It doesn't matter whether the cat joined your life as a lively kitten or was adopted as a senior cat, once she or he hit their golden years, you need to keep a watch out for specific medical conditions. When a cat is considered a senior, and when geriatric conditions become a health concern, varies from one cat to another. Just like people, cats of the same biological age can differ immensely when it comes to physical well-being and age-related issues. And so, while most vets consider cats seven years or older to be entering their seniority years, they are likely to assess each cat individually based on her or his individual state. For many cats, especially with today's high level of nutrition and veterinary care, signs of aging aren't visible before the cat enters its teens.
The conditions detailed below may show up in younger cats as well, yet they are significantly more prevalent among senior cats. It's hard to predict which cat will develop age-related illnesses and which will enjoy their golden age in good health. Genes play a major role in this, and more often than not, cat owners have little information about their cat's parents and relatives' health. Overall care matters too, and your first line of defense should always be providing your cat with good care, including a balanced suitable nutrition and regular veterinary care throughout its years.
The Natural Effects of Aging
As your cat ages, its body goes through a natural aging process, affecting it in many ways. These are considered normal changes, and although they take their toll on each cat in an idiosyncratic fashion, they are not considered life threatening and can be pinned down to aging itself, rather than to any specific medical condition.
Cats tend to lose sensory capabilities over the years. It may not always be noticeable, as the cat is well habituated to her environment, and not having to hunt for a living, doesn't rely on hearing, smell or sight as much as a wild counterpart would. Read more about deafness in cats and blindness in cats, and look out for symptoms in your aging cat.
Your cat's teeth are one area where aging may be more readily visible than others. Years of tartar buildup in cats who do not receive dental care, or even just accumulative cavities and overall tooth dental, all take their toll. Elderly cats are thus more prone to tooth infections and gum disease.
Other body organs age as well, and as the various systems slow down, it's best to have your cat seen by a vet for a general check-up twice a year instead of once.
Finally, weight fluctuations and changes in body form are also common in a cat's advanced years. While some cats become more sedentary and gain weight, others become thinner and gradually lose fat layers, making them more attracted to heat sources in cold winter days.
Common Geriatric Medical Conditions
Please keep in mind that these conditions could affect younger cats as well. They are far more common among senior cats though.
Cancer and Tumors -
As body tissues age, the likelihood for cancerous mutations increases. Tumors as a whole are a concern with older cats, and some of those prove to be cancer. Skin cancer, lymphoma, breast cancer, oral tumors and digestive-tract tumors, and bone cancer, are all relatively common in senior cats. Fortunately, many of these can be treated, or may be slow to progress, so a diagnosis of cancer is not a death sentence.
Also called osteoarthritis, this is a degenerative disease in which the cartilage - that soft tissue that "cushions" the joints between the bones - gradually wears out. This is a painful chronic condition afflicting many old cats, many of whom excel at hiding initial symptoms. If you notice a decrease in the level of physical activity, especially where the cat avoids stair climbing and jumping - or you suspect that these activities may be painful to your cat, it's time to consult your vet. Arthritis can also be the cause of litter box avoidance in senior cats, especially if they have to make a physical effort to get to the box.
Renal Failure -
Age-related kidney (renal) failure can have a gradual onset making it difficult to detect at first. Keep an eye out for increased urination (and related litterbox problems), excessive water intake, lack of energy, weight loss, vomiting and diarrhea or constipation.
This metabolic disorder prevents the cat's body from processing food into energy it can use to. Symptoms include sudden weight loss, along with excessive drinking and urination. You can read more about feline diabetes here.
Heart Disease -
There are several kinds of heart disease, and they all take their toll on the heart itself and the lungs. Affected cats tend to tire easily, and may react to mild exercise with labored breathing. A bluish tinge to the skin is sometimes visible. Long term symptoms include loss of appetite and sometimes paralysis of the hind legs.
Increased production of hormones in the thyroid glands is not rare among senior cats, and can cause a chronic disease with a variety of symptoms. Symptoms may include overall poor physical condition, weight loss, increased appetite and excessive water intake, and changes in behavior.
Fatty Liver Disease -
Also known as Hepatic Lipidosis, senior cats can be more susceptible to this life threatening condition if they go without food for more than a day or two. Symptoms may include jaundice and loss of appetite, but your main concerns here is with the trigger: pay special attention to your senior cat eating habits, and avoid drastic dietary changes. Weight loss diets need to be guided and supervised by your veterinarian.
Chronic inflammation of the pancreas causes enzymes from this small organ to affect it and sometimes other organs around it. This can be a tricky condition to diagnose, with symptoms flaring up in some stages and subsiding in others. They may include loss of appetite, dehydration, low body temperature, vomiting and abdominal pain.
Strokes and Seizures -
Many medical conditions can cause seizures in cats, or it can be a primary seizure disorder (with no underlying cause). There are various types of seizures, but you're not likely to miss any of them should they occur in your presence, as seizures can be quite dramatic. While seizures are related to excessive electrical activity in the brain, actual strokes are caused by problems with the blood vessels in the brain. A seizure can be a symptom of a stroke, or it may be be expressed via milder symptoms such as dizziness, or even behavioral changes. Read more about seizures in cats.
Aging feline brains are susceptible to senility. Loss of memory and cognitive functions in cats can lead to disorientation, confusion, disrupted sleep patterns and litterbox problems. The cat may be display anxiety by yowling, crying, compulsive pacing or other behavioral changes. Keep an eye out for odd behaviors which may indicate the cat has trouble identifying family members, human or feline. This could trigger territorial aggression towards other cat in your household, for example.