Special Challenges of Senior Cats in Shelters

Written by Molly DeVoss, CFTBS

How do senior cats end up in shelters?

For over a decade, I have volunteered in the cat areas at Dallas Animal Services (DAS), a municipal shelter which has the fifth highest intake volume of animals in the United States. I routinely see senior cats on their rescue list. In some cases, the shelter will allow adoption of these cats, but many of them are identified as only suitable to be transferred to a rescue organization because of their apparent medical issues—only rescue groups have the experience and resources to treat them so that they can, ideally, be adopted when they are medically cleared. Kennel space is a valuable commodity in a shelter environment, and seniors have to compete with younger, healthier, “more adoptable” animals for room at the “inn.” When kennels become full and the hard choices have to be made, the seniors frequently lose.

Some tough, old survivors are picked up as strays, but senior cats most often end up in shelters through being surrendered by their owners. Aging cats frequently develop chronic diseases that are costly to diagnose and treat; research into owner surrender behavior suggests these cats are many times abandoned when owners feel they can no longer afford to care for them (Alberthsen, 2016). These medical conditions can also lead to behaviors that cause owners to give up on their cats, such as urinating outside the litter box. I’ve also found that some owners simply lose interest in a pet that is no longer active, and families seek to acquire younger pets who will play and engage more.

Medical challenges senior felines face in shelters

Senior cats need regular blood work to monitor chemistry levels that indicate common geriatric conditions such as thyroid disease, diabetes, and renal failure (AAFP, 2009). Most shelters’ veterinary resources are stretched very thin, and the clinics are not equipped with the diagnostic equipment found in private vet offices, leaving these older cats under-diagnosed and without treatment in the shelter setting.

Nutrition is also an issue for senior felines in shelters. As they advance in age, cats are more likely to be unable to digest fat and protein as well as younger adult cats, kittens, and even younger seniors (Gunn-Moore, 2004). Improper diet, especially one low in antioxidants, can contribute to weight loss in geriatric cats (Perez-Camarga, 2004; Cupp, 2007), as well as making existing diseases like hyperthyroidism worse (Schenk, 2005), and compromising the immune system (Saker, 2004).

Most shelters will use food that is donated by a manufacturer (or offered at a low cost), and while shelters will often opt for kitten food, they don’t typically stock foods formulated for seniors. The low-cost food may contain high levels of phosphate and be lower in digestible proteins. Over 35% of older cats suffer from chronic kidney disease and can no longer excrete excess phosphorous. Restricting the phosphate levels in the diet appears to be quite beneficial in protecting the kidneys from further damage (Dobenecker et. al, 2017). Shelters might consider designating a larger portion of their budgets to specialty senior cat foods to prevent returns of cats due to high medical costs or inappropriate urination (a common behavior linked to chronic kidney disease cats). Specific requests for donations of senior specialty foods is another good way to obtain a proper diet for senior felines.

We have seen the reasons senior cats end up in shelters. Why is it so difficult to get them out?

It is easy for potential adopters to overlook, or consciously avoid, older felines who are exhibiting signs of stress . This can take many forms in a shelter. When cats are hunched in their boxes (either their litter boxes or hiding boxes) not interacting or making eye contact with people, they are often labeled as “depressed.” Other signs of stress include: not eating, inactivity, throwing up, not grooming, aggression, and litter box avoidance. It’s difficult to find adopters willing to take on a “project cat” who may require expensive medical care and lots of patient socialization; potential adopters most often seek younger animals who have fewer health issues and can “grow” with the family.

As it often takes senior cats longer to be adopted, their important medical evaluations and treatment are delayed, compounding their condition. Senior cats in home settings become dependent on routines (AAFP, 2009), and when those become unpredictable in the shelter, it creates a great amount of stress, which takes an emotional as well as physical toll on their health.  Their younger counterparts haven’t spent as much time in an established routine, and so the changes in environment are often not as stressful on them, making them more engaged and playful.

Rescue groups are DAS’s main resource for a positive outcome for senior cats, but they too want to offer a chance to the younger animals (who are in higher demand), and generally can’t afford to offset the high medical costs of seniors in their care. In addition to adoption centers and off-site adoption events, social media is an excellent tool for rescues to recruit new fosters, network adoptable animals, and raise funds for medical care and support.

As a typical example of this ongoing problem, on a recent day at DAS, I found four senior felines on the “rescue only” list. All were noted to be “not eating and depressed,” which landed them in the “urgent” category:
4 cats

  • Ginger (named by shelter staff) was a beautiful 14-year-old, spayed ginger-colored tabby brought in as a stray — although judging by her clean ears and kept coat, I do not believe she lived on the streets.
  • Oliver, 15 years old, was surrendered by his owners because they “could not afford to keep him.”
  • Unknown was a 12-year-old cat with a body score of 1, also brought in as a stray, and it was apparent from her condition that she had endured a neglected existence outdoors for quite a while.
  • Seven was 14 years old, spayed and surrendered by her owners due to “landlord issues.”

I spent the better part of the day posting them to the DAS cat rescue Facebook page for which I serve as an admin, and networking one on one with the cat rescue groups we work with. Unfortunately, timing was working against these older cats, as it was kitten season; with 45 underage kittens also on the “rescue only” list, these four weren’t getting much response.  The ultimate outcome: Two were rescued and, sadly, two euthanized due to no rescue interest.

What can shelters do to help these seniors find a positive outcome?

Enrichment, in the form of clicker training, has proven very effective in making stressed cats feel more confident in shelters (Kogan et. al, 2017).  Repeatedly, I see seniors who receive positive reinforcement become more interactive with people and less fearful. For shelters without feline behavior staff, a solid training platform for volunteers is required to make this work.  Jackson Galaxy’s CatPawsitve Pro (CPP) Program offers a curriculum to shelters and rescues that can act as a basis for training volunteers how to better work with cats. CPP provides trainer/mentors (TMs) to the participating shelters (I am currently a TM in training), who help them choose cats for the program, teach clicker training, and help them navigate through behavior challenges. In the spring 2018 semester of CPP, the PIMA Animal Care Center in Phoenix, Arizona, had a cat in the program named Carley Krabitz: a 10-year-old cat who had been at the center for six months. She would not move from her spot and responded to attempted petting or touching by displaying aggressive behaviors. They started with targeting a cotton ball on a stick to reinforce gentle touch, and progressed to her moving to follow the target stick. Then they targeted her onto laps, where she began to accept petting. Her overall behavior improved, and she was able to move to a foster home. Profound behavior changes can happen with patience and positive reinforcement.

When cats become stressed and fearful they frequently stop eating. For these geriatric felines, eating regular meals is vitally important. I find stroking and talking to older cats relaxes them and makes them feel safe enough to eat while I’m interacting with them, but once I move away, usually they stop eating. Teaching volunteers to be observant of these types of behaviors, and how to encourage older cats to eat, is very important.

Highlighting DAS’s rescue senior cats on social media has been very effective. With good, captivating photos of the cats, and descriptions of gentle behavior, the posts regularly receive private donations in the form of “pledges” that are paid to the rescue group that takes the cat. This financial aid can influence a rescue group in the seniors’ direction. Lucy, a 10-year-old cat, was found as a stray and brought to DAS with an infected puncture wound on the left side of her face. She was unable to close her mouth completely but still trying to eat. Lucy’s Facebook post was shared over 180 times, reaching over 4,000 people. Over $200 in pledges were raised in a short period of time, which helped to encourage Sandy’s Feral Fun in Bean, Texas, to rescue her. In just six weeks, Sandy’s Feral Fun had Lucy healed and ready for adoption.

Lucy, before and after

Lucy, before and after

And an ounce of prevention…

There are several avenues for discouraging surrender of senior cats at shelters. DAS works with a rescue organization that staffs a table at the intake entrance. They speak with owners about the reasons they are surrendering, and offer assistance in the form of medical vouchers and feline behavior counseling if they find owners who want to keep their cat but lack the financial resources to get the help they need for that to happen. This rescue group also offers owners the option to keep their cats while they try to find permanent homes for them, so they never have to enter the shelter system.

I provide behavior consults pro bono to DAS shelter referrals. Once such case was a 14-year-old cat who was urinating on the clothes of a family member. The family had two cats (a younger one in addition to the urinating cat) and was threatening to “get rid of” the cat with the inappropriate urination issue. Upon investigation I discovered a two-fold issue: territorial marking due to outside cats visible through the windows, and an attempt to bond with a specific member of the family who was not engaging with the cat. Blocking the view of the outdoor cats, installing natural deterrents in the yard to discourage outdoor cat visitors, and teaching the whole family to engage with the cat completely rectified the behavior.

Once surrendered to a shelter, these senior felines require more work to get placed in a positive outcome, but it is well worth it when they can find a loving, patient home where they can live out their remaining years.


Alberthsen, C. et. al (2016) Numbers and Characteristics of Cats Admitted to Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) Shelters in Australia and Reasons for Surrender. Animals 6(3).

American Association of Feline Practitioners, (2009) Senior Care Guidelines. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery 11(9), pp. 763-778.

Cupp, C.J. et. al (2007) Effect of nutritional interventions on longevity of senior cats. International Journal of Applied Research in Veterinary Medicine 5:3, pp.133-149.

Dobenecker, B. et. al (2017) Effect of a high phosphorus diet on indicators of renal health in cats. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery.

Gunn-Moore, D. (2004) Considering older cats. In: The Aging Feline: Advances in Nutition and Care for the Older Cat.  Supplement to Compendium on Continuing Education for the Practicing Veterinarian Vol. 26, No. 2(A), February 2004.

Kogan, L., Kolus, C., & Schoenfeld-Tacher, R. (2017) Assessment of clicker training for shelter cats. Animals 7(10).

Perez-Camargo, G. (2004) Cat nutrition: What is new in the old? In: The Aging Feline: Advances in Nutition and Care for the Older Cat.  Supplement to Compendium on Continuing Education for the Practicing Veterinarian Vol. 26, No. 2(A), February 2004.

Saker, K.E. (2004) Nutritional influences on the immune system in aging felines. In: The Aging Feline: Advances in Nutrition and Care for the Older Cat.  Supplement to Compendium on Continuing Education for the Practicing Veterinarian Vol. 26, No. 2(A), F.

Schenk, P. (2005) Effect of diet on development of feline hyperthyroidism. Proceedings of the NAVC North American Veterinary Conference Jan. 8-12, 2005, Orlando, Florida pp. 609-610.

White, J., Malik, M., & Norris, J.M., (2011) Feline chronic kidney disease: Can we move from treatment to prevention? The Veterinary Journal 190(3), pp. 317-322.


Molly is a CFTBS (Certified Feline Training and Behavior specialist) who has rescued and fostered hundreds of kittens and cats over the years. She has volunteered well over 2500 hours with large municipal shelters, dedicated to saving felines. Molly also serves on the City of Dallas Animal Commission. As a Feline Behavior Specialist, she started Cat Behavior Solutions, a non-profit 501c3, with the mission to reduce the number of cats surrendered to shelters. She uses her education and knowledge of feline behavior and behavior modification to help guardians enable their cats to express natural behaviors in ways that are acceptable for both the humans and cats.