Keeping your cat at a healthy weight is crucial during its golden years. Many owners start to notice that their cat has become very thin and bony all of a sudden. A cat that is skin and bones is just as unhealthy as an obese feline, so you need to help your cat to gain back the weight it has lost.
Many older cats lose interest in food. While there could be a medical explanation, your cat’s senses may just be declining. Improve the smell of food by heating it up and drizzling tempting aromas over it. Your cat may also be struggling to chew hard food. Switch to a softer brand. Food that is high in protein will help to increase fat and muscle mass.
Senior cats should be taken for regular veterinary check-ups. If your cat is reviewed twice a year, you can rule out medical explanations for weight loss. You can then focus on fattening your cat up through diet.
Table of Contents:
Older Cat Not Gaining Weight
An excessively thin cat can be a sorry sight. It’s natural to worry if your senior companion is looking overly skinny.
The ideal weight of a cat varies from breed to breed. The average house cat should weigh around 10 lbs. Larger breeds, such as the Maine Coon, will weigh more. A small cat, like a Devon Rex, may weigh less.
You can tell if a cat is underweight by touch. Run your fingers along your cat’s ribs. You should feel flesh between these bones and your cat’s skin. If the bones are sharp and protruding, your cat needs to gain weight. The same test can be applied to your cat’s spine.
If your cat is underweight, you will need to take action before your cat loses further weight. It is not just an aesthetic problem. A skinny cat will lack muscle mass, which will eventually lead to difficulty moving and jumping.
Sickness And Weight Loss in Cats
It is possible that your cat is losing weight because it is unwell. Many medical concerns list inappetence and weight loss as warning signs.
- Mild respiratory infections
- Dental pain
- Abdominal complaints
- Digestive blockages (e.g. hairballs)
- Cognitive decline
- Kidney failure
Do not immediately assume that your cat is sick. If you take your cat for regular check-ups, serious issues will be discovered. These can then be treated. Short-term problems, like hairballs or viral infections, will be easily identified. Focus on helping your cat gain weight the natural way.
Helping a Senior Cat Gain Weight
In theory, helping a cat to gain weight is simple. More food per day equals more calories. This, in turn, leads to more body fat.
As is so often the case, it’s not as simple as that. If your cat is eating but still losing weight, something else is at play. This is not necessarily a medical complaint. It could be that your cat is eating the wrong food. Inappropriate nutrition is dangerous, especially in older cats.
Feeding a cat empty filler calories, such as carbohydrates, will not help. Cats need protein and animal fat to flourish. The Journal of Comparative Physiology explains that protein feeds a cat’s brain as much as its body. As cats experience cognitive decline as they age, the right nutrition becomes increasingly important.
There is also the possibility that your cat is not eating as much as it should. Again, this does not mean that your cat is terminally sick. Cats lose their appetite for a number of reasons, especially once older. Some potential explanations include:
- Fussiness – senior cats can become selective over food
- Declining sense of smell, leading to inappetence
- Lack of activity leading to lack of hunger
- Sore or weak teeth making food tough to chew
These issues do not necessarily require veterinary intervention. Instead, you can aid your cat through diet and lifestyle changes.
All cats adopt a more sedate lifestyle as they age. The playful kitten you brought home 10+ years ago is now a senior citizen. The cat will adjust its lifestyle to accommodate these varying energy levels. Exercise will become the exception, not the norm.
According to Small Animal Clinical Nutrition, older cats that move less experience a decline in muscle mass. This is not the end of the world. Older cats live a quiet life. They will not be expected to hunt or engage in other prolonged physical activity.
All the same, do not allow an older cat to grow too lazy. Senior cats sleep more, usually in excess of 16 hours per day. This is to be expected. Your cat should be encouraged to move in its waking hours, though. This will prevent muscles from wasting and atrophying.
It can be challenging to convince a senior cat to play. Toys that once fascinated your cat may no longer hold any thrall. Older felines are also unlikely to climb cat trees. Declining vision makes jumps between elevated levels riskier.
You should do all you can to get your senior cat active. This is not just to build muscle mass. The more a cat moves, it will also work up an appetite. Your cat may not be hungry because it has not burned enough calories through movement. Ways get a senior cat moving include:
- Move the litter tray – just not so far your cat will not make it on time
- Invest in new, unique toys. Applied Animal Behavior Science stated that cats enjoy novelty in play
- Provide territory that requires movement, such as elevated closets
- Reward any movement with catnip or treats
The more your cat moves, the likelier it is to gain weight. Its muscles will strengthen, and it will be keen to eat more. If you feed an appropriate diet, this will lead to important weight gain.
Changing a cat’s food is often considered a last resort. While you should encourage movement first, do not disregard this idea. It may be just what your cat needs to start eating again.
Some caveats apply here. If your cat is on a special, prescription-only diet, it cannot come off this. That will just place the cat’s health at unnecessary risk. A gradual, carefully managed switch of conventional foods may be helpful, though.
If you walk through a pet store, you’ll find a range of age-appropriate cat foods. This is not just a marketing ploy. Older cats, in particular, need food designed to accommodate their changing nutritional requirements.
When your cat enters double figures, it should always be switched to a senior-specific food. In some cases, the difference in these foods is just practical. The meals may be cut into smaller pieces and softer to chew. More important, though, is the nutritional value.
As explained by Topics in Companion Animal Medicine, older cats derive more calories through protein that younger felines. Basic cat food contains protein, but it is tempered by other ingredients. These could include fillers and flavorings, especially in cheaper food.
You probably won’t even need to change brand. Reputable manufacturers offer the same food for all three feline life stages; kitten, adult and senior. Taste will be identical. The only difference is the nutritional value, which is tailored to age.
Kitten food can also be beneficial to senior cats. Kittens, like older cats, need heightened levels of protein and fat. Kitten food is a fine one-off substitute if senior food is out of stock. It provides more benefit to an underweight older cat than traditional adult food.
Variety of Food
As cats grow older, they can become fussier about food. If your cat has a limited appetite, it will only eat something deemed appetizing.
This means that you may need to mix up the flavors that you offer your cat. The same taste, day on day, can become dull or bland. Purchase a multi-pack of your cat’s preferred food. Mix and match between meat and fish flavors each day.
The downside to this is that you may end up wasting food. If your cat has a particular hankering for fish, it will reject chicken. A cat that is not hungry will wait for a better alternative rather than compromise. Alternatively, you will be pestered until you cave.
Cats live by the potency of their senses. Cats the performance of a cat’s senses decline with age. It is easy to spot a cat that is going blind or deaf. What may go unnoticed is a declining sense of smell.
The Companion Animal Nutrition Summit confirms that older cats have a weaker sense of smell. This will impact a cat’s appetite. Cats decide what is tasty by its scent. If your cat cannot smell a meal clearly, it may not be inclined to eat it.
Heating a meal slightly will release more scent. A few seconds in the microwave will do. Do not make the food so hot it will burn the cat’s mouth. Equally, do not heat it in a pan. This will kill off essential nutrition.
You could also apply strong-smelling aromas to food. Tuna juice is best, as fish typically smells stronger than meat. Drizzle this over a meal to make it more appealing. If your cat prefers traditional meat dishes, use chicken or beef stock.
A cat’s bones grow weaker as they age. The same also applies to teeth. A senior or geriatric cat may be struggling to chew and crunch on tough kibble. This will prevent the cat from eating as much as it should. It associates food with dental pain, which is agonizing for cats.
If your cat sustains itself on a dry diet, consider switching to a wet alternative. This is more expensive, but your cat’s health comes first. If it hurts to chew, a cat will eventually cease eating altogether.
Manage this change gradually. Start by mixing 10% of wet food with 90% kibble. Over time, reverse these ratios. The cat should eventually eat 100% wet food. The process can be completed in around two weeks.
If your cat does not take to wet food, look into different kibble. You’ll need a food that is soft and contains small pieces. These will be easier to a cat to eat. Overall, though, wet food is gentler on a cat’s teeth.
Reducing Ambient Temperature
A potentially controversial way to encourage eating is to drop the ambient temperature in your home. Cats eat more during the winter months. This is because their bodies burn more calories simply staying warm. Felines eat less when warm, and especially when overheating.
If your cat is being stubborn, turning off central heating may encourage food and movement. The cat will not be comfortable dozing beside an artificial heat source. It will need to move and eat to improve its energy levels.
The additional calories consumed will pile on pounds. This is all assuming that your cat and will eat, though. If it is unable to do so, you are adding an additional layer of misery. Do not attempt this unless you are certain your cat is just being fussy.
You may want to consider supplementation in your cat’s diet. In an ideal world, this will not be necessary. Cats should receive all the vitamins and minerals they need through food. Geriatric cats may need additional support to maintain a healthy weight, though.
Do not enter a diet of supplementation without advice. Discuss your cat’s needs with a vet or feline nutritionist. Flooding your cat’s body with additional nutrients may cause imbalance and even toxicity.
A skinny senior cat is not necessarily nearing the end of its life. You can help older cats gain weight with lifestyle and diet changes. You just need to factor your cat’s age into these adjustments. The right food, and appropriate encouragement, can be effective solutions.