Old black cat
Doesn’t it seem just like just yesterday that your cat was a crazy kinetic kitten? One of the blessings of cats is that age seems to creep up on them gently — so much so that it may be difficult for us to notice that they really are getting older and have developed some of the common health problems of old age.

Among the challenges of advancing age in cats are arthritis, cancer, cognitive dysfunction, dental disease, failing vision, hearing loss, heart disease, hyperthyroidism and kidney disease. Though these health problems are inevitable in most cases, veterinarians and pet owners can work together to help cats stay comfortable and contented, rather than growing creaky and cranky. Let’s take a look at some of the conditions you may see in your senior kitty and how they can be treated or managed.


It was long thought that cats didn’t get arthritis, but that’s not true. According to feline veterinary specialist Dr. Arnold Plotnick, studies have shown that 90 percent of cats 10 years of age and older are likely to have radiographic signs of arthritis. They are especially prone to this painful degenerative joint disease if they are allowed to become overweight or obese. Suspect arthritis if your cat no longer wants to go up or down stairs or jump on or off furniture, has difficulty grooming himself, pees outside the litterbox because it’s difficult for him to climb inside, or seems stiff after standing up.

If you notice these signs in your cat, talk to your veterinarian about ways to relieve those achy joints. Though there aren’t a lot of medications available for arthritic cats, they may benefit from nutritional supplements, such as glucosamine and chondroitin. Other ways to potentially help provide pain relief are acupuncture and massage.


Cats tend to be less prone to cancer than dogs: Fifty percent of all dogs and 30 percent of all cats over the age of 10 will be diagnosed with some form of cancer, Dr. Heather Wilson, assistant professor of oncology at the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, says. The most common type of cancer seen in cats is lymphosarcoma.

Take your cat to the veterinarian immediately if you notice any of the following warning signs of cancer: appetite loss or unintentional weight loss; lumps or bumps that increase in size, sores that don’t heal, or bleeding or other discharge from the mouth, nose, or anus; unusual body odor, lack of energy, difficulty eating or swallowing, unexplained lameness that doesn’t improve; or difficulty breathing, urinating or defecating.

Cognitive Dysfunction

Does your cat prowl at night, howling as if he’s lost his best friend? Forget where his litterbox is or get “stuck” in corners? Seem to not know who you are? He may be suffering from cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS), or feline senility. It’s a degenerative change in the brain that can cause your cat to become anxious, forgetful or confused.

Fortunately, cats with CDS can sometimes be managed with medication, environmental changes and behavior modification techniques. Your veterinarian should check him out to make sure his symptoms aren’t caused by another health problem, such as arthritis or a urinary tract infection. Once those are ruled out, your vet can prescribe medications that may help. You can make it easier for him to use the litterbox by providing steps to it or cutting out a section so he can walk right into it.

Structure and routine will also help your senior cat maintain good mental function. Feed him at regular times, have a daily play date and give treats at a certain time. The more your cat can anticipate good times, the better he’s likely to respond.

Dental Disease

Is your cat picking up his food and then dropping it or having trouble chewing? He may have painful periodontal disease, a common problem in aging cats. Plaque and tartar build up heavily over the years, especially if teeth aren’t brushed or professionally cleaned on a regular basis.

Schedule a thorough cleaning, and then follow up by brushing your cat’s teeth every day to keep them clean. Keeping the teeth and gums sparkling is an important part of maintaining your cat’s good health.

Failing Vision

You may notice that your cat doesn’t move as confidently through your home, especially in the dark. That may signal vision loss.

Cataracts, glaucoma, and retinal detachment are among the eye conditions that can affect older cats. Look for signs such as cloudiness or whiteness of the lens (cataracts), cloudiness and enlargement of the eye (glaucoma), or dilated pupils (retinal detachment).

Medication can help, depending on the type and severity of the problem. Cataracts can be removed surgically, but cats typically get around so well using their sense of smell that it’s often not necessary. Just remember not to move the furniture around, or he might bonk his head.

Hearing Loss

Does your cat no longer hear the whirr of the electric can opener? Bet you never thought that would happen. But even with cats, the sense of hearing begins to go with age; it’s just a fact of life.

You can’t purchase hearing aids for your cat — yet — but you can still communicate with him. Teach hand signals, stomp your foot, so he feels the vibrations and knows you are nearby, or use the time-honored method of going to him to alert him that it’s dinnertime. He’ll appreciate it.

Heart Disease and Hypertension

An old cat’s heart doesn’t always tick the way it used to. Get your cat to your veterinarian if he has any or all of the following signs: unexplained weight loss or gain, a swollen abdomen, restlessness at night, trouble using his hind legs, difficulty breathing, and fainting or collapsing. All of these may be signs of heart disease. Depending on the problem, your veterinarian may prescribe medication or a special diet to help manage the condition.

If your senior kitty begins to have seizures or frequently circles, develops eye problems, and has an enlarged heart or a heart murmur, he may also be suffering from hypertension. High blood pressure is a common problem in senior cats age 7 and older. Causes include kidney disease, diabetes and hyperthyroidism.

The good news is that medication is available for cats diagnosed with hypertension. Your veterinarian may also recommend a weight loss program or a special diet.


As he ages, it’s not unusual for a cat’s thyroid gland to get out of whack, producing far greater levels of thyroid hormone than necessary. We often see hyperthyroidism in cats around 10 years and older.

The diagnosis can come as a surprise if you think your cat is doing great, because he’s so energetic and has such a good appetite. Even though that seems like a good thing, it’s a clue that maybe something isn’t right, and your cat needs a visit to the veterinarian for blood work that can diagnose the condition. Less positive signs, which range from mild to severe, include unexplained weight loss, irritability, depression, vomiting, diarrhea and a coat that looks as if it has seen better days.

Cats with hyperthyroidism are prone to hypertension and, eventually, kidney failure or heart disease if the condition goes untreated. Depending on factors such as your cat’s age and general health, as well as your budget, your veterinarian may recommend surgical removal of the thyroid gland, a radioactive iodine treatment, a therapeutic diet or antithyroid drugs, which must be given for the rest of the cat’s life.

Kidney Disease

Kidney failure is one of the most common problems veterinarians see in senior cats. Kidney function can be as much as 75 percent destroyed by the time signs become obvious, so it’s a good idea to schedule a regular geriatric exam, starting early in your cat’s golden years. Blood work can help your veterinarian detect signs that kidney function is deteriorating. Kidney failure isn’t reversible, but in many cases, diet, subcutaneous fluid therapy, and sometimes medication and certain vitamin and fatty acid supplements can help to manage the condition and add months or years to your cat’s life.

Last but not least, one of the best ways to ward off disease or limit its effects is to keep your cat at a healthy weight throughout his life. That can help give him a reprieve from arthritis, heart disease and other conditions.

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