Feeding Your Senior Cat

Some aging cats lose their appetite or become obese. WebMD helps you decide how to feed your senior cat and what nutritional supplements he might need.

By Stephanie Watson
WebMD Pet Health Feature

Reviewed by Audrey Cook, BVM&S

Your senior cat may still look -- and act -- like his younger counterparts, but that doesn't mean you should be filling his food bowl with the same food he's always eaten. Depending on his health, your aging cat's diet may need an overhaul.

That's because by the time a cat reaches his 12th birthday, he is the equivalent of a 64-year-old human. In their senior years, our feline friends start to fall prey to many of the same ailments as we do. “They're not as big as us or as dogs, but they undergo all the same aging phenomena,” says Joseph Wakshlag, DVM, PhD, assistant professor of Clinical Nutrition in the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. “Their activity level changes. They get joint disease, the creaks.”

Should you adjust your cat's diet once he reaches senior status? What dietary changes do you need to make if he is diagnosed with a chronic condition? Read on for advice on feeding your aging cat.

Feeding Your Senior Cat: The Basics

Although many older cats are put on a lower-protein diet, there really isn't any research to prove that the nutritional needs of healthy senior cats are any different from those of younger adult cats, says Kathryn Michel, DVM, associate professor of Nutrition at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. “I don't doubt that there are some things that may be necessary or different for older animals, but our knowledge of that is limited at this point in time,” she says.

Senior cat food doesn't come in a one-size-fits-all bag, either. “There is no perfect food, because every older cat has its set of problems,” Wakshlag says. Feeding a senior cat requires tailoring the diet with the help of your veterinarian to address any specific health problems your pet may have.

Obesity and the Senior Cat

Age alone doesn't change a cat's appetite or how much food he eats, but lifestyle does have a big impact. Cats are natural-born hunters. Their bodies were designed to stalk and capture prey, and to eat whatever small meals they catch throughout the day. Today, a lot of cats are kept indoors where there isn't much room to roam, and the food bowl is readily accessible any time they want to eat.

On top of cats' more sedentary lifestyle, they often eat calorie-dense foods. Dry foods are especially calorie heavy. With a cat's small size, even a few extra calories a day can quickly add up. “The bottom line is, 10 calories more than a cat needs in a day adds up to a pound of body fat in a year. It's not difficult for an animal to overeat and gain weight,” Michel says.

How do you keep your cat from getting fat? Here are some tips for keeping your aging cat's weight under control.

  • Work with your veterinarian to find the senior cat food that has the best nutritional balance for your older cat. Select foods that are formulated according to guidelines established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).
  • Read the label on your cat food package. It should contain a guaranteed analysis listing the percentage of the food that is crude protein, crude fat, moisture, and crude fiber. If this makes no sense to you (as it doesn't to many pet owners), check the manufacturer's web site for more nutritional information or call the company directly and ask.
  • Make sure you don't feed your cat too many calories. About 50 calories per kilogram per day is enough for the typical indoor cat, Michel says. Adjust that up or down depending on your cat's health and activity level.
  • Portion control is also important. It's easy to put out a bowl of food in the morning and keep refilling it when it's empty. To help your cat maintain or lose weight, you may need to measure out the food and feed half the allowed amount twice daily. Continually adjust how much you feed your senior cat as her energy level and calorie needs change.