Senior cats exhibiting new or unusual behavior should be evaluated for medical conditions.12 Changes in litter box usage may indicate urinary tract disease, constipation, or diabetes but may also be due to reduced musculoskeletal strength, impaired balance, or onset of pain. Vocalization, especially nighttime waking, is a common concern and may represent sensory changes (declining hearing and vision), cognitive dysfunction syndrome, pain, hyperthyroidism, or hypertension. Veterinary visits may be more challenging for the senior cat, in part because many cat owners do not seek wellness visits, but present their cats only for acute care.3 The use of pheromones or pre–veterinary visit pharmaceuticals such as gabapentin or trazodone may reduce stress while allowing thorough evaluations.68–71 As many senior patients may be experiencing some level of pain related to their disease or secondarily to DJD, analgesics may also be indicated for veterinary visits.
DJD and/or muscle weakness may initially manifest as a change or reduction in jumping or climbing in senior cats. Because of the challenges of diagnosing feline arthritis, it can be difficult to tell how many cats are affected. Estimates from published studies suggest that 40–92% of all cats may present with clinical signs associated with DJD.72 These studies show that arthritis, in addition to being very common in cats, is much more prevalent and severe in older cats, and that the shoulders, hips, elbows, knees (stifles), and ankles (tarsi) are the most frequently affected joints. DJD is the inclusive terminology that includes the two most common changes in aging cats—osteoarthritis and spondylosis deformans of the intervertebral disc. Owners may report changes in behavior such as “not getting on the counters as much” or “doesn’t like his window seat anymore.”
Although it is important to ask about jumping and climbing, it is critical to listen carefully to descriptions of changes in behavior, even seemingly positive changes. Senior cats may have reduced muscle mass or orthopedic conditions such that they would benefit from comfortable and warm resting locations. It is also beneficial to increase resource availability to reduce the distance seniors might have to move in order to reach food, water, or a litter box. Conflict with housemate cats may occur at any age but may be especially problematic for the senior cat (e.g., may have little patience for a kitten).
Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health USA Inc., CareCredit, Dechra Veterinary Products, IDEXX Laboratories, Inc., Merck Animal Health, and Zoetis Petcare supported the development of the 2021 AAHA/AAFP Feline Life Stage Guidelines and resources through an educational grant to AAHA.