Nutritional tricks for older cats

by | Cat Care |

Do you own an older cat? You’re not alone – approximately one-third of cats in Canada are senior or mature. While there is some debate on the exact age that a cat transitions from adult to mature, in general a cat is considered mature at 7 or 8 years of age, and senior at around 14 years.  

As our cats age, we want to ensure they live their best lives and stay healthy as long as possible. The veterinary team – important throughout the entire life of our pets – becomes even more vital during these later years. There are many diseases and conditions that are common in older cats, and in many cases the earlier these are identified, the better the outcome for your cat. Ideally, a senior or mature cat will visit their veterinarian every 6 months, or more often if managing a chronic health condition.   

If a senior cat gets a clean bill of health from their vet, we of course want to try to keep them that way! Nutrition can help, but it is not quite as simple as swapping an adult formula for a senior formula. To start with, the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), which defines nutritional guidelines for life stages such as growth and adult maintenance, does not provide guidelines for senior pets. As such, there is a lack of consistency among senior formulas, with many diets made for senior cats being very similar to those marketed for adult cats.  

To further complicate matters, how our cats age is very individual. We have likely all seen the cat that, when asked what age he is, we can’t believe he’s that old. He looks so young! The changes that occur with age do not happen at the same age or rate of progression (or even at all) in different cats, so each senior cat should really be treated like the individual we know they are.  

Here are some things to consider when thinking about nutrition for our senior cats.  

Skinny or overweight?  

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for our senior cats to lose weight. In many cases, this can be due to an underlying health condition, so it’s always best to see your veterinarian when you notice weight loss. Even if the weight loss makes sense, like if a cat seems less interested in their food and is eating less, those changes in behaviour could suggest something is wrong, and so it’s best to get to the bottom of things first.  

The energy needs of cats can change as they get older. In general, mature cats appear to have lower energy needs, followed by an increase in energy needs around the time they become a senior. This means that cats first have a risk of gaining weight as they get older, followed by a potential risk of losing weight. It is important to understand what healthy weight means for your cat.  

If your cat is overweight or obese, a trip to the vet is in order. Healthy weight loss in cats should be done under veterinary supervision, especially during a life stage when health issues can develop. In fact, obesity can actually increase the risk of other medical conditions! 

Let’s consider the example of arthritis. Two out of five cats with arthritis are also obese. Why are these often seen together? Extra weight puts additional strain on joints, and pets who are painful from arthritis are less likely to be active and exercise. It is difficult to break this cycle without intervention. Weight loss has been shown to be beneficial in reducing lameness in arthritic dogs and can improve quality of life, so definitely speak to your veterinary team if you think your cat is overweight.  

Many nutritional offerings for senior cats include supplements to support joint health. There are lots of different products available, and each works in a slightly different way. Glucosamine and chondroitin, for example, are building blocks for joint cartilage. Omega 3 fatty acids, such as EPA and DHA, help reduce inflammation. Green-lipped mussel is for more advanced joint disease and helps improve joint fluid and reduces joint break down.  

Bony or well-muscled? 

This can be harder to appreciate, but as a cat ages we can expect to see changes in muscle mass. Sarcopenia is a normal loss of muscle due to age, while cachexia is a loss of muscling due to an underlying disease. It is very difficult to tell which is which just by looking at a cat, so again, it’s time to see your veterinarian if you notice that your cat appears to be losing muscle.  

How do you tell if your cat is losing muscle? Your veterinary team can score your cat’s muscle using muscle condition charts, but changes can be appreciated by feeling over your pet’s spine, shoulder blades, skull and hips. If your cat is feeling especially bony and no longer has as much muscle covering these areas, some muscle loss is likely happening. Obesity can make this harder to appreciate, since fat can cover these areas, making it harder to feel muscle tone.  

Protein is often thought of as the solution to muscle loss, and higher protein diets are sometimes recommended. While older cats can experience some changes in their ability to digest protein, and thus may need higher levels in their diet, we must consider both the quality of the protein as well as the quantity.  

Proteins are made up of amino acids, which is what our bodies use to support day to day functions. Highly digestible proteins will be broken down more readily, allowing the body to use the amino acids more efficiently. Additionally, certain types of amino acids are found in higher levels in certain tissues, like lean muscle. Therefore, proteins should always be selected based in their amino acid profile and digestibility, to ensure the pet is able to get the most from the ingredient.  

Any changes in behaviour? 

As cats age, they experience a decline in their senses of sight, hearing and smell. Smell is really important for cats; they possess 12-times more smell receptors than humans do, and their sense of smell is stronger than their sense of taste. So, when senior cats start to lose their sense of smell, we can understand why they’re maybe less enthusiastic about their food.  

There are many different things that affect palatability. Texture is an incredibly individual preference, and you may have already noticed that you cat prefers a particular formulation, such as kibble or loaf or morsels in gravy. Each have a unique mouth feel, so explore the options to figure out what your cat prefers.  

Many people have probably heard the recommendation to warm up canned food prior to feeding it to a cat. The optimal temperature? 37 degrees Celsius, which just so happens to be the body temperature of rodents – a natural food source of cats.  

But what’s more, studies have also shown that the scent profile of these canned foods change with temperature. Increasing the temperature of canned foods increases the profiles associated with cheese and meat and decreases the citrus and rancid scents. Warming up canned food for senior cats could actually make the food more appetizing! 

How about making the food more entertaining? Cognitive decline can occur in older cats just like it occurs in older humans. Diets can include additives to support brain health, such as antioxidants to combat cell damage, or amino acids like tryptophan to manage stress and cognitive dysfunction. However, stimulating the brain and providing for your cat’s environmental needs could also offer some benefits.  

Enter puzzle feeders! These tools are an excellent addition to all cat households, as they provide mental and physical stimulation. For older cats who have never used these tools before, we likely need to introduce them slowly, and adjust the feeders to their easiest setting to start. You can even hide kibble around the house to encourage your cat to search for their food but be careful about high surfaces or stairs if your cat has some mobility concerns.  

We can see that nutrition for aging cats doesn’t just stop at what we put in the bowl! How we feed can have a big impact.  

Remember, aging is an individual process, and nutrition needs to reflect this. Make sure your senior cat gets the check up that they deserve to rule out any health issues, and then chat with your pet professional about your cat’s nutritional needs. Consider both what to feed as well as how to feed to keep senior cats living their best golden years.  

Dr. Vanessa Tonn graduated from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in 2012. She gained experience working across Canada in private and emergency practice, where she was fortunate enough to treat patients ranging from tree frogs to elephants, and everything in between (including cats and dogs). As a Scientific Communications Specialist with Royal Canin, she shares her passion for nutrition with pet professionals and caregivers alike, with the ultimate goal of making a better world for pets.