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Many people don’t think about what they should be feeding a senior cat. This is a big mistake, as older cats have different nutritional needs than younger cats. If you have a cat over 7 years old, it’s suggested you reevaluate their diet and make a few changes. These changes might vary depending on any health issues your cat might have. If you have an otherwise healthy cat, this advice can help your cat stay happy and healthy long into old age.
Should you feed an old cat a low protein diet?
For many years, research seemed to show that older cats do better on reduced protein diets. This is because most adult cat food is high in protein. Vets noticed cats that ate this food into old age developed higher rates of liver and kidney issues. Scientists assumed this was because of the high protein in these foods. In actuality, further research has shown it’s the quality of much of this food that contributed to senior cat health issues.
Many pet foods are essentially junk food and would be similar to you eating nothing but fast food for 10 years. Sure, you might be getting good amounts of protein and carbs, but processed food can cause a myriad of health issues in people, just like it does in humans. It’s harder for your cat’s body to digest this food which causes liver and kidney damage over a long period.
If you have a picky cat who prefers lower quality pet food, then yes, you’ll probably want to taper down the amount of protein he or she is eating. If you’re feeding your cat homemade or higher quality cat food, a high-protein diet is very important as your cat ages. Older cats need more protein than kittens do!
Science backs this up – protein is good for senior cats
In the ’90s, Dr. Delmar Finco did an experiment where he restricted the protein intake for cats with chronic kidney disease. He found not one of them improved from a restricted protein diet. Some cats in this study developed hypoproteinemia, a condition where there are low protein levels in the blood. This leads to muscle wasting and weight loss. Restricting protein in these cases made the condition worse. So protein is very important for aging pets, and you want to make sure they’re getting protein from good sources. According to experts, dry food should contain 10% fat to 28% protein, and wet 4% fat and 8% protein.
What protein sources are good vs. bad?
Animal product-based protein is best, as opposed to plant-based protein sources. Lots of mass-produced cat foods are grain-based, like kibble. Cats are carnivores by nature. While most cats won’t have major problems in their youth eating some carbs and grains, a lifetime of it can lead to health issues. Meat, however, is much easier for your cat to digest. It contains all the nutrients their bodies need. So ideally you’ll skip the kibble and give your kitty some meat-based protein.
All proteins have what’s called “biological value”. This is how much usable amino acid content it has. Eggs are at the top with 100% – every bit of them has usable protein. Feathers are at the bottom containing zero usable protein. They have protein, but the body doesn’t use any of it.
There are also foods that contain protein but aren’t good for cats. Soy (64% biologic value) and corn (60% biologic value) are good examples. For humans, they are healthy protein sources, but for cats, they are species inappropriate.
Weight problems in senior cats
Older cats often struggle with health issues, either gaining too much weight or losing weight. Both can cause serious problems. First, you’ll want to raise concerns with your vet, especially if the weight loss/gain is sudden. If your cat is otherwise healthy other than their weight, there are ways you can help normalize their weight.
What to feed a skinny senior cat
Lots of senior cats have issues keeping weight on. If your cat is skinny, let them eat as much as they want.
Cats thrive on routine, and changes in their routine can cause a lot of stress. If you go through a divorce, have a baby or move, your cat can have health issues due to the change in routine. Keeping a regular feeding schedule can help adult cats adjust to life changes. Even when other changes are happening, your cat knows they can rely on food at a set time.
What to feed an obese senior cat
Many senior cats have issues keeping weight on, but some have issues staying slim. This happens when an older cat’s activity levels decrease while their caloric intake stays the same or increases. Obesity can lead to diabetes, arthritis and urinary issues. The best way for your obese cat to lose weight is to cut calories. Since older cats won’t want to play as much, you probably won’t be able to get them to exercise. Feed your cat very small meals several times a day. You can trick them into feeling like they’re eating a lot when they’re actually eating slightly less.
Check with your vet to see if your cat has any medical issues for obesity, and to make sure your weight loss plan is healthy.
What supplements should you give a senior cat?
Antioxidants are great for all mammals, cats included. Antioxidants break down free radicals, which can cause a myriad of health issues in old cats. Vitamin E, Vitamin C (citric acid), Vitamin A, carotenoids and selenium are all fantastic antioxidants you can find in supplement form specifically for cats.
Fiber might also be a good idea to add to your cat’s diet if you find they’re having bathroom issues. Fiber bulks up feces, which makes it easier to pass.
Cats don’t digest fat as well past the age of 10 or so. Increasing their fat intake can keep their body weight up, keep their skin from getting dry and flaky and their fur shiny. Increasing the fat in their foods is fine as long as your cat isn’t overweight.
Before adding any supplements to your cat’s diet, be sure to check with your vet.
Why Omega-3 fatty acids are important for senior cats
Omega-3 fatty acids are good for a number of reasons. First, they prevent arthritis. Arthritis is extremely common in cats. Omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and break down the enzymes that destroy the joint cartilage. Omega-3 fatty acids are also shown to reduce cases of feline dementia. Cold-water fish oils, like salmon and sardine oil, are the best sources of Omega-3 fatty acids. You can simply add this to your cat’s food.
If you have an overweight cat, don’t raise the fat content of their food.
Encouraging your senior cat to eat their food
As your cat gets older, their sense of smell fades, which makes food less appetizing. You’ve probably experienced a similar phenomenon when you’ve had a cold. When you can’t taste your food, it’s less enjoyable to eat it. Therefore you need to amp up the flavor of your cat’s food.
You can often do this by warming it, as warm food smells stronger than cold food. Stick it in the microwave for 15-25 seconds just to get it warm, not hot. I also like adding tiny bits of boiled chicken to my cat’s food. Chicken thighs are cheap, healthy and most cats love them. One boiled chicken thigh lasts quite a while for one cat too – I boil one and use it for several meals.
There are also flavor sprinkles you can add to your cat’s food. These can be a little pricey but if you have a cat that’s refusing to eat, they can help.
If you’re feeding your cat dry food, store it in an air-tight container. Stale food is less appetizing and your cat might not eat it.
Feed smaller portions at a time. Large amounts of food might overwhelm them, so you can try breaking a larger meal into two smaller meals several hours apart.
Don’t serve your cat’s food in a deep bowl. Use a plate or a shallow bowl that their whiskers can’t touch. Cats’ whiskers can get more sensitive as they get older, and the sides of the bowl touching them get annoying.
I like to add a little bit of water to my cat’s wet food. Not only is it helpful to keep her hydrated, but it also keeps her food fresher longer. Wet food can be gross when it dries out, and adding water keeps it wet longer.
Getting your senior cat to drink more water
Hydration is incredibly important for senior cats. Many cats don’t drink enough water, and this can lead to renal failure. Once I took my cat to the emergency vet because she was incredibly sick. It was a sudden illness, she was lethargic and hot to the touch. I thought she was dying, it was terrifying. Turned out she was simply dehydrated. Dehydration can make even a young and healthy cat very sick.
Feeding your cat wet food helps them stay hydrated. Adding a little extra water to your cat’s food to make a “gravy” also helps.
If that’s not enough, consider getting a cat water fountain. Lots of cats prefer moving water as it’s cleaner and fresher than static water, so drinking from a water fountain or even a faucet is preferable to a bowl.
Why low-phosphorus food is important for senior cats
Chronic kidney disease is a real concern for aging cats. As mentioned earlier, protein levels in food used to be blamed for this phenomenon. However, more recent studies have shown phosphorus is the real culprit. When a cat food is high in phosphorus, the kidneys filter the extra out. Elderly cats have less-capable kidneys, and even healthier senior cats’ bodies don’t have an easy go of this. Phosphorus eventually builds up in the blood. This can cause hyperphosphatemia, an electrolyte imbalance. Symptoms of this include:
- Lack of appetite
- Weight loss
- Excessive thirst
- Muscle tremors
- Tooth loss
Hyperphosphatemia is extremely serious and needs veterinary attention immediately. With a positive diagnosis, usually done with urine and blood tests, the first thing your vet will do is administer IV fluids. This will bring your cat’s electrolyte levels back to normal. From there, if a high-phosphorus diet is the cause, your vet will likely prescribe a low-phosphorus diet plan. To prevent this from ever happening to your cat, even if your senior hasn’t been diagnosed with hyperphosphatemia, a low-phosphorus diet might be a good idea.