Having a cat can mean a lot of things. For one, a cat can be a true family member who is loved and cherished for many years. The average housecat’s lifespan is about 15 years, though it is not unusual for domestic cats to reach their late teens or even twenties. As such, cat parents often wonder about their feline’s changing nutritional needs and especially what to feed a senior cat. Let’s dig deeper into this common question.
What Dietary Changes Do Older Cats Need?
The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) considers cats older than 11 to be senior and cats 15 or older geriatric. Based on averages, most cats will qualify as seniors for at least four years, or more than 25% of their lifespan.
Cats’ energy expenditure slows as they age, which means that they do not burn as many calories in their later years. Slowing metabolisms can cause weight gain, which can lead to a number of serious health issues like diabetes. Along with monitoring (and even reducing) your older cat’s food consumption, make sure they always have access to clean water. Proper hydration aids in smooth digestion and organ function and helps prevent urinary tract issues.
For cats of any age, it’s important to meet the nutritional requirements for their particular life stage. The American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is responsible for setting labeling standards and nutritional requirements for pet food. The AAFCO recognizes two life stages for cats and dogs: Adult Maintenance and Growth and Reproduction (an All Life Stages label denotes foods that meet the requirements for both stages). Each category stipulates the minimum biological requirements for macronutrients, vitamins and minerals.
Kittens and young cats are generally considered to be in the Growth stage during their first year of life and Reproduction while pregnant or lactating. Senior cats fall into the Adult Maintenance category. How they eat in their younger years will have a significant effect on their health in their twilight years; minimally processed, high-protein diets free of excessive carbohydrates lay a great foundation for lifelong well-being.
How to Choose the Best Food for Your Senior Cat
On pet food labels, the AAFCO’s Nutritional Adequacy Statement confirms that the food is approved for a particular life stage. Look for any of the following versions of this statement near the Guaranteed Analysis section when choosing food for your senior cat:
How to Feed a Senior Cat with a Health Condition
While cats can develop a wide array of health conditions as they age, two of the most common diseases in senior cats are diabetes and kidney disease.
As with humans, feline diabetes is related to how the body regulates blood sugar (glucose) levels. Glucose provides energy for muscles and tissue and is the brain’s main fuel source — but if glucose levels are thrown out of normal range due to diabetes, excessively high or low levels can cause weight loss, increased thirst and/or urination, lethargy, dehydration and changes in appetite. In order to prevent diabetes or mitigate its symptoms, senior cats should consume low-carb foods with a low glycemic index and get regular exercise.
Chronic kidney disease (CKD) is also a serious concern in older cats. A part of the renal system, the kidneys are responsible for filtering toxins out of the blood and making urine. Kidney disease results when this system starts to fail and causes symptoms such as frequent urination, weight loss, excessive thirst, dry skin, vomiting, diarrhea and bloody or cloudy urine. To prevent CKD, it’s important that cats stay hydrated, possibly by the inclusion of moisture-rich food, especially as they age.
If you suspect your older cat may have or be at risk of developing diabetes or CKDTo prevent CKD, it’s important that cats stay hydrated and eat plenty of moisture-rich food, e, consult your veterinarian to receive an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan.
How to Prevent Obesity in Senior Cats
An estimated 60% of domestic cats in the U.S. are considered obese, which can lead to a host of health issues. Cat parents need to monitor their feline’s weight as they age, particularly as activity and exercise levels may decline in older cats.
To prevent weight gain in older cats, it all comes down to energy input and output. Senior cats may be less active as they age and therefore don’t expend all the calories they consume, which can lead to weight gain. Along with feeding them a low-carb, high protein diet, playtime is a great way to encourage your cat to exercise and stay active well past their kittenhood.
Can You Give a Senior Cat Supplements?
Just like humans, cats sometimes need an extra boost of vitamins and minerals in the form of supplements. If your senior cat experiences healthy and normal digestion on a complete, balanced diet formulated for cats in the Adult Maintenance life stage, supplements should not be necessary. However, nutrient absorption levels will vary between individual felines depending on their age and the presence of medical conditions, and supplements can help them maintain proper nutrition.
Your cat’s veterinarian can help identify possible nutritional deficiencies and recommend the right supplements, as well as uncover any additional underlying cause(s). Never give your cats supplements formulated for humans, as high levels of certain nutrients can be toxic to cats.
Can Senior Cats Have Treats?
Treats are specially formulated foods, often bite-sized, that typically are not nutritionally complete or balanced. They are intended for intermittent reward-based feeding only. For cats of any age, treats should only contribute a maximum of 10% of their total daily caloric intake, so remember to count treat calories accordingly. This is especially important for older felines who may be slowing down and expending less energy.
It’s a good idea to give senior cats treats that contain a nutrient or nutrients they may be lacking in their diet. Consider it supplementation through treating: Dehydration is often an issue for aging felines, so treats with high moisture content can be quite beneficial.
Can I Feed My Senior Cat Human Food?
While you may think it seems generous, feeding our cats from our own plates can be risky, since some human foods are toxic to our feline family members. Here are a few examples of foods to avoid feeding your cat entirely, along with some that get the green light in moderation:
What If My Senior Cat Won't Eat?
While most cat owners can likely identify with having a finicky feline, a cat who voluntarily won’t eat at all can understandably cause concern.
Kittens who stop eating for more than twelve hours should see a vet right away; adult cats should see a vet after twenty-four hours without eating. While it’s not uncommon for cats to experience fluctuations in appetite, if there is a true refusal to eat and/or accompanied by vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy or trouble breathing, the cat should receive medical attention immediately.
If your senior cat seems to have lost their appetite but does not display any symptoms, try to pique your cat’s mealtime interests with variety. Rotating flavors, textures and even food temperature in their bowl can help stimulate a cat’s appetite. Remember: Because a lack of appetite can indicate a multitude of underlying health conditions, it’s always a safe bet to consult a veterinarian for advice.
FAQs: Choosing the Right Food for Your Senior Cat
Q: Can I feed my senior cat dry food?
Dental health challenges such as gingivitis and tooth decay can make chewing food, particularly dry food, difficult for older cats. If your cat’s teeth are challenged by harder kibble, prioritize softer, moisture-rich wet foods instead.
Q: How do I get my senior cat to drink more water?
Water is essential to a cat's health at any life stage, but it’s particularly important for senior cats. Organs can’t operate as efficiently without adequate hydration, and aging cats’ organs need all the help they can get. Plus, cats have evolved to have a naturally low thirst drive and sometimes need to be reminded to drink water. Ensure your senior cat always has access to clean, fresh water from a bowl or cat fountain . If plain water doesn’t tempt them, your senior cat may require more moisture-rich food or treats in their diet. Foods and toppers with high water content are a delicious way to keep your cat hydrated and happy!