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Nutrition for Feeding a Senior Cat

What to Look for in Your Senior Cat's Food

By Mary Kearl. November 12, 2012 | See Comments

  • expert or vet photo
    vet verified

    Dr. Joseph J. Wakshlag, DVM

    Associate Professor of Clinical Nutrition

    Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine Ithaca, NY

Nutrition for Feeding a Senior Cat

Aging cats often require a different diet than they did when they where kittens or adults. Learn what to look for in food for your senior cat.

As our beloved pals enter their golden years, diet and nutrition can help senior cats to maintain their health and happiness, and to age gracefully. The following guidelines will help you pick the best food for your senior cat.

Since there's no one right plan for every cat, talk to your veterinarian or a board certified veterinary nutritionist about the details of altering your pet’s food. The right meal plan—consisting of proteins, fats, carbs vitamins, minerals, and water in the right balance—will vary based on a number of factors, such as age, breed, sex, level of activity, behavior, environment, and metabolism.

When Is My Cat a Senior?

Cats typically are considered seniors at 12 years of age, and that's when pets may begin to have issues with their metabolism, immune system (their ability to protect against disease), hearing, skin, coat, teeth, and energy levels. Senior cats may also experience weight fluctuation, loss of muscle mass, arthritis, obesity, diabetes, cancer, constipation, kidney disease, and liver disease, sometimes in addition to the common health issues of hypothyroidism and urinary problems that also affect younger cats.

Making the Transition to a Senior Diet

For most senior cats, food should be higher in protein than regular adult cat food. As a cat gets older, their digestive tract does not work quite as well as it did when they were younger, which can make it harder for them to get nutrients from their diet. Help them out by boosting the protein content in their diet.

Look for these amounts of protein and fat in cat food:

  Dry Cat Food Wet Cat Food
Protein 28% or more 7% or more
Fat 12-16% 3-4%

Remember, change is hard for senior cats. To avoid a shock to their system and potential gastrointestinal problems, be sure that any tweak you make to their diet is gradual.

Also, serving up smaller, more frequent meals may be more beneficial to your cat's digestive system than offering larger meals once or twice a day.

Be sure to look for one of these labels on the cat food: “complete and balanced nutrition,” “meets the nutritional requirements of cats established by the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO),” or “complete and balanced nutrition for cats based on AAFCO feeding trials.” The AAFCO regulates the requirements for pet foods to carry those labels, so you'll know you're getting a diet that's been approved.

Commercially available food has been formulated for cats at various life stages, such as “senior” and “geriatric,” and for cats with specific conditions, including those with heart disease, kidney disease, obesity, digestion issues, food allergies, and more. Ask your vet if one of these specially formulated diets is right for your cat.

Vitamins for Senior Cats

There are a few simple ways to boost your cat’s immune system, and get it closer to that of a younger feline. Antioxidants like vitamin E and beta carotene have been shown to make the feline immune system's responses better, and there is ample evidence that certain probiotics can improve immune response to common feline viral infections.

Not all supplements are created equal, so make sure you use feline formulated products and stay away from supplements intended for humans or even dogs. And be sure to note: one common mistake pet parents make when caring for their loved ones is over-supplementing their pets’ diets with vitamins and minerals, which could potentially have serious effects on pet health. Always read labels for dosage amounts, and talk to your vet about what supplements will be beneficial for your pet.

Monitor Your Cat’s Weight

Weight gain can be a problem with aging, and pet parents of obese cats are advised to follow these dietary guidelines for obese senior cats. On the other hand, weight loss is also something that occurs with aging. If your cat is looking sleeker, take note as it could also be the result of a serious underlying health issue, including kidney disease, cancer, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, liver disease, hyperthyroidism, or some other problem. Fluctuation in weight is often the first sign of disease, and, as such, it is recommended that pets be weighed often so that even the slightest uptick or downtick can be noted. Alert your vet of any changes.

For the Underweight Senior Cat

For the leaner senior cat, or for a senior cat who is losing weight, it’s sometimes advised to get a more calorie-dense food, which means more fat content. Not only will the fat give your cat that extra calorie boost to help keep weight on, it will probably be tastier, so they’ll eat more too. Look for less than 16% fat in dry food or less than 4% fat in wet food.

For Kidney Concerns

Older cats who have developed kidney disease may be between a rock and hard place when it comes to nutrition: not only do they have a harder time absorbing essential nutrients, they’re more likely to experience a depletion of these important nutrients through their kidneys and urinary tract. As such, you may want to discuss supplements or dietary changes with your vet, and keep in mind the 4 principles of treating kidney disease through diet.

As Your Cat Ages

Now that your pet is a senior, it’s recommended to increase your yearly check-ups and start visiting the vet every six months. If you spot any of the following troubling signs: vomiting, constipation or diarrhea, weakness, drooling, bad breath, or changes in weight, appetite, water intake, or frequency of urination, be sure to consult your veterinarian immediately.

More on Finding the Right Cat Food:

The Best Pet Food For Your Dog or Cat
Food Allergies in Cats and Dogs
The Benefits of Vitamins and Supplements

This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian. It has however been reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Joe, a board certified veterinary nutritionist and graduate of Cornell University's program for Veterinary Medicine.

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