Teri Silver is a journalist, commercial copywriter, editor, broadcast anchor, and Public Relations Specialist.
When we adopt kittens and young adult cats, the “older” years seem so far off. But a cat’s life span depends on its health, genetic make-up, and living environment. Veterinarians say there is no specific scientific method to determine how long cats can live, but various factors do play a role in your feline’s life span. For example, indoor cats are exposed to fewer diseases, infections, and hazards than outdoor animals. Feral and stray cats with no medical care and poor nutrition typically live fewer years than the fat, happy ball of fur curled up on your living room sofa. (Or in her favorite basket).
Do Cats Age Faster Than Humans?
Opinions can vary on the actual age that cats are, as compared to human years. But, similar to dogs, cats do age faster than humans. Your one-month-old kitten is about equal to a six-month-old (human) baby. When that kitten reaches the “terrible twos,” he is actually as mature as a 24 or 25-year-old human being. According to CalculatorCat.com, there are a couple of conversion formulas to determine the age of your cat. In one of them, the basic assumption is that if a cat is 20.8 feline years old, he or she will be about 100 in people years.
The American Veterinary Medical Association offers this analysis:
- 7 cat years equals 45 human years
- 10 cat years = 58 human years
- 15 cat years = 75 human years
- 20 cat years = 98 human years
Calculations for dog-to-human years—while similar—are different than for cats. Dog-to-human years are often based on breed, size, and weight.
Guessing Your Cat’s Age
So, you’ve adopted a stray, abandoned or sheltered animal and you want to know the age of your new forever friend. That’s an easy question if the cat was born in a pet shelter or you know its history, but often, it’s a guessing game. If the feline’s true age is unknown, your veterinarian may be able to tell you how old the cat could be, based on these factors:
- Coat: Older cats often have thick, rough fur with some balding spots and perhaps a touch of gray. Younger cats’ fur is usually soft and full.
- Eyes: Healthy kittens and young cats have clear, bright eyes. Typically absent is goopy discharge and tearing—unless the animal has a respiratory infection. Lenses in young cats’ eyes show their irises to be smooth and compact, compared to the jagged-like irises in eyes of middle-aged or senior cats. Cats with cloudiness or cataracts in their eyes are likely to be more than 12 (human) years old (although younger cats can have cataracts, too).
- Teeth: Older cats’ teeth could have staining, yellowing, tartar and plaque buildup, chips or cracks, or a missing tooth (or more). Kittens’ “baby teeth” come in as they are two to four weeks old; permanent teeth come along at four months or so. Clean, strong white teeth indicate your feline is around a year old.
- Form and Muscle Tone: Older cats have somewhat bony skeletal structures with drooping skin. Muscles are not as defined and sculpted as they are with younger animals.
What is a “senior” cat? That question has various answers because some cats age faster than others, notes Purina PetCare. But in general, older cats may be categorized in these terms:
- Mature or middle-aged (7 to 10 in human years for cats equals 44–56 human years old)
- Senior (11–14 in human years for cats equals 60–72 human years old)
- Geriatric (15 and older in human years for cats equals 76 and older in human years)
It’s not typical, but some cats have been known to live long into their 20s and even upwards of 30 (people) years! A loving home and good medical care helps cats live long lives, but some animals are prone to medical issues that could lead to deteriorating bodily functions.
Love them while you have them.
Feline Signs of Aging
As in humans, aging is a natural progression in cats. Proper nutrition and medical care can help reduce health risks for your feline companions as they advance in years. The aging process can affect or facilitate:
- Poor blood circulation
- Immune system; ability to ward off diseases and infections
- Hearing loss
- Changes in vision and the eyes that may include discoloring lenses and haziness. Similar to humans, cats’ eyes can develop cataracts
- Dental diseases in the teeth and gums
- Sense of smell
- Decrease of appetite
- Reduced ability to fill lungs with clean air
- Hydration; older cats don’t absorb water as well as younger ones. Dehydration may lead to poor blood circulation and disease immunity as well as thinner skin cell development
- Grooming ability; older cats may have more fur tangles, skin odors, and sores
- Thick, brittle claws—especially in females
- Personality changes such as avoiding social interaction, meowing for no apparent reason, wandering restlessly, disorientation
- Kidney damage or failure
- Arthritis and the decreasing ability to jump or climb
- Various diseases that could be associated with old age, such as diabetes, inflamed bowels, cancer, hyperthyroidism, lymphocytic leukemia, etc.
What to Notice
Keep the answers to these questions in mind, as your kitty reaches his/her “senior” years:
- Is your cat grooming more or less than usual?
- What kinds of foods are he or she eating, how much, and how often?
- Is the animal vomiting—if so, how often?
- Is your kitty drinking a lot of water?
- Is he/she interacting with you as usual?
- Are there any changes in the litter box; loose stools, blood, etc.?
- Are you noticing any mood changes?
Whether your aging animal is on the upside or the downside of his/her ideal weight, “fat” or “skinny” can play a part in overall health. Cats that weigh more than their ideal body-type can develop heart disease, breathing problems, urinary tract disease, arthritis, and diabetes. Your veterinarian may suggest a special diet to treat obesity.
On the flip side, cats in the senior and geriatric age groups sometimes lose weight gradually because they cannot digest protein and fat. Monitor your kitty for changes in behavior; the animal’s deteriorating sense of taste and smell may cause him or her to lose interest in eating. Watch long-haired cats, especially—it’s harder to see day-to-day changes in their body structure.
Master of Disguise
Six months in a cat’s life is tantamount to two years for a human being. Changes occur that we don’t necessarily see and when our feline friends are sick or in pain, they often do not show it. Twice-yearly “wellness” visits to a veterinarian (instead of once a year) may detect diseases or unusual behaviors before problems become difficult or impossible to manage. Your senior cat’s quality of life depends on how well you pay attention to his/her aging process.
The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) recommends wellness examinations every six months. Exams often include evaluations of:
- Joints, bones, and muscles
- Mouth, teeth, and gums
- Ears and eyes
- Fur and skin
- Heart and lungs
- Weight and agility
- Abdomen and kidney areas
- Thyroid gland
- Previous treatments for parasites or ongoing conditions
Examinations may include laboratory testing of blood, urine, and fecal samples.
In an ideal world, we “cat parents” have brushed our babies’ teeth since the day we brought them home. Special brushes and toothpastes (tuna flavored?) are available at your favorite pet store and veterinarian’s office. But in fairness, this is not an easy task to accomplish. Still, oral hygiene is important for felines (and dogs, too!). Damaged teeth and gums can lead to sore mouths, feline gingivitis, neck lesions, disease and infections which, notes the AAFP, can affect the entire body. Dental distress signs in cats include: Loss of appetite, sores in the mouth, drooling, broken teeth, bad breath and red, swollen or bleeding gums. Bad teeth can severely affect an older animal’s quality of life.
Common Diseases in Older Cats
Arthritis: Just like people do, aging cats can develop painful joints and “achy bones.” Unlike people, cats don’t usually let the world know about it. Ask your veterinarian for tips on how to make your older kitty more comfortable. Your vet may recommend vitamins or medication, but you can help by keeping your cat’s weight under control; providing ramps and steps to keep jumping (and landing) to a minimum; having litter boxes both upstairs and downstairs; placing food and water bowls on the floor (and not on counters) and adding pillows, towels and blankets to Kitty’s favorite sleeping places.
Signs of arthritis include:
- Sleeping more and being less active
- Crying when lifted
- “Accidents” outside the litter box
- Avoiding high or low jumps
- Stiff walking, limping and difficulty climbing stairs
- Declined interest in interaction with people or other animals
- Unexpected aggressive behavior
Cancer: Despite the frightening “C” word, some feline cancers are treatable or, at least, manageable, says the AAFP. For example, longer survival times and remission can occur in lymphoma, a common feline cancer. Suspected areas must be biopsied to determine the exact cancer type and if it can be controlled. Common symptoms of various cancers in felines include sores that don’t heal, bleeding or discharge, lethargy, swelling, weight loss, difficulty swallowing, loss of appetite and a hard time urinating, defecating and/or breathing.
Chronic Kidney Disease: Kidney disease or stones may typically affect middle-aged cats, but older animals are also prone to kidney problems. Excessive thirst and drinking frequency, larger volumes of urine and changes in behavior can indicate a kidney problem. Other signs include nausea, weight loss, decreased appetite, constipation, and a ragged coat.
More Common Diseases
Diabetes: Overweight male cats between 10 and 15 (human) years old are apt to develop diabetes, although females are susceptible too. Symptoms include: Excessive thirst, weight loss, excessive hunger, and frequent urination. Blood and urine test results will help your veterinarian to decide the proper treatment plan.
Gastrointestinal Problems: Digestive disorders, especially in older cats, can bring the onset of Inflammatory Bowel Disease. IBD symptoms include weight loss, diarrhea, decreased appetite, and vomiting. IBD can usually be treated with special diets and medications.
Hypertension: Yup, kitties can have high blood pressure, too. Once diagnosed by a veterinarian, you can monitor Kitty’s blood pressure by using a special cuff that wraps around the leg or tail. It’s a painless procedure that can be easily tolerated, but taking your kitty’s blood pressure could also stress out an already-stressed cat. High blood pressure can lead to brain, kidney, heart, and eye damage.
Thyroid Disease: Hyperthyroidism may cause an overly-high metabolism in cats that are middle-aged or older, notes Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Heart damage could develop over time if the cat is not treated because thyroid hormones cause a faster heart rate and more work for the heart muscle. Blood tests determine whether a particular treatment plan is viable, such as medication, radioactive-iodine therapy, or surgery. Thyroid hormones affect most of the cat’s organs and could cause problems in other parts of the body. Signs of hyperthyroidism include excessive thirst, weight loss, change in appetite, enlarged thyroid, high blood pressure, vomiting and diarrhea, rapid heart rate or murmur, and changes of behavior.
General Health Care
Cats are known to live longer and healthier lives if their primary residence is indoors. Proper diet and exercise, as well as regular veterinary checkups and shots, help give our furry family members the best life possible. While an occasional table scrap won’t necessarily hurt your kitty, too much “people food” can add too many calories to what should be a well-balanced diet (avoid milk and cream that could bring on diarrhea). Consult your veterinarian for suggestions on the best dietary options for your older (and younger) cat(s).
- Pet adoption: Want a dog or cat? Adopt a pet on Petfinder
Search more than 350,000 adoptable pets from nearly 14,000 humane societies and pet adoption sources. Senior and geriatric cats are often overlooked, but they do need your love!
This article is not intended to replace professional consultation or treatment. Discuss your animals’ specific needs with a licensed veterinarian.
Resources and Further Reading
- American Veterinary Medical Association: Senior Pet Care FAQ
- Hill’s Pet: Cat Myths
- Cats articles | Webvet
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Questions & Answers
Question: I have an 18-year-old female cat. All her vet labs came back fine; she is always hungry and not gaining weight. Yes, she was checked for fecal issues also. What could be wrong with her?
Answer: I am sorry, but I cannot provide medical advice on specific cases; it is best left to the veterinarians and technicians who have personally evaluated your fur-baby. However, sometimes, as they age, cats' metabolisms change and their diets needs to be modified. If she is as active as she always has been (and her weight is stable), it may be a question of diet. If your veterinarian is not able to determine Kitty's current dietary needs, perhaps a visit to your local university's vet school (and research facility) may yield some further answers.
Question: Can I give my cold tea to my cat?
Answer: I would never recommend that. We cat parents know that sometimes cats get their noses into our cups of water, tea, coffee, etc ... but it's then that we must shoo them away. With tea, the caffeine can make kitty ill. Too much of it can lead to hard breathing, restlessness, seizures or worse. Herbal tea is less effective this way, but it is not a good idea to let cats drink any of it. We humans love chocolate, tea, coffee, and other stimulants; don't let your pets consume these substances.
© 2013 Teri Silver
Teri Silver (author) from The Buckeye State on July 12, 2015:
Thank you for your input -- but I absolutely disagree with your statement that regular vet visits are unnecessary. One always has the option to say "no" to any test they can't afford to undertake for their pet. I cannot speak for these animal care professionals who you say are "in it for the money." However, it is ultimately up to the pet parent to decide whether or not they want to prolong the life of an animal. In my experience, I've had veterinarians say, yes, this will definitely help (and it does/has), and no, we can try this but we cannot be sure of the outcome. That's when you have to decide whether you are prolonging your furry friend's life or prolonging its death. Knowing all the particulars of the medical situation and what your options are is key to making the decision about quality and quantity -- for your pet or yourself.
Jack on July 11, 2015:
I disagree with regular vet visits, especially for indoor cats. Feed you cat well, play with him/her regularly, and change the water bowl at least once a day. These three things will keep your cat healthy and happy for many years.
Visits to the vet can be quite stressful on cats. Some people say regular visits decreases the stress, but I disagree. Too many vets are in it for the money. Performing unnecessary tests. Just like human doctors. They may have your best interests at heart, but medicine is NOT an exact science.
To stay well, pay attention to your precious kitty. Pay attention to your own body. Eat well. Exercise. Avoid stress. You know yourself and your kitty better than anyone else. You'll notice a problem if you're paying proper attention.
IMO, quality of life is FAR more important than quantity. And if you focus on a happy life, chances are you'll have a long one without even trying.
Teri Silver (author) from The Buckeye State on May 01, 2015:
Knightheart from MIssouri, USA on April 30, 2015:
As a cat lover and owner for decades, this was a excellent article. I agree 100% with what you have written and goes with my views on how to keep our feline friends happy. My first cat lived to be 18, and my beloved Specks whom I still grieve over to this day, lived to be 18 also, or very close to it. My current fuzzball is now 12, so is entering her later years.
I hope you will visit my hubpages and check out some of my 'kitty' articles...some are funny, but many very serious.