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What to Feed a Senior Cat

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A cat getting fed by a man.

With two 18 1/2-year-old cats at home, I know firsthand how important it is to find the right food to meet the needs of aging cats. With so many different cat foods on the market it can be hard to determine what to feed a senior cat. The pet food companies start to market different foods to your cat at about age 8, but your cat’s nutritional needs don’t automatically start to change on a certain birthday.

When should you start worrying about what to feed a senior cat?

A fat overweight cat showing off his belly.

A fat overweight cat showing off his belly. Photography ©sdominick | Getty Images.

Sean J. Delaney, DVM, MS, Diplomate American College of Veterinary Nutrition, explains while your cat’s overall health can decrease with age, cat owners should be cautious and not assume that just because a cat is a senior or geriatric that they are in worse health than when they were younger. Or assume that their cat’s diet needs change if there isn’t a medical diagnosis to prompt a dietary shift.

The feline veterinary experts we spoke with all agree that there isn’t a meaningful difference between senior and geriatric cats, especially when it comes to selecting food.

“Just as some people age earlier or more quickly, and others remain active and look great into their 90s, cats vary widely, and their nutritional needs depend far more on their history and husbandry than on chronological age,” explains holistic veterinarian Jean Hofve, DVM, of Denver, Colorado.

Ingredients to look for when thinking about what to feed a senior cat

With so many different cat foods on the market it can be hard to know what to feed a senior cat. Dr. Hofve advises that “all cats, at all life stages, need good quality protein and lots of it. Many health conditions, including urinary tract problems, obesity and diabetes, can be prevented by feeding a high-moisture, high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet for the cat’s lifetime. This becomes even more important with age, when cats’ ability to digest and assimilate food declines.”

Dr. Hofve encourages cat owners to select good quality protein. Do some research, don’t only depend on a manufacturer’s claim as proof that the food is high quality. She suggests that meat, poultry and eggs are best for cats. Surprising to me, she’s not a fan of feeding cats fish because she is concerned that so much of it is farm raised, and if there is poor quality feed in heavily polluted pens. And she’s concerned that even wholesome wild-caught fish may cause urinary problems for some cats.

Dr. Hofve offers the following breakdown of what to look for and what to avoid:

Rendered products, such as poultry by-product meal, are of lesser quality. Heat processing such as rendering diminishes nutritional value. However, chicken meal coming from a plant that only processes chickens is likely better quality than a generic “poultry” product coming from multiple sources. Meat and bone meal is a defined single ingredient, not a combination of “meat meal” and “bone meal.” This is the bottom-of-the-barrel and should be completely avoided.

Digests may be poorer quality. Rendered meals and digests are usually used in dry cat food.

Plant proteins like corn gluten meal, rice protein concentrate and similar ingredients, are cheap substitutes for real meat. They are deficient in the full spread of amino acids found in meat, and they may also contain chemical residues from herbicides and pesticides. They are more common in dry food.

What about supplements?

Dr. Hofve suggests three categories of supplements that she recommends for all cats including senior and geriatric cats:

  1. Digestive support (digestive enzymes, probiotics and prebiotics)
  2. Immune support (antioxidants)
  3. Joint/general support Omega-3s (EPA and DHA)

Dr. Hofve indicates that these are the most important for older cats. When selecting supplements for your cat Dr. Hofve recommends that “Antioxidants work best in combination, rather than as single supplements, so try to find a nice blend of at least three or four,” she says. “Omega-3s must be from a marine source like fish or green-lipped mussels (which also contain joint-supporting nutrients like hyaluronic acid). There is one plant-derived Omega-3, alpha linolenic acid, but cats can’t convert it to the EPA and DHA they really need.” As with any dietary change always speak with your veterinarian before adding supplements to your cat’s diet.

How about joint support?

As your cat ages, the most important thing you can do to prevent joint disease is to keep your cat at a healthy weight.

“If weight reduction is not needed or additional relief is needed then one should discuss chondroprotective nutraceuticals and anti-inflammatory drugs with one’s veterinarian. One might also consider whether a special therapeutic pet food for the nutritional management of joint disease is indicated or would be helpful,” Dr. Delaney adds.

Weight management is key

“Keeping lean throughout life should extend both the quality and quantity of life in cats who join human’s lives for already too little time. In older cats, weight can be a growing concern as the cumulative impact of feeding excessive calories over many years can literally add up,” Dr. Delaney says. Weight management is important for senior and geriatric cats, but that doesn’t just mean ensuring cats don’t become overweight. Dr. Hofve reminds us that cats can lose weight quickly and that it also can be medically concerning.

“Weight is an interesting topic in older cats, since many cats naturally lose weight as they get older,” Dr. Hofve explains. “My goal is to maintain a healthy weight throughout the golden years. Increasing amounts fed, or adding extra digestive-supporting supplements, will help with this.”

Not just the food you feed, but also how you feed can play a big role in supporting your cat maintaining a healthy weight. “A proper high-protein, high-moisture diet fed in discrete meals (rather than a bowl of dry food available 24/7) will limit excess weight gain in the first place. It can also be used to reduce weight in adult cats,” Dr. Hofve cautions.

Any rapid or unintentional weight loss or weight gain in any cat, but especially an older senior or geriatric cat, requires a trip to your veterinarian right away for a full examination. Dr. Delaney advises that “all adult cats regardless of age should be fed as an obligate carnivore, and dietary changes should only be made in light of a specific diagnosis. Making diet changes or additions solely due to age can lead to feeding an overall diet that may not be needed or optimal.”

Senior vs. geriatric cats

These two terms get thrown around a lot, but what do they actually mean? The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) and American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) identify six distinct life stages in cats as:

  1. Kitten
  2. Junior
  3. Prime
  4. Mature
  5. Senior
  6. Geriatric

Senior cats are defined as those who are 11 years old to 14 years old, and geriatric cats are those who are 15 years old and older.

About the author

Sassafras Lowrey is an award-winning author whose novels have been honored by the American Library Association and the Lambda Literary Foundation. Sassafras is a Certified Trick Dog Instructor who shares her home and writing life with three dogs, two bossy senior cats and a formerly feral kitten. Learn more at sassafraslowrey.com.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in Catster magazine. Have you seen the new Catster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting area of your vet’s office? Click here to subscribe to Catster and get the bimonthly magazine delivered to your home. 

Thumbnail: Photography ©LightFieldStudios | Getty Images.

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