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Are you feeding your cat age-appropriate food? As a general rule, cats are considered to be mature when they reach 7 to 8 years of age, and true seniors at age 11. Although 8 might seem like a young age to change the food of a cat that’s still active, playful and not yet overweight, experts say that looks can be deceiving. “Aging brings with it physiological changes. Some are obvious; others are not,” says Dr. Amy Dicke, an Ohio-based veterinarian and a technical services veterinarian for Iams who specializes in diet and nutrition. “Skin and hair coat changes may be obvious, while lean muscle mass loss and digestive or immune system failing may be less evident or hidden. Changes also include joint/mobility/flexibility concerns and oral health.”
Food for Mature Cats: What to Look For
Some cat foods tailored to seniors may offer lower calorie levels, which are appropriate for an assumed decrease in activity. But Dicke says that if your cat’s activity level remains relatively unchanged, you should look for a food for active older cats that provides enough calories and addresses the physiological changes happening inside.
Ingredients to look for include: antioxidants, such as vitamin E, to help support waning immune system function; glucosamine and chondroitin for joint health; sodium hexametaphosphate (SHMP) for dental health; and prebiotics, like fructooligosaccharide (FOS), to support the digestive system. “A prebiotic fiber selectively feeds beneficial bacteria in the gut and starves the bad bacteria,” says Dicke. “This can create an optimal environment in the gut, promote better digestion and actually have an influence on the immune system, as 70 percent of the immune system is located in the digestive tract.”
The right protein is another important factor at this age, according to Dr. Katy Nelson, a veterinarian basted in Alexandria, Va. “Moderate levels of high-quality protein, low carbohydrate percentage, low fat if choosing canned, and a low sodium diet is recommended for seniors for heart and kidney health,” says Nelson.
Look to meat-based products for a high-quality protein source. “Cats are true carnivores,” says Dicke. “As they age, protein levels should be maintained to support lean muscle mass maintenance and immune system function, both of which rely on adequate protein levels.”
How to Switch Foods
Both experts advise using the guidelines above as a starting point for discussions with your veterinarian, who should be involved in the decision to switch foods. From there, they suggest implementing the change slowly and gradually. Decide on a time period between seven and 10 days, and then give your cat a different mixture every few days. “The first two days, 25 percent of the current food volume should be replaced by the new food and slowly increased until your cat is eating 100 percent of the new product,” says Dicke.
As your cat gets even older and goes from the mature stage to the true senior stage, you may want to switch again to a food that suits a more sedentary lifestyle. “Cats tend to sleep much more as they age, as much as 22 hours a day,” says Nelson. “Therefore, their caloric requirement is basically just what their body needs to maintain function.” She says that’s another decision that should be made with the close supervision of your veterinarian.
Elijah Merrill is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Daily Cat. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and Discover.