Cat Food for Seniors

One of my cats, Sweetie Pie, is now over 20 years old. According to age conversion charts, that means she’s at least 96 in human years. The black-and-white-furred wonder is far from slowing down, however. She still loves to play and flirt with my elderly male cat. She wakes me up each morning by energetically jumping on my head and butting me in the nose.

But Sweetie has slowed down since her middle-aged years. For advice on what foods are best for senior cats like my Sweetie, I recently consulted Dayton, Ohio-based veterinarian Amy Dicke, DVM, who has been a member of teams consisting of nutritionists, researchers and fellow veterinarians.

Cats Are Senior at 7 Years of Age
“The cat may look youthful on the outside, but aging changes are occurring on the inside,” explains Dr. Dicke. If your cat is at or over the age of 7, you should transition to a “maturity” food formulated for senior cats.

Ingredients Should Satisfy Nutritional Requirements
Cat food for felines of any age should be 100 percent nutritionally complete, with no fillers or artificial preservatives. Beyond that, Dr. Dicke says these three food components gain added importance for senior kitties:

  • Antioxidants Substances that neutralize the peroxidation process are called antioxidants. Peroxidation is a normal function during which the body destroys cells that outlive their usefulness, but it can also damage healthy cells. Antioxidants like vitamin E come to the rescue by combating this damage. They also improve immune responses, which decrease as a pet ages.
  • Prebiotics Nondigestible food ingredients like soluble fibers, which can stimulate the growth or activity of good gastrointestinal bacteria, are referred to as prebiotics. They’re especially important for aging felines.
    “Older cats tend to have a higher number of undesirable bacteria and a lower number of beneficial bacteria in their intestines, which can result in digestive upset,” says Dr. Dicke. “Prebiotics, such as fructooligosaccarhides (FOS) can nutritionally promote the growth of desirable bacteria and help bring the digestive tract back into balance.”
  • Protein All cats are protein-craving carnivores. Protein, the building block of muscle tissue, merits extra attention for senior kitties, though. “A diet for a healthy older pet should maintain a higher protein level to preserve muscle and [to allow the cat to] continue to be physically active,” says Dr. Dicke.

Feed a Low-fat Diet
Mammals experience reduced energy expenditures and lowered metabolic rates as the years tick on. Exercise helps, so continue to play with your mature cat but be sensitive to your pet’s limitations and when rest time is needed. In terms of food, diets reduced in fat levels with lower caloric density than adult maintenance foods are beneficial to the majority of older cats. In addition, high-quality manufactured foods often include healthier fats, like fish oil, which contain omega-3 fatty acids. Studies indicate that these acids support heart, brain, joint and digestive functions.

Pay More Attention to Dental Issues
Some creatures, like sharks, can regenerate teeth if they lose them. Unfortunately, cats can’t perform this natural tooth-replacement trick. Once a tooth is lost, it’s gone for good, and kitty dentures aren’t yet available. Another problem, according to Tiffany Margolin, DVM, is that older cats can develop cavity-like “gum erosions,” which can practically dissolve the teeth. If you cannot brush your cat’s teeth on your own, take it to your veterinarian for annual professional cleanings. Also, seek out dry cat foods formulated to reduce tartar buildup.

Note Behavioral Changes
When I recently celebrated a birthday, Sweetie Pie and I looked at each other as if to sing a mental chorus of Stevie Nicks’ Landslide: “I’m getting older too.” Sometimes it takes a birthday or other milestone in life to wake us up to physical changes. Dr. Dicke advises that cat owners “can improve the quality of life for senior cats by recognizing their changing physical capabilities -- such as a declining ability to jump up or a difficulty in climbing into the litter box -- and make efforts to aid their feline companion in these everyday activities.” The lowered litter box and maturity cat food in my pantry remind me that Sweetie is a bit past her prime. But I treasure every moment with her and hope she continues to go off the cat age chart.

Cat Food for Life

If your adolescent cat eats food meant for kittens, will you end up with a fat cat? And when is the right time to let senior cat food out of the bag?

These are just a few questions you must grapple with now that major pet food manufacturers offer kitten chow, adult food and even a geriatric diet, formulated for different stages of your cat's life. The pet food industry also manufactures foods for cats with different ailments, from obesity to allergies.

“In the old days, we just basically fed our cats one diet. You started them on a food and kept going for the rest of their lives,” says Bonnie Beaver, DVM, a professor at the Texas A&M University Veterinary College. “They did OK, but now they can do even better.”

From Kitten Food to Adult Food
Pet food manufacturers have invested considerable time, research and money in developing foods that fulfill your cat’s particular nutritional needs during each life stage. “Growing kittens have bones that are actively expanding,” says Dr. Beaver. “Their needs in developing their nervous system are also different than they are for an adult cat.” As a result, kitten foods often contain extra calcium for bone development, fat to aid growth, and important vitamins and minerals.

Pet nutrition experts say the best time to transition your pet from kitten food to adult cat food is somewhere between 9 and 12 months of age. Dr. Beaver explains that most cats’ bones stop growing when the feline is around 14 months of age, with about three-fourths of that growth completed at 9 months.

Other factors that should influence your decision about when to transition your furry friend to a new diet include:

  • Neutering Spaying or castrating your cat will influence its daily energy requirement. “The decrease in circulating estrogens or androgens will lower the daily energy requirement of a pet compared to when it is not neutered,” says Korinn Saker, DVM, director of the Nutrition Service at North Carolina State's Veterinary Teaching Hospital. Work with your veterinarian to establish the appropriate amount of food to meet your cat's energy needs -- without going overboard.
  • Breed There may be some slight differences based on breed. Larger breeds, such as Maine coons, may be on kitten food a bit longer based on their anticipated adult body frame size. 

From Adult to Geriatric Diet
An adult cat’s energy levels usually decrease over time. “Geriatric animals don’t need as much fat in the diet, and you need to be careful that they can digest the kinds of protein in their diet,” Dr. Beaver says. “Plus, their kidneys are also notorious for giving out as they get older.”

Pet nutrition experts say the time to transition your cat from adult food to senior food starts as early as 7 years and can go as late as 10 years. But not all pets will age at the “textbook” time. Keep these two factors in mind:

  • Activity level If your cat continues to be very active and shows no signs of slowing down by age 7, you may want to consult your veterinarian about keeping your pet on adult maintenance food for longer. “I've certainly known cats that live until they’re 20 years old,” Dr. Beaver says. “They may not be geriatric until they are 10, but other cats can age more fast.”
  • General health Annual checkups for your pet are a must. During those appointments, your vet will draw blood and run tests to detect whether your cat is developing diabetes or other diseases. Your veterinarian may then recommend switching your pet to a senior diet.

Help Your Cat Transition Between Foods
The two biggest risks of transitioning your kitten or cat to a new life-stage diet are that your pet will reject the food or develop gastrointestinal problems. These steps can help prevent these problems from happening:

  • Go slowly Cats seem to be more sensitive to dietary alterations than dogs, particularly if they are ill. Dr. Saker recommends transitioning your cat to a new diet over a 7- to 10-day period.
  • Mix new food with old Cats are also notoriously finicky eaters. One way to avoid having your cat reject a new diet is to gradually mix new food with the old until you finish off the old food. This is easier on your cat’s GI system and palate.
  • Provide plenty of drinking water Cats typically don't drink very much, and that can cause problems -- particularly if they're eating only dry foods.
  • Get them used to a mix of foods Dr. Beaver recommends that during kittenhood, you introduce your cat to a mix of different flavored wet and dry foods. This will lessen the likelihood of rejection later on.

Life-stage foods are no gimmick. These foods have been formulated based on many years of research to meet your pet's changing needs at different points in their lives. “As these nutritional needs change,” Dr. Saker says, “the diet should change.”

Matching Food to Your Feline

With so many commercial specialty foods on the market, choosing the right one for your furry friend can be a challenge. Bernadine Cruz, DVM, a specialist in feline nutrition, can help you take some of the guesswork and time-consuming research out of feeding your feline. Read on to discover the ideal food for your cat.

If your cat is like Freddy, a middle-aged American shorthair with an eye for the ladies and a big appetite…
Freddy is 3 pounds overweight. When not eating or flirting, Freddy is usually found draped over the family room sofa, enjoying a snooze.

…then you need to feed indoor weight and hairball care.
Cats like Freddy should first undergo a medical exam to ensure there are no underlying health issues. The best thing to do for the chunky kitty is offer portion control and increased exercise as well as feed a weight loss formula with hairball control. The extra fiber in this type of food catches the hair and moves it through the digestive tract. In Freddy’s case, the fiber will help him to feel fuller. The weight control formulas have L-carnitine, which will help Freddy to burn fat.

If your cat is like Sasha, a 4-month-old tabby and a ball of energy with two speeds, fast forward and fast asleep…
She barely has time to finish a meal before she’s either a) in motion or b) in dreamland.

…then you need to feed kitten formula.
Kittens are constantly growing and need a high-quality, calorie-dense food so that every bite has a lot of nutrition. At the same time, you want to be careful not to overfeed. Fat kittens will have weight issues into adulthood. You want to be able to feel your kitten’s ribs with slight pressure on the body and see a little waistline. Metabolism slows down once a kitten is spayed or neutered, so stop feeding kitten formula at that time.

If your cat is like Bernard, a 6-year-old calico who often spends time guarding his home, including his feline housemate Stella…
Stella, who is younger than Bernard, is usually too busy doing her own thing to bother paying much mind to Bernard’s preoccupation with the front door.

…then you need to feed multi-cat food.
This is great for any household with more than one cat. It has enough nutrients for adult cats of all weights and L-carnitine to burn fat in case any of the cats have a weight problem. Multi-cat food will also manage hairball issues, which arise from grooming -- something cats in multi-cat households may end up doing more of. The crunch of the kibble will also keep tartar and bad breath at bay.

If your cat is like Pouncer, a 9-year-old mixed breed whose stomach has become increasingly sensitive with age as evidenced by a whole host of litter box problems…
She eats slowly and sleeps soundly.

…then you need to feed a digestive care formula or a veterinary formula.
First, try a digestive care formula from your local pet store. If that does not solve the problem, a veterinary formula may be in order. Veterinary formulas treat a host of issues, from inflammatory bowel disease to allergies. These formulas have to be purchased at the doctor’s office. It may take some trial and error to find the right food, but your cat’s veterinarian will work with you to do this.

If your cat is like 2-year-old Rose, a pregnant mixed breed still relatively active, stalking the halls of the home each night…
She won’t say who the father is.

…then you need to feed kitten formula.
Kitten food is good for pregnant cats because they need the extra calories, fat and protein to maintain a healthy body condition throughout pregnancy and while  nursing. As her kittens grow and are weaned, mom should go back to her regular food, as we don’t want her to become rotund.

“I’ve been a veterinarian for over 20 years, and I’m always amazed at the effect that feeding the right nutrition can have on your pet,” says Dr. Cruz. If you keep her advice in mind, the next time you shop for cat food, selecting the right one for your pet can be as easy as lamb and rice pie.

Indoor Living Changes Cat Food Needs

With food and water served daily, comfortable furniture to curl up on and no immediate threats to safety, indoor cats enjoy a life that outdoor felines, and even some people, seem to envy. But the good life can be hazardous for cats if it leads to weight gain. When left unchecked, those extra pounds can cause serious problems.

“Research indicates overweight cats have two times the risk of having skin disease, four times the risk of having diabetes and five times the risk of having lameness,” says Ann Hohenhaus, DMV, at the Animal Medical Center in New York City. Experts, however, are quick to add that your cat is far safer indoors, so it’s imperative that you provide opportunities for daily exercise as well as the right kind of food to help your indoor pet maintain a healthy weight.

Is Your Cat Too Fat?
“Cats are like old men,” says Jessica Braun, DVM, owner of Animal Health Center of Hays, in Kansas. “All the extra weight goes to the belly.” Although your veterinarian can tell you the best weight for your kitty, a cat with a big tummy is most likely overweight. These days, fat cats are common. Nearly half of all the cats that come to Dr. Hohenhaus’s medical center are overweight or obese. “Almost all the indoor cats I see are overweight,” says Dr. Braun.

Male cats tend to be heavier in general, but there are plenty of hefty female felines, too. Both spaying and neutering can be factors, since they may reduce certain hormone levels and can lead to some decreased activity. The benefits of spaying and neutering, however, far outweigh any side effects; the primary reason that cats carry extra pounds has nothing whatsoever to do with a surgery. Cats are usually fat because they’re being overfed or not consuming the right vittles for their particular lifestyle.

“I think it’s better to feed a cat twice a day,” advises Dr. Braun, who explains that when given unlimited food, cats will eat more. “Cats are nibblers,” she says. “Whenever you leave dried food out, 80 percent to 90 percent of cats will eat too much.” You can control your cat’s weight by limiting food but also by offering food that targets an indoor pet’s needs.

The Right Food for Indoor Cats
If your cat is looking a bit hefty around the middle, try feeding one of the new commercially available foods that are specially made to address the particular health challenges of indoor cats. Some contain the nutrient called L-carnitine, which converts fatty acids to energy, thus helping weight loss. Lower in fat and calories but containing a blend of carbohydrates, these foods also help to keep overeating in check by causing your cat to feel full faster.

Another perk of foods formulated for house cats is that such products often contain fiber. As it does for humans, fiber helps to maintain proper digestion, and in cats, it can also aid in the prevention of hairballs. If your cat is a longhaired breed or already suffers from hairballs, you may additionally wish to provide fresh grass -- available at most pet stores. “Cats in nature chew on grass to help pass hairballs,” says Mark Hanks, DVM, at Kindred Spirits Veterinary Clinic in Orrington, Maine. “The long stem fiber of grasses intertwines with the hair to help move it through the GI tract. I especially like oat grass for managing hairballs because it is particularly high in antioxidants that benefit the cat.”

In addition to feeding your cat the right foods, here are some dos and don’ts for keeping your indoor cat fit and healthy:

Do play with your cat every day. Also provide toys and catnip for your kitty.

Don’t give your cat human food, except as a rare treat, since it can lead to weight gain. “Giving a cat human food is comparable to a human eating three doughnuts in addition to a regular daily diet,” says Dr. Braun.

Do give your cat a scratching post and climbing structure to encourage activity.

Don’t buy food with only cost in mind. Go for the highest-quality food you can afford that best matches the particular health and life stage needs of your cat.

Don’t give milk to your cat. Many felines cannot digest it properly and could get diarrhea. But do provide a fresh, clean bowl of water at all times.

Do get your cat a friend, if possible. “Cats living in a household with a dog or other cats are less likely to be obese,” says Dr. Hohenhaus.

The health risks for indoor cats are far fewer and much less serious than for cats that live outside. The risks are also avoidable. By feeding your indoor kitty the right foods and by encouraging activity, you can help to sidestep health problems that can cause expense and heartache down the line. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” concludes Dr. Hohenhaus.

Cat Nutrition Factbook

Mother cats don’t have to think twice about what they feed their offspring. They simply lay back and let nature take its course. In the first days after birth, mother cats produce colostrum, a condensed milk that provides kittens with antibodies that strengthen their immune system. In the weeks that follow before weaning, the milk that cats produce is high in protein and relatively low in fats and carbohydrates. It provides little ones with all the nutrients they need.   

For human “parents” of kittens and cats, feeding doesn’t come quite as naturally. If you fall into the human-caretaker-of-a-feline category, chances are you’ve had some concern about whether you’re feeding your cat for optimal health. Rest assured that with a little bit of education and advice from veterinary expert, Trisha Joyce, DVM, of New York City Veterinary Specialists, you can deliver all the nutrients that your furry friends need in a way that’s on par with mama cat’s success.

What All Cats Needs
The same nutrients are essential for all cats, no matter their stage of life, according to Dr. Joyce. As for many other mammals, these include water, protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals.

While a cat’s basic nutritional needs remain the same throughout its lifetime, what changes are your feline’s caloric needs. Growing and pregnant cats, for example, require more calories than other felines. The way your cat processes nutrients throughout its life cycle also changes. Other nutritional need differences exist, based on the age and condition of your feline. These begin right at kittenhood.

Hello, Kitty
A kitten grows much faster than a human baby. In its first weeks, a kitten’s body weight may triple. Rapid growth continues for around the first six months of its life. This spurt is fueled by calories -- lots of them. “Kittens should be eating commercial growth formulas,” explains Joyce. “These are specifically for young cats and are higher in protein content. That’s the main difference. They support growth and weight gain, which you want for kittens.”

Take-Away Tip: Feed your little love a food specially formulated for kittens.

Fat Cat?
While weight gain is desirable among kittens, a steady weight is the goal for adult cats. “As kittens become cats, they become more sedentary, and they’re no longer growing. They need less calories than they once did,” says Joyce, noting that obesity is a growing problem among American house pets. “Your adult cat’s nutritional needs should be met but not exceeded.” To allow weight gain in mature cats is to put them a risk for chronic health conditions like diabetes, liver disease and arthritis.

A veterinarian can monitor your adult cat’s weight, but you must also be attentive to your cat’s physique. You should be able to feel your cat’s ribs and see a small tapering of a waist between your cat’s rib cage and hips. If a weight problem develops, you can address it by participating in active play with kitty, and also by feeding a commercial weight control diet, which provides less dietary fat without sacrificing necessary nutrients.

Take-Away Tip: Address weight gain immediately by feeding a weight-control formula.

The Stork’s Coming
A pregnant cat’s body is working hard to gestate her kittens, and her caloric needs go up accordingly. At the same time, a pregnant cat can lose her appetite. A nutrient-dense, savory food can tempt a mommy-to-be to eat enough, and the easiest way for a cat owner to provide this is, surprisingly, kitten chow. Caloric needs remain high -- two to three times higher than normal -- during lactation. A nursing mother should continue to eat food made for kittens. Once her babies are weaned, mom can then switch to an adult maintenance, or weight control, formula to lose the baby weight.

Take-Away Tip: Mother your soon-to-be mother by feeding a kitten food formula.

Senior Citizens
“Geriatric cats often have medical issues,” says Joyce. For example, many elderly cats are diagnosed with kidney insufficiency, a common condition that causes toxins to build up in your feline’s blood stream. For cats affected with this condition, a multi-stage renal diet can be introduced to provide the right amount of protein. There are also special diets formulated for more benign health problems, like hairballs. Your veterinarian can suggest the appropriate food plan for your geriatric cat when the time comes.

Take-Away Tip: Feed your older cat according to its health-related needs.

With a little bit of attention to your cat’s life stage, feeding your feline for optimal health throughout its lifecycle can therefore be as simple as a trip to your favorite store’s pet food aisle.