The population of senior and geriatric cats is increasing. In fact, 35-40% of cats in North America are at least 7 years of age, and it is 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 senior or geriatric?
The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) consider cats between 11-14 years of age to be senior while geriatric cats are 15 years and older.
"Before you consider switching to a senior cat food formula, it is important to first consult with your cat's veterinarian for a thorough physical and metabolic evaluation."
At an approximate mid-life point, when a cat is considered mature (7-10 years old), it is common for cats to gain some weight and exhibit age-related physical and behavior changes. But before you consider switching to a senior cat food formula, it is 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.
Why do mature, senior, and geriatric cats need to be fed differently?
Similar to humans, energy or calorie requirements in cats initially decrease in their senior years but unlike humans, energy requirements start to increase around 11 years of age. This is because, as cats age, they have difficulty digesting fats, proteins, and energy.
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 geriatric 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.
It is important to closely monitor your cat’s body condition and muscle condition and keep both in a good range as discussed in the handout “Obesity in Cats.” Maintaining healthy body condition and muscle mass reduces the risk for many 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.
Most senior cat diets are formulated with appropriate nutrient limits and are less calorie-dense (fewer calories per cup/can) than rations for kittens and young adults; however, there are currently no established specific nutrient requirements. This means that amounts of nutrients found in different foods can vary widely. Your best resource for choosing a diet for your senior cat is your veterinarian. Your veterinarian will recommend a specific diet based on your cat’s specific needs.
"Maintaining healthy body condition and muscle mass reduces the risk for many diseases."
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.
"Water is the single most important nutrient for cats of any age."
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. Have multiple bowls of varied sizes in different areas and all floors of your home. Water bowls should not be near food as cats prefer not to drink close to their food. Some cats prefer to drink running water – if your cat prefers water from the tap, invest in a water fountain for them. Clean and freshen water bowls regularly to eliminate built up debris that may deter your cat. Feeding more canned food will also increase water intake.
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.
Excessive phosphorus should be avoided in senior cats.
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.
Do I need to be concerned about offering treats and snacks to a mature, senior, or geriatric 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' people consume!
"Snacks from the table are not balanced at all and may contain high levels of fat and sodium."
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.
With just a bit of planning and monitoring, you can lay the nutritional foundation for your cat's healthy senior years.