Senior Cats 101: Tips to Keep Your Senior Cat Healthy

Written by Small Door's medical experts

As your cat gets older, their needs will change and they’ll require extra care from you to stay healthy. Read on to learn our top tips on nutrition for senior cats, changes you may need to make around the home, as well as their ideal routine to keep them comfortable and happy well into their golden years.

In this article:

When is a cat considered senior?

Contrary to popular belief, cats don’t age at 7 years per human year. They age faster in their first few years, meaning they become middle aged and senior sooner than you might think. As a rough guide, these are the life stages for an average cat:

  • Kitten: Up to 1 year old

  • Young adult: 1-6 years old

  • Mature adult: 7-10 years old

  • Senior: Over 10 years old

There are many ways you can help your cat to age well, ideally starting when they’re still young!

1. Take your senior cat for regular vet visits

Healthy adult and senior cats should go to the veterinarian for a wellness exam every six months, with your vet conducting lab tests each year. (Very old cats and those with health issues will require more frequent monitoring.) By keeping a close eye on your pet, your vet may be able to catch illnesses before they become more serious – giving your cat a better chance of recovery, and meaning treatment is less expensive for you.

2. Monitor your senior cat at home for signs of illness and pain

Cats are masters at hiding signs of pain and sickness, which is why it’s often difficult for owners to know when their cat is in the early stages of illness. Giving your cat a ‘once-over’ each week – perhaps during a grooming session – may help you to notice any new lumps, bumps, or other concerning changes you need to get checked out. You should also keep a close eye on any behavioral changes, as these are often the first noticeable signs of illness. In particular, watch for:

  • Hiding away, or decreased interaction with humans or other pets

  • Unwillingness to engage in play or activities they used to enjoy

  • Increases or decreases in appetite

  • Increased thirst

  • Changes in bathroom habits or accidents

  • Vomiting or diarrhea

  • Excessive fatigue 

  • Changes to breathing, such as increased rate, effort or coughing

  • Weight loss (sometimes despite a healthy or increased appetite) 

  • Changes in mobility, such as no longer being able to jump, or slipping

  • Changes to grooming habits

3. Get pet insurance for your senior cat

The longer your cat lives, the more likely they are to suffer from a health condition. Pet insurance gives you great peace of mind that you’ll be able to afford to provide whatever treatment they need, so you can just focus on helping them get better. Ideally, it’s best to buy pet insurance while your pet is young and healthy, as most insurances won’t cover any pre-existing conditions that your senior cat has. However, it’s worth shopping around to see if you can find a policy that works for you – just be sure to double check the fine print before purchasing.

4. Monitor your senior cat’s nutrition

As your cat gets older, their nutritional needs may change. It’s important to stay in close contact with your veterinarian who can advise on any specific requirements your cat has, particularly if they’re suffering from any illnesses. If your cat is doing well on their adult food, it’s often fine to continue feeding them the same food during their senior years. However, it’s still important to ensure the brand you choose is nutritionally complete – look out for an AAFCO statement on the packaging to confirm this.

5. Keep your senior cat at a healthy weight

Weight loss is a common concern for senior cats. It’s often one of the first signs of illness, and can even occur despite your cat eating the same or more than they used to in conditions such as hyperthyroidism and diabetes. So it’s important to always get any weight loss checked by a vet.

If your cat has less of an appetite in general, you can try encouraging them to eat by changing from kibble to wet food (some cats find it more palatable), heating their food up slightly or switching to a stronger flavor, such as fish.

Weight gain can also occur in senior cats if they continue to take in the same number of calories but their activity level decreases. Weight gain is dangerous for a number of reasons – it increases the risk of many diseases, such as diabetes, can worsen pre-existing arthritis and mobility issues, and it decreases your pet’s quality of life. If you need to help your cat lose weight, try a lower calorie diet, switch to canned food (as it tends to have fewer calories), and encourage more movement by adding extra playtime and feeding your cat via puzzle or hunting feeders.

Body condition scoring can help you to judge whether your cat is at a healthy weight. You should be able to feel their ribs but not see them, and they should have an obvious waist visible from both the side and above.

6. Ensure your senior cat drinks enough water

Staying hydrated is incredibly important for your cat. It helps to maintain proper organ function and flush out waste products, amongst other things. Many cats can be quite picky when it comes to water intake, and so you may need to take steps to encourage your senior cat to drink enough – particularly on very hot days or if they’ve engaged in a lot of activity. Some tactics you can try include:

  • Providing easy access: Put water bowls in multiple locations, particularly if you live in a multi-level home or have more than one pet. 

  • Keep bowls clean and water fresh: Many cats just won’t drink from water that isn’t fresh. Ideally, the water supply should be changed twice daily and both the food and water bowls thoroughly cleaned once a day to prevent slime and bacteria from accumulating. Placing the bowls out of direct sunlight will also help decrease the speed at which bacteria can grow. 

  • Try a water fountain: These can be a great tool to encourage cats that prefer fresh or flowing water to drink more. 

  • Feed wet food: Canned cat food has a higher water content than kibble, so this helps to up your cat’s water intake.

7. Minimize stress for your senior cat

Older cats are often more sensitive to anxiety and stress. Stress is not only emotionally difficult, but it can also trigger a number of medical conditions, including urinary and respiratory infections, so it’s very important to minimize anxiety triggers as far as possible for your cat.

Ensure you’ve got plenty of litter boxes around the home, and that food and water bowls, scratching posts and their bed are easily accessible, so they never need worry about satisfying their basic needs. Try to stick to a routine in terms of mealtimes, playtime and sleep, and make any changes to your cat’s environment slowly if needed to minimize stress. Make sure they have a safe, quiet den they can retreat to if they ever feel overwhelmed – for example, when you have guests over.

8. Adapt your senior cat’s environment

As your cat gets older, they may struggle with joint problems such as arthritis and lose some of their mobility. You may need to adapt their living spaces to maintain their access and to keep them comfortable:

  • Use ramps: Your cat may struggle to jump like they used to. Consider adding ramps to help them get to their favorite perches so they can still enjoy surveying their territory, and ensure they can easily access crucial items such as their bed.

  • Provide easy access to food and water: Feed cats on the floor rather than countertops, so they don’t need to struggle to jump up. If your cat suffers from back or neck pain, you can use elevated bowls so that they don’t have to bend down close to the floor.

  • Make sure litter boxes are accessible: High edges and top entry boxes can be tricky for older cats to navigate. Consider buying a low-entry box that is more accessible, or providing a ramp for easier access.

  • Cover slippery surfaces: Decreasing mobility may cause your cat to find slippery surfaces unnerving. Use carpet, rugs or mats to cover up hard surfaces and provide more grip for them.

  • Provide orthopedic bedding: If your cat suffers from arthritis or another pain condition, consider investing in a thick, therapeutic pet bed to keep them comfortable while they’re resting.

  • Keep nails short: Senior cats may need you to trim their nails more often, as they may find it difficult to use scratching posts. Horizontal scratching posts may also be easier for them to use than vertical ones.

9. Help your senior cat with grooming

Cats are typically fastidious groomers, but a loss in mobility, obesity, or health issues may make it more difficult for them to reach certain areas of their body comfortably, resulting in their fur becoming tangled and matted. Depending on their type and length of fur, you may need to assist them with grooming several times a week. Use this as a bonding session and give your cat plenty of love as you gently comb out all the knots and loose fur.

10. Brush your senior cat’s teeth every day

Dental disease is extremely common amongst older cats. Sadly, it can lead to severe issues for your cat, including pain and inflammation, putting them off their food, as well as causing infections, and even bone loss or systemic problems. Use a pet-safe toothpaste to brush their teeth once a day. If your cat won’t tolerate a brush in their mouth, take a small piece of gauze and gently rub it against their teeth to help remove some of the bacteria and plaque.

Ask your veterinarian to inspect their teeth at your twice-yearly wellness exams. They’ll be able to advise when your cat needs a professional dental cleaning to remove tartar that has built up on the teeth and under the gumline, and deal with any teeth that may need to be extracted. 

11. Provide stimulation and engagement for your senior cat

Senior cats may begin to spend more time indoors as they slow down, so it’s important to make sure they have plenty of enrichment inside. Add extra toys that engage their natural instincts: chasing, pouncing, scratching and climbing. If you have the space, add additional climbing toys and perches such as cat trees (remember you may need to add ramp access). Many older cats enjoy watching the world outside, so consider setting up a perch next to the window.

Mental stimulation has also been proven to help counteract the effects of declining cognition in senior pets. Food puzzle toys such as the Indoor Hunting Feeder work really well to stimulate your cat’s mind and engage their hunting instinct.

Set aside extra time each day to engage in playtime with them, as well as some cuddle sessions. Human interaction is really important for senior cats, to keep them feeling safe, happy and loved.

12. Monitor your senior cat’s vision and hearing

Your cat’s senses may begin to deteriorate as they grow older. Sometimes, vision or hearing loss is due to the normal aging process and unfortunately nothing can be done. However, in some cases it may be due to a medical condition such as cataracts or an ear infection, so it’s important to always consult your veterinarian if you notice any symptoms. This may include bumping into furniture, or being less receptive to the sound of the cat food packaging being opened!

13. Think carefully before you get a kitten

It’s often thought that having a kitten in the home may help to revitalize an older cat, but the truth is that senior cats can often find young cats very tiring. Older cats need plenty of peace and quiet to rest, as well as their own space, which can be difficult to come by if they’re sharing their home with an overactive new kitten. Seniors may also find changes in their environment in general – such as a new housemate – quite stressful.

Consequently, if you’re contemplating adding a new kitten to your household, we recommend doing so whilst your older cat is still young and well enough to keep up with them, and ensuring they have their own ‘den’ to retreat to whenever they need some space.

Summary of senior cat care tips

There are many small changes you can make to help your senior cat stay healthy and happy during their golden years. From keeping up with their regular veterinary visits, ensuring they’re getting the right nutrition and drinking enough water, to making changes to their environment to keep them comfortable, you can maximize their quality of life and even help them live longer.

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