How to Help Your Older Cat Deal With Aging

Older calico cat
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Talk to your veterinarian if you see any behavioral changes in your senior cat, such as missing the litterbox, loss of cognitive function or sensory loss.

While humans have to be well into our 60s to achieve senior citizen status, in cats the magic number is debatable, but likely somewhere between 11 and 14. Like humans, cats may experience health and behavior issues due to aging.

What to Expect

First and foremost, report any behavioral changes to your veterinarian. Many medical problems can resemble behavioral ones, so the best approach is to rule out medical issues first. That means taking a trip to the vet for your cat, and possibly some diagnostic testing to investigate her new behavior. That said, there are some changes that are expected as cats age. For example, most cats naturally become less active and less playful. They may even groom themselves less often and less thoroughly. Sometimes, they even eat less enthusiastically. While these may be normal aspects of aging, they can also be signs of disease, so it's important to discuss these changes with your veterinarian as soon as you notice them occurring. 

Other Issues

  • Loss of litterbox training. The most common reason older cats are seen by veterinary behaviorists is loss of litterbox training. It can be caused or influenced by medical conditions such as brain tumors, sensory problems, neuromuscular or joint conditions (which decrease mobility), any disease that increases the cat's need to eliminate or diseases that decrease bladder or bowel control. It can also result from cognitive dysfunction. If a medical condition is not to blame for your cat's loss of litterbox training, you can simply try increasing the availability of litterboxes in your house, making sure to have at least one on every floor. Don't move existing boxes (unless accessibility is a problem); add to them. Use boxes with low sides that don't require the cat to jump up on counters or into tubs.
  • Cognitive dysfunction. Sometimes compared to human Alzheimer's disease, cognitive dysfunction is periodically seen in older cats (and, as mentioned above, can be responsible for loss of house-training in many). As cats age, they are more likely to be affected. Signs of cognitive dysfunction include disorientation (wandering and appearing lost or confused at times, failing to recognize family members); reduced social interactions (losing interest in greeting or interacting with people or other cats); sleep-wake cycle disruptions (sleeping more during the day but staying awake at night, often wandering and meowing); and house-training loss (seeming to forget the litterbox location).
  • Sensory loss. Older cats, like older people, may experience sensory loss. Fortunately, cats deal well with these changes — better, in fact, than most people. Frequently, hearing is the first sense lost in an older cat. Your cat's ability to hear high-pitched sounds usually goes first, so try to call out in a lower tone. Deaf cats can learn to respond to your hand signals or movements, such as thumping on the floor.

What to Do

  • Ask your veterinarian about environmental modifications, medications or other options for managing cats with cognitive dysfunction.
  • Try to interact with your older cat, enticing her to play short games or sit for grooming. Mental and social stimulation may help keep her mentally fit.
  • Never assume a change in your cat's behavior is just due to old age. Many of her changes may be based in health problems: a cat in pain may become more antisocial or aggressive; a cat with a medical condition (such as kidney disease, diabetes or hyperthyroidism) may urinate more or may not use her litterbox because it's either overly soiled or too hard to reach in time; a cat with arthritis may be less apt to use a litterbox that requires her to jump to reach it.
  • Always see your veterinarian rather than deciding there is nothing you can do about it. You won't be able to bring your cat back to kittenhood, but you may be able to help keep her happier, healthier and more comfortable long into her senior years.

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