are grooming your cat, you can also look for unusual lumps, skin lesions, or external parasites. Unusual lumps or skin lesions should be examined by a veterinarian for appropriate treatment. External parasites can be controlled by treating the cat and its environment with recommended pesticides.

Older cats may not use scratching posts as frequently to remove the outer sheath of their claws. Therefore, nails should be checked weekly and trimmed if necessary.


Dental Care

Daily removal of plaque is a prime factor in preventing and controlling dental disease. There is evidence that tartar formation is reduced 95 percent by daily cleaning and 76 percent by weekly cleaning. If your cat has never had its teeth professionally cleaned or has a buildup of tartar, it would be prudent first to schedule your cat for a professional dental cleaning with a veterinarian before assuming the task yourself.

Home dentistry consists of gently rubbing your cat's teeth and gums with a piece of gauze or specially designed toothbrush soaked in a mouth rinse or paste designed for cats, which are available through your veterinarian. (Do not use human toothpaste, as it causes excessive salivation in cats and if swallowed may cause digestive upsets.) Tooth cleaning should be performed on a regular schedule so that it becomes a habit for both you and your cat.


Reducing Environmental Stress

Older cats are usually less adaptable to changes in their environment. Special provision should be made for an older cat 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, if possible, is to have the older cat cared for at home by a neighbor, friend, or relative.

Other traumatic experiences for the older cat involve the introduction of a new pet or moving to a new home. In both cases, the cat's territory is drastically altered, thereby causing stress. However, some stress can be alleviated by giving the older cat more affection and attention.


Diseases of Older Cats

The aging process leaves older cats more susceptible to certain disease. In particular, diseases resulting from organ degeneration and dysfunction are more prevalent.


Kidney Failure

Chronic interstitial nephritis, resulting in scarred and shrunken kidneys, is the most common cause of chronic kidney failure and death in the older cat. Weight loss, increased thirst and urination, poor appetite, bad breath, mouth ulcers, and occasional vomiting are common signs of kidney disease. However, these signs typically do not occur until after 70 percent of the kidney's functions are lost, and they are related to the recirculation of wastes in the blood that are normally removed by the kidneys. If unchecked, the buildup of toxic wastes will prove fatal.

The effects of kidney failure can be diminished, although not cured, by medication and a reduced-protein diet, which produces fewer waste products. Special dietary foods are commercially available and can be obtained through a veterinarian. With the veterinarian's assistance the owner may also be able to formulate a diet that will meet the disabled cat's special requirements. As always(but even more so in the case of kidney disease)clean, fresh water should be available to the cat at all times.


A cat's chances of developing cancer increase with age. An accumulation of cancer-causing substances (carcinogens) in the body, infectious-disease agents, or impairment of the immune system have been blamed, in part, for the increased incidence of cancer in older cats.

The feline leukemia virus (FeLV) is the cause of one of the most threatening and common forms of cancer in cats, lymphosarcoma. The virus is contagious among cats and is considered 100 percent fatal to cats with persistent infections. Disease symptoms are varied but can include anemia, fever, poor appetite, weight loss, vomiting, diarrhea or constipation, depression, and labored breathing. Tumors associated with feline leukemia virus commonly occur in the lymph nodes, kidneys, and intestines of older cats. The tumors may not be apparent to the touch but often can be revealed by blood tests, radiographs (X-rays), and biopsy samples. Chemotherapy may cause a short-term remission of the disease in some cats. However, because there is no cure, and a painful end is inevitable, many veterinarians recommend humane euthanasia for cats suffering from lymphosarcoma.

Intact queens or females spayed late in life are more prone to the development of mammary (breast) tumors. Unfortunately, about 85 percent of the tumors are malignant and are accompanied by early metastasis to lymph nodes, liver, and lungs. Chemotherapy or surgical removal of the tumor, although rarely curative, can be helpful in treating some tumors, though the risks of associated trauma and side effects may be greater in the aged cat.

Digestive System

Constipation is one of the most common ailments of older cats. Bulk-forming agents, such as wheat bran, or other sources of fiber mixed with commercial cat food can minimize hair-ball formation in the stomach or intestine. However, surgical removal of obstructive hair balls may occasionally be necessary. Regular use of hair-ball medications and moist, bulky foods also should greatly help control constipation. Neither laxatives nor hair-ball medications should be used more than once a week unless recommended by a veterinarian, because they can interfere with absorption of vitamins.

Even though diarrhea is not quite as common as constipation in older cats, it may be a sign of disease, and a veterinary examination would be in order.

Oral Problems

Cats are not prone to tooth decay, but they are very susceptible to tartar build-up and resultant oral diseases such as gingivitis (inflammation of the gums) and stomatitis (inflammation of the mouth lining). Those problems may be more prevalent in cats fed primarily soft diets and human foods. Signs of oral problems are bad breath, excessive salivation, brownish-yellow tartar deposits, and difficulty in eating or refusal to eat. In advanced cases of gingivitis, the gums are red and swollen and very painful, the tooth sockets ooze pus, and the teeth become loose and fall out.

Skin Problems

Skin irritations and wounds tend to heal more slowly in the older cat. Also, nutritional deficiencies can occur in older cats that can influence the health of the skin and hair coat.

Musculoskeletal Problems

The older cat may experience chronic degeneration of muscles, joints, and vertebral discs. Arthritis, manifesting itself as lameness, stiffness, pain, and a reluctance to move, is common. Currently, there is no way to prevent or cure arthritis in cats. However, there are medicines that can alleviate the pain and discomfort of inflamed joints.


Overactivity of the thyroids is one of the most common endocrine disorders in the older cat. Hyperactivity, sudden weight loss, increased appetite and stool volume, and increased fluid intake and urination are associated with the disease. Fortunately, the disease is treatable by medical therapy, radiation therapy, or surgery.


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