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Senior Cats Are Special AND Have Special Environmental Needs

by Paula Garber, MA Ed, CATEP, CFTBS LIFELINE Cat Behavior Solutions

Senior cats hold a special place in our hearts. Their soulful eyes and self-assured presence, tinged with a hint of vulnerability, often ignite a sense of wonder and gentleness in us. Moreover, we seem to inherently know that they require special handling and care.

Cats are individuals. Each cat ages differently, so there is no specific age at which cats become “seniors.” However, most cats reach senior status between the ages of 11 and 14. This is roughly equivalent to 60-72 years of age in humans. Like senior humans, senior cats are susceptible to age-related changes. Aging in cats affects senses, mobility, and ability to cope with stress.

Studies show that more than 90% of cats may suffer from degenerative joint disease or arthritis. Signs can be subtle and include being hesitant to jump up or down from a height, difficulty going up or downstairs, stiffness, lameness or limping, difficulty getting into or out of the litter box, house soiling, unkempt coat due to decreased grooming, overgrooming a specific area, being less interested in play or interacting with the owner, vocalizing when handled, sleeping or hiding more, and being more fearful or aggressive.

Another condition seen in many older cats is cognitive dysfunction— a result of age-related changes to the brain. This condition often develops so gradually that many owners don’t realize their cat is suffering from it. Signs include wandering, increased vocalization, house soiling, disorientation, and increased activity at night or sleeplessness. Your vet should rule out other causes for these behaviors, as many of them are also seen with other disease processes.

As a survival mechanism designed to protect them from predators, cats are masters at hiding signs of pain and illness. Therefore, regular veterinary checkups are a must for senior cats— every 6 months or more frequently, per your veterinarian. It can be very helpful to you and your veterinarian to keep a journal of your senior cat’s daily habits, activity, and behaviors. Note any changes in appetite and water consumption, litter box behaviors, quality and quantity of stools, the volume of urine, weight gain or loss, vomiting, general behavior and mood, interactions with you, mobility, overall activity level, and grooming behaviors.

Like human seniors, senior cats often require modifications to their environment to accommodate their unique needs and keep them content and happy. A few simple changes can make a big difference in their quality of life. Here are some helpful tips:

  • Locate important resources (food, water, litter boxes, favorite bed, etc.) on one level of the home. Try to keep them where the cat spends the most time
  • Offer multiple litter boxes, and make sure they are large and open (not covered) so the cat can easily dig, eliminate, and turn around without having to contort his or her body. Use boxes with low entry and high sides. One example is the Kitty Go Here litter box (large size; You can also make a litter box from a plastic storage bin by cutting a large, low hole in one side. If your cat prefers low-sided trays, place the litter tray inside another larger tray with a lower lip so that the larger tray catches the overspill of litter for easier cleanup. Use clumping, unscented litter with a soft, sand-like texture, and keep the litter depth at about 1-1/2 to 2 inches for easier maneuvering in the box. It is also helpful to place litter boxes in locations that are well lit and where you can easily observe your cat’s behavior in and around the boxes
  • Place food and water bowls on the floor—not in elevated spots that require the cat to jump. Water intake is important for senior cats, as they are more likely to suffer from conditions that cause dehydration or constipation. Provide multiple water bowls separately from food bowls, and use wide bowls to prevent whisker stress—some cats will not eat or drink from bowls if their whiskers touch the edges. Also, consider providing a cat water fountain to encourage drinking
  • Provide easy access to quiet rest areas and safe retreats. Add ramps or steps to these areas, if necessary
  • Senior cats often prefer soft beds with plenty of cushioning. Heated cat beds can soothe achy, arthritic joints all year round
  • Add nightlights in food, water, and litter box areas and along pathways. This will help them to guide cats with low vision or disorientation
  • Install baby gates. Keep them stacked on top of each other if necessary, to block access to stairs if your cat is unsteady or disoriented to prevent falls
  • Comparatively, carpeted floors and area rugs provide more secure footing. Keep claws trimmed to prevent catching on carpet and bedding
  • Cats are sensitive to change. So predictable routines and a stable environment help reduce stress for older cats. Avoid moving furniture around, if possible. Having visitors or workers in the home upsets your cat? Then, set him or her up in a quiet “safe room” with food, water, litter boxes, and, bed. Also, place a radio playing classical music to promote feelings of safety and calm.

With quality care and a supportive environment at home, as well as proper veterinary care, senior cats can live long, healthy lives in comfort and happiness.  For more information, download the free brochure, “Friends for Life: Caring for Your Older Cat,” published by the American Association of Feline Practitioners at


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