Feeding of the old cat

Feeding of the old cat
As a cat gets older, its digestive system becomes less efficient and it requires several smaller, easily digested meals a day rather than two main meals. Changes to the digestive system begin to take place around 7 years of age so that older cats need food containing easily digested protein.

Most cats enjoy a variety of tinned food, semi-moist pellets, dry food (kibble) and occasional treats of cooked meat/fish. "Complete" cat food provides a balanced diet for your cat while "complementary" food should be fed as a treat only. Most veterinarians will be happy to advise, but don't let them force you into buying one particular product; some vets get commission for selling certain brands in vets clinics.

If you use tinned food, always clear away or refrigerate uneaten food otherwise it will become stale or fly-blown and may cause digestive upsets if eaten later.

There are also "life-stage" foods available which are aimed specifically at Older Cats and Less Active Cats. These are formulated to suit an older cat's digestive system and to reduce the risk of obesity in less active cats. They provide easily digested protein, but they are often expensive and not all cats like them. Unless your cat has problems digesting ordinary cat food, is becoming overweight or is on prescription food, ordinary complete formulation cat food accompanied by fresh drinking water is adequate. Before being fooled by slick advertising for life-stage formulations ask your vet if your cat really needs it. Personally, I give an occasional treat of kitten formulation food to older cats.

Many cats enjoy dry food (kibble) and the crunchy texture may help to keep their teeth healthy. Cats which eat mainly dry food require plentiful fresh drinking water. As cats grow older they may experience dental problems which make it difficult for them to eat crunchy food. It may be useful to accustom an older cat to tinned food as it gets older since a toothless cat may swallow dry food whole; this can cause indigestion and regurgitation or vomiting of undigested kibble.

Most cats manage very well without teeth, but if your cat has problems you can chop tinned food to a manageable consistency. Some of the very firm foods can be mashed with gravy, tomato juice from a sardine can or warm water to give them the consistency your cat prefers. Gravy can also be added to dry food to soften it.

Like humans, cats sometimes need extra roughage in their diet to combat weight gain or constipation. Older bowels often become lazy and require a little bulk to get things working smoothly. Mashing one or two teaspoons of bran, porridge oats, canned pumpkin, cooked rice, cooked pasta or cooked mashed potato into tinned food will add roughage. Some older cats also enjoy warm porridge or hot oat cereal on cold mornings, but this is not suitable for cats with lactose intolerance.

A cat's sense of smell deteriorates with age and this can lead some cats to become finicky eaters; strong smelling tinned food may overcome this. Cats are also adept at manipulating owners into serving food that the cat likes, which is not necessarily the food that is best for it. Unless you enjoy preparing balanced gourmet meals for your cat try not to be manipulated as this creates a risk of dietary imbalances.

Any cat which is experiencing difficulty in eating or has lost its appetite should be examined by a vet in case there is an underlying problem. Likewise, a suddenly increased appetite, especially if it is coupled with weight loss or poor condition, needs to be investigated. Signs of poor diet include thin, dull coat, excessive shedding or dandruff, weight loss, vomiting, diarrhoea, yellow teeth and mouth odour. A cat which wobbles as he walks is probably receiving too many calories for his level of activity.

Many illnesses can cause a loss of appetite. A fairly common age-related disease of cats that can cause an increase in appetite is Hyperthyroidism. This condition is caused by a tumor of the thyroid gland, which is benign 98% of the time. Cats can exhibit many signs with this condition, including, but not limited to: weight loss (may be extreme), increased appetite, vomiting, increased heart rate, increased activity levels (old cat suddenly acting like a kitten again). There are treatments available for this condition. If your cat has exhibited any of the above signs, see your vet for an examination. Cats should be fed a diet appropriate for their age and general health (some cats require special or prescription diets).  
Some FAQs

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.