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.
Special Nutrition for Diseases of the Aging Cat
A number of different diseases can affect cats as they age. Often, senior cats with medical conditions have special nutritional needs.
Diabetes: Just as in humans, diabetes is a big problem in cats, and it's often triggered by obesity. Diet is a big part of managing the disease. Many vets recommend that cats with diabetes eat a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet, which may help them gain better control over the disease. If you watch your cat's diet and weight and give him insulin regularly, there's a good chance the blood sugar levels will stabilize. In some cats, with prompt treatment, the diabetes will go away entirely.
Kidney Disease: Many cats develop kidney failure as they age. Senior cats with kidney disease may need to be on a phosphorous-restricted diet. Suitable diets for cats with kidney problems often have less salt and protein than standard cat foods.
Other diseases that are common in older cats can also require dietary changes. Diseases like cancermay cause a cat to lose weight and therefore need extra nutrition.
Dental disease can make it more difficult for your cat to chew dry food, so you may need to switch to a softer canned food.
Proper hydration is also important for the senior cat. Make sure that your cat gets enough water throughout the day to prevent dehydration.
Should You Give Your Senior Cat Supplements?
If you are feeding your senior cat a balanced diet, he shouldn't need supplements. But, some health conditions that affect older cats can make it more difficult for them to absorb certain vitamins or nutrients. For example, gastrointestinal conditions can interfere with a cat's ability to absorb vitamin B12. In the case of a nutritional deficiency, your vet may recommend a specific supplement.
Be very careful when using over-the-counter nutritional supplements. Most haven't been well-studied in cats. “Some supplements that have been shown to be just fine in dogs or humans can be detrimental in a cat because their metabolisms are very different,” Wakshlag says. It's also possible that supplements can interact with medications your cat is already taking. “Check with your vet,” Michel advises.
What to Do When Your Senior Cat Won't Eat
Sometimes a cat that once had a huge appetite may become reluctant to even approach the food bowl. Cat owners have tried everything to get their pets to eat, from mixing in tuna juice to warming food, but these home remedies have limited success, Wakshlag says.
Any time your cat won't eat (unless you've just switched his food), call your veterinarian. Appetite loss is usually a sign of an underlying condition. Gastrointestinal disease, cancer, and chronic pain can all affect a cat's appetite. Your veterinarian can diagnose the condition, and get your cat started on the right treatment. If necessary, an appetite-stimulating drug, such as cyproheptadine or mirtazapine, may be prescribed.
Joseph Wakshlag, MS, DVM, PhD, assistant professor of clinical nutrition, Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.
Kathryn Michel, DVM, associate professor of nutrition, University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.
Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine: “The Special Needs of the Senior Cat.”
Peachey, S. The Journal of Nutrition, June 2002. 132: pp S1735-S1739.
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