If you’re the parent of an aging cat, it’s quite possible that you’ve been feeding them the same diet for most of their adult life. Now that they’re getting a bit older, you may wonder if it’s time to switch to senior cat food. And you might also ask, “What’s so special about senior cat nutrition anyway?”
Fortunately, we’ve got answers to those questions and many more, including some that might surprise you. Diet plays an important role in the health and happiness of senior felines. With this helpful guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know about selecting a senior cat food that fits your feline family member’s specific tastes and needs.
Senior Cat Nutrition: Why It’s Important
Senior cats experience many changes in their golden years, and nutrition impacts how they tolerate those changes.
Appropriate senior cat nutrition may prevent some health concerns in older cats. For other cats who go on to develop various conditions, their diet may alleviate symptoms. For all senior cats, we want their nutrition to promote overall wellness.
To understand the importance of senior cat nutrition, it’s helpful to know how your cat’s health and needs may change in the years ahead, as well as the role diet can play in managing those changes.
Here are some of the most common challenges cats face as they age:
- Increased energy needs: While most adult cats are prone to obesity and may require calorie restriction, senior cats tend to face the opposite problem. Many aging cats have trouble keeping weight on. This is because their digestive system becomes less efficient, meaning they don’t absorb as much energy from their food. As a result, they have a higher energy requirement.
- Weakened immune system: The immune system of a senior cat may not be quite as effective as a younger cat’s at fighting off infections. Senior cats also have an increased risk of chronic health conditions that weaken the immune system.
- Increased likelihood of chronic health conditions: Several diseases, such as chronic kidney disease or hyperthyroidism, are more common in senior cats. Some of these conditions require specific diets as part of their treatment.
- Dental disease: Senior cats are more likely to have dental disease, often leading to tooth extraction or loss. In fact, some senior cats don’t have any teeth left, which can impact their desire and ability to eat.
- Increased need for water intake: Many senior cats will have changes to their kidney function that predispose them to dehydration.
- Decreased appetite: Senior cats commonly have a lower appetite than their younger counterparts. In some cases, this may occur because their abilities to smell and taste aren’t as good as they once were. For others, this can occur because of an underlying disease that affects their appetite, such as chronic kidney disease.
Should You Change Your Senior Cat’s Diet?
The answer to this question isn’t as simple as you might think. Here’s why.
While kitten food and adult cat food formulas generally adhere to nutritional standards set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), no standardized AAFCO guidelines exist for senior cat diets.
This means that pet food manufacturers can create their own formulas to market as senior cat food. So it’s not as if any old cat food with the word “senior” on the packaging will suffice once your cat hits a certain age.
There’s no guarantee that formula will provide what your cat needs in their senior years. Your best bet is to work with your veterinarian to pick an appropriate diet for your aging cat.
When Should You Change Your Senior Cat’s Diet?
Another myth in need of busting is that your aging cat’s nutritional needs change once they celebrate a specific birthday. Despite what you’ll see on pet food bags, there isn’t a particular age at which your cat should switch to a senior cat diet.
If you look closely, you’ll notice that not all commercial senior cat diets use the same age cutoff for when a pet is senior. Some say 7+, others say 11+, and some won’t have a specific age listed at all.
Instead of basing dietary changes for senior cats off the age listed on the food bag or cans, you should work with your veterinarian to determine if and when a dietary change is necessary. Issues that may indicate you need to change your cat’s diet include:
- Appetite changes
- Weight loss or gain
- Loss of muscle mass
- Changes to stools, such as diarrhea, loose stools, or constipation
- Excessive drinking or urination
These warning signs could indicate it’s time to switch to a diet better suited to your cat’s needs. Or, they could point to a wide range of other health issues. So, it’s best to have your veterinarian conduct a thorough exam to ensure you know precisely what your aging cat needs.
What to Feed Your Senior Cat
Since we now know that you can’t just pick any formula with “senior cat food” on the label, exactly what should you consider when deciding how to nourish your senior kitty?
If your senior cat isn’t showing any signs of slowing down or other age-related health issues, you may be fine feeding them any cat food formulated for adult cats. However, the symptoms of age-related health conditions in cats can be subtle and easy to miss. So, it’s a good idea to talk with your veterinarian before you decide on any dietary changes.
Questions to ask your veterinarian include:
- Does your cat have any special nutritional needs due to a specific health condition?
- Does your cat’s dental health affect the kind of food they should eat?
- How can you increase your cat’s water intake?
- How can you make food more appealing for a cat who won’t eat?
Depending on your cat’s unique needs, here are a few options your veterinarian may recommend.
For cats diagnosed with certain health conditions or nutritional needs, veterinarians may recommend a prescription diet that’s specially formulated to help them thrive. These options, also known as veterinarian-authorized or therapeutic diets, can only be purchased with special approval from a veterinarian.
Examples of common senior health conditions that may have dietary therapies available include:
If your veterinarian prescribes a therapeutic diet for your senior cat, your best bet is to go with the formula they recommend. However, a variety of brands offer prescription diets. So, if your cat won’t eat their new food, it is worth asking your vet if the prescription diet is available from another brand and whether it would be appropriate to switch.
You may also want to ask your veterinarian how long your senior cat should be on a prescription diet. For some conditions, feeding a therapeutic diet is part of a long-term treatment plan. For other conditions, such as obesity, it may be a temporary fix until your cat achieves a healthy weight and can switch to a diet designed to help maintain that weight.
If your veterinarian does not recommend a prescription diet for your senior cat, then there are plenty of viable cat food options available to sustain your elderly feline in their golden years.
However, not all formulas are created equal, and some may be better for senior cats than others. Here are some important considerations to remember when choosing a diet that will help your elderly cat thrive.
- Meets AAFCO standards: Any diet you choose should have an AAFCO statement near the nutrient label which says the food is approved for adult maintenance.
- Protein-rich: Your senior cat is an obligate carnivore, which means they need animal products in their diet to get all their essential nutrients. Look for options with meat or fish as the number one ingredient and check the percentage of protein content listed on the label. According to the American Animal Hospital Association, most senior cats should eat a diet with a minimum protein allowance of 30–45% dry matter. Avoid plant-based (vegetarian or vegan) diets, which are inappropriate for cats of any age.
- Kibble vs. canned: While both kibble and canned food can provide senior cats with the nutrition they need, canned food may be a better pick for some older cats. The extra moisture in wet cat food helps combat dehydration in senior cats, and the softer texture is easier on senior cats with dental pain or fewer teeth.
- Portion sizes: A cat’s weight can be challenging to manage in their senior years, so working with your veterinarian to develop a weight management plan is a great idea. If your cat is obese, consider reducing their amount of food by 10 percent and reweighing them every two weeks for a month. But what if they’re underweight?
If your cat is underweight, you should determine if they have any underlying health conditions. Assuming all is well, you have several options to consider:
- Increase their food amount by 10 percent and reweigh every two weeks for a month to ensure they are gaining weight. If there’s no progress, try increasing it by another 10 percent.
- Try switching to a food with more calories in the same amount (higher caloric density), so they’re getting more energy from their food even though they’re eating the same amount.
- Switch to a canned food to see if this is more enticing.
- Heat the food to increase aroma and appeal.
- Add a small amount of canned food to their kibble as a topper.
If you are working to manage your cat’s weight, consider signing up for a GreatPetCare account, which has access to health management tools such as a pet weight tracker.
While it’s not necessary to supplement your senior cat’s diet if they are eating food that meets appropriate AAFCO standards, some nutritional supplements may help address age-related health issues. For example, joint supplements that contain extra glucosamine and chondroitin may help improve mobility in some cats with joint pain.
However, nutritional supplements do not replace appropriate veterinary treatment. If you’re considering supplements for your senior kitty, speak with your veterinarian before starting your cat on them.
Senior cats are often more susceptible to dehydration. This may be due to reduced sensitivity to thirst, disease, or mobility issues that make it harder to get to the water bowl.
If your cat is a kibble-eater, consider switching to canned food to help keep them well hydrated. You can also coax your cat into drinking more by introducing water fountains and placing multiple water bowls on the levels of your home.
Senior Cat Nutrition: Other Tips and Advice
Once you and your veterinarian decide what your senior cat should eat, there’s still the matter of ensuring they’re eating properly. Here are some expert tips to ensure your cat gets the nutrition they need to help keep them happy and healthy.
- When changing your senior cat’s diet, make that change slowly over several days. Changing the diet too rapidly can lead to stomach upset, which could result in diarrhea, vomiting, and appetite changes. To make the switch successful, follow the schedule below:
- Day 1: 25% new food, 75% old food
- Day 2: 50% new food, 50% old food
- Day 3: 75% new food, 25% old food
- Day 4: 100% new food
- If your cat is not finishing their meals, consider feeding smaller meals more frequently.
- If your senior cat is losing weight and is getting pickier, consider leaving kibble available at all times. This may not be feasible if you have other pets in the home who like to steal from their senior friends.
- Treats are safe for you to give your senior cat but should make up under 10% of their diet. If your pet is on a prescription diet, check with your veterinarian before feeding treats to ensure they do not pose any danger to your cat’s health.
- Safe human foods that could be given to your cat as a treat include thoroughly cooked lean meats and fish, cooked eggs, cucumber, carrots, peas, and more. Always ensure that food is safe before offering it to your pet.
- If your cat has multiple health conditions that complicate your dietary options, consider asking your veterinarian for a referral to a veterinary nutritionist.
- If you are interested in a homecooked diet for your senior cat, you must work with a veterinary nutritionist to develop a nutritionally balanced diet.
Feeding your senior cat does require a slightly different approach than many pet parents may be used to, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Now that you know how your aging cat’s nutritional needs may change and how that impacts their health, you can have thoughtful conversations with your veterinarian about the best diet for your senior cat’s overall health and wellness.