Aging and Behavioral Changes

Updated: Aug 7, 2019

The following is a direct excerpt from the American Association of Feline Practitioners handout "Feline Behavior Guidelines". The full handout can be viewed at

Caring for our aging cats is a priority at Metro Cat Clinic
Caring for our aging cats is a priority at Metro Cat Clinic

Old age is not a disease, and older cats still need exercise, human affection, and regular routines. However, changes in behavior are common in older cats and are often caused by underlying medical problems. The incidence of behavior problems increases with advancing age. Once the underlying cause is identified, many behavior problems in older cats are correctable.

To promote early detection and prevention of both medical and behavior concerns, semiannual examinations are recommended for cats 7 years of age and older. Age-appropriate diagnostic testing once or twice per year can help identify diseases that can lead to medical or behavior problems.

If behavior changes are noted, a thyroid panel that includes analysis of free thyroxine by use of dialysis and total thyroxine is recommended. Bacteriologic culture of urine is recommended if the urine is dilute (specific gravity < 1.035), because dilute urine can predispose to urinary tract infections and infections may exist without evidence of infection on sediment examination.

Hyperthyroidism, hypertension, chronic renal disease, and diabetes mellitus are common conditions of older cats that often are characterized by behavior abnormalities. Pain-associated conditions such as dental disease and arthritis can also affect behavior. A decline in hearing and vision are normal aging changes that may affect behavior and can lead to subsequent fear, phobias, or aggression.

Altered sleep-wake cycles are also common in older cats, with wandering and increased vocalization, especially at night. Causes include cognitive dysfunction, hypertension, pain, and sensory decline. Urge clients to contact the veterinary hospital even if there are minor changes in their cat’s behavior.

If a behavior problem occurs secondary to a medical problem, it may be insufficient to treat only the underlying medical condition. The treatment plan may include environmental management, behavior modification techniques, and behavior-altering drugs.

Simple environmental modifications can make daily activities much easier for older cats. These include quiet, safe sleeping spots; nonskid surfaces; and ramps or steps to reach places where they can no longer jump. An increase in the number and size of litter boxes along with frequent cleaning can help prevent inappropriate elimination caused by dirty litter boxes, decreased ability to get to or into the box, and disorientation. In cases of severe polyuria, clumping litter may dry as hard concretions on the paws; avoid clumping litter in these situations. Lights or night lights can be left on to help cats with visual decline find litter boxes in the dark. Keeping the older cat’s routine and environment as stable as possible will decrease stress. If changes occur, try to prepare the cat, or make gradual changes.

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