Why do pet food manufacturers sell special cat food for older cats? Expert nutritionist Bianca Major explains the importance of getting your senior cat’s diet just right.
As our cats get older, many things can change – including their activity levels, energy requirements and general state of health – so the way we care for them needs to change, too. Although your cat’s food and diet should always be planned around their individual needs, choosing the right nutrition for their age group can also help them live a longer, healthier life.
What to feed an elderly cat
Cats are obligate carnivores, which means they must eat meat in order to survive. Unlike dogs, cats have not evolved to be able to digest starchy carbohydrates found in plants. So they rely on the protein in meat to provide the energy for their bodily processes, as well as to grow and maintain their organs and tissues, including blood and skin.
The perfect balance of nutrients for senior cats
Cats require 41 essential nutrients to keep them healthy. ‘Complete’ and ‘balanced’ food formulations contain a combination of protein, fat, carbohydrate, minerals and vitamins, giving your pets all the nutrients they need in the right amounts and proportions. But as cats enter different life stages, these requirements change, which is why some cat foods are labelled ‘kitten’, ‘adult’ or ‘senior’.
Getting the right nutrient balance in cat foods for older cats is important because our feline friends have very specific needs when it comes to protein, amino acids and vitamins. Cats have high protein requirements and can quickly become deficient in some amino acids and vitamins. This is why you should never feed your cat a vegetarian diet. The best senior cat foods will be carefully tailored to provide the optimum levels of nutrients.
As they age, senior cats often become thinner, losing both fat and muscle mass. Studies show that cats’ ability to digest both protein and fat decreases as they enter their senior years. Fat contains more calories per gram than protein or carbohydrates. So, it is important to feed a high human-grade, species-appropriate diet, including quality protein and fats, to ageing cats, to provide them with easily digestible calories.
A common ailment often seen in elderly cats is chronic kidney disease. Levels of phosphorus in the diet need to be managed in these cases, but this doesn’t always mean restricting protein. Instead, the type of protein fed should be reviewed. For example, this might mean moving from a kibble diet that may use grain as part of its protein source to a fresh food diet high in meat or fish and without grains.
Your vet will be able to advise on what to feed an elderly cat, so always talk to them before adapting your cat’s diet, and remember to introduce any feeding changes gradually while supporting your cat’s digestive system with pet probiotics (beneficial gut bacteria).
Many senior cat diets contain ‘functional foods’, with ingredients that may help to improve a cat’s quality of life as they mature. These include additional vitamins and minerals to support healthy cognition and memory, and Omega-3 fatty acids, from sources such as fish oil or New Zealand green-lipped mussel extract, to help maintain joint health and decrease inflammation. Fatty acids can also help to keep your cat’s skin and fur healthy. Some diets may also include the addition of herbs to further support the health of ageing cats.
Feeding an older cat at mealtimes
Make your older cat’s mealtimes enjoyable by serving a nutritionally balanced diet that is palatable and easily digested. Some cats’ appetite can decrease with age, especially if their sense of taste and smell declines, or they may find it harder to chew and digest their food. It’s important to keep your senior cat well hydrated while also encouraging a good appetite. Here are some tips to bear in mind:
- Feed your cat smaller meals – older cats may be happy to eat small quantities of food up to 10 or 12 times a day if they’re finding digestion more difficult. Serving food at room temperature, or slightly warmer, will help your cat to better smell and taste their meals while increasing digestibility.
- Ensure you are feeding a high-quality, easily digestible senior cat food that contains little to no carbohydrates. A diet high in moisture is vital for a senior cat, so offer multiple bowls of water around the house – or a small bowl of pet bone broth can help. The addition of a little goat’s milk to food may also increase appetite while keeping your cat hydrated.
- Make sure your cat has regular health check-ups with your vet to proactively monitor health and check for any possible pain caused by dental issues, which could be affecting their appetite.
While it’s natural for feline feeding habits to change over time, if your cat has lost their appetite completely, or is struggling to eat, always consult your vet immediately, as with any significant change in older cats. With proactive care and attention, you can do your bit to ensure your cat’s diet helps keep them happy and healthy for a long time to come.