How Old is Old? Signs of Feline Ageing

by Sarah Hartwell
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Just as people are living longer than they did in the past, cats are living longer too. The percentage of cats over 6 years old has almost doubled in the last 10 years and the aged cat population is growing.

Within the past 5-10 years, veterinary medicine has seen some significant improvements in treatments for the ailments commonly faced by ageing cats. Like people, cats do not live forever. They age at different rates - some slow down at the age of 8, others remain spry into their teens or early twenties.

Most glide gracefully from middle age into old age, simply slowing down their pace of life. They experience old age in different ways and at their own pace. Grey hairs appear round the muzzle and in the fur (some owner therefore refer to older pets as "silvers").

An elderly cat grows thinner; its backbone, hips and shoulders become more prominent as it loses the insulating layer of fat under the skin. It may become rickety or unsteady on its back legs and its senses are less acute.

These are all signs of "winding down". Older cats exercise less and sleep more, they groom less thoroughly and less often. They lose their appetites. The early stages of this decline are so gradual that owners may not notice it. Recognizing subtle signs early on can slow the rate of decline, but at the end of the day, ageing and death are natural processes and unlike humans, cats do not seem to fear the end.

The average cat life-span is 12-14 or 14-16 years depending on which studies you read. Pet food manufacturers recommend senior formulation foods for cats over the age of 8 and many vets consider the cat geriatric when it reaches 10 years old. Generally, once your cat is over 12 years old, it is an 'older cat' and its needs and habits change.

Popular belief has it that one year of a cat's life is equivalent to 7 human years. In fact, kittens mature faster than human children and the rate of ageing slows down to one year equaling only 4 human years after only 2 years as the equivalence chart below shows:

Age of Cat Human Equivalent Comments
2-3 months 9-12 months Kittens/humans weaned. Kittens are becoming less dependent on the mother.
4 months 2-3 years Talking/adult communication in children. Under natural conditions, the kitten is fully independent of the mother.
6-12 months 12-15 years Sexual maturity, most females now fertile and able to have young although they may not be fully-grown.
2 years 24 years Could have raised children.
3-6 years 28-40 years Human career-making
6-9 years 40-52 years Middle age spread, menopause for some women.
9-13 years 52-65 years Human menopause and retirement. Most cats are beginning to take things easier.
13-17 years 65-85 years Active but ageing. Signs of senility in some individuals, senses less acute, injuries heal more slowly or incompletely. Internal organs less efficient.
17-19 years 83-92 years Probably frail due to loss of bone density, subcutaneous fat and muscle tone. Skin more fragile. Hearing, sight and mobility affected. Less supple.
19-22 years 92-100 years Amazing.
22+ years 100+ years An exceptional individual
30 years 136 years Several cats have recently attained this age.
34-36 years 152-160 years Official longevity records noted in the Guinness Book of Records.
43 years 188 years Unofficial (unverified) longevity claim; cat was apparently still active and was killed by a train.

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