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How to Choose the Right Food for Senior Cats

Senior cats over age seven often require special nutrient requirements as they age. Underlying medical conditions, body weight (obese vs. ideal), activity level, and willingness to try new foods all affect what food to feed an elderly cat. Research suggests that a well-balanced, easily digestible food containing high-quality proteins, healthy fats, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids can improve health outcomes as your cat ages.

Understanding senior cat nutrition

Cats can be picky eaters. Starting your cat from the moment you get them with different types of foods, e.g., dry and wet, and diverse textures such as stews or pates, may be valuable as your pet ages. Often, with advanced age, pets may need a diet change for variable nutrients as needs change with aging or because of an underlying medical condition. Thus, having a cat that readily eats a variety of foods can make a transition smoother.

As cats age, their medical needs and nutritional requirements change. However, regardless of age, a cat’s diet should include:

  • Complete and balanced. Ensure the food you select contains all nutrients necessary for the life stage of concern.
  • Easy to digest. The food agrees with your cat and doesn't cause GI upset.
  • Palatable. Ensure the food you choose is tasty and that your cat consistently eats it. If your cat doesn't like the texture or taste, it may cause food aversion.
  • They are backed by science. Select foods and food companies with scientific research behind their foods, veterinary nutrition specialists (board-certified veterinary nutritionists) on staff, and high-quality standards from ingredients to production to bowl.

What constitutes a completely balanced food depends on several factors. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) is the main body that guides feeding regulations based on ingredients, testing standards, and label requirements at the state, federal, and international levels (AAFCO-certified foods). All foods should be AAFCO-certified. Also, those formulated by veterinary nutritionists and those compliant with the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) recommendations factor into ensuring food is complete and balanced.

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Senior vs. geriatric cats

Cats seven years and older are considered seniors. However, those between the ages of seven and 11 have decreased calorie needs as activity levels drop, and obesity risks are higher during this age group. After about 11–12 years, most cats, unlike other species, require more calories and have higher metabolic demands. This is a result of less efficient digestion and overall muscle mass loss. However, many cats eat less as they get older, so food should be selected that cats will eat to maximize energy intake.

Geriatric cats are those with underlying medical conditions and health considerations, and it is less about their actual chronological age but more about their biological age. Many people use senior and geriatric interchangeably or refer to cats over 11 as geriatric and those 7–11 as senior, although they are different. This article refers not to geriatric cat food but to elderly cat food or senior cats, irrespective of health status.

Maintaining a cat’s ideal body condition

To maintain a cat’s ideal body weight and condition, including maintaining muscle mass, it's recommended that senior cats without underlying medical ailments may require:

Grey cat drinking from tap water
  • Higher protein levels. This permits a cat to maintain lean body mass. Highly digestible and quality protein sources are required, as a decreased efficiency at metabolizing proteins comes with age. Consider salmon, tuna, turkey, chicken, or beef, but ensure high quality.
  • Healthy fats. A key component in the diet is a cat’s ability to tolerate fat, which varies from cat to cat. However, a cat’s ability to obtain necessary calories from food depends on the fat content and the animal’s ability to metabolize fat properly. Thinner cats require higher fat levels to get the needed calories, while heavier cats require less. As with protein, a cat’s ability to digest fat efficiently decreases with age.
  • Maintain hydration. The best way to ensure your senior cat gets enough moisture is to have easy access to water. However, feeding wet food over dry food further helps improve hydration. As cats age, they are more likely to have underlying kidney disease, making them prone to dehydration. Wet food can help with hydration. Dry cat food for senior cats may supplement the diet, but it is unnecessary and can increase the risk of obesity when overfed.
  • Appropriate vitamins and minerals. It is ideal to feed a commercial diet that meets AAFCO minimum requirements, is fully balanced, and is appropriate for use in senior cats.

Choosing the right food for your elderly cat

When selecting food for your elderly cat, ensure it has proper nutrients and is well-balanced and tasty. Speak with your veterinarian for suggestions. A diet change may not be necessary, depending on what you are currently feeding. Also, a prescription or specific type of diet may be needed if your cat has underlying health problems, such as kidney disease.

A study addressing diet and cats as they age showed that maintaining a healthy body weight vs. being underweight lessened a cat’s chance of developing diseases. Animals with better lean body mass and better GI bacterial health live longer. A diet that was rich in antioxidants +/- a prebiotic, e.g., chicory root, combined with an appropriate ratio of omega fatty acids, including omega-3s and omega-6s, was found to improve health outcomes.

Do not pick a diet labeled senior if your elderly cat is underweight, as these foods are designed to meet the needs of the mature, overweight cat. If you select this type of diet, you likely will underfeed certain nutrients and not provide sufficient protein and fat for calorie extraction or to preserve muscle as the pet ages. Further, weight gain may not be adequate.

For obese cats, talk with your veterinarian about weight loss options. Obesity negatively impacts a cat's overall quality of life, increasing the risk of arthritis, heart disease, and diabetes. Depending on how overweight your cat is, you may not be able to safely get your pet to lose weight using OTC food off the shelf because you may restrict their calories and nutrients too much, causing harm.

What should be included in a senior's food?

Consider ensuring that the food for senior cats includes the following:

  • Tasty foods. First and foremost — will your cat eat it? If the food isn’t satisfactory to your cat, then it is of no value.
  • Foods rich in antioxidants (e.g., selenium, vitamin E, C, and carotenoids) help the body scavenge the body for free radicals, a harmful by-product of metabolism, which increase as the cat ages.
  • Sufficient protein to help a cat preserve lean body mass. Lost muscle mass increases the risk of developing disease as a cat ages.
  • Fiber content. For cats between seven and 11 years of age, where obesity is a concern, higher fiber content may cause fullness earlier and lead to less obesity. However, if it doesn’t result in a lower caloric intake, fiber content may be of no significance.
  • Omega-3 and 6 fatty acids. Healthy fats improve a cat’s ability to obtain needed calories. Omega-3 fatty acids in people and dogs have been shown to have some benefits in assisting with arthritis and cognitive decline; the presumption is this holds for cats as well.
  • Phosphorus restriction. A low-phosphorus diet has been proven to protect the kidneys in elderly cats with underlying kidney disease.
cat with hypothyroidism and stage 2 kidney disease

"Lily, 14 YO-DSH with hypothyroidism and stage 2 kidney disease, demonstrates loss of lean muscle mass, but through disease management and proper nutrition, she's putting it back on".

What about vitamins, supplements, probiotics, or related items? When you feed a fully balanced diet with an AAFCO feeding statement that it meets minimum requirements and is from a reputable company, supplementation isn’t necessary under most circumstances. If supplementation is needed, your veterinarian can advise you of what should be provided in addition to the diet. Research does not support the use or need of most vitamins, supplements, or probiotics, except under certain disease states and when recommended by your vet.

How to pick a pet food

Picking a pet food is not easy and can be challenging, given all the choices. When considering a food, make sure that the food:

  • Comes from a reputable, long-established company with evidence-based science supporting its products
  • Has strict quality controls in place
  • Has claims on the food that are accurate and reliable
  • The company uses reputable sources for its ingredients
  • The company has feeding trials for its foods
  • The company has a veterinary nutritionist on staff

When in doubt, ask your veterinarian. The brands and choices are astounding and overwhelming if you visit the pet store and look at the available pet foods. Vet-recommended senior cat food will vary for each pet. It may not be a food specifically labeled for senior animals. Talk to your veterinarian for specific recommendations and to discuss if prescription foods may be beneficial for your senior cat.

What if my cat has underlying health issues?

If your senior cat has any medical conditions, do not abruptly change foods or alter your cat’s diet without talking to your veterinarian. Many over-the-counter (OTC) foods are not appropriate for specific situations and could harm your pet.

Common diseases seen in elderly cats include hyperthyroidism, kidney disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Very different dietary requirements for these conditions vs. healthy older cats may be warranted. If your pet has an underlying medical problem, talk with your veterinarian to discuss what is best for you and your pet.

Will pet insurance cover pet nutrition?

Pet insurance doesn’t typically cover OTC foods. However, depending on your plan, it may cover prescription foods. Some senior cats benefit from these heavily researched and supported science-type foods. Your veterinarian may prescribe them for weight loss or other medical conditions. You may need to call your insurance company to determine if your plan covers prescription foods.

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What to consider when changing foods

Whenever you change foods, regardless of the pet's age, you want to do so slowly, over several days to a week. You gradually wean down the amount of the old food and add in the new to lessen the risk of GI upset. However, transitioning a senior cat to new foods may be easier said than done. Some cats simply ignore the old food and will only eat the new, or refuse to eat the new, only choosing the old. As a result, they end up not getting enough calories and may get sick.

Whenever you switch foods, do so carefully, closely monitoring how much they are eating and ensuring they are eating. A cat who doesn’t eat for 24 – 48 hours can get sick quickly. Senior cats, obese cats, and those with underlying conditions can get sick much faster. If your cat stops eating while you are trying to transition to a new food, it is more important that they are eating than if it is the newly selected food.

If you attempt to transition your cat to a new food and they won’t eat it, talk with your veterinarian about comparable options that will provide the same nutritional value but may be more tasty for your cat.

What do you do if your elderly cat’s not eating?

Vets are frequently asked what to give a cat that won’t eat their current food, a newly introduced food, or as a result of illness. Suppose you need to encourage a senior cat to eat. You can consider adding tuna juice in water but not in oil, baby food, or Churu to the food. Do not give dairy products such as cheese because cats are generally lactose intolerant. While dairy products aren’t toxic, they can lead to GI upset and are not advised.

For cats that eat wet food with picky appetites, try briefly warming the food in the microwave. A cat's appetite is tied to their sense of smell. This makes the food more aromatic and may entice your cat to eat.

Sometimes, cats aren’t eating because they cannot get to the food. Ensure older cats can readily access their food and don't have to compete with other cats for food. In multi-cat households, you want to meal feed, especially with elderly cats, to ensure that they are eating well.

What to feed an older cat that is losing weight or an elderly cat not eating well will vary depending on the cat’s overall body condition. Is the cat fat? Do they have a good muscle tone or no muscle tone? You should consult your vet and evaluate your cat to see if the pet is losing weight and eating ravenously. The vet will want to look for underlying causes. Sometimes, treating the underlying cause resolves the weight loss issues or improves appetite. Other times, prescription diets or appetite stimulants may be needed.

Feeding senior pets: one size doesn’t fit all

Remember that selecting a food is more than just the ingredients. What counts is a blend of the appropriate quantity, quality, general balance, nutritional value, and palatability. You want to choose senior cat foods that best fit your cat's needs. Cats sometimes eat less as they get older but require more calories in their advanced years. Thus, maximize nutrients and ensure longevity with good nutrition.


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