As your cat ages, you can expect a number of behavioral and physical changes to occur. Some are normal and inevitable, but some signal serious disease. If you're not sure talk to your vet. Early diagnosis and treatment might control problems while they're small and prolong your cat's quality of life.
Let's look at some of the common changes that occur in aging cats, and then see what we can do to keep our geriatric kitties healthy and happy.
Cats tend to lose the ability to digest and absorb fat as they grow old. Although obesity does occur in middle-aged cats, feline seniors more often lose weight and take on a distinctively “boney old cat” feel. Changes in diet can help some older cats retain normal body weight, though, so speak to your vet if your cat is losing weight. Some older cats also do better with several small meals per day instead of one or two bigger ones.
Senior cats sometimes fail to drink enough water, leading to dehydration and constipation. Be sure your cat has constant easy access to clean drinking water.
Constipation is a problem for many aging cats and can be related to a number of causes. For one thing, food tends to move more slowly through the older cat's digestive system, which, in turn, slows elimination. Arthritis or anal-gland problems can cause pain during defecation, so your cat might avoid eliminating for as long as possible. Constipation can signal serious disease, so if your cat isn't eliminating properly for more than a day or so, see your vet.
Changes in Skin, Coat, and Claws
Like their human counterparts, many cats show their advancing age in their hair. Some “go gray” (or white), especially on their faces. Some experience thinning of the hair and changes in fur texture as well, although these changes can also indicate nutritional deficiencies or health problems. If your cat's coat changes suddenly or significantly, she should see her vet to rule out disease. If the problem is nutritional, a change in diet might help (see Feeding Your Cat, and Keeping Your Cat's Weight Under Control). Your older cat's coat might also benefit from more frequent grooming (see Keeping Up with Your Cat's Hygiene).
Age also brings changes in the skin, making it thinner, dryer, and less elastic and, therefore, more prone to injury and infection and slower to heal. Again, good nutrition will help, and regular brushing will help stimulate the oil glands and distribute natural oils that lubricate the skin and coat.
Your cat's claws may also become dryer and more brittle with age, and your older cat might be less inclined to use his scratching post to maintain his manicures. Frequent nail trimming will keep his claws healthy and will alert you quickly to injuries to his claws or paws. Good nutrition will help maintain nail health, too.
Arthritis and Muscular Problems
As he ages, your cat might get stiff and sore and become reluctant to move around. Some cats, especially those who have suffered joint injuries when younger, develop arthritis, which can be mild or debilitating. If your cat seems to avoid jumping or climbing where he used to or if he seems to move stiffly, talk to your vet. Nutritional supplements help in some cases, and if his symptoms are severe, your vet might prescribe anti-inflammatory or pain medications.
Never give your cat any medication unless you are specifically instructed to do so by a veterinarian. Some medications are lethal for cats even in small doses.
Senior cats also tend to lose muscle mass and tone, making movement more difficult and leading to even more muscle loss. Lack of exercise has additional harmful effects on your older cat's heart, digestive system, and emotional health as well, and lack of muscle support will exacerbate the effects of arthritis.
Exercise is important throughout your cat's life, and moderate exercise remains important into advanced old age. You can encourage your senior feline to move around in a number of ways. Make life easier for him by placing ramps where he used to leap (for instance, onto a bed or favorite chair or perch). Appeal to his feline curiosity with empty paper bags or cardboard boxes he can explore or crumpled papers or toys he can chase and bat around. Gentle games will help him stay in shape and alert and also reinforce the bond between the two of you.
If your cat is unable to exercise regularly, you might be able to make her more comfortable by gently flexing and massaging her joints and muscles every day. Massage stimulates circulation, helping joints and muscles remain flexible, and many aging cats enjoy the stimulation and contact. If she's too sore, she'll tell you. If that's the case, just pet her gently and talk to her. Love is good medicine, too.