Because of improvements in cat care and nutrition, it isn’t unusual these days to have our feline friends live with us into their twenties. According to veterinarian Richard Goldstein, assistant professor in small animal medicine at Cornelle University College of Veterinary Medicine, cats live longer now and are considered older when at 12 or 14 years, and those aged 15 years and older are considered super-senior cats.

How old is your cat in human years?

According to, you can calculate your cat’s equivalent age in human years by using the following formula.

The first two years of a cat’s life equate to 24 human years and every year thereafter is equivalent to 4 human years. For example, a 16-year-old cat would be equivalent to an 80-year-old human.

What happens when cats get older?

Illustration by Mike de Leon

Sometimes, nothing much: While there are cats who develop conditions as they get older, some cats stay perfectly normal and don’t change at all. This means that getting older does not automatically mean our cats have to get sick.

They will need regular checkups: Some common diseases or dental problems can be diagnosed with regular visits with your veterinarian.

Other times, they behave like old folk: Older cats sleep more, change weight, or have trouble reaching their favorite places. However, don’t assume that these changes simply come naturally with old age.

They may gain or lose weight: Senior cats who gain weight can develop chronic diseases which can shorten their lifespan. On the flipside, weight loss in senior cats is a sign of a serious problem, such as intestinal disease, diabetes, and hyperthyroidism.

They tell you they’re sick in their own ways: Cats are too skilled at hiding when they are feeling something wrong. Pay attention to changes to their regular routines, such as eating, sleeping, or using the litter box. Don’t ignore these changes! Tell your veterinarian and consider noting down any changes in a diary to help you keep track.

More prone to stress: Try to prevent stressing out your senior cat. Even though it can be impossible to avoid the usual stresses of the home, reducing the sources of stress can prevent cats from developing stress-related illnessess such as herpes virus infections, feline interstitial cystities, skin diseases, and digestive disorders.

A stressed-out kitty will often eat, play, groom, and explore less. They might hide, perform excessive marking around the house and outside the litter box, and even engage in aggressive or compulsive behavior. They can even become insecure and more dependent on their human.

Care tips for senior cats

  1. Care for them inside
    If you are used to having your cats outdoors, consider bringing them indoors as they grow older. Cats who are used to the outdoors can learn to get used to life inside as they get older, if they have enough space to be alone and enough stimulation in their environment.
  2. Keep your cat mentally alert and active
    Continue to provide physical and mental stimulation for your older cat. Elderly cats still crave play and attention. Keep using the same toys that they loved when they were younger. Larger toys can encourage your senior cat to play while lying on its side, using both its front and hind legs. This type of play can be great for cats with stiff hind limbs.

    Give arthritic cats horizontal scratching surfaces if they are having trouble using vertical scratching posts. Scratching is a satisfying activity that provides cats with a little bit of exercise for their forelimbs.
  3. Maintain grooming and hygiene
    Older cats may have trouble grooming themselves effectively, so you may need to wipe away any buildup of discharge around their eyes, nose, or anus with a piece of warm, moistened cloth. Be gentle when you are brushing older cats as some of them can be thin and have little padding over their bones.

    If you have a long-haired cat, you may find it more helpful to trim the hair around the anus, underside of tail and back legs. This can prevent matting. If matting does occur, tease them out instead of cutting them. If they’re really bad, ask your vet to help.
  4. Visit the vet regularly
    We can’t overemphasize the importance of regular vet visits for your senior cat. Healthy older cats can see the vet every six months. Remember that cats are masters at hiding health problems, so giving them health examinatins more can help detect problems earlier.
  5. Watch their nutrition
    According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, 60% of cats are overweight or obese. This makes cat obesity a common and serious health threat, especially for older ones. Overweight cats must deal with greater stress on their joints, as well as on their digestion and metabolism.

    One way to prevent your cat from becoming obese is to maintain a balanced diet in appropriate amounts. Your veterinarian can give you advice on how to provide a proper diet for your senior cat.

    Senior cats have a greater need for fresh water because kidney function can deteriorate. If your cat only eats dry food and does not regularly drink out of a water dish, consider mixing in canned food into their diet.

Growing old with cats

As cats get older, they begin to cherish routine and regularity. Older cats enjoy spending more time with their human family members. If we give them the support they need as they age, our feline friends can be our constant companions for many more years to come.

This appeared in Animal Scene magazine’s March-April 2021 issue.

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