As a result of advances in veterinary medicine, more knowledgeable care and improved nutrition, cats are now living much longer, healthier lives. But, just as for humans, the passage of time has its effects, and you may begin to notice that your once-frisky feline seems to have slowed down a bit.
Being aware of the natural changes that can occur as your cat becomes older, as well as what you can do to help keep your pet as healthy, active and comfortable as possible, can ensure that you both enjoy this final stage in your cat's life to the fullest.
As cats move into the senior phase of their lives, they experience gradual changes that are like those of ageing humans: their coat may lose its colour and lustre, their bodies are not as supple and reflexes not as sharp as they once were. However diseases found more frequently in senior cats can also cause these symptoms, for example an overactive thyroid gland can cause the coat to become dull and the painful condition known as arthritis causes inflexibility and a reluctance to more around or groom.
Hearing, eyesight and the sense of smell may deteriorate and energy levels seem to diminish. In fact, because cats are naturally adaptive in their behaviour, the first signs of ageing are often a subtle general decrease in activity, combined with a tendency to sleep longer and more soundly.
Such signs may begin to manifest themselves anywhere between the ages of seven and 11. Furthermore, a healthy cat who lives the majority of its life indoors, especially one that has been neutered, will most likely age later than one which has been affected by disease or environmental problems early in life.
Thus, while wild or feral tomcats have an average life span of only three years, a castrated male house cat that is well cared for can live happily and healthily into late teens or, in exceptional cases, his early twenties. Again, as with humans, the ageing process will vary with the individual. Your veterinary surgeon will be able to judge when it's time to consider your cat a "senior".
As your cat ages, regular check-ups at the vet become more important than ever. In fact, at this stage of your pet's life, it is recommended that they receive a thorough examination every six months, as adult cats can age as much as four years (in human terms) within the period of one calendar year.
Besides the usual complete physical examination, your veterinary surgeon may conduct a simple urine and blood test. This will enable your vet to diagnose diseases in the early stages that do not yet show and can be treated before they get worse. Usually, the sooner treatment is given the better the outcome for the cat.
Most importantly, you should tell your veterinary surgeon about any noticeable change in your cat's physical condition or behaviour, for example eating or drinking more or eating less, urinating more frequently, not grooming themselves as often,.changes in their coat, not responding to usual commands or signals.
A good way to know if your cat is drinking more is to measure their water intake per day and tell your vet. Make sure your cat doesn't go outside or drink from the toilet if you are going to measure!
A problem that you may assume is simply related to your cat's advanced age may actually be the result of a treatable medical condition. For example, your cat's lack of interest in exercise or play may not stem from the normal decrease in energy that comes with age, but be due to the stiffness and pain that results from arthritis - a condition that can be managed with the proper treatment.
Regular checkups can thus help your veterinary surgeon work out a suitable preventative health programme for your pet and catch any disorders sufficiently early to provide effective treatment. Working together, you can both ensure that your cat's senior years will be healthy and happy ones.
As he or she ages, your cat's nutritional needs may also change. You may find that, although your pet is eating less, he/she still puts on weight. This could be due to a slowdown of metabolism or a decrease in activity.
Excess weight can cause and/or aggravate many feline medical conditions, including diabetes, heart, respiratory, skin and joint problems. To help a larger cat lose weight, try feeding smaller quantities of food or gradually switch to a diet that is lower in calories. Your veterinary surgery is the best place to get advice on dieting and many clinics offer free services such as weight loss clinics run by fully qualified nurses.
Other cats have entirely the opposite problem - they lose weight as they age, sometimes as the result of kidney disease, overactive thyroid glands,known as hyperthyroidism, but also conditions such as heart disease, dental issues and diabetes. Appetite can be reduced or increased in these conditions. In either case, ask your veterinary surgeon for advice about your pet's individual nutritional requirements.