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Cat Food: Senior Cats FAQs

Drs. Foster & Smith Educational Staff
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At what age should I switch my adult cat to senior food (or is this really necessary)?
Veterinarians generally consider a cat in the last third of his normal life expectancy to be "older." Older cats age at different rates. It is best to discuss the optimal nutrition for your older cat with your veterinarian.
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What are the characteristics of a healthy diet for senior cats?
In addition to a taste your cat will enjoy in a small, easy-to-chew kibble, a beneficial senior cat food will contain balanced nutrition including: high-quality protein, digestible carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, a healthy level of magnesium, fiber, antioxidants, and fatty acids. As always, if you're unsure of what food to feed your senior cat, consult your veterinarian.
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What are the nutritional requirements of my senior cat?
As cats age, their energy needs stay basically the same throughout adulthood.

Some studies have shown that senior cats do not digest, and thus absorb fat, as well as younger cats. This means that older cats may need to consume fat that is more digestible to get the same amount of energy. You'll need to monitor the weight and body condition of your cat, and adjust his diet accordingly.

Your cat's protein needs are higher than the protein needs of many other animals. Inadequate amounts of protein in the diet can impair immune function. Unless your cat has a health condition which calls for protein restriction, your senior cat should not be placed on a protein restricted diet.
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Does my senior cat have special dietary needs?
Various disease processes may require dietary changes to lessen the effects or progression of the disease. Cats with colitis, constipation, or anal gland disease often benefit from diets with increased dietary fiber. Cats with diabetes mellitus may benefit from a diet high in fat and protein and low in carbohydrates. Cats with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and colitis can benefit from diets which have highly digestible sources of protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Cats with heart disease may require a special diet with decreased amounts of sodium and increased amounts of the amino acid taurine. Cats with chronic kidney failure should be on diets with highly digestible protein so there are fewer breakdown products, which the kidneys are responsible for eliminating in the urine. Cats with dental and oral disease, who experience pain while eating hard food, may need to switch to canned food. Cats with cancer have special dietary needs; we recommend increasing Omega-3 fatty acids in the diet.
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My senior cat won't eat. What should I do?
Most importantly, if your cat is getting thin and not eating well, she should have a complete veterinary exam to rule out any possible disease problems. For a variety of reasons, some already finicky cats become even more so as they age. To encourage a cat to eat more, you can:

  • Warm canned or moistened dry food in the microwave to increase the aroma of the food. Be sure to stir the food before feeding it to your cat to eliminate any hot spots.
  • Add a little water from canned tuna to increase the aroma of your cat's food. Ask your veterinarian if your cat might also have small amounts of clam juice, chicken drippings, or baby food added to her normal diet.
  • Switch to canned food (if currently feeding dry food). Consider switching to special high-calorie, nutrient-dense diets made specially for "stressed" animals.
  • Feed smaller amounts of food more often. By offering a small amount of food several times each day, your cat may actually increase her total daily intake.
  • Ensure your cat has a quiet, stress-free place to eat. Be sure younger cats or other household pets are not harassing her when she eats.
  • Pet your cat and talk softly to her as she eats (but only if it does not disturb her).
  • Feed balanced, veterinarian-prescribed homemade diets.
  • Ask your veterinarian about short-term use of appetite stimulants.

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Should I give my senior cat supplements?
Older cats may have decreased absorption of nutrients from their intestinal tract, and often lose more of them through their kidneys and urinary tract. Also, some older animals eat less (due to conditions such as oral disease) and may not receive their daily needs of vitamins and minerals. Some evidence in other species suggest that antioxidants such as vitamins A (beta carotene), E, and C may play a role in protecting against some normal aging processes. Talk with your veterinarian to determine which supplements may be beneficial for your cat.
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