Feeding Mature and Senior Cats
The population of mature and senior cats is increasing. In fact, 35-40% of cats in North America are at least 7 years of age, and it’s not uncommon for cats to live well into their twenties. Better nutrition, safer lifestyles, and improvements to preventive healthcare have contributed to this trend.
While old age is not a disease in itself, the body changes associated with aging make older cats more vulnerable to medical problems and disease. Cancer, kidney disease and heart disease are the most common causes of non-accidental death in cats, but proper nutrition may help mitigate the risk of developing certain diseases and chronic conditions.
When is a cat considered to be mature or senior?
Cats are considered to be mature when they’re 8-13 years of age. They become a senior when they‘re over the age of 13.
At an approximate mid-life point, it’s common for cats to gain some weight and exhibit age-related physical and behavior changes. But before you consider switching to a mature cat or senior cat food formula, it’s important to first consult with your cat’s veterinarian for a thorough physical and metabolic evaluation. Since many of the diseases commonly found in older cats can be detected early on, your cat’s veterinarian may recommend a nutrient profile to deal specifically with any current medical concerns.
"Cats are considered to be mature when
they’re 8-13 years of age. They become a
senior when they‘re over the age of 13."
What is a nutrient profile?
A nutrient profile is a specific and unique combination of protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins and minerals. The nutrient profile of a senior cat will differ from that of a kitten. It will also differ based on your cat’s health – the nutrient profile of a healthy mature cat will be quite different than the nutrient profile for a mature cat with kidney disease.
What do I need to know about switching to a mature cat or senior cat ration?
It makes sense to choose a commercially prepared ration labeled for the mature or senior cat – look for the AAFCO statement. It’s best if the product also states it was developed with the use of feeding trials.
The key principles for feeding a senior cat are to:
- control calorie intake and avoid nutrient excesses,
- ensure proper hydration, and
- provide an ideal mix of protein, phosphorus and sodium.
How do I control calorie intake and avoid nutrient excesses?
Calorie control in mature and senior cats usually means reducing calorie consumption by approximately 20-30%. In very old cats, it may be more important to increase their caloric intake to sustain a normal physique as their body condition and weight naturally declines with advanced age.
For the average mature and senior cat, reducing calories reduces the risk for obesity and many other diseases, including cancer, kidney disease, osteoarthritis, and immune-mediated disease. It can slow the progression of age-related changes and increase a cat’s lifespan.
Avoiding nutrient excesses means reducing the recommended upper limits of some nutrients, like protein, compared to the recommended limits for younger cats.
Most mature and senior cat rations are formulated with appropriate nutrient limits and are less calorie-dense (fewer calories per cup/can) than rations for kittens and young adults.
"For the average mature and senior cat, reducing calories
reduces the risk for obesity and many other diseases,
including cancer, kidney disease, osteoarthritis, and
immune-mediated disease. It can slow the progression
of age-related changes and increase a cat’s lifespan."
Portion feeding plays an important role in controlling calorie intake and decreasing your cat’s chance of becoming overweight or obese. On the other hand, portion feeding also helps you identify a decreased or absent appetite early on, which could signal underlying medical problems.
Be sure to ask your veterinarian for a specific portion recommendation, and divide the daily total into 2-5 meals depending upon your schedule. Do not rely on the feeding chart on the bag of kibble as it will overestimate how much you should feed. You want a portion recommendation tailored to your cat.
Once you know the appropriate quantity to feed at each meal, you can schedule regular weigh-ins at your veterinarian’s office to monitor any weight gain or loss.
How do I ensure proper hydration?
Water is the single most important nutrient for cats of any age. Aging, however, interferes with a cat’s sensitivity to thirst which is already low in cats and predisposes them to dehydration.
Chronic dehydration can interfere with normal metabolic function and may speed the progression of subclinical disease.
Make sure your cat has regular access to water and monitor the amount of water left in the bowl to see if there is any reduction in their water intake.
"Water is the single most important nutrient
for cats of any age. Aging, however, interferes
with a cat’s sensitivity to thirst which is already
low in cats and predisposes them to dehydration."
What’s the right mix of protein, phosphorus and sodium?
Protein is a critical nutrient for maintaining good physical health in the face of aging. In healthy mature cats, providing the same high protein/low carbohydrate option fed to younger obesity-prone cats is just fine. Once kidney disease is diagnosed, however, a kidney support diet with a modified protein component optimizes longevity and quality of life.
- A high-quality protein at a moderate level of 30-40% on a dry matter basis (DM) is a reasonable target for the mature and senior cat.
Related to kidney disease, excessive phosphorus should be avoided in a mature cat ration.
- Phosphorus is best limited to 0.5-0.7% DM for healthy mature cats.
- Phosphorus is best limited to 0.3% DM in cats with clinical renal disease.
Excessive sodium in the diet can contribute to kidney disease and hypertension, both of which can be present for long periods of time before clinical signs emerge. Some have argued that providing excessive levels of sodium in order to increase thirst would increase water consumption and decrease the risk of lower urinary tract disease. However, the risks to cats with subclinical kidney disease and hypertension outweigh the benefits to bladder health.
- Sodium content in a senior cat ration should be limited to 0.2 – 0.4% DM.
Do I need to be concerned about offering treats and snacks to a mature or senior cat?
It is important to include treats and snacks in your discussion with your veterinarian about appropriate food choices for your mature cat. Unfortunately, many cat treats are just as unhealthy as the “junk food” humans consume!
It is best to choose commercial treats that reflect the nutrient balance of the chosen senior ration. Snacks from the table are not balanced at all and may contain high levels of fat and sodium.
"Unfortunately, many cat treats are just as
unhealthy as the “junk food” humans consume!"
With just a bit of planning and monitoring, you can lay the nutritional foundation for your cat’s healthy senior years.
Reference: Small Animal Clinical Nutrition, 5th edition; Hand M, Thatcher C, Remillard R, Roudebush P, Novotny B eds.; Mark Morris Institute 2010.
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