Senior Cat Food - How to Feed your Older Cats

All the cat mommies and daddies out there wish their kitties will remain youthful and healthy forever. The reality is, cats grow old too, and with aging comes its challenges.

It isn’t impossible to keep a cat healthy until its last days. If you have been consistently feeding your cat right from its kitten days, and your cat doesn’t have any congenital or genetic defects, it should enjoy a long happy life.

You’ll just need to be more observant when your cat hits its senior years. There are a few things to watch out for. A few adjustments to your cat’s diet may then be necessary. 

How old is a senior cat?

Not long ago, cats were considered seniors at 8 years old. Today, it's not unusual for our feline friends to reach their twenties, thanks to better quality food and improvements in the understanding of cat nutrition.

The average benchmark now for a cat to be considered “senior” is above 11 years of age. One must still bear in mind that each breed of cat has a different lifespan, and may age a little later or earlier.

The Burmese cat, for example, has an average lifespan of 18 to 25 years. The Ragdoll is another long lifer coming in second place at 15 to 25 years. Ragdolls are a huge fluffy breed that only becomes fully grown at 4 years old.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is the Manx which has the shortest lifespan lasting only 8 to 14 years. For the Manx, the “senior” benchmark will be before the age of 8.

Cats are individuals like us humans. They experience their advancing years in their own unique ways. Many begin to encounter age-related physical changes between seven and ten years of age. For most cats, the changes start at 12 years old.

The commonly held belief that every "cat year" is worth seven "human years" is inaccurate. In reality, a one-year-old cat is physiologically similar to a 16-year-old human while a two-year-old cat is like a person of 21.

For every year thereafter, each cat year is worth about 4 human years. You can say that a 12-year-old cat is equivalent to a 61-year-old human.

Is senior cat food necessary?

When should you switch to a “senior diet?” According to Dr. Bartges, it all depends on the individual cat and the veterinarian’s recommendations.

If the cat is maintaining body weight and muscle condition on a certain diet, there is no reason to switch to a so-called “senior cat food”.

If the cat is gaining weight for no particular health reason other than a change in metabolism, feeding a “senior” type of diet or a lower energy and higher fiber diet may be recommended.

If it is losing weight for no apparent health reason other than a change in metabolism, you may need to change to a kitten diet which is calorically dense.

For the most part, an old cat’s nutritional needs are about the same as a regular adult cat’s. There is no “senior food” per se. What you feed an aging cat depends on that individual cat’s needs.

What changes does a senior cat experience?

An aging or very old cat may have some of these physical and/or behavioural changes:

  • Activity level - less active and playful; may sleep more
  • Immune system - less able to fend off infection or germs
  • Teeth – missing teeth; dental disease is extremely common and can hinder eating and cause significant pain
  • Sense of smell - a decreased sense of smell may be partially responsible for a loss of interest in eating
  • Dehydration – reduced efficiency of water absorption, further diminishes blood circulation and immunity
  • Kidneys – reduced kidney function; kidney failure is a common disease in older cats, and its symptoms are extremely varied
  • Joints - degenerative joint disease or arthritis is common; causes difficulty gaining access to litter boxes and food and water dishes, particularly if they have to jump or climb stairs
  • Senility - loss of memory; alterations in personality; wandering; excessive meowing; apparent disorientation; avoidance of social interaction
  • Skin - thinner and less elastic; has reduced blood circulation; more prone to infection
  • Claws - overgrown, thick or brittle
  • Hearing - hearing loss or reduced hearing
  • Sight - slight haziness of the lens and a lacy appearance to the iris (the coloured part of the eye); reduced ability to see well in the dark

Behavioural changes can be caused by disease of virtually any organ system, or any condition that causes pain or impairs mobility. For example:

  • Aggression - pain can cause a fearful cat to become aggressive
  • Less mobile - pain or stiffness caused by arthritis
  • Inappropriate soiling:     

- increased urine production due to kidney failure, diabetes mellitus, or hyperthyroidism may cause the litter box to become soiled more quickly than expected, prompting cats to eliminate in inappropriate areas

- pain due to arthritis may cause the cat difficulty in gaining access to a litter box

  • Hyper marking - many cats that do not mark their territory with urine may begin to do so if a condition like hyperthyroidism develops

Is high protein cat food good for older cats?

A healthy older cat needs about the same nutrition as a regular, younger adult cat. So, yes, high protein cat food is good for older cats.

Generally, cats are supposed to be fed high protein food made from an animal source. This is to copy their natural habits of eating only small animals in the wild.

Protein is not only essential for maintaining their muscle mass, but it is a critical source of amino acids which support the proper functioning of their organs.

The ideal cat food should also contain some fat of a lower percentage than protein. The lowest percentage make-up should be carbohydrate.

A small percentage of crude fiber is necessary to help maintain bowel health and reduce the build-up of hairballs. The best food for any cat should also contain a high percentage of moisture of at least 60%.  

What is the best cat food for older cats?

Dr. Fascetti says that your main goals when choosing a food for a senior should be to:

  •       Maintain health and ideal body weight
  •       Slow or prevent chronic illness
  •       Lessen the symptoms of any pre-existing illnesses

Maintaining health and ideal body weight

If your old cat is already at an ideal body weight, choose food that helps it to maintain that. Since senior cats are less active and may sleep more, they don’t need as many calories as kittens or adult cats.

The difference in diet between a younger adult cat and a senior one is the proportion of fat to suit an older cat’s reduced level of activity.

Cats derive their energy predominantly from the fat in meat. It makes sense then for you to pick a new food that has a lower fat content than your cat’s existing food.

The best food for senior cats should be made from raw or unprocessed meat that has high protein content. This type of meat will have the most retained nutrients such as fatty acids, amino acids, minerals and vitamins.  

These nutrients are easily destroyed by extensive processing. That is why dry food contains far less natural nutrients than wet food. To compensate for this, artificial supplements and even flavouring is added to dry food.

Common sense dictates that natural is always better than artificial, whether this is for cats or for humans.

Slowing or preventing chronic illness

Good food and fresh water are vital to cats of any age, but may be particularly important for older cats. According to Dr. Goldstein, kidney function frequently deteriorates in older cats.

Lack of water or extended dehydration is one of the main causes of urinary tract diseases and kidney disease. [link to Top 10 Common Health Problems in Cats article]

As cats get older, their sense of taste may also start to wane, leading to a lack of appetite. Wet foods, says Dr. Fascetti, tend to rate higher on the palatability scale. Wet cat food made from raw meat generally has all the fatty acids that give the food flavour.

It also has many times more water content than dry food. The high level of moisture in wet food will ensure your old cat gets enough water in its system. The higher the water content, the better it is.

Some senior cats have missing teeth, which makes eating dry food difficult. Once they go off their food or don’t eat enough due to this discomfort, their immune system will become compromised because they aren’t getting enough nutrients. That’s when health problems start to set in.

According to the report “Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats by the National Research Council, cats will choose foods based on taste, texture and moisture content rather than nutritional adequacy.

If there is nothing medically wrong with your cat, try warming up the food or offering several different types of meat to determine what flavour and texture the cat prefers.

Purchase packs of wet canned food that come ready with a variety of meat mixes and organs. This might make it a little easier on your pocket and shorten your shopping trips.

Lessening the symptoms of any pre-existing illnesses

If your elderly cat has a certain illness or health problem, you may need to alter its diet a little to support its health.

Muscle Loss

Muscle loss can be due to diseases such as chronic kidney disease, hyperthyroidism or diabetes mellitus. If your feline is losing muscle, it may be time to switch to a higher-protein diet, Dr. Bartges says.

Cats suffering from issues related to the kidney, bladder or urinary tract will also need food that is very high in moisture. The best option for them is wet food made from fresh meat. Pick a brand that has higher than 60% water content. 

Senility

Senile-like behaviours include staring into space, altered sleep/wake cycles, meowing loudly (especially at night) or spatial disorientation. For this problem, you could choose a diet with antioxidants, lipoic acid and possibly omega-3 fatty acids.

Poor appetite

A sickly cat will usually eat less, or even stop eating or drinking entirely. Once it stops eating or drinking, its chance of recovery plummets because it cannot get nutrients into its body.

Raw or unprocessed meat contains fatty acids that give food flavour which cats find appetising. Giving your ill cat wet food made from a variety of high quality raw meat with a mix of organs, and perhaps a pinch of fresh chopped vegetables, might just entice it to eat.

Obesity

Many cats get heavier or even obese as they age. If your cat is overweight, you should ask your veterinarian to help you modify its diet.

The general rule of thumb in this case is to reduce its caloric intake. This means giving your cat food that has very low fat and carbohydrate content as well as higher crude fiber. All else should remain the same.

Dry food in general contains higher carbohydrate content than wet food. Carbohydrates should be eliminated from a fat cat’s diet.

The high water content of wet food, which averages above 60%, is good for helping your cat fill up while maintaining the health of its kidneys and bladder. 

Dental problems

Bad breath is considered one of the dental problems faced by cats. A consultation with your veterinarian should help you to zoom in on the problem and its root cause. 

If a cat has issues with its teeth or gums, it may go off its food because eating causes discomfort. Giving it wet food will help to ease this problem.

How should I feed my senior cat? 

Any kind of diet switch should be done gradually over several days to ensure your cat accepts the new food. Some cats take up to months to accept this change.

If your cat has been eating dry food all its life, you can try mixing small portions of wet food with its kibble as a start. When it accepts this, move on to larger portions of wet food and smaller portions of dry food. Ultimately, migrate entirely to wet food.

Sometimes warming up the food will make it more enticing. The aroma of fatty acids in wet food is stronger when the food is warm.

Be careful to follow any instructions on the label and not feed your cat food that is too hot. The food might burn its tongue and permanently put it off wet food.

For even fussier cats, you might want to use the mollycoddling method. Give a pinch of the new wet food to your cat using your finger. Let your cat taste it first.

Some cats like chicken, some like beef. By giving the cat a taste, you can narrow down which meat your cat favours for a start, then work your way forward.

How much should you feed your cat? The portion depends on whether your cat is underweight, overweight or already at its ideal weight. Frequency of feeding can be the same or reduced. The best way to gauge this is to consult your veterinarian.

Conclusion

Giving your senior cat wet food will ensure its overall well-being. Wet raw food is not the be all and end all to age-related issues.

However, it ensures that your old cat gets the most amount of critical nutrients and protein per gram of food. To top it off wet food hydrates your cat properly each time it eats.  

Apart from high quality cat food and plenty of water, Dr. Goldstein also advises six-month check-ups for geriatric cats. For healthier cats, a yearly geriatric exam - including blood work and X-rays - along with a smaller exam in between is ideal.

Sources:

Cornell University Cornell Feline Health Center. Feeding Your Cat. (Online) Available at:  https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/feeding-your-cat  [Accessed on 23 June 2020] 

Cornell University Cornell Feline Health Center. Loving Care For Older Cats. (Online) Available at: https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/loving-care-older-cats   [Accessed on 23 June 2020]

Cornell University Cornell Feline Health Center. December 2016. The Special Needs of the Senior Cat. (Online) Available at: https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/special-needs-senior-cat  [Accessed on 23 June 2020]

Grunge. 2 April 2020. The Cat Breed With The Shortest Lifespan. (Online) Available at: https://www.grunge.com/198565/the-cat-breed-with-the-shortest-lifespan/  [Accessed on 23 June 2020]

PetBacker. 2018. Top 10 cat breeds that live the longest. (Online) Available at: https://www.petbacker.com/blog/how-to/top-10-cat-breeds-that-live-the-longest#:~:text=%231%20Burmese,t%20live%20quite%20that%20long.  [Accessed on 23 June 2020]

Pet Central. December 2019. Best Senior Cat Food: A Guide to Feeding Your Older Cat. (Online) Available at:  https://petcentral.chewy.com/best-senior-cat-food/  [Accessed on 23 June 2020] 

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