My Longevity Checklist: Are You Doing the Right Things?

ways to help cat live longer

Story at-a-glance -

  • As a cat parent, you want to do everything you can to keep your kitty with you for as long as possible
  • The good news is you can absolutely provide your feline family member with a lifestyle that will optimize his health and lifespan
  • The ideal lifestyle for cats involves indoor living, the right diet, daily exercise and a kitty-friendly, peaceful environment
  • Daily teeth and coat care, crate training and regular veterinary wellness visits are also crucial in helping your cat live a long life in good health

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

All cat parents want their feline family members around for as long as possible, and we also want their lives with us to be happy and healthy. If you’re hoping to help your own cat live into her late teens or early 20s, there are many things you can do to provide her with a lifestyle that offers her the best chance to grow old with you.

8 Tips to Help Your Cat Enjoy a Long, High-Quality Life

1. Keep kitty indoors

While being indoors all the time isn’t what most cats would choose, it’s by far the safest life we can choose for them. Indoor living isn't an entirely natural environ­ment for your cat (more about that shortly), but letting him run around loose out­side actually presents much more risk to his health and longevity than keeping him “captive” in your home.

Housecats with free access to the outdoors are much more likely to be exposed to viruses and other pathogens and parasites that cause serious disease. They can also be inadvertently poisoned, or become prey for dogs and wild animals like coyotes. Fighting among outdoor cats is common, and someone has to come out the loser. Usually it's the kitty who doesn't live outside full time and hasn't honed his street-fighting skills.

Cats with access to the outdoors in winter are apt to look for warmth in potentially deadly places, like the wheel well or up inside the hood of a parked vehicle. Kitties have also been known to dart out into traffic after being startled or because another animal is chasing them.

Just because your cats live inside doesn’t mean they can’t go on supervised daily trips outside to bask in the sun, exercise and ground themselves. Outdoor excursions are wonderful for cats, as long as they are safe.

2. Feed a moisture-rich, nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate diet

Feeding your cat an optimal diet is the single most important thing you can do to help her have a long, healthy life. That’s why it’s important to understand that some foods are metabolically stressful, for example, all dry (kibble) formulas, processed pet food (canned or dry) containing feed-grade (versus human-grade) ingredients, and diets containing grains, potatoes or other starchy foods.

The nutrition that generates the least amount of metabolic stress for most cats, regardless of age, is their ancestral diet: whole, raw, unprocessed, organic, non-GMO and in its natural form. Animal meat should be the foundation of your kitty's diet throughout her life.

If you can't feed fresh food (raw or gently cooked), the second-best diet is a dehydrated or freeze dried balanced diet that has been reconstituted with an abundance of water or broth. Your cat's kidneys and liver can be stressed as a result of chronic low-grade dehydration, so all foods served dry can pose a problem long term.

I recommend serving your cat food in its natural state to provide needed moisture, and to ensure the highest level of biologic assimilation and digestion. That means feeding a nutritionally balanced, antioxidant-rich and species-appropriate diet that includes omega-3 essential fats, such as krill oil.

3. Keep your cat at a healthy weight

Tragically, the majority of cats in the U.S. are overweight or obese. The obesity-related diseases overweight kitties inevitably acquire shorten their lifespans and often destroy their quality of life along the way. If you want your kitty around and able to get around comfortably for 20 years, one of the worst things you can do is encourage him to get fat.

The first step in keeping your cat at a healthy weight is to feed an optimal diet as I described above. It’s equally important not to free-feed (which is fortunately impossible to do with a species-appropriate diet, because fresh food spoils when left out at room temperature).

It’s also important to calculate kcal (kilocalorie) requirements for your cat's ideal weight, measure his food portions using a measuring cup and drastically limit treats (be sure to include treats in his total daily calorie count).

Feed two portion-controlled meals a day, one in the morning and one in the evening at about the same time each day. This meal frequency works well for most cats and also fits easily into the daily schedule for most families. If you're home during the day, you can feed several small meals instead, since one study shows that cats fed more often are more active.

4. Make sure kitty gets daily exercise

Consistent daily exercise, including at least 20 minutes of high-intensity activity will help your cat burn fat and increase muscle tone. Make sure she has things to climb on, like a multilevel cat tree or tower. Invest in a laser toy, either a very inexpensive, simple one or something a bit more sophisticated like the Frolicat®.

Think like a cat and choose toys and activities that answer her need for hunting, stalking and pouncing on her “prey.” And don't forget the old standbys, like dragging a piece of string across the floor in front of your cat. Ping pong balls are another oldie but goodie, along with bits of paper rolled into balls.

For more ideas on how to challenge your cat both physically and mentally, take a look at my interview with cat behaviorist Jackson Galaxy. I also recommend walking your cat in nice weather using a harness. This gets him out into the fresh air, stimulates his senses and gets his paws in direct contact with the ground. An alternative is a safe, fully enclosed porch or patio area that prevents him from getting out and other animals from getting in.

5. Enrich your cat’s indoor environment

The term "environmental enrichment" means to improve or enhance the living situation of captive animals to optimize their health, longevity and quality of life. The more comfortable your cat feels in your home, the lower her stress level. Reducing kitty's stress is extremely important in keeping her physically healthy.

Enriching your cat's surroundings means creating minimally stressful living quarters, and reducing or eliminating changes in her life that cause anxiety. Jackson Galaxy has written several books on creating feline environmental enrichment around the house that I highly recommend.

The essentials of your kitty's life — food, water and litterbox (which should be kept immaculately clean) — should be located in a safe, secure location away from any area that is noisy enough to startle her or make her feel trapped and unable to escape. Cats are natural climbers and scratchers, so kitty needs approved places for climbing and scratching in her indoor environment. She also needs her own resting place and a hiding place (sometimes these are the same spot) where she feels untouchable.

Your cat feels most comfortable when her daily routine is predictable. Performing little rituals when you leave the house and return can help her feel more comfort­a­ble with the comings and goings of humans in the household. A ritual can be as simple as giving her a treat when you leave and a good scratch behind the ears as soon as you get home.

Think about what you can do to appeal to your kitty’s visual, auditory and olfactory senses. For example, some cats can gaze out the window for hours, while others are captivated by fish in an aquarium. Some even enjoy kitty videos.

When you're away from home, provide background noise for kitty that is similar to the ambient sounds she hears when you're home, for example, music or a TV at low volume. You can stimulate your cat's keen sense of smell with cat-safe herbs or synthetic feline pheromones.

6. Handle your cat, and not just for petting sessions

Cats are highly accomplished self-groomers, so most don’t need a lot of help in that department. However, it’s a good idea to teach your kitty to accept regular gentle brushing or combing. Long-haired cats, in particular, often benefit from a little help removing dead hair and debris from their coats. Brushing your cat every day or a few times a week will also strengthen your bond with him.

Another cat care chore you should absolutely do is brush kitty’s teeth, preferably daily. To learn how, watch my video on how to brush a cat's teeth for the first time. I also recommend performing regular at-home physical exams on your cat to learn what’s normal and what’s not. This will help you stay on top of her health and alert you to changes in between checkups.

7. Get kitty comfortable with a crate

Crate training isn’t just for dogs — it’s a must for your cat as well to reduce his stress level when you need to remove him from his home turf. All the angst associated with vet visits and other outings can be minimized by acclimating kitty to his carrier at home in a nonthreat­en­ing manner, and on his timetable. Here are 10 steps to conquer your cat's crate hate to get started on this very worthwhile project.

8. Schedule regular veterinary wellness exams

I recommend twice-yearly wellness visits because:

  • Changes in your kitty’s health can happen in a short period of time, especially on the inside where you can’t see it, like sudden changes in kidney health
  • Sick cats often show no signs of illness, but early detection allows for early intervention
  • Semi-annual visits give you and your veterinarian the opportunity to closely monitor changes in your kitty’s behavior and attitude that require further investigation

At a minimum, younger healthy cats should see the vet once a year. Kitties over the age of 7 and those with chronic health conditions should be seen twice a year or more frequently if necessary.

I recommend that you find a veterinarian whose practice philosophy you’re comfortable with. This may be a holistic or integrative veterinarian, or a conventional veterinarian who doesn’t aggressively promote vaccines, pest preventives or veterinary drugs at every visit.

Generally speaking, if you’re dealing with a conventional vet, you’ll need to advocate for your cat and push back as necessary, politely but firmly. Always remember that you have the final say in what treatments and chemicals are administered to your pet.

+ Sources and References