As cats grow older, they find it harder to digest food – particularly protein. However, that’s not to say that protein is bad for old cats. It’s a common misconception that all senior cats should be placed on a low-protein diet.
Cats over the age of 12 find it harder to smell and taste their food, so they may start to lose their appetite. As such, you should look for cat food that excites their taste buds. We’ll show you what types of protein are healthy and tasty for senior cats.
- 1 Nutritional Requirements for Older Cats
- 2 What Is the Best Food for Senior Cats?
- 3 Special Dietary Requirements for Older Cats
- 4 How to Encourage an Old Cat to Eat
Nutritional Requirements for Older Cats
A cat’s dietary requirements change throughout their lifespan. You should determine which age category your cat fits into:
- Kitten (less than 6 months)
- Young Adult (7 months to 2 years)
- Adult (3-6 years)
- Mature (7-10 years)
- Senior (11-14 years)
- Geriatric (15+ years)
Pet food manufacturers develop different products to suit each stage of the lifespan. You might think that there’s not a lot of difference between a “mature” cat and a “senior” cat. However, research suggests that cats do have quite different nutritional requirements at these two different stages.
When cats enter the “mature” stage, they tend to put on weight quite easily. Cat foods labeled “mature” or “7-10 years” will often be relatively low in calories to prevent weight gain.
On the other hand, cats over 11 years of age often find it hard to maintain a healthy body weight. That’s the reason why cat foods labeled “senior” or “11+” are very calorie-dense and contain good-quality sources of protein.
As mentioned, cats over the age of 11 generally find it harder to digest protein than younger cats. However, this certainly doesn’t mean that protein should be eliminated from their diet.
How Much Protein Should an Older Cat Eat?
Old cats sometimes struggle to digest the protein in cheap, commercial cat foods – so it was previously thought that senior cats must have low protein requirements.
However, this is untrue. In fact, senior cats require foods that contain high-quality, single-source, forms of protein (muscle meat or organ meat).
According to the National Research Council, cats (including seniors) should eat 6-8g of protein per kilo of body weight, per day. You should check the label on your pet food to ensure your cat is getting enough protein in their diet.
Can Cats Eat Too Much Protein?
If your cat has kidney disease, they may become very ill on a diet high in protein, or a diet based on poor-quality protein. So, yes, it’s certainly possible for a cat with kidney disease to consume “too much protein.”
However, if your senior cat does not have any diseases, it’s unlikely that a meal could contain “too much protein.” However, if the meal contains too much poor-quality or ingestible protein, your cat may certainly struggle to digest it. Inferior forms of protein include:
- Meat meal (rendered animal parts from various sources)
- Meat byproducts
When choosing a cat food for your senior cat, you should avoid the above ingredients (especially if they appear at the top of the ingredients list). Nevertheless, if you want to improve your cat’s diet, it’s crucial to consider other factors besides protein content.
What Is the Best Food for Senior Cats?
When choosing a pet food for your senior cat, consider the following nutritional guidelines:
- Older cats (11 years+) usually require calorie-dense cat food.
- Look for cat food that contains 30-40% good-quality, digestible protein (dry matter basis) – as long as your cat has no chronic diseases.
- Good senior cat food will have added vitamins and essential fatty acids (EFAs) to support your cat’s digestive system and overall health.
- Canned/wet food is recommended for senior cats (perhaps with small amounts of kibble).
- Smell and palatability are important to consider because older cats can lose their appetite.
- Senior cats should be fed small but regular portions to encourage digestion.
- If your cat has an age-related illness, they may require a medically formulated pet food.
Some of these points are quite complex so let’s review them in more detail.
Calorie Requirements for Older Cats
Humans require fewer calories as they move into old age, but cats are not the same. Most vets agree that senior cats (11+) need just as many calories as younger cats (and sometimes more!).
If your cat is starting to look scrawny, you should look for pet food that’s higher in calories or encourage them to eat more regularly.
So, what are the calorie requirements for older cats? Assuming your cat is currently a healthy weight for their body type/breed, you should feed them the following calories per day:
- 5lb (small, lean breeds such as Siamese) – 170 kcals
- 10lb (medium-sized breeds such as American Bobtail) – 280 kcals
- 15lb (large breeds such as Maine Coon) – 360 kcals
These guidelines are provided by the National Research Council. If your cat is already underweight or overweight for their breed, their daily caloric requirements may be different, so speak to your vet.
Key Ingredients in Senior Cat Food
As you’ve probably noticed, there are specially formulated cat foods for “senior” cats. But what’s so special about senior cat food? If you pick a good-quality, reputable brand, the cat food will have many (if not all) of the following characteristics:
- 30-40% (dry basis adjusted) digestible protein from whole, single sources. Look for cat foods that contain muscle meat or organ meat at the top of the ingredients list; look out for ingredients like “chicken” “pig’s heart” or “fresh liver.”
- Added vitamin E (tocopherol) and vitamin C to promote kidney functioning.
- Added omega 3 fatty acids because cats struggle to absorb fats as they get older.
- Prebiotics/probiotics to support digestion.
- Easily digestible starches (corn, pea, sorghum).
- Perhaps some fiber to promote digestion (i.e., beet pulp).
- Calorie-dense compared to “adult” or “mature” cat food.
- May contain lower levels of sodium and phosphorous.
Do I Need to Feed My Cat Senior Pet Food?
Specialist “senior” pet food has a higher price tag than “regular” cat food. This is because it contains high-quality protein and added vitamins to support your cat’s health.
If you are on a tight budget, you might be wondering if it’s worth paying extra for senior cat food. While your cat may do perfectly OK on regular cat food, you should at least try to purchase pet food that contains a good amount of high-quality protein (i.e., 30-40%).
In many ways, “senior” pet food is quite similar to premium cat food because it contains high-quality, digestible protein. The added extras such as omega 3 and fiber can also be found in some premium cat foods. So, if your budget allows it, you should look for either a premium cat food or “senior” cat food to feed your aging kitty.
If your cat has a medical condition, feeding them a specialist cat food is necessary.
Is Wet or Dry Food Better for Older Cats?
In general, the quality of the food matters more than its wet/dry status. However, when feeding senior cats, most vets would recommend a predominately wet food diet (perhaps with small amounts of kibble). This is for two reasons:
1) Wet Food is Higher in Protein Than Kibble
Healthy aging cats should eat a product that’s 30-40% protein (dry basis). Wet food may appear to be low in protein because, according to the label, it typically has around 10% crude protein.
This is because it contains a lot of moisture. You can get a rough estimate of the dry basis equivalent by multiplying the protein content by 4. So, a wet food with 10% crude protein contains about 40% on a dry feed basis.
If you compare your wet and dry cat foods, you will see the wet food contains higher amounts of (usually) higher-quality protein.
2) Older Cats Are Prone to Dehydration
Added to which, older cats are less physically mobile so they might not have the energy to drink water in the same way that a younger cat would. Feeding them a wet food diet should help to increase their fluid intake and prevent dehydration.
Special Dietary Requirements for Older Cats
Cats suffering from the following diseases will often require a medically formulated pet food:
- Colitis (inflammation/infection of the colon)
- Chronic Kidney Disease/Failure
- Heart Disease
- Tooth Problems
- Food allergies (these sometimes begin in middle-life)
- Irritable Bowel Disease
If your cat is diagnosed with one of these conditions, your vet will probably recommend one of the specialist diets discussed below.
Protein Requirements for Cats with Kidney Disease
Kidney disease is among the the most common chronic diseases in elderly cats. Persian cats are most likely to suffer from this condition, but it can affect any breed. If your cat has kidney problems, they will need to eat less protein than a healthy cat.
When a healthy cat eats protein, their kidneys filter out the waste products from the protein, and these waste products are expelled in the cat’s urine. Cats with kidney problems are not able to perform this function efficiently, so they get a build-up of toxic waste products in their blood.
But this doesn’t mean protein should be eliminated from their diet completely – cats need some protein to survive! Instead, they must be fed pet food specifically formulated for cats with kidney disease. These can be prescribed by a vet, but they are also available commercially.
These cat foods are quite similar to “senior” cat foods, but there are a few differences:
- Less Protein – These cat foods contain around 20 – 30% protein (dry feed basis). The protein is very high-quality to reduce the burden on the kidneys. Rabbit or plant-based isolates are the primary protein sources used.
- Low Levels of Sodium – At less than 0.4%, these specialists cat foods contain even less sodium than “senior” pet foods. This is to prevent dehydration.
- Low Levels of Phosphorus – Phosphorus significantly speeds up the development of kidney disease, so this cat food contains very low levels (less than 0.6%) of phosphorus. Rabbit meat is naturally low in phosphorus, so it is often used in this type of pet food.
If you put your cat on a specialized diet, you will likely slow down the development of chronic kidney disease.
What Should I Feed my Diabetic Cat?
If your cat has diabetes mellitus, you should take steps to improve their diet as early as possible. Cats with diabetes are usually overweight, so you’ll need to try and reduce the number of calories they consume without cutting out any of the vital nutrients from their diet.
According to Vettimes, there are two types of diets that work well for diabetic cats:
- A High Fiber/ High Complex Carbohydrate Diet
- A High Protein / Low Carbohydrate Diet
A high-fiber diet can aid diabetes because it can slow down the time it takes for food to pass through the GI tract. Ultimately, this may improve insulin sensitivity.
Also, meals that are high in fiber are less calorific than meals high in carbohydrates or meat/carbohydrates. As such, a high fiber diet can help with weight management.
It should be said that certain types of fiber work better than others, and there can be side effects to this diet such as bloating or loose stools. It’s best to try this diet under the guidance of your vet.
The alternative diet is the high-protein low-carb diet. A good-quality, high protein wet food is a lot less calorie dense (and usually more satisfying) than kibble.
If, after trying these diets, your cat does not lose any weight, consider the following weight management tips – as weight loss should help to manage diabetes:
- Add up your cat’s current daily intake of calories and reduce it by 15-20%. This should encourage your cat to lose about 1.5% of their body weight per week. Do not try to force weight loss any faster than this or your cat may develop hepatic lipidosis.
- Encourage your cat to be more physically active (though this may not be appropriate if your cat is very old).
- Remove all treats from your cat’s diet. Spend the extra money on tastier, high-quality wet food.
Cats with diabetes who can lose weight will have a much better quality of life.
Best Protein for Cats with Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a complex disease that affects digestion. A cat with IBD will often have the following symptoms:
- Diarrhea/ Loose Stools
- Bloating / Flatulence
- Loss of Appetite
- Weight Loss
Scientists aren’t honestly sure what causes IBD but there’s a chance diet may play a role. For example, your cat’s diet may influence the microbiome in their stomach, causing IBD to develop. Even if a diet is not the cause, changing your cat’s diet often helps to manage the condition.
So, what should you feed a cat with IBD? All cats need protein so you should feed them a high-quality, digestible source of protein. It’s best to stick to cat food that has only one or two sources of protein. Ask your vet about hypoallergenic cat foods as these are often suitable for cats with IBD.
If this is not helping, the second type of “diet therapy” is to try a cat food high in fiber. It might sound counterproductive to feed at cat fiber if they are already having diarrhea, but it can sometimes help.
Do not purchase cheap kibble high in starch, but instead opt for cat food with health-supporting fiber such as beet pulp. You can find medically formulated cat foods for cats with IBD.
If the serious symptoms continue (vomiting, diarrhea, and weight loss), your vet may recommend additional treatments such as – B12 shots, antibiotics, appetite enhancers, steroids, or probiotics.
How to Encourage an Old Cat to Eat
As their taste buds dampen, and their sense of smell deteriorates, older cats can lose their appetite. In many cases, you can intervene and help reignite their passion for food.
Consider the following tips:
- Offer Something New – We’ve discussed what type of cat food you should feed your cat but remember there are many different brands out there – each tasting different. If your cat is reluctant to eat, perhaps they are not very keen on the food you’ve bought them, so see if a new product can tempt them.
- Gravy – Cats are less efficient at chewing as they grow older so many prefer to lap up sauce/gravy-based cat foods.
- Room Temperature – Food should be served at room temperature or perhaps a tiny bit warmer to help bring out the smell and the flavor. Try heating your cat’s food in the microwave for a couple of seconds to see if this will tempt them (don’t make the food hot).
- Fresh Food in Small Amounts – Senior cats should be fed small amounts of fresh food throughout the day.
- Low Bowl – Some cats don’t like the sensation of their whiskers touching the food bowl. If your cat seems reluctant to eat, try feeding them on a plate or a bowl with very low sides.
- Take the Food to Your Cat – Many old cats develop arthritis and struggle to move around.
- Cooked Meat – Many cats love the taste of freshly cooked meat (such as chicken). You could offer your cat some cooked meat, as long as they don’t have kidney problems.
- Tuna Water/Juice – Again, this tip is not suitable for cats with kidney disease but adding tuna water to your cat’s regular food may help entice them to eat.
If your cat refuses food for over 24 hours, you should consult your vet.
Is My Senior Cat A Healthy Weight?
Weight management can be a struggle at any stage of a domestic cat’s life. During mid-life (7-10) obesity can become an issue and then in late life (10+) cats are more likely to be underweight than overweight (partly because their body struggles to store fat).
This chart from the AAHA demonstrates what a healthy-weight cat looks like. The ideal number for a cat is 5 on their 5-9 scale. A healthy cat will have:
- A well-proportioned waist
- Ribs will be evident but with a slight fat covering
- There will be minimal abdominal fat.
If the cat’s vertebrae are visible, this suggests they are very underweight. Conversely, if a cat’s ribs aren’t visible/palpable at all, this suggests they are overweight. You should check the weight of your cat to determine if their current diet is satisfactory or not.
Key Points to Remember
We’ve looked at the protein requirements for older cats. It has also discussed the common issues pet owners face when caring for older pets – such as reduced appetite and chronic illness. Before you make any changes to your cat’s diet, here are the key points to remember:
- All cats require some protein in their diet; they cannot survive without it.
- If your cat is old but otherwise healthy, they’ll be able to process most types of cat food. However, it’s best to feed them a specially formulated “senior” cat food, or a premium cat food that contains high-quality, digestible protein.
- If your cat has kidney disease, they must eat a specially formulated pet food that is lower in protein – and contains minimal sodium and phosphorous.
- If your cat has diabetes, a high-protein/low carb diet OR high-fiber/high carb diet works well.
Finally, senior cats sometimes need “persuading” to eat their meals, so make sure your cat is consuming enough calories to stay healthy.