What To Do At Every Stage of Your Cat’s Life For Optimal Health and Well Being On Pets And Tricks
From kittenhood—to adulthood—to becoming a senior and geriatric cat, it’s important to understand the healthcare and social needs of cats at all of their different and distinct life stages. Cat’s experience six distinct life stages, and each one has its own care, wellness and feeding requirements and needs. Learn how to provide your cat with the very best nutrition, care and well-being support at each life stage, why it’s important, and how it can make a difference for them.
Overall, cats should get a complete veterinary examination or routine wellness checkup at least once a year. Kittens should see a veterinarian every 3-4 weeks until they are five months old. Cats over the age of two years, should start getting an annual checkup every year. Senior cats should see a veterinarian twice a year, and geriatric cats every 4-6 months. Because the sooner you learn about your cat’s illness or chronic disease, the easier it will be to treat and manage, the better the outcome for them, and the less suffering your cat will experience as a result.
Distinct Life Stages
Cats age at a much faster rate than humans, so it’s important to understand the life stages and what they mean to the health and well-being of your cat. Along with each life stage, comes the needed minimum veterinary checkups and diagnostic tests, along with the increased frequency of diagnostic tests needed with advancing age. Like with humans, the aging process can affect cats’ well-being too, so it’s important to understand and be prepared for what is ahead, so you can provide the best care for your cat throughout their lifetime. These life stages will help you focus on the physical and behavior needs and changes that will take place in your cat over their lifetime and help you understand their needs. Based on the Standard of Veterinary Excellence, American Animal Hospital Association and the AAFP, these are approximate life stages:
Six Life Stages for Cats
- Kitten – Birth to 6 months. Human equivalent: 0-10 years.
- Junior – 7 months to 2 years. Human equivalent: 12 – 24 years.
- Prime – 3 to 6 years. Human equivalent: 28 to 40 years.
- Mature – 7 to 10 years. Human equivalent: 44 to 56 years.
- Senior – 10 to 14 years. Human equivalent: 60 to 72 years.
- Geriatric – 15 to 25 years. Human equivalent: 76 to 116 years.
The life span of a cat is five times shorter than the life span of a human, so providing annual visits to your veterinarian is critical and can facilitate the best health for your cat as well as detect disease or chronic illness at an earlier stage. Early detection of disease can result in better disease management, greater comfort for your cat, prevent the disease from worsening, and can lead to a better quality of life. Plus, it is less costly to address disease early and prevents crisis disease management, with a poorer possible outcome.
Kitten – Birth to 6 months
Birth to 8 weeks
From birth to two months old, kittens have basic needs including warmth, adequate nutrition from mom’s milk or supplemental kitten food, to be kept clean, experience socialization with humans, and be safe and away from all possible dangers to them. Daily weight gain and good physical development is key at this stage. If needed, supplemental KMR formula can be provided mixed with 1 part powder and 2 parts water, a minimum of 2 Tbls. per day. KMR formula can be mixed in with kitten wet food for supplementation to provide nutrient adequate food. If kittens are 0-2 weeks of age, feed every two hours; 2 to 4 weeks of age feed every 3-4 hours; weaker kittens feed more often overall. Temperature of the formula should be warm, not hot. Kittens should always be upright for feeding not reclining. Never feed a kitten cow’s milk. There are a number of commercial feline formulas on the market that closely match the nutrients received by kittens in their mother’s milk. You can purchase these products at most pet stores, or through a veterinarian, ask for help. Adequate and proper food is key.
If mama cat is not available – you the foster parent, will also need to help them urinate and defecate. Here is more on the specific care of young kittens to two months of age.
2 to 6 Months Old
Starting at two months, kittens will need proper kitten food formulated just for kittens. In addition, they will need scratching posts; kitten-safe balls and toys; a warm, comfortable cat bed; fresh water and food fed in glass, metal or ceramic food and water bowls; a litter box; a cat carrier; and a cat brush that can be used for socialization too and mimics their mom’s licking.
In addition, and most importantly, kittens at this age must begin being vaccinated, de-wormed, de-flead, and a little later—microchipped. Spaying or neutering can come about 4-6 months of age but not later. And best, not younger either. By two months old, a kitten should have its first veterinary visit and receive its first FVRCP vaccine. Then, 3-4 weeks after that vaccine, will come the 2nd FVRCP vaccine. One month later, will be the 3rd FVRCP vaccine. A booster will come exactly one year after the 3rd FVRCP vaccine, so be sure to keep track and put the date in your calendar. The FVRCP vaccine series will prevent and protect your cat from all of the upper respiratory illnesses common for young cats. No other vaccines are necessary at this point. If your cat is indoors-only, you will not need a rabies vaccine, and never give a rabies vaccine before 4 months of age.
Spaying and neutering can come ideally after 4 months, before 6 months, waiting until they are more fully physically developed. But females can get pregnant at six months, so be careful not to wait too long. With spaying and neutering, the risks of many cancers will be significantly reduced, so it has very positive long-term health benefits for them. Make sure to do a blood test before the surgery to see if your kitten is healthy enough for anesthesia, the test will also provide a baseline for future blood work.
Kittens often have worms and parasites that they are born with and will need parasite prevention. However, best to let your veterinarian address this. If your kitten came from a rescue group, be sure to get the paperwork that will note the deworming schedule done. Otherwise, drontal and pyrantel will address most worms for kittens over 1.5 pounds and at a minimum of about 8 weeks old. Let a professional address this process, safely. It’s an important part of their healthcare at this age. The wrong dewormers can be toxic, dangerous, and deadly to your kitten/cat so a veterinarian should handle it.
Defleaing can come at a minimum of 8 weeks and 2 pounds. Use only Advantage, Frontline, Revolution, or Program for safety reasons, and follow the instructions explicitly provided per the weight of the kitten. At a young age it is only a tiny drop. These meds are administered by weight, and never before 8 weeks. Follow the exact instructions. You never want to overdose the amount because it is highly toxic and harmful.
After these are done, including spaying and neutering, be sure to microchip your kitten to keep them safe if they are lost. This way they can be safely returned with a microchip.
It’s also critical as a young kitten to socialize them. By playing with them, holding them, carrying them, and socializing them, they will be domesticated to humans and human touch. But remember they are fragile and very vulnerable too. So always be gentle with picking them up and holding them. Be careful as to how often they are picked up. Never force them to play, or play for too long. Always let them stop and start at their own initiation.
Junior – 7 Months to 2 Years
These are the teen and early adult years equivalent to human years. Kittens at seven months can become pregnant, so be sure your male or female cat is fixed to prevent an unwanted litter. Up to two years old, your kitten will mature into an adult cat, but likely will still be rambunctious, want to play—run, climb, jump, and will have a good appetite. During these young years, you need to make sure your house is safe for them, free of hazards. Be careful to clean up small items off of the floor, vacuum often, keep strings and ribbon away from them, and protect them from household hazards. Starting at two years, your kitten will need less supervision. Remember, at one-year-old your kitten will have their FVRCP vaccine booster, but after this booster, another FVRCP will not be necessary for another three years. Never over-vaccinate.
At one-year-old, you can stop feeding kitten food and start feeding adult cat canned food. Now, an adult formula will meet their nutritional needs. Always provide ample water bowls and fresh water for your cat in different rooms they spend time in. Doing this will prevent dehydration, and keep them healthier with ample water. Use glass, ceramic or stainless steel bowls for food and water. Put food and water in quiet areas with little or no traffic, away from noise and distractions.
Make sure the size of your litter box is accommodating a full-grown cat (no longer a kitten) with ample room to move and turn around. Cats have a known tendency to prefer larger, more spacious litter boxes.
This is a good time to begin preventative dental maintenance by getting your cat accustomed to teeth cleaning at home as often as you can do it. Here is a great video about the importance of providing good dental care for your cat at all life stages. Never use people toothpaste, only specially-formulated toothpaste for cats. This video walks you through the process of cleaning your cat’s teeth at home.
This is also a good time to socialize your cat to becoming accustomed to a carrier and reducing the stress of transport. You can keep the carrier out in your home where your cat often spends time. Put a nice blanket in it and help to create a positive association with the carrier. When you do need to use it, you can spray a calming pheromone for cats on it or inside it, before leaving.
For their well-being, provide plenty of hiding spots for your cat—elevated resting spots (like tall cat trees with a flat cat bed at the top), cat beds and blankets on the floor and chairs, cat toys for fun and play, scratching posts in different locations—located throughout your home. Consider building or buying a catio outside with the connecting door made for cats, if you have the space, so they have a safe enclosure for them outside and can come and go.
Prime – 3 to 6 years
Like with humans, this is the prime of your cat’s life. This is equivalent to a human in their 20s and 30s. They likely will be their healthiest during these years. Be sure to provide your cat with plenty of enrichment, including tall cat trees to climb to build muscle, strength and agility. Cat scratching posts for keeping their leg muscles strong and trimming their nails. Have a variety of balls they can chase and run after for cardio exercise, toys to engage them and interest them to prevent boredom, and wands for chasing and jumping for agility.
Avoid over-feeding—keep track of your cat’s weight and make sure they are not becoming overweight or obese. Make sure your cat gets plenty of exercise and play time. You should provide the best quality of food and nutrition you can that will give them the best chance of staying and being healthy. Avoid dry food as it is dehydrating and give a variety of wet food as it is hydrating, and provides ample protein. Cats are obligate carnivores and need high-quality protein and hydration to stay healthy.
Mature Cat – 7 to 10 Years
At this age, your cat is the equivalent of a middle-aged person in their 40s and 50s. Like for people, our diet, exercise or lack of, and lifestyle — all start to catch up with us at this age. We are what we eat or have eaten, and how we have lived. All the more important now to feed a very high-quality, balanced, high-protein, hydrating, healthy diet, and not over-feed. Cats at this age are more prone to weight gain and obesity. It is not necessarily the case that your cat will slow down or become more sedentary—that will be partially up to you, their caretaker, to keep them engaged, play with them, and encourage them to chase balls and run. Managing their weight at this age is critical to avoid obesity-related health problems like diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, thyroid disease, and kidney disease.
It’s more important at this age and during these years to start getting regular veterinary checkups, once a year. Your vet will want to begin monitoring for any early signs of illness, behavioral changes, and begin tracking blood and urine tests for trends and patterns.
At this age, you can add a probiotic and Omega 3 fatty acids to their wet food a few times a week to boost their immune system, to prevent diseases, and for overall optimal health.
Senior Cat Guidelines – 10 to 14 Years
“Old age is not a disease, but it is a process.” Senior cats are thought to be over 10 years old, and there are specific guidelines for their care that are published in the 2021 AAFP Feline Senior Care Guidelines report. The guidelines recommend the importance of regular veterinary visits every six months for cats 10 to 14 years old. If your cat is 15 years old or older, then a veterinary visit every four to six months, the older your cat becomes, visiting your vet every four months is best. Cats innate ability to hide illness and disease can mean regular physical exams are even more important to keep your older cat comfortable and extend their life with the least possible suffering and best possible health. One example of this is kidney disease, if caught early enough, can prolong their life by many years.
When booking a routine checkup at your vet, be sure to let them know any and all health concerns in advance. In your veterinary appointment, let your vet know your cat’s environment, whether you have stairs for them to climb, what your feeding schedule is, their litterbox habits, any patterns you notice, medications given, diet and food habits, water intake, frequency of urine and bowel elimination, any sudden or unusual behavior, vocalizations, sleeping patterns, playing behavior and their current level of activity. All of these should be discussed and reviewed. When taking your cat to the vet, be sure to be gentle and careful in putting them into the carrier to reduce stress, anxiety and hypertension, which can come with the territory.
Some things to look for in your senior cat are whether they are losing muscle, strength and/or weight. Muscle wasting is a loss of muscle mass that can be part of normal aging or can be associated with several diseases including kidney disease. In muscle wasting, both muscle mass is lost and physical strength and stamina are severely diminished. In addition, a cats activity level is often reduced and cats can spend more time sleeping as a result of discomfort and pain. Look for these signs in your cat, in addition, whether your cat is losing weight and becoming more frail. Losing weight can often be associated with chronic illness and disease, and catching it early will be the key to a successful and optimal outcome and therapeutic intervention to restore your cat’s weight, physical health and overall well being. Getting a scale for at-home use can be very beneficial. You can detect more accurately whether your cat is losing weight without waiting until your cat’s next checkup. The Redmon Precision Digital Small Pet Scale is not too expensive and has been an excellent scale for me over many years.
Food and diet are extremely important at this age. Providing a high protein, highly digestible diet that is rich in antioxidants and Omega-3 fatty acids is critical. You can supplement Omega 3s by adding them to your cat’s wet food every day. I personally like Vetoquinol Triglyceride OMEGA Omega-3 Fatty Acid Small Breeds Supplement for Cats & Dogs. Adding a probiotic is very important for gut and intestinal health. A good one I recommend is DrsFormulas Nexabiotic Probiotics For Cats, available on Amazon. The first ingredient is Saccharomyces Boulardii Lactobacillus Acidophilus, which is key for good digestive health and bowel elimination, and can prevent inflammatory bowel disease if given daily with a premium wet food.
Hypertension can become a problem in senior and geriatric cats, and the risk increases with age. Untreated, hypertension can cause severe organ damage to the heart, brain, kidneys and eyes, and may not be reversible. At this age, your vet will likely begin blood pressure testing.
Senior cats and even unhealthy younger cats, can start to show poor fur quality, increased matting, and a coat of hair that becomes duller with time. You want to pay attention to these changes, as they can be indicative of disease and illness. It’s more important than ever at this age, to pay attention to your cat’s nails and keep them trimmed. Older cats can experience in-grown thickened nails, which is painful for them. It can be very problematic for them to keep their nails trimmed because as they become more arthritic and less mobile, they can lose their ability to scratch at a scratching post to trim them.
Good hydration is critically important for senior cats, because of dehydration leading to certain chronic diseases such as chronic kidney disease (CKD) and diabetes. Try to keep multiple water bowls in various rooms for easy access, keeping them clean and refreshed every couple of days. You can add warm water to their wet food for more hydration, and avoid or minimize all dry food. For tasty supplemental hydration, Purina makes Pro Plan Veterinary Diet Hydra Care Liquid Supplement for Cats, this is a great way to get added water into your cat every day.
Senior cats can be less comfortable and more vulnerable physically, so be sure to handle your cat gently and with more care. At this age, regular annual examinations are key, and so is getting baseline diagnostics to help address pre-clinical disease and serve as a reference baseline to track future trends.
Geriatric Cat Guidelines – 15 to 25 years
With the geriatric stage, all of the above noted for senior cats should be applied to geriatric cats, as well. In addition to the more common health concerns associated with aging, all are most applicable to geriatric cats. Thyroid disease, heart disease, kidney disease (CKD), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and arthritis – can all become more common in this stage of a cat’s life. Arthritis can become quite common, so look for a slower gait, stiffness and lameness of the joints, less mobility, more sleeping, and less playing and activity. Arthritis can affect a cat’s inability to groom themselves properly, causing fur to become more matted. It can also be painful for a cat, causing them to move less and sleep more. One supplement that can help is Dasuquin, a joint health supplement for cats, with glucosamine and chondroitin, given daily. Your veterinarian will be able to diagnose the level of arthritis and may recommend non-steroidal Adequan injections done on a weekly, then monthly basis, to help support joints. Adequan relieves pain by reducing joint inflammation, but it also stimulates the production of joint fluid and cartilage so it can actually help to repair damaged joints. Because Adequan needs to be injected fairly regularly for optimum efficacy, often veterinarians will train clients on how to give the injections at home.
For both senior and geriatric cats, it’s very important to maintain a home environment that is senior-friendly and respects their age and needs. Provide places for them to escape to quiet corners, hiding places, or atop a tall cat tree. Provide plenty of cat beds on the floor and soft blankets for them to lay on. Be sure there are toys, balls, and cat scratching posts—all to enrich their lives and express their natural behavior. Make litter boxes more accessible and easily available considering they may be arthritic, and not able to walk as far. You may want to consider multiple litter boxes for easier access. Add night lights to improve visibility for them at night, and be sure to add ramps to beds or couches as needed, or steps up to their favorite places to make access possible and easier.
Senior and geriatric cats should have safe access to food and water bowls, located in a quiet place without any interferences or distractions. Elevating the food and water bowls may help with arthritis, and warming the food with some warm (only) water will make food more palatable. If your cat becomes a picker eater, eating smaller amounts of food, you may consider feeding small meals more often. Make sure that food has highly digestible proteins (turkey, rabbit, duck; no bi-products, fillers, meat-meal, etc.), offered in more frequent, smaller meals. This is better for their digestion as well, because older cats often experience slower digestion times which can cause constipation.
If cats at this age are not going outdoors and are inside-only cats, often veterinarians will no longer suggest vaccines. And poor health, may even increase the risks of side effects from the vaccines. Be sure to have your vet evaluate the risks, but if inside-only the vaccines may be considered completely unnecessary. This can apply to senior cats as well.
As cats age, like humans, dental disease can occur. Pay attention to your cat pawing at their mouth, head shaking, drooling, salivating, or rubbing their head on the ground. These can all be symptoms of dental disease, and pain associated with their mouths. Your vet will want to conduct a full dental evaluation with every visit to look for severe gingivitis, calculi, lesions, abscesses, and tooth resorption. If your vet sees any of these, it’s likely time for a dental done under anesthesia. But age, overall health will need to be evaluated whether your cat is strong enough to go under anesthesia.
Many of the diseases and chronic illnesses that come with old age, have an element of pain and suffering associated with them. And if your cat is experiencing multiple diseases, then they may also experience more discomfort. Dental disease, IBD, cancer, ocular, kidney disease, hyperthyroid disease, and neurologic diseases can all cause significant discomfort and pain. Vets can prescribe non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (only for cats/dogs) like gabapentin, in these cases that can be taken on a semi-regular basis to control pain.
At this stage, quality of life and quality of care need to be discussed. This would include end of life considerations when that time comes, including palliative and hospice care. Quality of life should be the priority over quantity of life. Remember, it is you who is making the choices for them, they cannot make their own choices. Cats live in the moment and have no concept of the future. Cat guardians have the responsibility to make the best, well-informed decisions based on a combination of: Chronic pain, mobility impairment, sickness, cognitive decline, chronic disease, anxiety and fear, pain and suffering, frustration, boredom, and quality of life.
Providing Palliative Care focuses on treating and managing pain, nutritional deficits, mobility impairment, anxiety and fear, sickness such as nausea and vomiting, and can be applied to curable or chronic conditions and making your cat as comfortable as possible along the course of their illness. Often, this can be a good way to go for both your cat and you, as long as they can be comfortable and maintain some quality of life.
With Hospice Care, the guardian and veterinarian agree to provide “comfort care” without any treatment plan to treat disease because the likelihood of treatment is negligible at this point. Hospice Care can last for days or weeks, or even months.