Healthy Aging in Cats – What Changes Are Normal?

As a veterinarian, I often hear clients talk about their older cats “slowing down” or showing other signs of their advancing age. The truth is that yes, your cat’s behaviour will normally change a bit as he/she ages, but the key is determining when these changes become abnormal. By understanding what healthy ageing looks like, you’ll know when it’s time to call your veterinarian.

If he/she is ageing in a healthy way, your kitty:

  • Shows no signs of cognitive decline, including disorientation, changes in interactions with people and other animals in the home, strange sleep-wake cycles, new house-soiling behaviours, or changes in activity (DISHA).
  • Has no chronic issues with his/her eyes or ears requiring ongoing treatment, and s/he can see, hear, and smell well enough that s/he is still master of his/her surroundings.
  • Shows no signs of pain in his/her joints and still moves through life like a ballerina – gracefully and smoothly. S/he can still jump, although maybe not quite as high as s/he used to.
  • May lose a small amount of weight, including muscle mass, but this loss should be minimal and not interfere with his/her ability to move around, eat, drink, play, and use the litterbox as needed.
  • Has clean, healthy teeth and a mouth free of gingivitis, tartar, or any lesions or disease-causing pain.
  • Breathes easily and calmly with no episodes of increased respiratory rate and/or effort, and generally shows normal attitude and appetite at home.
  • Has normal litterbox habits, meaning there’s been no increase (or decrease) in the amount s/he drinks and (subsequently) urinates, no problems with constipation – even though older cats are prone to this – and s/he does not show signs of straining in the box, diarrhea, urinating or defecating outside the box, or increased frequency of urination.
  • Has a healthy coat and nails, may sleep more than s/he used to but still has the energy to play and engage with his/her family, and does not yowl or pace around the house.

When is it important to call your veterinarian? Here are some behaviours that need to be checked out:

  • Significant weight loss, especially when the spine becomes prominent or the cat generally feels “bony.”
  • Sleeping all day with very little interaction with people in the home.
  • Increased drinking and urination.
  • Any significant change in appetite – up or down. If a cat is not eating at all, that is an emergency.
  • Straining in the litterbox, urinating/defecating outside the box, and/or blood in the urine or stool.
  • Yowling and/or restlessness.
  • Hiding.
  • Foul smell from the mouth, hesitating to eat and/or difficulty eating (e.g., dropping food, strange or exaggerated chewing, etc.).
  • Vomiting regularly, especially if it is once daily or more.
  • Walking stiffly, difficulty jumping, limping, walking like he/she is “drunk.”
  • Coughing, wheezing, breathing quickly or abdominal breathing.

The key here is knowing your cat and recognizing when something just doesn’t seem right. Sometimes all you may have is a feeling that something is off, and with cats often that’s all they’ll give you. We have a term for that in veterinary medicine – ADR (Ain’t Doin’ Right) – and more often than not there is a reason for even the most subtle changes in behaviour.

If you have any questions about your older cat’s health and how to best manage it, give us a call at 902-477-4040 or email info@spryfieldanimalhospital.com.

Written by: Dr, Emily Reiner, DVM



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