Behavourist Vicky Halls gives an insight into what makes
the older cat tick and how cats organise their owners!
IN THE UK are living longer, have better nutrition and higher
standards of veterinary care than ever before. We understand
their specific requirements with regard to their changing
physiology, but are we taking into consideration any increased
emotional or behavioural needs? Do cats change that much as
they get older?
order to consider this question it may be helpful to examine
the results of a survey conducted in 1995 of 1236 cats over
the age of 12 throughout the UK. This is the first time that
these details have been published having been conducted originally
to generate interest and promote the special care of the elderly
cat. This was a very subjective survey questionnaire so its
value is in its anecdotal interest rather than any scientific
significance. There certainly did seem to be some common changes
in the cat's behaviour, many of which can be attributed to
particular physiological deterioration or disease of the elderly.
The really interesting information gleaned that cannot be
explained quite so readily is the changing relationship between
owner and cat and between cat and its animal companion. Hundreds
of letters were received accompanying the completed questionnaires
and these held some fascinating insights into the potential
bond between human and cat.
survey takes into account the results of surveys on 1236 cats.
Of these, 5 per cent were less than 12 years old, 53 per cent
were 12 to 15 years old, 36 per cent were 16 to 19 years old
and 6 per cent were over 20.
the cats, 45 per cent were neutered males and 55 per cent
were spayed females (less than I per cent were entire cats).
oldest cat in the survey was Stevie who was 26 years old at
the time of the survey. This cat was owned from a kitten so
it is possible that this is accurate; many of the ages were
given on cats that had appeared as adult strays so it is impossible
to glean too much from the significance of age. 68 per cent
of cats were owned from kittenhood and 32 per cent adopted
as adult cats.
shorthairs accounted for 74 per cent of cats, with only 7
per cent being longhaired. Siamese and Burmese were the most
popular breeds at 7 and 6 per cent respectively. The other
6 per cent were a mixture of pedigrees.
first category owners were requested to give information on
was nutrition. Fifty six of those surveyed said that their
cat's appetite had stayed the same, with 20 per cent reporting
that it had increased and 24 per cent that it had decreased.
There are various physiological changes that occur in old
age that can account for increases and decreases in the amount
of food consumed. Decreased olfaction, visual acuity and the
ability to taste will reduce the food intake because of the
importance of the special senses in appetite stimulation.
Dental problems can also be a consideration in older cats;
periodontal disease affects 85 per cent of all cats to one
extent or another and this can dramatically affect the appetite
if the problem remains unresolved for any length of time.
A general reduction in metabolic activity and exercise means
the older cat will require less food and there is often a
genuine need to reduce the calorific intake to avoid obesity.
Other conditions such as hyperthyroidism can increase the
appetite, but on the whole it appears that the majority of
older cats maintain similar appetites throughout their lives
until a disease process interferes.
half of the owners surveyed had been 'trained' to feed their
cat on demand. Only 1 per cent fed once a day, 26 per cent
twice a day and 24 per cent three times a day. A cat left
to its own devices would choose to eat a little and often
and it is likely that cats fed twice daily (or once or three
times) would return to the bowl several times during the course
of the day. Feeding time is also an opportunity for loving
interaction between cat and owner, there is also an innate
feeling in most people that a good appetite is directly related
to good health, and that feeding is also a way of expressing
love for your animal. This concept was very apparent in many
of the letters received accompanying the completed questionnaires.
results showed a 50/50 split to the question 'has your cat
become more fussy about food as he/she has got older?' Many
cats had developed fussy appetites after being offered a large
variety of alternative foods, all slightly more palatable
than the last. Often a temporary 'loss of appetite' is sufficient
to cause the owner to provide even tastier treats. This appears
to be a manipulative and opportunist behaviour that many cats
learn, not just the old ones. Owners will frequently offer
food that they are eating themselves, while not all titbits
are exciting, they are certainly worth investigating just
in case. It appears also to be very comforting to have a cat
enjoy human food, creating an even more common bond. People
also tend to feel that the pleasures available to the elderly
cat are limited and food is perceived as an important part
of their lives. This goes a long way towards explaining how
the aged cat can become ' fussy'. After all, there is little
incentive to eat tinned food if there is smoked salmon in
the fridge. If, however, a cat is inappetent in the latter
stages of terminal illness or generally failing as a result
of old age, it is often possible to feed tempting morsels
and give them a decent quality of life at the end.
over half of owners reported their cats drank more water,
36 per cent said the cat drank no more than usual and 13 per
cent said their cats didn't drink water at all. It is difficult
to get anything meaningful from this section, a great deal
of water is drunk outside and the taste of tap water is unpleasant
to a lot of cats. There was also no correlation made between
those that had a dry or tinned diet and their water consumption.
10 FAVOURED SLEEPING PLACES
1 Owner's bed (45 per cent)
2 Armchair (26 per cent)
3 Outside in the summer sun (11 per cent)
4 Near the radiator or in a hammock
5 Cat igloo/bed/basket
6 Airing cupboard
7 Owner's lap
8 Conservatory/greenhouse/ sun lounge
9 Anywhere in the sun indoors
10 Near the aga/boiler
major pastime for the elderly cat is sleep. This includes
everything from deep sleep to cat naps and resting with shut
eyes. Forty per cent of the cats in the survey slept for more
than 75 per cent of the time. Most of these cats were in the
16-19 and 20 and over age groups which certainly would be
in line with the general ageing processes and the slowing
of the metabolism. The majority (57 per cent) slept for 12-18
hours a day and only 3 per cent of those surveyed slept for
less than 12 hours. Most owners reported their cats certainly
slept more since they had been old. They are going out less,
exploring less and generally doing less — enabling them to
fill those voids with more opportunities for rest and sleep.
per cent of owners said that their cats had a favourite place
to sleep and it was not surprising to see that almost all
the places chosen were near to a source of heat. As a cat
ages, its ability to regulate its body temperature is reduced
and an older cat is more prone to hypothermia and generally
feeling the cold. It is also more likely to seek out a place
that is soft, since loss of weight will lead to boney prominences
which can so easily become sore if pressed on hard surfaces
for any length of time.
4 per cent of all the cats surveyed had lived exclusively
indoors. Of the remainder, 55 per cent were going out less
than they used to, 39 per cent were going out about the same
amount but these tended to be in the 12-15 year age group;
most of the 16 years plus were finding home comforts more
attractive. Only 6 per cent were going out more often than
before, these tended to be cats from multi-cat households
which were reported to be less sociable and more remote with
the other cats in their old age. The time spent in the younger
years hunting and patrolling territories and being out in
the cold and wet are, given the choice, almost bound to reduce
in the older cat since thermoregulation and general mobility
are declining. Hunting is inevitably going to suffer, visual
and auditory senses are dimming and arthritic joints are not
conducive to successful hunting. of those surveyed, about
one third still hunted, one fifth had never hunted and almost
half had completely stopped hunting.
reported that about one third of the older cats were equally
aggressive as when they were young when defending their territory
against outsiders, and one third were more tolerant, choosing
the 'live and let live' way of life. The remaining cats had
either never fought (17 per cent) or ran away, ignored the
outsider or glared from behind the safety of a window (20
per cent). The equally aggressive cats are probably maintaining
the habits of old since it is doubtful they are coming off
worse time and time again; their challengers are probably
not calling their bluff.
next section related exclusively to those cats who lived in
multi-cat households — almost 60 per cent of those surveyed.
Just over half had remained the same towards their companions
in their geriatric years. It appears that cats vary as they
get older, some mellow, some become cantankerous, some actively
seek the company of other cats. The less tolerant and more
remote were quite often those in households with kittens or
young cats. The constant movement and play is not helpful
to an old cat who just wants some peaceful uninterrupted sleep,
so the idea that a new kitten will give an old cat a new lease
of life is not always the case.
far the largest amount of letters received related to the
reactions of their elderly pets to the death of a cat friend.
Almost half of the cats surveyed had outlived another and
60 per cent of those showed some visible reaction to the loss.
The Siamese, Burmese and Birman were particularly well represented
in this section. Almost all the reactions reported included
searching and calling. Some told of their cats becoming more
affectionate and demanding, some even said the cat improved
tremendously and appeared more content since the loss of the
subject seemed to grip the owners surveyed. It is interesting
to note the number of cats who improved tremendously when
new kittens were introduced. I do not feel this is a behaviour
unique to old age. Similar instances have been reported in
younger cats. The relevance of age is that the companions
have often been together for a very long time and the desire
for routine and lack of change appears to be heightened in
the elderly. The loss of a long-term friend creates a profound
difference in the household — grieving humans, changes of
routine and the absence of a familiar part of the family unit
probably causes the distressed calls and searching to try
and return things to normal. The introduction of a kitten
is sometimes the trigger which stops the unsettling behaviour
by occupying the mind with a new source of company.
is also the other side to the coin with those owners that
reported the remaining cat ' blossomed ' on the demise of
the other. It appears that passive oppression between cats
may only become apparent when the assertive one is no longer
there. The survivor can develop a more confident and friendly
nature and start to sleep in the dead cat's favoured resting
places. A mark of respect or the symbolic claiming of the
rank of top cat? Probably the latter!
Orientals, Siamese and Burmese are bred to be very devoted
and loving towards their owners and they are often very sensitive
to change and moods. It is quite understandable that they
would become distressed at losing a cat companion if they
bond in that same way with other cats. Whether it can truly
be evidence of a grieving process as we understand it is debatable.
In behavioural terms are we seeing a withdrawal response to
an addictive relationship that has abruptly ended? When we
lose a loved pet it is helpful in dealing with our own grief
to feel that a remaining cat has an empathy with our sadness.
is almost without exception that the elderly cat turns to
us for love and attention in their old age. Over 80 per cent
of the owners surveyed reported that their oldies had become
more sociable/affectionate or more demanding of attention
or both. Only 2 per cent felt they were less sociable, while
the remaining 17 per cent stated they had always been very
affectionate or independent and really hadn't changed at all.
A number of people had experienced a tremendous change after
a period of illness, resulting in a much more dependent and
appears to play a big part in the ageing process. Two thirds
of the cats surveyed use more sounds to get food and attention.
As cats get older, their owners become more and more in tune
with their needs and cats soon learn to play on this. It is
not unusual for a variety of noises to be used if they result
in attention, affection or food. Only 4 per cent of those
surveyed said their cats called less, the remaining third
felt they were calling about the same as they always had done.
eight per cent of cats called for attention at night and stopped
only when they received attention or reassurance from their
owners. Of these 346 cats, over half had started the behaviour
between the ages of 10 and 15. As a cats ability to protect
itself declines there appears to be a higher dependency on
their owners for their security. Maybe these cats, having
enjoyed additional attention during the day, feel in need
of reassurance when their owners are not around in the night.
Having tried successfully a number of times to illicit a response
from their owners (this is a harsh distressed yowl that is
difficult to ignore) they continue to perform the ritual as
a learned behaviour. A number of owners reported that the
calling stopped when the cat was allowed to sleep in the bedroom.
However often the cat will jump off the bed and wander off
downstairs only to repeat the behaviour. Deafness seems to
play a role in the harshness of the cry and it is possible
that chronic cerebral hypoxia (deficiency of oxygen supply
to the brain) could possibly produce symptoms of senility
and short-term memory problems causing general contusion at
night. Cognitive dysfunction may also be a cause of a change
in the sleep/wake cycle causing some cats to he more likely
to be awake at night. There is also a possibility that hypertension
(high blood pressure) causing general discomfort, headache
and disorientation could easily promote a distress response.
Night-time vocalisation is often reported as one of the behavioural
signs in cats suffering from hyperthyroidism. This is a condition
seen frequently in the elderly cat; a tumour on the thyroid
gland causes metabolic changes including inc r eased heart
and respiration rates, increased appetite and weight loss.
changes in habits and behaviour can be observed when the owner
interacts with the elderly cat. The play response is still
there for some but this mostly has to be instigated by the
owner. The general deterioration of joints and mental agility
make fast turns and rapid movements less possible. Only 10
per cent of owners said their cats still played regularly,
almost half said they played occasionally and 15 per cent
said they had stopped completely. The remainder had never
played with their cats. A cat should be encouraged to play
in its elderly years, to provide exercise and stimulation.
The games may not be quite so boisterous but will certainly
be beneficial for both cat and owner.
habits are affected by ageing, since stiffness makes it difficult
for a cat to be supple enough to do the job thoroughly. The
frequency may not alter until very old age but it is almost
certain that areas will be missed. Over three quarters of
cats still groomed regularly, 22 per cent occasionally and
2 per cent had stopped completely. This latter group also
reported chronic illnesses and toilet accidents and this is
in line with the idea that the very sick and elderly will
not groom. Most elderly cats benefit greatly from combing
and brushing from their owners with care taken about the prominence
of the hones and the discomfort a harsh comb would cause.
trays are provided for the elderly cat by over half of owners
— the rest still chose to go outside. Twenty nine per cent
of cats had toilet accidents since they had become elderly.
A number of owners related these accidents to illness, eg,
cystitis, a bout of diarrhoea or even the development of incontinence
in the very elderly. Many older cats start to have 'accidents'
indoors and this is often found to be a result of an increasing
reluctance to urinate and defecate outdoors, either due to
the presence of aggressive cats in the territory or an increased
sensitivity to inclement weather conditions. The provision
of an indoor litter tray invariably solves the problem.
owners spoke of a number of character changes and unusual
behaviour which they have, possibly quite correctly, interpreted
as senility. A blank expression, getting lost in familiar
surroundings, constant yowling, lack of grooming, continuous
pacing, inappropriate toileting, all with no obvious physical
cause. There appears to be uncanny similarities between the
symptoms shown in the elderly cat and a human dementia patient.
discussed before, chronic illness is a factor in old age that
can affect behaviour, for example kidney problems will make
the cat drink more, deafness will make the cat unresponsive
and more vocal. Thirty eight per cent of cats surveyed were
suffering from chronic or terminal illness, the most common
(according to the comments from the owners themselves rather
than from a veterinary source) in descending order were:
the results of this survey it is possible to offer general
advice to the owners of elderly cats specifically geared to
behavioural considerations, for example:-
Provide a number of warm, soft and quiet resting places for
the cat to spend a significant proportion of its time. If
these places are high then care should be taken to offer a
number of steps up to assist arthritic joints.
Continue to stimulate the elderly cat's mental agility with
Groom the elderly cat regularly using soft brushes and combs,
particularly around the base of the spine and other areas
that are no longer accessible to the cat. Take care to avoid
areas where the bones are prominent.
Consider a new animal addition to the family carefully before
going ahead. If an old cat appears distressed or lonely following
the death of a companion allow a reasonable period to elapse
before considering a replacement. This may be anxiety as a
result of the change in routine rather than a genuine loneliness.
Routine is extremely important particularly at times when
family members are away from the home. Friends or professional
house-sitters should be employed to care for the elderly cat
in its own home to avoid the distress of a change in environment,
unless the cat has always been used to frequent cattery visits.
Consider the provision of indoor litter facilities if there
is any suspicion that the elderly cat is being bullied outside
or appears reluctant to go out in bad weather.
For the very elderly, whose world appears to reduce in size
the older they get, provide a bed, food, water and litter
facilities in reasonable proximity to each other so that they
are all easily accessible. (This is probably the only exception
to the rule: keep toilet and eating arrangements apart).
Seek veterinary advice for harsh night-time vocalisation.
are obviously many other considerations which will depend
on the individual cat. Advice of this kind can be given by
veterinary practices, catteries, breeders, rescue centres
and pet behaviour counsellors.
you can see, there is such a variation in the cat's response
to age due to genetic, dietary and many other considerations.
Some look older at ten than others do at 20. The only conclusion
that can possibly be made is that every cat is an individual
and that doesn't change as they get older. Most obvious behaviour
patterns in the elderly cat have their roots in physiological
changes and the general ageing process. Others relate to the
cat's incredible and almost unique ability to train human