Published by: Ingrid King. Last Updated on: March 27, 2023 by Crystal Uys
Written by Ingrid R. Niesman, MS PhD
Cats are living longer and healthier lives, thanks to improved veterinary care, better nutrition, and the fact that most pet cats are indoor cats. A cat is usually considered a senior between the age of 11 and 14, cats older than that are considered geriatric. Senior cats usually require more care than younger cats, and when problems occur, they can often be more serious or more difficult to deal with.
To maintain quality of life for these cats, understanding normal and abnormal aging becomes crucial. A recently published article¹ from a leading UK feline research lab begins to unravel how our observations about feline aging have evolved between 1995 and 2010.
Furthermore, findings from the analyses demonstrate that correlating some age-related behaviors to clinical disease can help veterinarians separate treatable chronic conditions from the untreatable.
Using behavior as a diagnostic tool
There were differences in specific diseases reported by pet parents between the 1995 and 2010 surveys, particularly dental issues, kidney disease and the emerging epidemic of hyperthyroidism. Increased reports of these conditions are not surprising given the increased awareness of similar diseases in human populations during the same periods.
Moreover, when these diseases are correlated to associated behaviors, such as increased drinking and kidney disease, some interesting patterns are observed. For example, cats with diagnosed heart disease groomed less often and suffered weight loss in 2010, but not in the 1995 survey. This is likely due to an under-diagnosis of cardiac pathology in 1995. Hyperthyroidism, which is often associated with increased nighttime vocalizations, was hardly a concern in 1995.
Not all the behaviors reported were negative. In both surveys, aged cats displayed more affection and demanded more human interaction than their younger counterparts. These social behaviors extended to other household pets too.
This paper further indicates that many elderly cats can benefit from therapies to treat their chronic conditions, resulting in longer, happier lives if diagnosed correctly. Age-related behaviors can be a powerful diagnostic tool for clinicians.
I have written several posts about the rise in prevalence of feline cognitive dysfunction syndrome (fCDS), a chronic, debilitating and untreatable neurological condition affecting cats over the age of 11 years. Many clinical signs of fCDS overlap with potentially treatable chronic conditions of aged cats. Separating age-related behaviors and potential diseases into treatable categories or unknown conditions is critical. Feline CDS is not yet a treatable condition. Heart, kidney and thyroid problems can be controlled.
As this study suggests, we can add to our knowledge base by observing and reporting information about our aging cat’s daily routines. We should take stock of daily subtle changes in activity, grooming and weight over time. Make veterinary visits an annual or semi-annual event and inform your vet of any noted changes. Veterinarians should be asking clients about all age-associated behaviors and may even want to consider using on-line questionnaires for clients to complete prior to their appointment.
Finding love at any age
Lorena Sordo, a PhD student at University of Edinburgh, finds the most consistent trend in her study is the continuing pleasure pet parents derived from their elderly cats. The final paragraph of the study sums up the importance of why we need research and funding for studies of aging cats. Participants reported loving their elderly cats as much as when they were kittens. As Ms. Sordo writes, “…owners of elderly cats do not want just any cat; they want the cat they already have.”
I whole-heartedly endorse this sentiment.
Ingrid R. Niesman MS PhD is the Director of the SDSU Electron Microscope Imaging Facility at San Diego State University. She graduated from Utah State University and received her MS from the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign. After 30 years of technical electron microscopy, cell biology, neuroscience and infectious disease research, Dr. Niesman completed her PhD in the UK at the University of Sunderland. Her work experience includes time at LSU Medical School, Washington University, UAMS in Little Rock, UCSD, TSRI and a postdoctoral year at CALIBR in La Jolla, CA. She has worked for at least two National Academy of Science members and is credited with over 50 publications. She can be reached at [email protected]
¹Sordo, L., Breheny, C., Halls, V., Cotter, A., Tornqvist-Johnsen, C., Caney, S. M. A., & Gunn-Moore, D. A. (2020). Prevalence of Disease and Age-Related Behavioural Changes in Cats: Past and Present. Vet Sci, 7(3). doi:10.3390/vetsci7030085
About the author
Ingrid King is an award-winning author, former veterinary hospital manager, and veterinary journalist who is passionate about cats.