Understanding your senior cat: Health issues and behaviours

Our feline whānau members don't stay kittens forever, no matter how much we wish they would! One day, you're dealing with a kitten racing around the house, and the next, you're sharing a couch with a cat who's more interested in kipping than almost anything else.

As our beloved feline friends age, their needs and behaviours can change. Senior cats often require extra care and attention to ensure they remain happy and healthy in their twilight years.

So, what are the common traits of senior cats? How can you spot potential health issues? Below we offer some practical tips on how to recognise and manage your furry friend’s overall well-being.

We're fortunate to have veterinary expert, Dr Rosalind Holland (BVSc, MVM, MANZCVS), shedding light on these subjects. With years of experience, she offers insightful guidance on understanding and managing the health issues and behaviours of senior cats.

Exploring the characteristics of senior cats 

As cats age, they may start to show certain signs of ageing, both physically and behaviourally.

Dr Holland emphasises the physiological changes in the senior years of a cat's life, such as:

  • Lowered immune system
  • Lower tolerance to stress
  • Reduced sensitivity of senses (taste, smell, hearing)
  • Reduced ability to retract claws  

These changes can be a normal part of ageing, but they can also indicate underlying health issues, so it's crucial to keep an eye on your cat's behaviour and seek veterinary advice if anything seems out of the ordinary.

Detecting health issues and understanding shifts in behaviour 

Dr Holland reminds us that old age isn't a disease in itself, but it certainly makes several significant medical issues more common.

Senior cats are also more prone to certain health issues, including:

  • Osteoarthritis: This is a painful inflammation of the joints and is very common in older cats, they are very good at hiding their discomfort so it can be hard to spot the early signs.
  • Organ dysfunction: Becomes more common in older cats, especially chronic kidney disease.
  • Endocrine/hormonal issues: Hormonal issues are more common in older cats, two common diseases of this kind seen in older cats are hyperthyroidism, an excessive production of thyroid hormone, and diabetes mellitus, where insulin is either lacking or is less effective
  • Heart disease: This disease also becomes more common in older age. 

Cats are masters of hiding their pain and discomfort and picking up on early signs of these serious conditions can be challenging.

Overall, the better you know your cat's "normal" behaviour and habits, the easier it will be to identify any deviations.

As your cat ages, their behaviour will naturally change. Some normal behaviour of elderly cats includes:

  • Reduction in activity
  • Reluctance to jump or climb
  • Less desire to go outside
  • Difficulty grooming
  • Less time spent playing or using scratching posts

They might sleep more, become less active, and lose some weight. Their skin and coat may also change, becoming thinner or losing its shine. Older cats may also have difficulty grooming themselves, which can lead to matting or other skin problems.

As Dr Holland tells us, “As older cats are less able to groom themselves you may also need to brush them with a soft brush or comb or use clippers to remove mats or trim long fur. Vet clinics are usually able to help provide advice or coat and claw clipping if you are not able to manage your cat's grooming needs at home.” 

It's important to pay attention and make regular appointments with the vet so any potential health problems can be identified and treated early. Regular check-ups can also help to detect dental issues, eye problems, and infections.

Nurturing their wellbeing: Treatments for senior cats 

While some signs of ageing are natural, there are plenty of ways to help keep your cat happy and healthy in their golden years.

Making sure your cat is comfortable in their environment is an important part of providing for their well-being. Favourite places to sleep, scratching posts and comfortable places to rest are all helpful in keeping them healthy and content. Ramps or steps can be added to provide easy access to favourite spaces. 

If your senior cat is diagnosed with a health issue, there are often treatments available that can help manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life. For example, dental disease can be treated with regular cleanings and a special diet, while arthritis can be managed with medication and lifestyle changes

For senior cats who are losing weight, feeding them small, frequent meals can help them digest food more easily. There are also specially formulated diets available for senior cats that can help meet their nutritional needs. As Dr Holland tells us, “Weight loss, even in the face of a good appetite, is also an important sign to look out for. Older cats do tend to be leaner but weight loss can be a sign of significant issues so you should never assume this is just due to old age.” 

If grooming becomes difficult for your senior cat, regular brushing can help keep their coat healthy and also provide an opportunity for bonding. Likewise, if your cat struggles to keep their nails trimmed naturally, regular clipping can help to ensure they stay in good condition.

It’s important to remember that even though cats become senior citizens, they can still enjoy life with a little bit of extra love and care.

Ageing gracefully: Preventive measures for senior cat health 

As your cat ages, they become more vulnerable to age-related ailments. To help them live a long and healthy life, it’s important to implement preventive measures that can reduce the risk of developing certain conditions.

Regular wellness checkups are crucial for catching any potential problems early on. Your vet can track your cat's weight and overall health, and perform screenings for common age-related conditions.

Keeping your senior cat indoors can help prevent them from contracting infectious diseases, and providing them with regular mental stimulation and exercise can help keep their bones and muscles strong.

Finally, giving your senior cat plenty of love and attention can help keep them happy and thriving. Showing them affection and spending quality time with them can go a long way in making their golden years special.

Signs it's time to seek veterinary support 

If you notice any changes in your senior cat's behaviour or appearance, it's a good idea to seek veterinary advice.

Dr Holland has outlined some common signs which could mean that your cat needs to visit the vet:

  • Sudden changes in appetite
  • Drinking more than usual
  • Passing more urine than usual
  • Limping or reluctance to be touched/picked up
  • Inappropriate toileting or spraying 
  • Increased vocalisations  

Above all, it's important to remember that each cat is unique and their individual needs may change as they age.

Ensure your cat's health is always taken care of by considering SPCA Pet Insurance. Whether it's regular wellness check-ups or emergency veterinary support for injury or sickness, our comprehensive coverage has you covered.