17 Going on 9. What to Expect from Your Senior Feline

Typical Life Expectancy

The average life expectancy for an indoor cat is 15-20 years [1]. By the time a cat reaches 17 years old, it is considered to be in the senior stage. While some cats may only live to be 10-12 years old, many can live well into their late teens and even early 20s with proper care and nutrition. For a 17 year old cat, they are approaching the later years of their expected lifespan.

Health Concerns

At 17 years old, cats are considered geriatric and are at an increased risk for age-related health problems. Some of the most common health concerns for senior cats include:

  • Chronic kidney disease – Kidney function tends to decline with age, putting older cats at risk of kidney failure. Signs include increased thirst, weight loss, poor appetite, and vomiting.1
  • Hyperthyroidism – An overactive thyroid gland is a frequent diagnosis in older cats. Symptoms include weight loss despite a ravenous appetite, vomiting, increased thirst/urination, hyperactivity, and a poor, unkempt coat.2
  • Cancer – Senior cats are more prone to tumors and cancers like lymphoma, mammary tumors, and squamous cell carcinoma. Warning signs depend on the type of cancer but may include lumps, sores, difficulty eating, and lethargy.2

Regular veterinary checkups and bloodwork can help detect age-related diseases early when they are most treatable. Paying close attention to changes in appetite, activity level, litter box habits, and other behaviors can also alert owners to potential health issues.

Dietary Needs

By age 17, most cats benefit from eating a senior formula cat food. As cats age, their metabolism changes and they require foods with higher protein, fat, and calorie content to maintain a healthy weight. Senior cat foods are specially formulated to be highly palatable and digestible. Look for foods that contain 10-12% fat, 30% protein or higher, and have meat or fish as the first ingredient.

It’s important to monitor your 17 year old cat’s weight and adjust food accordingly. Many older cats suffer from unintended weight loss due to health issues that decrease appetite or affect their ability to digest food properly. Consult with your veterinarian if your cat is losing weight without explanation. They may recommend feeding smaller, more frequent meals, warming food to increase aroma, adding broths or cat food toppers, or switching to a more calorie-dense food.

If your older cat is overweight, avoid low calorie or “light” senior foods as these can exacerbate weight loss in senior cats. Instead, feed a nutritionally complete and balanced senior cat food and portion control their meals. Getting your cat more active with playtime can also help maintain a healthy weight.

Some veterinarians recommend transitioning to a renal or kidney formula cat food for senior cats as a preventative measure, even if kidney disease isn’t present. These foods have reduced phosphorus and protein levels that support kidney health. Always consult your vet first before switching your cat’s diet.

According to vcahospitals.com, high protein, low carb diets are fine for healthy senior cats. However, once kidney disease is diagnosed, dietary changes are often necessary. Be sure to work closely with your veterinarian when making major dietary changes for senior cats.


Regular grooming is essential for senior cats as they tend to shed more and their fur can become matted as they groom themselves less. Help your 17 year old cat keep their coat healthy by brushing them daily if they have long fur or a few times a week for shorter coats, as recommended by PetMD (https://www.petmd.com/cat/grooming/senior-cat-grooming-tips). Use a soft bristle brush and be gentle, giving your cat praise and pets as you brush. This will make it a more pleasant experience.

Pay attention for any matted spots and carefully work apart the fur knots with your fingers or a de-matting tool, suggests Mooresville Animal Hospital (https://www.mooresvilleanimalhospital.com/site/blog/2021/12/30/how-to-groom-senior-cat). Avoid pulling on the fur which can hurt an older cat. Seek professional grooming if the mats are too difficult to manage at home.

Activity Level

At 17 years old, cats are typically less active and playful compared to when they were younger. According to this Reddit discussion, a 16-17 year old cat’s activity level and energy tend to decline, with the cat becoming more sedentary. The cat will likely sleep more during the day, moving less frequently between napping spots.

As cats enter their late teen years and become seniors, it’s common for their activity levels to decrease. According to iCatCare, older cats generally spend more time sleeping and are less energetic. They may play and hunt less than when they were younger. At 17 years old, a cat is considered a senior, so expending less energy and resting more frequently are typical at this stage.

Overall, the consensus is that 17 year old cats are less active than in their youth. Their playfulness declines and their sleep increases as their bodies and energy levels change with age. Rather than bounding around, an aging 17 year old cat will likely spend most of the day napping and conserving energy.

Cognitive Ability

As cats age, it’s common for them to experience some degree of cognitive decline or dysfunction. This is similar to dementia in humans. Some signs that a 17 year old cat may be experiencing cognitive issues include:

Increased vocalization and disorientation – An older cat may meow or cry more frequently, especially at night. They may seem lost or confused in familiar surroundings. These are signs their memory and spatial awareness may be declining.

Altered social relationships – A cat with cognitive dysfunction may interact less with family members or other pets, or become uncharacteristically aggressive. Their social skills and relationships can deteriorate.

Changes in litter box habits – Incontinence or forgetting where the litter box is located are common with cognitive decline in senior cats.

Changes in activity patterns – Increased sleeping and lethargy or aimless wandering and restlessness can indicate a deterioration in cognition.

Lack of grooming – Failure to groom oneself properly can be a sign of memory loss and confusion in geriatric cats.

Getting lost in familiar areas – An older cat may get stuck in corners or under furniture due to spatial disorientation and memory lapses.

While some degree of cognitive decline is expected in very senior cats, the symptoms can often be managed through environmental adaptations, medication, and supplements. Consulting a veterinarian is advised if a geriatric cat is exhibiting multiple signs of dysfunction.

Elimination Changes

One of the most common issues with senior cats is urinary incontinence and increased urination. As cats age, their kidneys often start to fail, leading to the production of more urine. Diseases like diabetes mellitus and hyperthyroidism can also contribute to increased urination in older cats (Cornell Feline Health Center). Incontinence occurs when a previously litter-trained cat loses control of their bladder. This results in urine leaking or unpredictable urination outside of the litter box.

To manage elimination issues in senior cats, it’s important to allow easy access to multiple litter boxes, preferably on every level of the home. Special litter box designs with lower sides can make entry and exit easier for arthritic cats. Absorbent pads or bedding may help contain accidents. Veterinary treatment options include medications to address underlying conditions contributing to frequent urination or incontinence. With patience and the right home adjustments, many senior cats can maintain adequate litter box habits despite age-related urinary changes.

Vision and Hearing

As cats reach 17 years of age, it’s common for their vision and hearing to deteriorate due to the aging process. Declining eyesight and hearing loss often occurs gradually in older cats.

Vision loss typically starts with the onset of nuclear sclerosis, which causes the pupils to take on a cloudy, grayish-blue appearance. As nuclear sclerosis worsens, it can significantly impair vision and eventually lead to blindness. Older cats may also develop cataracts, which can cause blurred vision and blindness if left untreated. Retinal detachments are another age-related eye issue in senior cats.

Hearing loss in geriatric cats also tends to happen slowly over time. It usually begins with deafness in one ear, but often progresses to total deafness. The degeneration of nerve cells in the inner ear is the most common cause of age-related hearing impairment in cats (Vision and Hearing Loss in Cats).

Owners of senior cats with declining eyesight or hearing should take steps make their home environment safe, such as keeping furniture in the same positions and minimizing stairs/steps. Consult a veterinarian about possible medical treatments for age-related vision or hearing problems in cats.

Social Needs

While senior cats may become less active, they still benefit from human companionship. Older cats may be prone to isolation or depression if left alone for long periods of time. They still need affection, interaction, and stimulation. According to the Cornell Feline Health Center, older cats often become more attached to their owners and desire more attention as they age (source). Make time every day for petting, brushing, and playing with toys like feather wands. Even short interactive sessions can go a long way in keeping your senior cat’s spirits up.

End of Life Planning

As cats reach their late teen years, it is important for owners to prepare for a potential decline in health and quality of life. Having discussions with your veterinarian about expectations, treatment options, and gauging your cat’s quality of life will help you make the best decisions for your aging feline companion.

Tools like the Feline Quality of Life Scale can help owners objectively assess their cat’s well-being across factors like hygiene, happiness, mobility, appetite, and interest in socializing/play. Routine wellness exams will help monitor age-related conditions and determine when palliative care or hospice services could help maximize comfort.

Planning ahead for a graceful end-of-life transition, whether through in-home euthanasia services or hospice care, can reduce stress and provide the opportunity to say goodbye in a peaceful, loving manner. While a difficult subject, contemplating eventual quality of life decline enables cat owners to focus on providing the very best care as their aging feline reaches its golden years.

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