The first cat I owned as an adult living on my own was bought from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) when I was 19. As of roughly October 2021, she turns 16 years of age.
She is considered not only an elderly cat but a geriatric one! (Don’t tell her that – the only signs of her age are her facial colors are faded, she has minor arthritis in one hip, and she doesn’t keep weight on like she used to.
But she still climbs the stairs, grabs the knees of anyone sitting with her, and occasionally whacks our other cat’s toy fish around.) Still, she has been an ‘elderly’ cat for a number of years now and that means that her care has shifted from when she was a young adult and a kitten.
Cats are a long-term commitment and as they get older, they exhibit different behaviors and need a different type of care so that they can have a healthy life as a senior and hopefully a gentle trip over the rainbow bridge after many, many years as our companions.
What should you know about elderly cats?
Defining Elderly Cats
With better nutrition, home, and vet care, cats are living longer than ever before, and their life stage has been redefined. It wasn’t all that long ago that cats only sometimes made it to age twelve or fifteen (they had to be strictly indoor and already fairly healthy), but nowadays, it’s not at all uncommon for cats to reach age 20!
Cats are considered to be ‘elderly’ when they hit 11 years of age, with seniors defined as between 11 and 14 and so-called “super-senior” or geriatric cats at age 15 and higher. (So, my Rune cat is a super-senior).
We can do a rough equivalent to human years: the first two years of a cat’s life is the equivalent of twenty-four human years and after that, every cat year is the rough equivalent of four human years. Therefore, my cat is the equivalent of an eighty-year-old human, give or take.
Many indoor cats will easily reach fourteen years of age or better now that there is better cat food on the market, more understanding of how to keep them safe, and better vet care.
There is also a greater understanding of how cats age and what particular needs that they have as age. All of this combines to allow your cat to live a lot longer than the cats you may have had as children or that your parents may have had.
Behavior of Elderly Cats
It’s difficult to see all of the behavioral changes that a cat goes through as they age because we are immersed in what they are doing anyway, so after a while, it just seems normal. But here are some behaviors that elderly cats will display (and don’t worry – most of them are perfectly normal!)
- Elderly cats hunt less, play less, and spend less time outside. (My cat will only go as far as the doorway to chew on some grass and look at bugs. Unlike my young cat who bolts for the neighbor’s yard and is thus banned from ever stepping paw outdoors).
- Elderly cats sleep a lot longer.
- Elderly cats tend to have a reduced or fussier appetite. They just don’t need to eat as much anymore, plus they have a reduced ability to smell and taste their food and a reduced ability to digest fat and protein, so food just isn’t as interesting as it was when they were younger.
- They are less playful and less able to groom (I brush my old cat a lot more often than I used to because her favorite corners make her grimy)
- They tend to be more vocal, more insecure, and more dependent on you. (Er, unless it’s Rune. She doesn’t care any more than she always did. This last bit will really depend on your cat’s personality).
Most of these things are pretty normal for old cats but be on the lookout for things like increased thirst or appetite, aggression, confusion, hiding more than usual, or neurotic behaviors like scratching themselves. These can all be warning signs of poor health such as diabetes, pain, or dementia.
Specific Care of Elderly Cats
Elderly cats require a different level of care compared to younger cats and kittens, so it’s important to stay on top of that.
First, food. Elderly cats have a much harder time digesting fat and protein, so they may need to transition to food that is specifically formulated for seniors.
Canned food can help a lot too as it is easier to eat, often smellier (so they can actually smell and taste it better), and has a higher water content which senior cats also require.
Small frequent meals throughout the day is better than big meals, though many cats will regulate that for themselves. Seniors also need to have plenty of water access as they are more prone to constipation and kidney disease from dehydration.
Elderly cats still enjoy having access to toys and still need mental and physical stimulation, just at a slower pace.
My old cat still enjoys climbing the stairs (They have rubber treads), batting at people’s knees when they sit with her, and occasionally going after toys for a lazy paw smack. She isn’t nearly as active as our other cat, but she likes to ‘patrol’ and visit people.
Ensuring that their food and water are easily accessible, a soft bed, things to scratch and things like carpeted cat ramps or laser pointer toys are all good ways to keep an elderly cat physically and mentally stimulated, but also comfortable and safe.
And finally, it’s important to see the vet a couple of times a year to do blood work and weight checks, just to head off any disease before it gets too serious. Most cats won’t and can’t tell you if they aren’t feeling well, so you have to be proactive about it.
Elderly cats usually need to be groomed more because they cannot do it themselves, and they still need the same level of dental care they have always needed, though be extra gentle because they may be more sore (or cranky).
Old cats are far less likely to ‘take’ to a new pet in the home and introducing another animal tends to be a much slower process with a higher degree of failure.
My two cats are only just now getting along and it has been about eight months since we got the new one and I think the old one keeps forgetting to be annoyed at her, so the combination means they finally both eat upstairs again. (Not together. Never together. But at least they hang out and cordially ignore each other).
The most important thing is to keep an eye on your elderly cat and talk to your vet if you notice serious changes in how they eat, drink, and behave. At this age, cats who get sick can go downhill very quickly.
Health Conditions Particular to Elderly Cats
Older cats have their own health conditions to contend with as well. While younger cats have to deal mostly with things like parasites and injuries, elderly cats are simply getting older and as a result, their systems are weakening.
There are a number of conditions that are quite common in senior cats and tend to be particular to cats of a particular age or older.
The most common health concerns for elderly cats are:
- Chronic kidney disease: Aging alone simply causes kidney damage, making them less effective at filtering waste products and leading to the building up in the bloodstream. It’s fairly common simply because it happens as cats age.
- Heart disease: There are plenty of heart diseases, but the most common is cardiomyopathy which is a disease of the heart muscle. The end result of any heart disease is congestive heart failure.
- Diabetes: Diabetes is fairly common in cats, particularly those who have been overweight a lot of their lives. Remission is possible when aggressive treatment is instituted, but if not, a cat will require insulin injections. Many cats who get diabetes, regardless of the treatment, will die of it, though treatment can greatly prolong their lives and make them more comfortable.
- Arthritis: Cats often get arthritis, making them less active, sleepier, and less able to get onto perches and climb. It can alter your cat’s quality of life due to pain and inability to be active. My cat has had arthritis in one hip for a long time; fortunately, it only really bothers her when it’s cold out and she knows to sleep in warm sunshine to help it feel better. Glucosamine may help with symptoms but talk to your vet first.
- Hyperthyroidism: This is another common issue that causes ravenous hunger (but weight loss in spite of that), vomiting, diarrhea, and an increase in water and urine.
- Dental disease: About 60% of cats have dental disease anyway, but for senior cats, it can be more painful and make them less likely to eat at a time of life when they really do need to eat!
- Cancer. Cancer is simply more common in older cats
Older cats can also suffer from mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, dementia, and other cognitive issues. These things are also tied to physical issues, so don’t discount things like forgetfulness as your cat simply have a ‘senior’ moment.
For example, my elderly cat sometimes heads off to do something (usually eat) and then forgets what she was doing and looks at her food dish, baffled for a moment. (Then she usually eats anyway because why not).
Mostly though you want to keep an eye out for things like reduced mobility, crying, excessive urination, blood in urine, and trouble keeping on weight for no understandable reason. These can all be signs of an illness.
Breeds Most Likely to Have Elderly Cats
If you’re looking for a cat to live well into their teens or even twenties, which breeds should you look at?
- Sphynx: Although Sphynx cats have some special needs when they come to their health, they can live to be a very old age. A sphynx mix holds a record for the oldest cat at 34 years of age.
- Burmese: The Burmese cat is a sturdy breed and most of them live to be 18-20 years of age.
- Siamese: Siamese cats come close to Burmese with a life expectancy of 16-20 years. (Can attest: my part Siamese cat lived to be 17 years old and died a peaceful death).
- Manx: Manx cats often live beyond 15 years of age, and they are lovable cats for the full life span!
- Savannah: Savannah cats can live 17-20 years of age and are extremely healthy and athletic. But, they’re not very common.
- Bombay: Bombay cats can live between 15 and 20 years of age, but they are hard to find like the Savannah.
- Ragdoll: Ragdoll cats are big fluffy cats that can live up to 25 years of age!
But ‘mongrel’ cats (mixed breed) can live a long time too. Both of my cats growing up lived to be about 17 or 18 years of age and my current oldest cat is almost 16 and going strong. Breed matters, but health and staying indoors with regular vet visits and a good diet, matters more.
The Oldest Elderly Cat on Record
Most cats have a life expectancy of between eleven and fifteen years, but these cats not only broke that but shattered it.
The oldest cat on record was a whopping thirty-nine-year-old cat named Lucy, a tabby cat in South Wales. It’s not 100% verified because a vet couldn’t completely confirm it, but family members remember the cat as a kitten in 1972 and the cat died in 2011. In human years, Lucy was about 172 years old when she passed. Sheesh!
The verified oldest cat is Crème Puff who was thirty-eight years old when she died. She was born on August 3, 1967, and passed away on August 6, 2005. Crème Puff is often considered to be the oldest cat because her age was verified by a vet (and birth records). In human years, that would make Crème Puff about 168.
Interesting Facts About Elderly Cats
Senior cats and elderly cats are often the last to get adopted in a shelter, but they can be amazing pets and as you see from the world records, adopting a cat at age 13 can give you ten years or more of joy! Here are a few interesting things about elderly cats that make them wonderful pets:
- Senior cats make great napping buddies because, well, they love to sleep!
- Elderly cats may feel bony when you scoop them up. They may also have drier fur and a thinner coat. All the more reason to give them cuddles
- Elderly cats still love the toys they loved when they were younger – they just may not play with them as fiercely
- Elderly cats do really well with wet food diets!
- Elderly cats tend to be gentler and less prone to scratching and biting. They are also experienced enough to know to leave when something is bothering them rather than fighting. This makes them fairly safe to have around young children, though make sure to introduce pets and children properly anyway.
Senior pets have a much harder time getting adopted compared to babies and young adults, but they are just as deserving of safe, loving homes. And they can still give you years of joy and happiness.
Have you ever adopted an older cat or had a cat live a nice long life with you? What was your oldest cat?
Pam is a self-confessed cat lover and has experience of working with cats and owning cats for as long as she can remember. This website is where she gets to share her knowledge and interact with other cat lovers.