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.

How You and Your Cat Can Go Green

With so much focus on the environment these days, cat owners are becoming more and more interested in making environmentally responsible decisions. “I think for all my clients, sustainability takes a backseat to nutrition,” says Dr. Patricia Joyce, a veterinarian at BluePearl Veterinary Partners. “With that said, most pet owners would love to make ethical environmental choices in all aspects of their lives, including what they feed their cats.”

The pet food industry is taking note. In a recent survey conducted by the trade magazine Petfood Industry, 62 percent of respondents reported believing that consumers value sustainability and cited consumer demand as one key reason for their operations adopting green practices. Below, Joyce and Virginia-based emergency veterinarian Dr. Katy Nelson weigh in on balancing your cat’s nutritional requirements with environmental responsibility, and other ways to protect the planet while caring for your cat.

Cat Nutritional Needs

Cats are obligate carnivores, subsisting on diets that are high in animal protein. “A cat cannot be a vegetarian, no matter its owner’s preferences,” says Nelson. “Do your research and find a pet food manufacturer that emphasizes humane treatment of its protein sources, but do not force a vegetarian diet on your cat.”

If the resources it requires to bring beef to your pet’s dish offend your sensibilities, fish offers a healthy alternative for cats, and the cat food industry is taking particular pains to make environmentally sound fishing choices. The World Wildlife Fund, for example, is working with some companies to develop a fish sustainability program, making sure products do not include overfished species.

Some protein sources raised on land also leave a relatively small environmental footprint. For example, because of a chicken’s size, transporting it “from farm to fork” results in a substantially smaller amount of greenhouse gas emissions than the transportation of beef does.

Other Ways to Help the Environment

“At the end of the day, the goal is to feed your pet the best-quality food,” says Nelson. “If that’s beef, then it’s beef. You can try to reduce your environmental footprint in other ways that don’t negatively impact your cat’s well-being. Ride your bike rather than drive. Recycle.”

Joyce also suggests using biodegradable kitty litter in place of clay litter, 2 million nonbiodegradable tons of which are currently dumped into landfills each year. And surf the Web to start researching the following nonfood aspects of your cat’s kibble company:

  • Packaging. Look for companies that use renewable or recycled materials for their packaging. For example, some dry cat food now comes in resealable plastic bags that can be returned to the grocery store after use for recycling.
  • Energy consumption. Some commercial pet food makers have made public commitments to using renewable energy sources, including wind and solar power. Look for these commitments, as well as manufacturing plant Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.
  • Giving back. Corporate philanthropy often supports green causes. Pet food manufacturers in North America are involved with all sorts of philanthropic programs -- from dedicating a percentage of their profits to supplying clean water to children, to supporting local conservation efforts.

With the pet food industry coming on board to support a whole host of changes that are environmentally friendly, cat owners can feel more optimistic about reducing their cats’ carbon paw prints.

When to Feed Cats a High-calorie Diet

A high-calorie pet formula packs a nutrient-dense punch and has even saved the lives of cats that are in need of gaining weight. Because of the calorie density in such formulas, a cat can ingest about one-quarter of the bulk of standard cat food and get the same nutritional benefit. Below, Virginia-based veterinarian Dr. Katy Nelson, who is a member of the Iams Pet Wellness Council, weighs in on when a higher-calorie formula may or may not be right for your furry friend.

When to Feed High-calorie Food
“If your cat has lost weight, it’s possible that something is going on metabolically that needs to be addressed,” says Nelson. “No normal cat on a normal diet is going to start to drop weight unless there’s something underlying. This is specifically a recovery diet.” Cats treated for inflammatory bowel disease, as well as the following conditions, are often prescribed calorie-dense foods:

  • Fatty liver disease. When an older cat stops eating, it is vulnerable to fatty liver disease. The body goes into starvation mode and begins sending fat cells into the liver to process as protein. Untreated, this will result in liver failure and death. “You can stop the process by supplying the animal with a fat source. A cat with fatty liver may end up being prescribed a high-calorie food for three to six months,” says Nelson.
  • Cancer. Cats with cancer will likely need extra calories to heal, but may not have large appetites. Nelson shares that eating just one-sixth of a can of certain high-calorie cat foods is “like eating a full can of regular food.”
  • Dental work. Many higher-calorie formulas are wet foods, making them easy on the teeth.
  • Hyperthyroidism. Once the condition is identified and the medication is started, a high-calorie formula may still be prescribed to help the cat return to a healthy weight.

When Not to Feed Maximum-calorie Food
A pet owner should not independently make the decision to put a cat on any prescription diet. A high-calorie formula “is a phenomenal food to have in your arsenal, but no owner should say, ‘I’m going to make a diet change because my cat is losing weight,’” says Nelson. “These foods are very high-protein, very high-fat. Start it unnecessarily, and your cat’s going to end up with pancreatitis or horrible diarrhea.”

  • Pregnancy/lactation. “Kitten food is most appropriate for pregnant and nursing cats. It has the appropriate levels of all sorts of nutrients that are necessary for the kittens,” says Nelson. A cat with a particularly large litter might be given a higher-calorie food as a supplement, but check with your veterinarian first.
  • Old age. Many elderly cats have mildly compromised kidneys, making a food that is very rich in protein likely a bad idea. For slender, senior cats, choose a nonprescription senior-formula cat food.

Switching to a new food generally requires a transition period, but Nelson explains that when cats need a high-calorie formula, time is often of the essence. “Typically, in situations where this food is required, you don’t have transitioning time. If you have to deal with a little diarrhea versus their liver getting compromised, you go for the former.”

Transitioning off is another story. Once a cat’s underlying issue has been identified and addressed, and the cat returns to a healthy weight or the oral problem is resolved, spend seven to 10 days adjusting the ratios of the new diet back to the older one.

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.

Cat Food: Then and Now

Domesticated cats have been with us since at least predynastic Egyptian times -- about 6,000 years ago -- but commercial cat food dates back fewer than 200 years. So what were cat owners feeding their pets way back when? How did packaged cat food emerge and evolve?

Early 1800s
Although the Industrial Revolution was well underway in the early 1800s, many people at the start of the 19th century were living a rural lifestyle. Cats were valued allies, particularly on farms, because they ridded the land of pesky rodents. Those who lived on the farms may have set out bowls of meat and cream for the cats. These were more supplemental foods and served as attractants, meant to keep the cats healthy and ready to feast on mice and rats.

James Spratt’s Mid-1800s Breakthrough
The world’s first commercial alternative to feline farm life vittles emerged in the mid-19th century, according to Stephen Zawistowski, science advisor for The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. At this time, James Spratt -- an electrician from Ohio -- was selling lightning rods, which might have fueled his own mental light bulb. “He watched how dogs would eat up hard tack biscuits on fishing docks, and thought, ‘Wow, I could make something similar,’” says Zawistowski.

Spratt compressed beet root, various other vegetables, meat and wheat into cakes, baked them, and the first manufactured pet food was born. He called it a “Meat Fibrine Dog Cake” and cleverly printed ads on the opposite side of dog show flyers, which he printed and controlled with business partner Charles Cruft, founder of Crufts dog shows.

Cat aficionados soon latched on and bought the cakes too. At this time, small-business owners -- often working through farm animal feed operations or veterinary offices -- started selling their own pet food products to locals. Horsemeat was a popular ingredient in early cat foods, since horses were plentiful then.

Regulated Products and the Birth of AAFCO
With the growing popularity of commercial pet products came a need for regulation. In 1909, the Association of American Feed Control Officials was founded to oversee pet food quality. To this day, quality pet foods feature an AAFCO nutritional adequacy statement that indicates that the food is complete and balanced for a particular life stage. Kurt Gallagher, communications director of the Pet Food Institute, indicated that AAFCO paved the way for canned cat foods, with regulations established in 1917 for canned pet food products. Store-bought items were thought of as elite, since only wealthy individuals shopped beforehand.

1950s Machinery Breakthrough
The two World Wars put a dent in businesses, but during the high-growth 1950s, snack food manufacturing resulted in yet another ingenious moment. Clever observers, watching cheese puff extruders turn out tasty bites, had the idea that such machinery could produce dry pet foods with yummy nutritious coatings, says Zawistowski. This resulted in the first pellet-sized dry foods, similar to those that are still sold today.

During the early- to mid-20th century, new influential entrepreneurs associated with companies like Purina, Hill’s Pet Nutrition and Iams forged new commercial ground. Paul Iams, for example, “worked as a dog food salesman during the Depression,” according to Jennifer Bayot of The New York Times. “Not even severe economic hardship, he learned, could deter pet owners from paying the price to feed their companions.” Iams created some of the first meat-based, high-protein foods for pets, putting the emphasis on quality and good health. At the same time, interest in pets began to skyrocket. “Cat food sales in 1958 were 52 million,” says Gallagher. “In 2010, they were about 6.5 billion.”

Continued Emphasis on Quality and Growth
To this day, most cat owners feed their pets foods that contain high-quality ingredients with health benefits. The “eat healthy” trend really kicked in during the late 1960s, with momentum building with each year. “The pet food industry continues to grow and expand,” says Zawistowski. “Even during the toughest economic times, owners want the best for their pets.”