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Optimum Nutrition for Older Cats
All creatures have three major life stages: growth, adulthood and old age. Our nutritional needs evolve with each stage of life. That is as true for our pet cats and dogs as it is for ourselves. Cats can switch from kitten food to adult food around one year of age, but their dietary needs as they age don’t follow such a clear path. A cat’s process is determined to some degree by its breed, genetics, life circumstances and overall health. Many senior cat foods have a suggested age on the package, but that is a guideline only. One cat might need senior cat food at five years old, while another won’t until age ten. Of course, when we adopt a cat from a rescue, we seldom know its age with certainty.
Because of this, it is important to know and watch for signs that a cat actually needs a change of diet. A fit, active, happy cat doesn’t need to change diets. If your cat can still jump and has a healthy coat, she isn’t in her senior years just yet. That said, cats over age 10 or 12 should be monitored for changes to their health and dietary needs. Cat owns should watch for these signs of aging, and work with their vet to find the best food for their unique and individual cat:
Less active. Cats are very playful by nature, so if your cat is losing interest in play time but otherwise well, it is a sign of aging. Kitties also enjoy climbing, jumping and exploring. When your cat starts to spend more time napping and less interest in exploring, that’s middle age.
Weight gain. That decrease in activity naturally leads to an increase in weight. If you kitty is getting a pot belly, that tells you her food has more calories than she needs at her age. Everyone’s metabolism slows with age, even your cat’s.
Difficulty chewing. If your older cat is struggling to chew her dry food, that is a sign that she might need a change of diet. A dry food with smaller pieces or more wet food could help. But this is also a sign that she needs her teeth checked and perhaps it’s time for the vet to clean them.
Changes in bowel or bladder habits. Any change to what happens in the litter box – or if your cat fails to use the litter box – indicates you need to ring the vet. As cats age, they become more susceptible to kidney problems. Increasing the moisture content in their diet is one way to help prevent urinary tract problems.
Grocery stores stock a lot of foods marketed for senior cats. They usually have the suggested age to switch to this food on the package. It would be great if feeding cats an optimum diet was that simple! But it isn’t. First, cats do not age at the same rate. Second, these foods are all so different that the term ‘senior’ on the package is meaningless. While most have less protein than their regular adult counterparts, some have more. No matter what the food is called, pet owners need to read the label carefully. And to make any sense of what the label says, we need to talk to our vets when our cats show signs of aging and learn what they need. There is no single cat food that is perfect all older cats. Some will need less protein and fat, while others need more moisture. Some older cats need extra encouragement to eat, while others need to eat less. Your vet is the best person to advise you about what your senior cat should eat. Ask your vet about the specific food you are considering for your older cat, and show her a list of the ingredients.
Changing your cat’s diet is not easy. Our feline friends are notoriously picky eaters. Above all else, do not let your cat go more than 24 hours without eating. This can lead to a serious health crisis called hepatic lipidosis, which is fatal. This is when the liver becomes overwhelmed trying to process the body’s fat stores for survival because the animal isn’t taking in food. If your cat refuses food and begins to vomit, becomes lethargic or jaundiced or otherwise shows signs of being unwell, she needs urgent vet care.
To avoid this, change the cat’s food slowly and gradually. Add a small amount of the new food to the regular food, and mix it well. (And don’t be surprised if your cat picks out the new food at first.) Increase the amount of new food very slightly every day while decreasing the amount of old food. Even if your cat is one of those rare felines who happily eats whatever you serve, an abrupt change in diet is not good for an older kitty.