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The Aging Cat: What to Expect When Cats Get Old

Thanks to amazing advances in Veterinary medicine and nutrition, our cats are living longer and healthier lives. And because cats are absolutely wonderful pets, the longer we can have them around, the better! But with this extended lifespan comes some health issues that every cat owner should make themselves familiar with. What should you expect as a cat gets old? One of the issues this article is going to focus on is the signs directly associated with a cats ageing of the brain, resulting in senility or dementia, correctly termed Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS).

Firstly, it is important to know that a cat older than 11 years old is considered a senior (rough translation is about 60 in human years) and a cat older than 15 years old (about 76 in human years) is considered geriatric. Typically we start seeing some decreases in cognitive ability from ages 11 - 12 and signs of CDS from the age 15.

Typically signs can be vague and occur slowly over time, but look out for:

    - aimlessly pacing around the house looking lost
    - yowling at night
    - personality changes
    - occasionally missing the litter tray

The difficulty in diagnosing CDS is that other diseases also seen in geriatric cats and associated with behavioural changes can also occur like hyperthyroidism, chronic renal disease, diabetes mellitus, osteoarthritis, and deafness amongst others. If you start noticing behavioural changes in your older cat it is of utmost importance to visit the vet first to rule out any potential other diseases, as CDS is often a diagnosis by exclusion.


    - Confusion and spatial disorientation can occur — they appear lost or confused with where they are. Anything from staring into space, getting trapped in odd corners or next to washing machines, forgetting where the litter tray is or wandering around aimlessly.
    - Change in habitual behaviour can indicate a confusion around time of day. This can be seen through forgetting when feeding time is or when you get home from work.
    - Night prowls and changes in their sleep cycle — you may find your cat sleeps most of the day and then is up all night.
    - Changes in grooming behaviour either through lack of grooming or excessively licking the same spots.
    - Increased, inappropriate vocalisation or meowing — especially at night or for no reason.
    - Changes in personality and interaction with owners and other pets in the household. It can pendulum across the spectrum from increased attention-seeking, aggression or being aloof and avoiding social interactions.
    - General behavioural changes: increased anxiety, increased irritability and decreased responsiveness.
    - Inappropriate faecal or urinary soiling in the house or just in odd places.
    - If your cat is responsive to certain commands any decrease in this learnt behaviour can indicate CDS.
    - Changes in appetite — if your cat shows signs of forgetting what it’s eaten or decrease in appetite (most commonly).


If you notice any of the above behaviours in your cat, the first thing you should do is take it to the vet for a check-up. You want to rule out the other possible diseases and what treatment needs to take place.


Although there is no real cure for cognitive decline in cats, your cat deserves and needs your care and attention. The signs can be reduced with suitable management, including creating a secure environment, increasing mental stimulation, adding supplements or making other dietary changes. There are also some medical therapies that you can employ that you should discuss with your vet

Emotional and physical security are equally important to your old cat.

    - If your cat is getting stuck in certain rooms or corners, or even getting lost in the house, it might be better to block access that area while you are not at home.
    - Create clean, cosy and easily accessible spaces for your cat to lounge around in.
    - Avoid things that can be difficult to negotiate like staircases and high surfaces/areas. You might even need to build things like ramps to avoid big jumps.
    - When you are at home, remember that your cat probably finds great comfort just spending time with you, so pick him or her up and take them to the room that you are in, this way they can get the attention they want and know exactly where you are.

Just because your cat is old doesn’t mean it can’t play! Mental stimulation and activity can help keep their brain active and alert.

    - A new toy is always exciting for your cat and will encourage increased cognitive function. Even a cardboard box or a crumpled paper bag is exciting and a new hiding place for your cat and provides stimulation.
    - Other brain teasers which cats enjoy are puzzle feeders. These are objects that hold food and must be manipulated before the food is released. However, don’t just expect your cat to immediately know how a puzzle feeder works. Allow your cat to explore the new object and help them to try and figure it out together.
    - Remember that toys and puzzle feeders are so much more fun for a geriatric if it means they get to spend more time with you!

It is very important to remember that the nutritional requirements of our pets change at various stages of their lives.

    - This is why it is important to feed your older cat a superior quality senior food or prescription diet that incorporates antioxidants such Omega 3 Fatty Acids, highly digestible ingredients and the correct calorie levels. Bear in mind that geriatric cats may not be able to eat as much volume as when they were younger.
    - Depending on the severity of their CDS it might be a good idea to place more food and water bowls around the house — making them more accessible.
    - Stick to a feeding schedule so that they know what to expect, change causes stress and anxiety.

This is probably one of the most distressing things one might see with CDS, remember that if the car is missing the litter tray or urinating in odd places they are not doing it purpose.

    - Try and figure out if there is a reason for an accident. Are they not getting to the litter tray on time? Or could edge of the litter tray have become too high for them to climb over? Have you changed the type of cat litter they prefer? Are they feeling anxious or nervous or getting stuck in certain parts of the house? Try and put down multiple litter trays around the house, especially where the accidents have occurred.
    - Ensure your cat likes and knows the cat litter. Make sure the litter trays are low-edged and easy to get into.
    - Avoid putting litter trays at the top of staircases, in busy passageways and most importantly: cats do not like their litter trays close to their food and water, they have a very sensitive sense of smell.


    - If your cat is really distressed during the night, remember to mention this to your vet, as things like arthritis or pain could be playing a role, and medications might be of use. Otherwise:
    - If your cat is keeping you up at night, try and limit daytime naps by encouraging exercise by going on small walks or having some increased playtime.
    - Ensure your cat has a deep-padded and cosy warm bed.
    - At night, put them to bed and stroke or massage them to encourage relaxation.
    - The use of pheromone collars and sprays may be helpful in encouraging a good night’s sleep.

Remember that one day we will all get old. Some of us will be lucky and stay mentally alert while others will not. It is in these years that we will need support and understanding from those who care for us. And your cat is exactly the same. CSD is part of ageing for some older pets and we need to help them enjoy their retirement years as much as possible.

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