The Aging Process & How We Can Help

by Holly Frisby, DVM

We expect certain changes to occur in an animal's body as the animal ages. These changes may not be the same in each animal species. In some animals (e.g., toy breeds of dogs) changes in the heart are common, whereas in other animals (cats), the kidneys may be one of the first organs to show signs of aging. We can help older animals to adapt to these changes in a variety of ways: diagnosing problems early, use of appropriate medications and supplements, modifying the cat's environment, and changing the way in which we interact with our older friends.

Change in nutritional needs

As dogs age, their metabolism changes and their need for calories decreases. The same is NOT true for cats. Their energy needs stay basically the same throughout adulthood. Obesity is one of the main health problems of middle age cats, but older cats tend to lose some of that fat. Some studies have shown that 'senior' cats do not digest, and thus absorb fat, as well as when they were younger.

Skin and hair coat changes

As with people, some older cats may start to show gray hair, especially black cats. The haircoat may become thinner and duller, however this can also be a sign of disease or nutritional deficiency. Fatty acid supplements may help restore some of the luster to the coat. If the hair coat of an older cat changes significantly, the cat should be checked by a veterinarian. Older cats may need to be groomed more often, with special attention given to the anal area. Grooming is a great way for you to spend some enjoyable time with your older cat. She'll probably love the extra attention. You will also be helping to prevent hairballs which can be more of a problem in older cats. While grooming, check for any lumps, bumps, or non-healing sores, and contact your veterinarian if any are found.

The skin of the older cat may also become thinner, less elastic and thus more subject to injury. Injured skin in older cats generally takes longer to heal. Dry skin can be a problem for older cats, and again, fatty acid supplements may be beneficial. Brushing will help stimulate the sebaceous glands and spread the natural oils through the coat.

Brittle nails

Just as we see changes in the haircoat, we can also see changes in the nails of older cats. They may tend to become brittle. Care must be taken in clipping the nails of older cats, and they may need to be clipped more often since older cats may not use scratching posts as often as younger cats.

Decreased mobility

Arthritis can occur in older cats, especially in cats who injured joints earlier in their life. As in people, arthritis in cats may only cause a slight stiffness, or it can become debilitating. Cats may have difficulty jumping onto favorite perches or going up and down stairs.

Chondroitin and glucosamine as found in such products as Drs. Foster and Smith Joint Care can be beneficial. Cats have a distinct sensitivity to many anti-inflammatory medications such as aspirin and acetaminophen. Do NOT give your cat an anti-inflammatory or pain relief medication unless prescribed by your veterinarian; if prescribed, follow dosage instructions very carefully.

As with muscles in people (if you don't use them, you lose them), older cats tend to lose muscle mass and tone. This may make it more difficult for them to move, so they move less, etc. and a viscious cycle starts. Exercise for an older cat is important for the health of the muscles, as well as the heart, digestive system and attitude. Older cats still have considerable curiosity, so empty boxes and bags turned on their sides, 'cat videos', and more slow moving toys may entice them.

Ramps, and low-sided litterboxes and cat beds may help a cat who has decreased mobility or pain on movement. Be sure the litter box and food and water bowls are on the same level of the house as where the cat spends most of her time.

Dental disease

Dental disease is one of the most common changes we see in older cats. Studies show that 70 percent of older cats exhibit signs of gum disease. Routine dental care including toothbrushing, can help keep dental disease to a minimum. Cats who have not received proper dental care can develop significant dental disease as they age and may develop life-threatening complications. A dental care program should consist of toothbrushing, regular dental checkups and professional cleaning as needed.

Decreased gastrointestinal motility (constipation)

As cats age, the movement of food through their digestive tracts slows. This can result in constipation, which is very common in older cats. Constipation can occur with even more frequency in cats who may experience pain while defecating such as those with arthritis or anal gland disease. Inactivity can also contribute to constipation. Older cats who do not drink sufficient amounts of water may also have a tendency to develop constipation. Hairballs in older cats can become a serious problem if the cat is constipated. Your veterinarian can help you determine if your cat should receive hairball medication or moist bulky foods which can help control constipation. Constipation can also be a sign of other serious disease conditions, and a cat experiencing constipation should be evaluated by a veterinarian.

Decreased ability to fight off disease

As a cat ages, the immune system does not function as effectively and the older cat is more prone to develop infectious diseases; and the infection in an older cat is usually more severe than a similar one in a younger cat. It is important to keep your older cat current on vaccinations.

Decreased heart function

As a cat's heart ages, it loses some efficiency and can not pump as much blood in a given amount of time. Cats can develop a disease of the heart muscle called cardiomyopathy. Diagnostic tests such as radiographs (x-rays), an EKG and an echocardiogram can be used to diagnose heart disease. Various medications are available depending upon the type and severity of disease.

Lung capacity decreased

Lungs also lose their elasticity during the aging process, and the ability of the lungs to oxygenate the blood may be decreased. Older cats with asthma may develop more severe signs of disease. Older cats may be more prone to respiratory infections.

Decrease in kidney function

As animals age, the risk of kidney disease increases. This may be due to changes in the kidney itself or result from the dysfunction of other organs such as the heart which, if not functioning properly, will decrease blood flow to the kidneys. Kidney function can be measured through chemistry tests on the blood and a urinalysis. These tests can identify a kidney problem well before there are any physical signs of disease. The most frequent sign of kidney disease first noted by an owner is usually an increase in water consumption and urination, but this generally does not occur until about 70% of the kidney function is lost.

If the kidneys are not functioning normally, the diet and dose of various medications and anesthetics may need to be changed to assist the body in getting rid of the breakdown products. Fluids may need to be given periodically to prevent dehydration. Pre-anesthetic blood tests are recommended to identify any potential kidney problems before anesthesia is administered.

Decreased liver function

Although the liver has an incredible and unique way of regenerating itself when injured, the liver does age just like all other organs in the body. It's ability to detoxify the blood and produce numerous enzymes and proteins gradually decreases with age. Sometimes the liver enzymes measured in a chemistry panel may be abnormally elevated in an apparently normal animal. On the other hand, some animals with liver disease have normal levels of liver enzymes circulating in their blood. This makes interpretation of these tests very difficult.

Because the liver metabolizes many medications and anesthetics, the dose of these drugs must be decreased if the liver is not functioning as it should. Pre-anesthetic blood tests are also recommended to identify any potential liver problems before anesthesia is administered.

Changes in glandular function

Some glands tend to produce less hormones as they age, and other glands may produce more. Hormonal problems, especially hyperthyroidism, are common disorders in many older cats. Many older cats also develop diabetes mellitus. Blood tests help to diagnose these diseases and many of them are treatable with medications or other therapy.

Changes in mammary glands

Unspayed female cats may have some hardening of the mammary glands due to the infiltration of fibrous tissue, or they can also develop cancer. Unfortunately, approximately 85% of mammary tumors in cats are malignant. Older female cats should have their mammary glands checked as part of the regular physical exam.

Behavior changes

As cats age, they have a decreased ability to cope with stress, and this can result in behavior changes in older cats. Aggression, noise phobias, inappropriate elimination and increased vocalization can develop or worsen in older cats. Various medications combined with behavior modification techniques can help solve some of these behavior problems.

Since older cats do not handle stress well, getting a new kitten or other pet when you have an older cat who is showing signs of aging may not be the best idea. It is usually best to get a new kitten when the older cat is still mobile (can get away from the kitten), relatively pain free, and has good hearing and vision.

Increased sensitivity to temperature changes

As cats age, their ability to regulate their body temperature decreases. This means they are less adaptable to temperature changes. Cats who could handle cold temperatures when they were young, may not be able to as they age. Monitoring the environmental temperature around your cat, and making adjustments will help your older cat be more comfortable. You may need to move her bed closer to a heat register or purchase a heated bed if you live in a region with cold temperatures.

Hearing loss

Some cats will experience hearing loss as they age. Slight hearing loss is hard to evaluate in cats. Often hearing loss is severe before the owner becomes aware of the problem. The first sign noticed may look like aggression. In reality, it may be the cat was unaware of a person's approach, became startled when touched, and instinctively reacted.

The hearing loss generally can not be reversed, but some changes in interaction with the cat can help reduce the effects. The use of lights to signal cats (turning a light on and off rapidly several times before entering a room) can be useful. Cats with hearing loss can still sense vibration, so clapping hands or stomping on the floor may alert the cat to your presence.

Changes in the eye and vision loss

Cats may experience vision loss as they age. You may notice your cat no longer follows a toy with her eyes as you move it across the floor, she may have difficult finding her food dish, or may bump into furniture that has been moved out of its usual place. Any sudden changes in vision or appearance of the eyes should prompt a visit to the veterinarian as soon as possible. Ophthalmic exams should be part of the regular physical exam in older cats.


Older cats can experience many changes in the functions of their bodies. Some cats may have more pronounced changes than others, and in some cats the changes may start to occur at a younger age. Knowing what changes to expect can help you and your cat adjust to them when and if they do come. There are many ways we can help the older cat adapt to these changes.

You will need to monitor your older cat more closely. Don't disregard a change in your cat's activity or behavior as 'just being old age'. Many of the changes can also be signs of a more serious disease. If you are in doubt, consult your veterinarian and be sure to discuss with him/her any concerns you have about your older cat during her regular physical exam.


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