Popular folklore declares that cats have nine lives. But when it comes to feeding your felines, how many life stages do they really have? It depends on whom you ask. The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) and American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) identify six life stages in cats. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) recognizes four life stages.
But it gets cloudier. Many veterinary nutritionists contend that there are only two key life stages that matter when it comes to meeting a cat’s nutritional needs: kittenhood and adulthood.
“When it comes to this issue, it seems like there are too many cooks in the kitchen, and everyone has their own opinion,” says Jean Hofve, DVM, a retired holistic veterinarian and author from Denver, Colorado. “To me, I see two life stages: adult maintenance or pregnant/growing.”
The power of protein
As obligate carnivores, kittens and cats need quality protein in their diets, says Joseph Bartges, DVM, PhD, a board-certified veterinarian in both nutrition and internal medicine and a professor at the University of Georgia’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Athens, Georgia.
“Because of growing, kittens require more protein and calorie-dense foods,” Dr. Bartges says. “They have higher requirements for some vitamins as well. One misconception is that as cats age they have a decrease in protein digestion. That’s not true. A recent study shows that 70 percent of cats older than 14 years old do not have a loss of protein digestibility. Cats can’t use fat from vegetable oils. They need fatty acids from animal-based fats.”
The best diet
So, let’s step back. Why should we even be concerned about identifying our feline’s life stage? As long as you are feeding quality food, your cat should be healthy, right? Maybe.
“You are what you eat, and your cat is, too,” says Kathryn Primm, DVM, a veterinarian and owner of the Applebrook Animal Hospital in Ooltewah, Tennessee, and host of the Nine Lives with Kat podcast on Pet Life Radio. “Science tells us that the body has different demands on it at different stages of life. When kittens are growing, they have different demands than when they are adults. And, it can be more specific than that, depending on the lifestyle of the cat.”
She continues, “Kittens are building brains, bones, muscles — everything. Adult cats are maintaining what they already built. And senior cats might be dealing with chronic diseases or weight management issues.” All three veterinarians recognize the need for therapeutic diets formulated for cats who have specific health conditions, such as urinary tract disease, hyperthyroidism or diabetes.
Dr. Bartges clarifies that AAFCO, a voluntary association of local, state and federal agencies, is in charge of regulating the sales and distribution of pet food. He says that any pet food sold across state lines by law must be complete and balanced and contain all the nutrition needed for all life stages, which AAFCO defines as these four:
- Adult maintenance
- All life stages
“The guaranteed analysis and ingredient list on commercial pet food packaging are regulated,” he says. “Also regulated are the calories, size of the bag or can, whether the food is for dogs or cats, feeding guidelines and whom to contact.”
Dr. Hofve adds that commercial cat food can be labeled for one or more of these AAFCO-established standards. “But a food labeled for ‘all life stages’ must meet the more stringent nutritional requirements for growth and reproduction,” she says. “So, unless you are breeding your cat, you are fine feeding an all-life stages diet or adult maintenance diet.”
Marketing claims by commercial pet food companies can make life stages even trickier to decipher, says Dr. Bartges. “Some aspects of labeling have regulation — ‘for urinary tract health in cats’ basically refers to magnesium,” he says. “However, other information is
marketing as long as it doesn’t make a medical claim.”
These days, store shelves and online pet supply sites feature commercial foods marketed to meet the nutritional needs of, say, senior Persians or active Bengals. “It can get a little crazy and confusing due to some of the marketing pitches,” Dr. Hofve says. “The key is to offer your cat variety, variety, variety — in terms of flavors, dry and wet food, and textures.”
One way to prevent your growing kitten or adopted cat from becoming a picky eater is to feed him a variety of flavors and textures. For example, if your cat likes wet food in chicken flavor, rotate canned food that comes in pate, gravy and shredded meat textures. For dry
food, look for kibble in different shapes and flavors, from beef to chicken to fish.
“By having an expanded palate, a cat is more apt to eat when he needs to be boarded or must stay overnight at a veterinary clinic for treatment,” she explains. “It is important a cat eat to help him heal following surgery or other procedure.”
Since adopting now 17-year-old Sundance as a kitten, Dr. Hofve has fed him a variety of cat food brands, flavors and textures. He’s relatively healthy for a geriatric cat. Some senior cats might have chronic diseases like arthritis, hyperthyroidism or gastrointestinal issues. They may also be over or underweight.
The right diet can help fortify them nutritionally and aid them in maintaining ideal weights. They may also benefit from supplements added to their diets to boost skin health, digestion and even mental enhancement. Before choosing a new food or supplement for your feline, consult your vet.
“Always ask your veterinarian to help you choose a commercial diet that factors your cat’s age, lifestyle and health condition,” Dr. Primm says. “For my clients, I select diets for their pets based on science and research that supports the claims on the label.”
Food is fuel and it can be tasty medicine. Therapeutic diets have been developed and continue to evolve to help cats facing some medical conditions or health issues. Yes, these diets are more expensive than those you buy off store shelves and, yes, they do require a prescription by your veterinarian. Alone or in concert with medication, therapeutic diets aid with such issues as:
- Urinary tract disease
- Overactive thyroids (hyperthyroidism)
- Kidney disease
- Dementia or senility
- Dental disease
- Weight management
Thumbnail: Photography ©kozorog | Getty Images.
About the author
Arden Moore is a pet behavior consultant, author and master pet first-aid instructor who often teaches hands-on classes with her cool cat, Casey, and very tolerant dog, Kona. Each week, she hosts the Oh Behave Show on Pet Life Radio. Learn more at ardenmoore.com, and follow Arden on Twitter at @ArdenKnowsPets.
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.