Changes In Older Cats

Geriatric cat Smoky

Changes in Older Cats – Contents:


Physical changes

Functional changes

Behavioral changes



I live with an old cat. Her name is Binnie, or Lushty (my girlfriend’s name) or Judds (don’t ask how she got that one).

She is 18 years old, estimated…because I found her as a young cat on the street in London.

I have seen her change physically. She now has black spots in the iris of her eyes. She has some gray hairs and her coat feels finer, more silky but it is less well kept by her as she can’t groom herself as well. She gets matts for the same reason and because she is overweight due to being less active. She is stiff limbed and moves slowly. She cannot jump up at all.

She is, though, still the same lady I love. She is a bit more grumpy, granted, but the same. Her tail still judders when she is pleased. I know a little bit about geriatric cat care.

Apparently 30% of cats in the USA are over 11 years of age1. Some experts consider cats beyond 7 years of age, geriatric!  I would prefer to say that an old cat is over about 12 years of age.

I use well respected sources. This is a slightly different version of an earlier post on this subject.

Physical Changes

I have already touched on these. In terms of how we can improve the quality of life of our cat in old age, the argument is that we can do nothing about the aging process but sometimes old age brings diseases that might be masked by old age. We should be aware of these as they can often be treated.

The usual physical changes are:

  • loss of muscle tone
  • stiff joints and lameness
  • coat texture changes
  • gradual hearing loss
  • loss of eyesight
  • loss of smell

What to do to combat these by way of geriatic cat care?

  1. Ensure that his or her usual sleeping/resting place is warm, dry and free of draughts as these conditions exacerbate stiffness. An old cat might like to be covered but this is the cat’s decision.
  2. Groom our cat daily or even twice daily to preclude matting. This includes brushing with a combed brush and cleaing with a damp cloth (to subsitute lack of cleaning by the cat).
  3. Inspect fur and skin for parasites and tumors.
  4. If needs must, our cat should be bathed.
  5. Toenails should be inspected and trimmed if required. Old cats can have overly long claws. You can hear this when they walk on hard surfaces – you hear a “clacking” sound as the claw rather than the soft paw pad impacts the ground. Trim Cat Claws.
  6. hearing loss might not be due to aging. Accordingly, if there are signs of hearing loss in an old cat a veterinarian should become involved to check if it can be cured. It can be difficult to tell if a cat is deaf as they compensate (see living with a disabled cat). One way to test for hearing loss “is to make a loud noise while the cat is asleep. The cat should startle. If not see a vet about hearing.
  7. Loss of eyesight is another concern and once again hard to assess for the same reasons. Cats adapt well to loss of eyesgiht. If there are indications of poor eyesight a test for vision recommended by Drs Carlson and Giffin is to cover one eye of your cat and “pretend you are about to touch the other with your finger”. Your cat should blink if the cat’s vision is OK.
  8. The other sense that might diminish is smell, an important sense for a cat. Cats decide what food attracts them through smell. Without it they might lose their appetite. The advised test is to pass “an alcohol swab under its nose.” I am not sure we can do this test. Where do we get an alcohol swab from? This test, I presume, should prompt a reaction and if not something is wrong. Bottom line: a cat with poor smell should be fed smelly food! This means highly palatable and “aromatic”.

Functional Changes

Kidney failure is a typical old cat problem. Apparently most old cats develop it to some degree. The signs are increased urination and drinking.

Urinary tract disease can cause urination outside the litter. See Feline Kidney Disease. Diabetes mellitus is also more common in older cats3. Dietary changes can help in relievig symptoms. Foods for older cats are available that take into account the older cat’s functional changes. See Diabetic Cat Food for example.

Constipation is another common geriatric condition. Hairballs are more of a problem in older cats. See these pages for some potential geriatric cat problems:

Chronic diarrhea in older cats can be a sign of illness. It can be controlled if it is due to old age. See a vet about diet and medicine. See Treating Cat Diarrhea.

Abnormal discharges (blood and puss) can signal:

  • Infection
  • Cancer
  • Pyometra (abscess of the uterus) – in old lady cats who had offspring

Teeth decay and gum disease go with the territory of being geriatric. Inspection and action is the mantra. Cats with poor dental care resulting in mouth pain will be poor eaters and may drool.  See Dental Gel for Cats.

Weight loss or gain requires geriatric cat care. Weight loss should be a concern as it may be due to a serious illness or loss of smell. A vet check is called for.

Weight gain is a “complicating factor in heart disease, arthritis and kidney disease…”. Dietary habits and exercise are called for.

A pot belly may not be due to excess weight but a build up of fluid in the belly. The cat may have heart, kidney or liver disease with ascites (an accumulation of fluid in the peritoneal cavity). A veterinary examination is required.

See Feline hyperthyroidism – more common in the older cat.

An old cat’s daily energy requirments are 20% less than normal3. Older cats have “decresed digestive ability”. They can compensate for this by eating more. Weight monitoring is important for older cats.

Behavior Changes

As expected elderly cats are less energetic and curious than younger cats. They might look for warm areas. My lady is very “static” in her old age. She basically eats and sleeps with some love and play in between.

My old lady is also slightly irritable and cranky. She also makes loud impatient demands rather than asking nicely but I don’t mind.

If he or she becomes sidelined or a little forgotten because of age he may become withdrawn and start to show signs of OCD, (obsessive compulsive disorder) behavior that is demonstrated in over grooming or elimination in the wrong place.

The basic answer is to play with your cat and supervise some outside activities and get involved with him or her. Plenty of grooming helps to.

I think a cat that is withdrawn and old should be allowed to go out and take some risks in her or his old age. Genuinely old cats hardly roam so outdoor life if supervised is relatively risk free. This might rejuvinate her. Behavioral changes due to old age that do not respond to natural remedies can be treated as a last resort with drugs. These are to be avoided in my view unless absolutely necessary.

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