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How long do cats live?

How long do cats live?

 

cat with clock

The short answer is that a typical cat’s lifespan is anywhere from 12 to 20 years, depending upon whom you ask, and what study they’re quoting.[1] [2] [3]

 

But that’s such a broad range it’s hardly better than no information at all.

 

What you might want to know why some cats get 12 years and other cats get 20. You might also want to know if there is anything you can do to help your cat live as long as possible.

 

I’ll answer those questions as best as I can in this post.

 

You might also be interested in why cats don’t live as long as we’d like them to. If elephants can survive for 70 years, and whales can live to 100, why do our cats rarely live past 20?

 

There’s only one thing we really know for sure: for all our joking about nine lives, our cat’s one life is never long enough.

 

Why do some cats live longer than other cats?

 

cat outdoors

This is the million-dollar question, isn’t it?

 

We are far from knowing everything about cat health and cat longevity. The scientific community has only recently begun studying cats in a serious way. But we do know a few things about why some cats live longer than other cats.

 

These are the two main factors that that seem to matter most:

 

Spaying and neutering

Spaying and neutering can help a cat live longer.

 

cat with kittens

Spaying a female cat before her first heat will reduce her risk of mammary cancer by 91%. Mammary cancer is especially aggressive in cats, and the median survival time for cats with mammary tumors is a year.

 

Spaying will also prevent a female cat from getting ovarian and uterine cancers.

 

In male cats, neutering reduces aggressiveness, and with it, the desire to roam and fight. Serious illnesses, like feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and feline leukemia virus (FeLV) are spread through bites, and are more common in intact male cats.

 

Neutered male cats also avoid prostate and testicular cancer.

 

A study conducted by UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital that reviewed necropsies (necropsy is the autopsy of an animal) performed on 3,108 cats who had died from a variety of causes, found that the median age of death for female cats over a year old was only 4.7 years if they were not spayed. Spayed females, on the other hand, lived to a median age of 10.5 years.

 

The median age at death for intact male cats over year old was just 3.7 years. Neutered male cats lived to 9.8 years.[4]

 

I go over all of this in more detail in this post on spaying and neutering cats.

 

Keeping cats indoors

cat with video game controller

Indoor cats live longer than outdoor cats. A LOT longer.

 

While an indoor cat can be expected to live 15-17 years, the life expectancy of an outdoor cat is only two to five years. Why?

 

Outdoor cats are killed by cars: at least 26 million cats die on U.S. roadways every year. Cats are also victims of animal cruelty; some people think nothing of shooting cats or trapping and abusing them for “fun.”

 

Outdoor cats also unfortunately die at the hands of predators, and some, sadly, get stuck in trees.

 

Outdoor cats encounter other cats, and injuries from fighting or illness from communicable diseases can be the result.

 

You can learn more about keeping cats indoors versus outdoors in this post.

 

Things you can do to help your cat live longer

 

In addition to spaying/neutering and keeping your cat indoors, there are things you can do to help your cat stay safe and healthy for as long as possible:

 

Vaccines

cat getting vaccine

Stay up to date on your cat’s vaccines.

 

Vaccines work by training a cat’s own immune system to recognize and destroy disease-causing organisms before they have a chance to make your cat very sick.

 

Indoor cats need vaccinations, too. Some vaccines are required by law, and others will keep your indoor cat safe from disease she can catch from other cats if she visits a groomer, is boarded when you go away on vacation, or accidentally sneaks outside.

 

Preventative care

Cats are masters at hiding symptoms of illness. It’s a strategy for surviving in the wild, as predators are often looking for signs of weakness in potential prey.

 

Annual checkups for your cat with routine bloodwork can help your veterinarian catch issues early, before they become too serious. Having a good relationship with a vet is important as they can often see changes in your cat from visit to visit.

 

Be sure to discuss any changes in behavior that you see in your cat, too, even if they seem minor.

 

This post is about how often you should take your cat to the vet.

 

Managing weight

fat cat

You may love spoiling your cat, but even a little extra weight can be life-limiting.

 

Cats who carry extra weight are at risk of developing all the same diseases that overweight humans do: type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and arthritis.

 

Overweight cats can experience difficulty breathing, and may have trouble grooming themselves. Poor grooming can lead to skin infections, bladder stones, and lower-urinary-tract infections.

 

Read about how to help a cat lose weight in this post.

 

Microchipping

A microchip is a tiny radio-frequency identification transponder (RFID) that is inserted by a veterinarian beneath your cat’s skin.

 

If your cat goes missing, a microchip may be the only way to be reunited with him. The procedure is virtually painless for your cat, side-effect and risk-free, and relatively inexpensive, especially considering what you get for your money.

 

Amazing stories about cats being reconnected with their loving guardians thanks to microchipping abound. Read one of my favorites in this post about microchipping your cat.

 

Who was the oldest cat who ever lived?

 

guinness book of world records logo

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the oldest cat who ever lived was Creme Puff, who was 38 years old when she died.[5]

 

Weirdly, the second oldest cat to have ever lived was Granpa Rexs Allen (34 years old), who, coincidentally or not-so-coincidentally, was also owned by the same man who owned Creme Puff.

 

The Guinness Book of World Records is known for meticulously checking records, but this one is a headscratcher for me.

 

Granpa and Creme Puff’s guardian claimed that the key to their longevity was a diet of dry cat food, broccoli, eggs, turkey bacon, coffee with cream, and red wine.[6]

 

I should point out that red wine and caffeine are known to be toxic to cats, that the lactose in cream can make cats sick, and the fat, salt, preservatives, and seasonings in bacon of any kind is terrible for cat health.

 

You can read about other human foods that are toxic to cats in this post.

 

Who are the oldest cats currently living?

 

According to Wikipedia there are at least seven cats who are 28-38 years old who are still alive today.

 

There’s a black cat named Cola in the United Kingdom, a calico named Squeak in the United States, and a Thai cat called Great Grandma Wad in Thailand, to name a few.[7]

 

Which cat breeds have the longest lives? Which have the shortest?

 

birman cat

The Royal Veterinary College in the United Kingdom studied the medical records of 7,936 cats in the United Kingdom who died between 2019 and 2021 for cat-breed longevity.

 

Overall, female cats lived longer than male cats: 12.5 years for the girls compared with 11.2 years for the boys. In general, crossbred cats outlived purebred cats: 11.9 years for crossbred cats versus 10.4 years for purebreds.

 

The part of the study that seemed to get all the press, however, was about which cat breeds lived the longest.

 

This study only included 11 specific breeds and a 12th category of “crossbreeds.” The 11 named “breeds” included categories researchers described as “Russian cats” and “British cats,” rather than actual breeds.

 

Crossbreeds were not defined. Were they true random-bred moggies, or did the researchers include deliberately bred crosses? It makes a difference, but it was not clear from the study.

 

There was data for only 15 Norwegian Forest cats, and just 18 Sphynx. I’m not a data scientist, but that doesn’t seem like a significant enough number of cats to draw a useful conclusion.

 

In any event, the results of this study suggest that Burmese and Birman cats are the longest-lived breeds, at 14.4 years each, followed by crossbreeds at 11.9 years. The shortest-lived cats in the study were Bengal cats (8.5 years) and Sphynx (6.7 years).[8]

 

longest lived cat breeds

Do mixed-breed cats live longer than purebred cats?

 

mixed breed cats

There hasn’t been nearly enough research on cats and longevity.

 

In some contrast to the above study, a 2015 study on cat mortality, which included 4,009 cats from veterinary practices in the United Kingdom, suggested that crossbred cats had a higher median lifespan than purebred cats: 14 years versus 12.5 for purebred cats.[9]

 

There have been more longevity studies on dogs than cats and these studies tend to back the idea that mixed-breed animals have longer lives, in general, than purebred animals. A study of 30,563 dogs showed that mutts outlived purebred dogs: 12.76 years for the mongrels as compared to 11 years for the deliberately bred dogs.[10]

 

There’s a concept in longevity studies called “hybrid vigor.” Hybrid vigor, first studied by the legendary evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin, is the idea that the offspring of unrelated parents are bigger, stronger, more fertile – and possibly longer lived, than their parents.

 

The opposite is true as well: that the offspring of highly related parents become inbred, which leads to animals of reduced size, health, and lifespan.

 

In general, purebred cats and dogs are at greater risk for hereditary diseases that can shorten their lives, because their parents have similar genes.[11]

 

What happens to cats as they age?

 

old cat

Aging isn’t always pretty: not for humans, and not for cats. Here are some of the things that happen to cats as they begin to age:

 

  • A cat’s immune system becomes less able to fight off invading viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites.
  • A cat’s skin becomes thinner and less elastic. Blood doesn’t circulate in it as efficiently, making the skin more prone to infection.
  • Cats don’t groom as often as they once did, or as well. Cats can experience more matting and skin inflammation.
  • Cat claws change, becoming thicker and more brittle. They may need to be clipped more often.
  • Cats can experience hearing and vision loss. High blood pressure can damage vision, and the lenses on the eye can become cloudy.
  • Cats can develop dental disease, which can be painful and cause a cat to lose interest in eating.
  • A cat’s sense of smell can deteriorate, leading to a loss of interest in food.
  • Kidney failure is a common ailment in cats’ senior years.
  • Joints can deteriorate. Arthritis can make getting in and out of the litter box difficult, and getting to food and water dishes, too, especially if a cat has to climb stairs to them. Arthritis can also lead to poorer grooming habits.
  • Diseases often develop in old age in cats, especially hyperthyroidism, hypertension, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, and cancer.
  • Personality changes and cognitive changes are common. Senior cats can become disoriented, meow excessively, become aggressive or anxious, and become less social.
  • Muscle loss is also common in older cats, leading to weakness and limited mobility.[12]

 

Why don’t cats live as long as some other animals, including humans?

 

cockatoo

If you’ve ever wondered why humans have a life expectancy (in the U.S.) of around 77 years[13], parrots can live to 100[14], but cats rarely live more than 20 years, you’re not alone. The Greek philosopher Aristotle was wondering the exact same thing 2,000 years ago.

 

Aristotle decided that it had something to do with moisture. Elephants, he surmised, outlive mice because they contain more moisture and thus take longer to dry up.[15]

 

He was wrong about moisture, but right about one thing: bigger animals do tend to outlive smaller animals.

 

But that’s just a rule of thumb, and not true for every animal. You probably already know that cats tend to outlive big dogs.

 

My favorite example of long-lived tiny creatures is the Myotis brandtii, an itty-bitty bat that is a third of the size of mouse. Scientists recently recaptured one that had been banded 41 years earlier! The bat was still in prime health at the equivalent of 240-280 human-years old.[16]

 

Why did some animals evolve to have long lives?

 

mouse

The science of aging is all new, and we’re just at the very beginning of understanding any of it.

 

Our current understanding of lifespan suggests that animals evolved to have the capacity to live as long as they were likely to live.

 

In other words, it doesn’t make sense, from a biological perspective, for an animal to have all the mechanisms in place for a long life if it is likely to become someone’s dinner tomorrow night.

 

Another way of saying this is that a body only has to be in good condition for as long as it is statistically likely to survive.

 

Here’s an example: A mouse is a vulnerable prey animal. It’s not designed for long life, because it probably won’t have one. A whale, on the other hand, is not so defenseless. It’s worth it, from a whale-biology point of view, to invest in the ability to repair and maintain the body for a longer period of time.

 

Some small animals, like birds, bats, and naked mole rats, tend to live longer than expected for their size. This may be because birds and bats can escape predators by flying. And naked mole rats live protected lives underground. (Naked mole rats can live up to 41 years, ten times as long as other rodents their size.[17])

 

Thus, it would make sense for birds, bats, and naked mole rats to spend the energy required to maintain their bodies for their longer potential lives.

 

How are some animals able to live longer than others?

 

naked mole rat

Longer-lived animals have a variety of strategies for repairing and maintaining body cells, which is what is required to live a long life.

 

To oversimplify: our bodies produce proteins, which are responsible for every function we require to live: from moving molecules (like oxygen in our blood), to digesting food, fighting infection, contracting muscles, and so on.

 

Our bodies manufacture these proteins using instructions found in our DNA. Our DNA is like the master recipe book for all the proteins we will ever need.[18]

 

When the body needs to make a protein, it doesn’t go straight to the DNA recipe book, however. DNA is like a rare book in an antiquities library: you can’t take the book out, but you can copy it. RNA gets a copy of the DNA recipe when it needs to make a protein.

 

Sometimes, mistakes are made in the copying process. Some mistakes don’t cause noticeable harm. Others cause disease and other problems, like cancer.

 

The older a living thing gets, the more mistakes get made, and the more these mistakes begin to accumulate.

 

Longer-lived animals have a variety of tricks to deal with all of these mistakes. Naked mole rats, for example, have an unusually accurate way of assembling proteins that produce fewer mistakes.

 

Some animals have special structures that can prevent protein-folding mistakes. Other animals have molecules that help dispose of defective proteins.

 

Bowhead whales, which can live up to 200 years, have an amazing ability to repair their DNA.[19]

 

How old is your cat in human years?

We used to do just a simple calculation: one cat year = seven human years. Using this simple math, a three-year-old cat would be the equivalent of a 21-year-old human.

 

But that’s not really accurate.

 

Cats age more quickly than humans, especially at the beginning of their lives. A one-year-old cat could easily have kittens, for example. A seven-year-old human could not reproduce.

 

Here’s a chart borrowed from International Cat Care that shows a more accurate human-age equivalent, based on the life-stage of your cat:

 

human equivalent of cat age

 

Love Pinterest? Here's a Pinterest-friendly pin for your boards!
how long do cat live pinterest friendly pin

 

 

DAwn and Timmy
Dawn LaFontaine

Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.

 

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FOOTNOTES

[1] “How Long Do Cats Live? Here’s What to Expect.” PetMD, www.petmd.com/cat/care/how-long-do-cats-live. Accessed 27 June 2024.

 

[2] “How Long Do Cats Live? Ageing and Your Feline.Vetwest Veterinary Clinics, 12 Sept. 2022, www.vetwest.com.au/pet-library/how-long-do-cats-live-ageing-and-your-feline/.

 

[3] “Aging in Cats.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 19 May 2024, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aging_in_cats.

 

[4] Kent, Michael S., et al. “Longevity and Mortality in Cats: A Single Institution Necropsy Study of 3108 Cases (1989–2019).” PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science, journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0278199. Accessed 1 July 2024.

 

[5] Records, Guinness World. “Oldest Cat Ever.” Guinness World Records, www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/oldest-cat-ever. Accessed 2 July 2024.

 

[6] “Creme Puff (CAT).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 12 June 2024, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creme_Puff_(cat).

 

[7] “List of Longest-Living Cats.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 3 July 2024, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_longest-living_cats.

 

[8] Teng KT, Brodbelt DC, Church DB, O’Neill DG. Life tables of annual life expectancy and risk factors for mortality in cats in the UK. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. 2024;26(5). doi:10.1177/1098612X241234556 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1098612X241234556

 

[9] O’Neill DG, Church DB, McGreevy PD, Thomson PC, Brodbelt DC. Longevity and mortality of cats attending primary care veterinary practices in England. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. 2015;17(2):125-133. doi:10.1177/1098612X14536176 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1098612X14536176

 

[10] Mata F, Mata A. Investigating the relationship between inbreeding and life expectancy in dogs: mongrels live longer than pure breeds. PeerJ. 2023 Jul 19;11:e15718. doi: 10.7717/peerj.15718. PMID: 37483958; PMCID: PMC10362839. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10362839/

 

[11] “How Long Do Dogs Live?” PetMD, www.petmd.com/dog/care/how-long-do-dogs-live. Accessed 4 July 2024.

 

[12] “Aging in Cats.” Wikipedia.

 

[13] Rakshit, Shameek, et al. “How Does U.S. Life Expectancy Compare to Other Countries?” Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker, 30 Jan. 2024, www.healthsystemtracker.org/chart-collection/u-s-life-expectancy-compare-countries/.

 

[14] “Friends for Life - Parrot Lifespans Explained.” Johnston & Jeff, 14 Dec. 2023, johnstonandjeff.co.uk/lifespans-of-parrots-explained/.

 

[15] David Grimm, Why we outlive our pets. Science 350,1182-1185(2015). DOI: 10.1126/science.350.6265.1182

 

[16] “Why Scientists Are Studying the Genetic Tricks of the Longest-Lived Animals.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 18 May 2021, www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-scientists-are-studying-genetic-tricks-longest-lived-animals-180977738/.

 

[17] Valich, Lindsey. “Longevity Gene from Naked Mole Rats Extends Lifespan of Mice.” News Center, 5 Sept. 2023, www.rochester.edu/newscenter/gene-transfer-hmw-ha-naked-mole-rats-extends-mice-lifespan-565032/.

 

[18] “Why Scientists Are Studying the Genetic Tricks of the Longest-Lived Animals.” Smithsonian.com.

 

[19] ibid.

 

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2 comments

  • Thank you, Diane. And thank you, too, for taking in a more-difficult-to-adopt kitty. Animal rescue needs more people like you! You are already giving your cat what he needs. Clearly, he is getting good veterinary care. And you are giving him the stress-free life he needs, by allowing him to rest when he needs to, and to approach you when he wants connection with others. We underestimate how sensitive to stress cats are, especially compared to other pets. You are allowing your cat to be who he is, and that is probably the best thing you can do for him.

    Dawn LaFontaine
  • Great article. My cat is a traumatized rescue. He is 12 years old and we discovered a heart murmur 3or4 years ago. His vet has him under no treatment And he is so far in good health and spirits. He just sleeps a lot days and is more nocturnal because he is a rescue I have always allowed him to do what he wants. Should I be doing anything else?

    Diane McDonald

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