Living with a Geriatric Cat

Rags laying in the sunshine
Rags laying in the sunshine

Guest Post by Lorie Huston, DVM

Please join Lorie on her website – Pet Health Care Gazette

With the current level of health care available to our cats, many of our pets are living into their late teens and early twenties. However, caring for an older cat comes with its own set of challenges.

The age at which a cat becomes geriatric is sometimes difficult to nail down accurately. However, the Life Stage Guidelines published by the American Association of Feline Practitioners categorizes cats from 11-14 years of age as senior and cats over 15 years as geriatric.

Caring for a geriatric cat often means doing everything possible to maintain your cat’s health and comfort.

  • Monitor your cat’s body weight and body condition. Choose a diet appropriate for your cat’s health status. Older cats often have health issues such as chronic kidney disease, arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, hyperthyroidism, and/or cognitive dysfunction and may have special dietary requirements. Your veterinarian can help you determine which diet is best suited to meet your cat’s needs. In general, diets that contain a highly digestible protein source and antioxidants such as Vitamin A, beta-carotene, and fatty acids (DHA and EPA) are a good choice for a healthy older cat. Both obesity and weight loss are problematic for geriatric cats and need to be addressed either through a weight loss plan or by finding and treating the cause of the weight loss, respectively.
  • Feed your cat small meals frequently throughout the day. At least three or four small meals provides for better digestibility than one large meal daily.
  • Encourage your cat to increase his water intake by feeding wet food, providing more than one water bowl, using a fountain, or leaving a faucet drip for your cat. Dehydration can be a serious problem for any cat but can be particularly troublesome for senior and/or geriatric cats.
  • Make sure your cat’s water bowls, food dishes, and litter boxes are easily accessible. If you have a large home or more than one floor, consider providing additional water bowls, food dishes, and litter boxes for your cat at various locations throughout your home.
  • Make sure litter boxes are low-sided to allow your cat easy entry and exit. Arthritic cats can have difficulty climbing over steep sides.
  • Provide comfort for your cat in the form of soft bedding on which to rest and relax. In colder climates, a heated bed can provide additional relief for sore joints and stiff muscles. Just make sure the heating element does not get hot enough to burn your cat.
  • Exercise is important even for your geriatric cat. Regular exercise helps keep joints healthy and keeps muscles from wasting. Encourage your cat to exercise through the use of toys, food puzzles, and food hunting games. Interactive play can be especially satisfying for both you and your cat, allowing time to bond with one another.
  • Older cats sometimes have joint or muscle pain or other health issues that make it difficult for them to access locations they previously enjoyed. Make accessing favorite perches easier for your cat by providing steps to access the perch.
  • Cats as young as 2-3 years of age can already suffer from dental disease. But for your geriatric cat, oral disease can become extremely painful and can affect your cat’s quality of life. Brushing is the standard of care for your cat’s teeth. However, if your cat already has dental disease, brushing may cause unnecessary pain. Your cat may require veterinary dental care before you can begin brushing his teeth, if you have not previously been doing so. Additionally, some cats simply do not tolerate brushing well. In these cases, there are other alternatives available, including dental diets, oral rinses, and dental chews. Your veterinarian can help you plan a good dental care program for your cat.
  • Regular veterinary care is important for all cats. However, for older cats, these visits become even more important. Twice yearly visits are recommended for older cats. More frequent visits may be required for cats with ongoing health issues. During these regular visits, your veterinarian will assess your cat’s body condition, overall general health, dental health, and vital signs. Routine blood screening and urine testing is important as well. These tests can help us detect health problems early on, while they are still treatable. Cats are very good at hiding signs of illness and veterinary evaluations can uncover issues that even the most observant cat owner may not know are present.
  • If you have any questions or doubts about your cat’s health, or your cat suddenly experiences any change in behavior, consult your veterinarian promptly.
  • Keep changes in your household and your cat’s routine to a minimum. Changes cause stress for many cats and can contribute to causing illness.
  • Most importantly, spend plenty of time enjoying your cat’s company.
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Hi, I’m Jenny Dean, creator of Floppycats! Ever since my Aunt got the first Ragdoll cat in our family, I have loved the breed. Inspired by my childhood Ragdoll cat, Rags, I created Floppycats to connect, share and inspire other Ragdoll cat lovers around the world,

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  1. Thank you for the excellent information, Dr. Huston! (And…thank you Jenny for posting this information!) 🙂

  2. The heated beds and pads have been great treats for my seniors. Chloe, my Calico, used the heated bed all year round. I have the kind that only heats up when that cat’s body weight turns it on. Now that Andy’s a senior, he’s using the heated bed, too. The many small meals works well, too. Andy sometimes seems to forget to eat unless I bring him some fresh food every couple of hours. He gets fed where ever he wants- at his age, he deserves it!
    Thanks for this great article!

    1. I just acquired a pressure-activated heating pad. How do I get my kitty to use it? I’ve put it in a place that she frequently lays in. Nope. Not sure how to acclimate her to using it.

  3. Dementia Boy says:


    Dr. Huston, I noticed on your website–which will not allow me to receive updates, which I’m sure has nothing to do with user incompetence–that you recently attended a conference at which Dr. Niels Pedersen spoke. Although Dr. Pedersen is primarily a researcher, he was Jolie’s primary vet for two years.

    A semi-feral (mother a second or third generation canyon feral; father a dumped housecat), Jolie and her siblings were left in my kayak when they were approximately one week old. I could not find a nursing mother so bottle-raised them; Jolie and her sister made it, but her brothers did not. Her front teeth never came in. She was one of the first early spays; a bladder fistula was discovered and fixed during the spay. By the time Jolie was 10 weeks old, she began developing autoimmune problems. Shortly thereafter, she was tentatively diagnosed with FIP

    1. Dementia Boy says:

      (Sorry, I accidentally hit the post button.)

      Anyways, we were referred to UC Davis, where Dr. Pedersen took a special interest in Jolie. I won’t discuss all the tests and surgeries Jolie underwent, but it’s safe to say that she’s an immunological wreck–or an immunological miracle.

      I noticed that your husband is a veterinary dentist. Although all vets do dentals (“Complete dentals starting at $75!!”,), I’ve been fortunate to have a “real” board-certified dentist, Dr. Koehm, who treats the Reno-Truckee-Tahoe animal population. I was appalled when he suggested that Jolie have most of her teeth removed–she wasn’t even three years old!!

      But Dr. Pedersen concurred. Jolie has a condition that I can never spell: Histo-something lymphocytic plasmocytic gingivitis. Over two years, Jolie left Davis without a thyroid, most of her teeth, a portion of her bowel, one claw and I don’t remember what else unless I look at her medical records.

      FIP was never ruled out. But Jolie’s 18 now and appears perfectly healthy. Despite all the bladder problems, she has no kidney problems. (Her sister died two weeks ago from non-regenerative anemia associated with CRF.) She sees a vet about four times a year; luckily, I can do a lot of work myself.
      But I just noticed a resorptive lesion on the one remaining molar in her left upper quadrant. I don’t know if it’s safe for her to undergo general anesthesia, but I know that resorptive lesions hurt. Do you think my dentist can tell me the safest way to approach this?

      Thank you for everything. I think exercise is important not just to keep a cat muscularly toned but also intellectually stimulated.

  4. Dementia Boy says:

    Thank you, Jenny and Dr. Huston, for this much-needed article. I’m relieved that I’ve been doing the right things. I’m glad that I listen to my cats and respond to their needs. I can’t stop time, but I can make the cats’ remaining time more enjoyable and stimulating, something more than simply waiting to die.

    I am happy for William’s few precious moments of clarity, for Izzy’s continued quest for world peace (sigh) and her uncanny ability to fly, for Jolie’s ill-fated plots (lol) against her housemates. Except for William, who came to me at 6 mos. while his breeder wrestled with what to do with him, this is the only home they’ve ever known. I think, I hope, that they know this is the only home they’ll ever know, that they know they are safe with me. I may be a goofball, but I’m their goofball.

    Thank you again. And, yes, Rags looks so wonderfully content, napping in the sunshine.:)

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