What You Need to Know About Your Older Cat

What is considered "old" for a cat? The question of what is old is complicated by the impact of genetics, environment and individual characteristics. Consider human beings: One person may act, look and feel "old" at 65 while another 65-year-old remains an active athlete with a youthful attitude and appearance. The same is true for our cats.

"I think that actually varies a lot, and it's getting older every year," says Rhonda Schulman, DVM, an internist at the University of Illinois. "It used to be that eight was the major cutoff for the cat that was geriatric. Now we're moving to the point [where] that's a prolonged middle age." The oldest cat on record was Granpaws Rex, a Sphynx cat who lived to the age of 34.

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A good definition of old age for an animal is the last 25 percent of their lifespan, says Sarah K. Abood, DVM, a clinical nutritionist at Michigan State University. However, since we can't predict what an individual cat's lifespan will be, the beginning of old age is a bit arbitrary. Certain families of cats may be longer lived than others, in the same way that some human families enjoy a much greater longevity than others. The lifespan of your cat's parents and grandparents is a good predictor of how long you can expect your cat to live. People who share their lives with pedigreed cats may be able to access this information through the cat's breeder.

Longevity of unknown heritage cats are much more difficult to predict. Even when felines are "part" Siamese or Persian, for example, these felines may inherit the very worst, or the very best, from the parents. The majority of pet cats are domestic shorthair or domestic longhair kitties of mixed ancestry, and the products of unplanned breeding. That by itself points to a poorer-than-average level of health for the parents, which in turn would be passed on to the kittens. Siblings within the same litter may have different fathers, and can vary greatly in looks, behavior and health. When all is said and done, one should expect the random-bred cat-next-door kitty to be neither more nor less healthy than their pedigreed ancestors -- as long as they all receive the same level of care and attention.

"If you get a kitten, it is very likely you will have this cat for the next 15 to 20 years," says Dr. Abood. That means the last 25 percent would be 12 to 15 years. To simplify matters, most veterinarians consider cats to be "senior citizens" starting at about seven to eight years old, and geriatric at 14 to 15.

Here's some perspective comparing cat age to human age. "The World Health Organization says that middle-aged folks are 45 to 59 years of age and the elderly, 60 to 74. They consider aged as being over 75," says Debbie Davenport, DVM, an internist with Hill's Pet Foods. "If you look at cats of seven years of age as being senior, a parallel in human years would be about 51 years," she says. A geriatric cat at 10 to 12 years of age would be equivalent to a 70-year-old human.

Veterinarians used to concentrate their efforts on caring for young animals. When pets began to develop age-related problems, the tendency among American owners was just to get another pet. That has changed, and today people cherish their aged furry companions and want to help them live as long as possible.

Modern cats age seven and older can still live full, happy and healthy lives. "Age is not a disease; age is just age," says Sheila McCullough, DVM, another internist at University of Illinois. "There are a lot of things that come with age that can be managed successfully, or the progression delayed. Cats with renal failure are classic examples." It's not unusual for cats suffering kidney failure to be diagnosed in their late teens or even early 20s. "I had a client with a 23-year-old cat who asked whether she should change the animal's diet," relates McCullough. "I said, 'Don't mess with success!'" These days veterinarians often see still-healthy and vital cats of a great age. "I think if the cat lives to 25 years, I shouldn't be doing anything but saying hello," says Steven L. Marks, BVSc, an internist and surgeon at Louisiana State University. "If you've ever had a pet live that long, you want them all to live that long."

Reprinted from Complete Care for Your Aging Cat by Amy Shojai © 2003 Permission granted by New American Library.

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