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Behavior Changes in Older Cats

Updated: Apr 20, 2023

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How your older cat’s behavior change may actually be a sign of disease As cats get older, their behavior may start to change. While some behavioral changes are due to environmental stress or Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (commonly known as senility), there is often a medical reason underlying the behavioral change. Investigating these changes proactively may allow us to catch an underlying disease process sooner and to more effectively treat it.

CHANGES IN LITTER BOX HABITS: Litter box habits are dependent on a cat’s state of general health. Having to change the litter more frequently goes hand in hand with increases in urination. Increased volume of urine is often a sign of kidney disease, diabetes, or hyperthyroidism. If your cat has started urinating or defecating outside the litter box, this could be a sign of arthritis. Maybe your cat is having trouble getting in and out of the box, gets sore when trying to squat, or there is a barrier like a staircase making things difficult. While some UTIs are simple, in older cats they can be secondary to diseases like diabetes, kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, bladder stones, or cancer.

APPETITE AND FOOD: A decreased appetite can often be a sign of illness, but there are some less obvious changes in eating habits that could mean something else is going on. Increases in your cat’s appetite, an increase in begging behavior, or starting to steal food from other cats can be a sign of hyperthyroidism, diabetes, or inflammatory bowel disease. Is your cat suddenly having a preference for certain food textures, dropping food, drooling, picking food up with her paws, audibly grinding her teeth, or exhibiting some other new eating behavior? These could all be signs of dental disease or nausea.

DRINKING HABITS: Just like increases in urination can mean kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, or diabetes, the same is true of increases in drinking.

Increased thirst might not just mean that you are filling the water bowl more often. Some cats start spending more time sleeping near the water bowl, seeking out other water sources (like drinking from the toilet or dishes in the sink), or suddenly show interest in drinking from the faucet.

Cats may start to play with water (batting at the water bowl, knocking over glasses, etc) when they have increased thirst. Dropping food in the water bowl can be a sign of dental disease.

AGGRESSIVE BEHAVIOR: While aggression can often be a sign of stress or fear, in an older cat that has not previously shown signs of aggression, it could be an indicator of a medical condition. If your cat has become increasingly cranky or irritable, consider further investigation into an underlying cause.

Arthritis is a painful condition. If your cat seems less enthusiastic about you petting her, it could be because her joints are bothering her.

Vision and hearing loss can cause your cat to easily startle, making her suddenly appear aggressive.

Hyperthyroidism can cause irritability, so new grumpiness should warrant thyroid hormone testing.

ENERGY LEVEL: It can be easy to attribute energy changes to an older cat just “slowing down,” but sometimes these changes are because there is something else going on. Arthritis can cause an otherwise good-feeling cat to slow down, hide more, or stop sleeping in bed.

If your cat has started to stay awake at night, maybe even meowing all night, this could be a sign of high blood pressure or hyperthyroidism.

Kidney disease can cause accumulation of toxic metabolic by-products in the bloodstream, which make your cat feel sick and less like herself.

Though it may seem welcome if your older kitty is hyperactive and full of energy, an increase in activity from baseline can be a sign of hyperthyroidism.

Getting tired after light exercise can be a sign of heart disease.

Though adult and geriatric cats may be less active than they were as kittens, never assume that changes in your older cat’s behavior are just due to aging. Cats are very good at hiding the fact that they are sick, and often subtle behavioral changes are due to medical conditions that we can treat and get your cat feeling back to her old self again. If you have any concerns, contact your vet right away!

Author: Dr. Morgan Shafer

References Blackwell’s Five-Minute Veterinary Consult: Canine and Feline. Fifth Edition. Wiley Blackwell. 2011. Cornell Feline Health Center. The special needs of the senior cat. Landsberg, Gary, and Joseph A. Araujo. “Behavior problems in geriatric pets.” Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice 35.3 (2005): 675-698. Vogt, Amy Hoyumpa, et al. “AAFP-AAHA feline life stage guidelines.” Journal of feline medicine and surgery 12.1 (2010): 43-54.

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