Indoor cats now live an average of 15
years, and it is not uncommon to see cats 18 to 20 years of age. The domestic
cat in the wild (sometimes called a feral cat) has a short life
expectancy-about 6 years. Accidents, diseases, parasites, the trials of
securing food, and the stresses of multiple and frequent pregnancies all
contribute to this shortened life. The city cat fares somewhat better, but
still contends with infectious diseases, accidents, fights, and sometimes
malicious behavior on the part of humans.
The indoor pet, being well nourished, vaccinated against infectious diseases,
and protected from accidents, fares the best.
Of greatest importance is the care the cat has received throughout her life.
Well-cared-for pets suffer fewer infirmities as they grow older. But when
sickness, illness, or injury is neglected, the aging process is
This is the most common cause of heart disease in cats
and the most frequent cause of spontaneous death in indoor adult cats. In
cats with this condition, the walls of the ventricles become thick. However,
because the muscle fibers are replaced by fibrous connective tissue (scar
tissue), the thicker heart walls do not translate into increased pumping power.
In fact, the heart is actually weakened as the affected wall of the heart
becomes less elastic and the heart chambers get smaller.
Caring for an older cat is directed at preventing premature aging,
minimizing physical and emotional stress, and meeting the special needs of the
elderly. Cats older than 7 should have a complete veterinary examination at
least once a year-often, twice a year is preferred. If the health of the cat is
questionable, she should be seen by a veterinarian more often. If symptoms
appear, she should be seen at once.
The annual geriatric checkup should include a physical examination, complete
blood count, blood chemistries, stool exam, and urinalysis. Depending on the
results, special liver and kidney function tests, a chest X-ray, and an
electrocardiogram may also be needed. Some veterinary clinics include checking
blood pressure as part of the geriatric exam for cats. Thyroid hormone levels,
such as T4, are also important in older cats.
Kidney disease is relatively
common in older cats, and a new, simple urine test called Early Renal Disease
Healthscreen (ERD) checks for protein leakage into the urine-specifically,
albumin. This test may pick up kidney
failure very early on so you can take steps to slow its progression.
care, including scaling the teeth, may be needed more frequently than once
Danger Signs in the Geriatric Cat
If you see any of the following signs, take your cat to the veterinarian as
soon as possible.
Loss of appetite or weight
Coughing, shortness of breath,
or rapid, labored breathing
An increase in temperature, pulse, or breathing rate
A growth or lump anywhere on the body
Any unexplained change in behavior
In general, older cats are more sedentary, less energetic, often less
curious, and more restricted in their scope of activity. They adjust slowly to
changes in diet, activity, and routine. They are less tolerant of extremes of
heat and cold. They seek out warm spots and sleep longer. When disturbed, they
are cranky and irritable. Most of these behavior changes are because of
physical ailments-diminished hearing and smell, stiffness, and muscular
weakness-that restrict a cat’s activity and ability to participate in family
life. A cat so deprived may withdraw, engage in compulsive self-grooming, or eliminate in
places other than the litter box.
Boarding and hospitalization are poorly tolerated in old age. Often, cats
left in these situations eat poorly or not at all, become overly anxious or
withdrawn, and sleep poorly.