The Top Benefits of Senior Cat Food

Is your older cat in need of a new diet? Take note of your older cat’s eating habits at mealtime, and then read on for advice from Dr. Trisha Joyce, a veterinarian at New York City Veterinary Specialists, about when and how to put your cat on an age-appropriate diet.

What Is Senior?
For nutritional purposes, a senior cat is one that is “moving out of old middle age,” according to Joyce. She suggests thinking about beginning to transition your pet to a senior formula around the age of 9 or 10. “That’s when you begin to be more likely to see medical issues crop up,” she says.

“Make a wellness visit to your veterinarian to find out if anything -- like weight gain or kidney problems -- is beginning to become apparent. Senior formulas can help in the early stages of common age-related issues, but you don’t want to make the switch prematurely.

  • What Is Senior Formula?
    As with any high-quality cat food, a good senior formula contains balanced nutrition given a seal of approval by AAFCO (the Association of American Feed Control Officials). But aging cats have different concerns than their more youthful counterparts, and senior formulas address these:
  • Fat absorption and digestion. Studies have shown that senior cats don’t absorb fat as well as they once did and may need to consume more of it to get the same amount of energy. They also need a good fiber source. “Cats are more likely to be constipated in old age, just like people,” says Joyce.
  • Joint and mobility issues. Arthritis is common in cats and is easy to overlook. “We don’t walk our cats, so we don’t notice it like we might in a dog, but they become less agile and less inclined to jump,” says Joyce.
  • Weight loss and gain. Senior cats can suffer from weight problems, ranging from being underweight to overweight. Both conditions can have a deleterious impact on their overall health as they age, making the quality and palatability of food all the more important.
  • Immune system maintenance. “Everything kind of wanes as a cat gets older, including its ability to fight off illness,” says Joyce.
  • Kidney considerations. Good kidney function is critical for cats, since these organs remove waste substances from the blood. They also maintain the normal balance of fluid and minerals within your cat’s body. Good senior formulas help to support kidney function, which can decline over the years as your pet ages.

What to Look For
Joyce recommends foods that contain ingredients to address each of the above concerns: good fiber sources like beet pulp and FOS (fructooligosaccharide) to improve fat absorption and prevent constipation, glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate for joint health, L-Carnitine to help with weight maintenance, antioxidants like vitamin E for a healthy immune system, and optimal levels of quality protein for the aging cat.

She also emphasizes regular veterinary care throughout the lifespan, but especially as your cat gets into its senior years. “Unlike with a dog, where you have opportunities to notice when it’s slowing down, cats don’t clue you in that anything is wrong until they’re much sicker,” says Joyce. “Cats should be having annual blood work from the age of 8 or 9. You can identify problems as they come up, and manage them with something like a senior formula before they get serious.”

She cautions that cats with serious medical conditions may begin to need prescription diets, like those for kidney or bowel disease, and that pet owners should consult their veterinarians before making any dietary changes.

Healthy Nutrition for Your Senior Cat

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.

Your Cat’s Unique Nutritional Needs

Cat foods are currently available in a variety of specialized formulas. There are foods for sensitive stomachs, hairball issues and overweight cats; for adult cats and kittens; and for “multi-cat” households. This means that pet owners can now easily find foods that meet the nutritional needs of most cats.

“The number of foods that are available now is astronomical,” says Lori Jacobs, a Los Angeles-area mother whose family has five cats. Customized cat foods help Jacobs control one of her cats’ digestive problems -- and may benefit your cats too.

A Checklist for Nutritional Needs
To determine which cat food to feed your pet, experts say you should talk to your cat’s veterinarian and consider the following:

  • Age Older cats tend to burn fewer calories than kittens and normal adult cats. Therefore, nutritional needs differ based on age, says Dr. Katy J. Nelson, an emergency veterinarian in Alexandria, Va., who has worked on pet nutrition issues. In general, cats can be divided into the following age groups: kittens (0 to 12 months old), adult cats (1 to 6 years old) and senior cats (7 years and older).
  • Weight Obesity in cats can become a systemic inflammatory disease and contribute to other problems like joint disease, a higher risk of cancer, and gastrointestinal problems, says Nelson. To determine whether your cat is overweight, try to feel its ribs, says Bonnie Beaver, past president of the American Veterinary Medical Association and a veterinary professor at Texas A&M University. If you have to push through too much fat and cannot feel the ribs easily, your cat is likely overweight. Foods for overweight cats often contain L-carnitine, a nutrient that helps the body turn fat into energy.
  • Activity level and size “There is a huge difference between a 15-pound tomcat and a dainty indoor cat or a strictly couch potato kitty in terms of energy output,” says Nelson. You want a food that promotes good digestion and properly energizes your pet.
  • Multi-cat households Having several cats under one roof can be a challenge in terms of meeting individual pet needs. For multi-cat owners, there are specialized foods that can meet the needs of cats of various ages and activity levels that are fed at one time.
  • Pregnant/nursing/neutered cats Cats that are pregnant or nursing may need a higher caloric intake than normal adult cats. Cats that have been spayed or neutered have lower energy requirements and metabolic needs. “Maintaining those sex organs takes a lot of the body’s energy and slows down a whole lot of processes,” Nelson explains.
  • Unique issues A healthy digestive system may be better maintained by feeding your cat food containing prebiotics, specialized fibers that stimulate the growth of “good” bacteria in your cat’s gut. Some foods contain ingredients that reduce tartar buildup and help your kitty maintain healthier teeth. Others help alleviate dry, flaky skin through essential fatty acids, such as the omega-3 and omega-6 fats found in sources like chicken, fish oil and eggs. For preventing joint and mobility issues, there are foods containing glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate and fish oil.

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Weight Control Cat Foods Evaluated

Since 35 to 50 percent of American felines are considered overweight or obese, according to numerous university reports, there’s a good chance you’re living with a fat cat. If so, you’ve probably mulled over cat foods labeled with terms like “low calorie,” “lite” and “weight control.” New research, however, has determined that such diets vary widely beyond the packaging and labeling differences.

Tufts University Pet Food Study
Scientists from the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University recently investigated nearly 100 commercially available pet food diets with weight management claims. “There is so much information -- and misinformation -- about pet foods, it’s understandable that people are confused about what to feed their dogs and cats,” says Dr. Lisa Freeman, a professor of nutrition at Cummings with a doctorate in nutrition and veterinary medicine.

Under federal guidelines, pet foods labeled with terms like “light” or “low calorie” must provide caloric content on their labels. The foods must also adhere to a maximum kilocalorie per kilogram restriction. But Freeman and her team found that more than half of the evaluated foods exceed this maximum. The researchers also discovered that if owners followed the feeding recommendations for many of the foods, their pets would actually gain weight.

Cat Weight Problem
“Obese cats are twice as likely to die in middle age, which for cats is 6 to 12 years,” according to Dr. Janet M. Scarlett, a veterinarian and an associate professor of epidemiology at Cornell's College of Veterinary Medicine. Freeman says feline obesity is associated with numerous diseases. Here are just a few:

  • Pancreatitis, which can hurt metabolism of sugar and overall digestion
  • Osteoarthritis, a degenerative joint disease
  • Skin and coat problems
  • Diabetes
  • Respiratory tract disease

Selecting the Right Weight Control Cat Food
First, determine the number of calories your pet is currently consuming, including main meals, snacks, treats and toppers, says Dr. Amy Dicke, an Ohio-based veterinarian. Establish a goal weight with your veterinarian and then move on to selecting foods.

The foods should offer complete nutrition and contain special ingredients for weight loss, such as L-carnitine, an ingredient that helps burn fat while keeping your cat energized and feeling full.

“To lose weight, the amount of calories the pet burns needs to be greater than the pet’s caloric intake,” says Dicke. In case you ever have a question about the food, quality manufacturers provide a toll-free number on the package. Feel free to call up and talk to their pet specialists about your concerns.

Overweight Versus Obese Cats

Beyond these basics, you also have a choice now between “off the shelf” weight control cat foods and special veterinary formulas available through many veterinarians. Also called “therapeutic diets,” these veterinary formula diets are generally designed for the obese pet. Obese cats and dogs are 20 percent over their ideal weight. Therapeutic diets are often the most restricted in fat and calorie content.

5 Steps to Follow

As you work with your cat on its new weight management plan, Dicke advises that you do the following:

  • Step 1: Approach weight loss in a holistic manner. Often, this means starting with a change in habits, as well as a focus on appropriate nutrition and increased exercise.
  • Step 2: Accurately measure the food, and if you are giving any treats or biscuits, consider the calories they may be adding to your pet’s daily intake.
  • Step 3: If possible, feed the daily food allotment in multiple small meals throughout the day.
  • Step 4: Increase daily exercise.
  • Step 5: Any human interaction or attention tends to increase activity. If you show interest in your cat and what it’s doing, chances are, your cat will be more energetic and engaged.

While it’s essential to select the right weight loss diet, your companionship cannot be packaged or replaced. As Dicke points out, your cat’s “activity level, the home environment and (your) vigilance” are essential to helping your cat lose the excess pounds and keep them off for good.

How Veterinary Formula Cat Foods Work

Doctors and veterinarians alike could soon advise, “Take two bites and call me in the morning.” Recent scientific discoveries concerning the importance of nutrition to health has led manufacturers to develop new lines of foods targeting specific conditions. Your cat could be among the first to benefit, since therapeutic diets prescribed through licensed veterinarians are now available for your pet.

A Four-step Process
Dayton, Ohio-based veterinarian Amy Dicke, DVM, has been a member of such cat food development teams. She indicates the new foods are part of a four-step process:

  1. Your veterinarian examines your cat and makes a diagnosis.
  1. A medical management plan including one or more of the new foods is established.
  1. Your veterinarian monitors how your cat is doing on the prescribed regimen.
  1. The proposed therapy concludes when your cat’s condition improves.

Targeted Conditions
Commercial cat foods available in pet food stores and other retail outlets already allow you to purchase products meant for cats with certain health considerations, including age or breed. The new foods take this concept to a more focused and concentrated level, with ingredients that home in on the health issues and work to correct the problems. Dr. Dicke explains how the new therapeutic foods can alleviate common cat health concerns.

Allergy, skin and coat conditions
The most common clinical sign is intense scratching, especially around the head and neck area. Your veterinarian can determine the type of irritant -- often food allergies -- causing the problem.

Veterinary formula food may contain
: hydrolyzed protein, which is protein broken down into small components that are not recognized as allergens in food-sensitive cats. The diet may also contain a balance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. Essential for normal skin structure and function, these fatty acids reduce the inflammation usually accompanying allergic skin disorders.

Intestinal health Inflammation of your cat’s pancreas, known as pancreatitis, as well as disorders of the large and small bowels fall under this category.

Veterinary formula food may contain
: low fat levels to reduce the digestive workload. The diet may also include omega-3 fatty acids to help control inflammation, in addition to highly digestible ingredients for enhanced nutrient absorption. Specialized fiber blends also in the food help promote the growth of beneficial bacteria.

Urinary conditions
One of the most common, and potentially serious, conditions is Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease (FLUTD), with over twenty different causes. These include bacterial and viral infectious agents, tumors, excess mucus and stones or crystals forming in the urinary tract.

Veterinary formula food may contain
: controlled magnesium levels and ingredients that help your cat produce more acidic urine. Omega-3 fatty acids can also assist in the reduction of inflammation at the cellular level.

Kidney conditions
This is usually a chronic, progressive condition often affecting older cats.

Veterinary formula food may contain
: a nitrogen-trapping system, which is a unique fiber system that reduces reliance on the kidneys and allows for feeding of moderate protein levels. High-quality protein is therefore also included in the mix to help your cat maintain lean muscle mass and good immune system function. Once again, added omega-3 fatty acids come to the rescue, as they can also help increase the kidney’s filtration rate.

Weight loss
An estimated 25 to 40 percent of cats are overweight, but too often, owners don’t recognize this as a danger to their cat’s health. Weight loss formulas are popular in dry and wet diets, but therapeutic weight loss diets feature greater reduction in kilocalories and fat compared to over-the-counter formulas.

Veterinary formula food may contain
: L-carnitine, a vitamin-like compound that helps turn fat into energy. Losing weight can mean losing fat and muscle, but L-carnitine helps overweight cats maintain muscle and lose fat. Weight loss diets may also feature enhanced levels of vitamin A to reduce weight regain.

A Lifestyle Approach to Health
You can’t control some aspects of your cat’s life, such as age and genetics, but why not focus on those you can change? In fact, for conditions like weight gain that lead to other issues, diet alone is the long-term solution.

“Therapeutic formulas are more expensive than nutrition targeting the healthy cat, but their expense is worth it if it keeps the pet ailment-free,” says Dr. Dicke. Plus, it’s hard to put a price on peace of mind, not to mention the overall health of your cat.