Imagine if the only food available to you were peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches. Even if you did love PBJs, you would probably be sick of them, making mealtime more boring than welcoming.
You really are what you eat — and so is your cat. Like you, your cat needs and deserves a quality diet that adjusts to meet his ever-changing health needs. After all, food is fuel and variety is valuable. Selecting the right foods and supplements can help you and your cat age well.
“For any species, including cats and people, the nutritional needs will vary based on their life stages and their health conditions,” says Dr. Lindsey Bullen, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist at BluePearl Veterinary Specialty Hospital in Cary, North Carolina. “And, the nutrient needs are impacted by how active a cat is. Because every cat is unique and every life stage has different nutritional needs, your cat will not be OK with eating one diet for his entire life.”
Updated life stages
Today, veterinarians identify these five life stages for felines:
- Kitten – birth up to 1 year
- Young adult – ages 1 to
- Mature – ages 7 to 10 years
- Senior – older than 10 years
- End of Life – geriatric cats
Each stage presents its own food needs and challenges based on the cat’s health and other factors. The good news is that the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) and the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) updated their Feline Life Stages Guidelines as well as guidelines for senior cats in 2021.
“Each cat is an individual, but the AAHA/AAFP life stage guidelines serve to factor in a cat’s age, health condition, lifestyle habits and much more,” says Dr. Hazel Carney, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist who served on the AAHA/AAFP task force. “We have gained so much knowledge of cats since our original guidelines came out in 2010.”
All felines of all ages require :
- protein, specifically, and
- 11 essential amino acids to thrive. A diet should be based on a cat’s age, reproductive status, weight, activity level, presence of disease and any future possible health concerns.
Let’s take a closer look at the nutritional needs of cats throughout the five life stages: →
Kittens between 3 and 5 weeks old can be transitioned onto commercially balanced kitten foods. By 10 weeks of age, when kittens become quite active, they need to consume more than twice the number of daily calories than a feline who is 10 months old.
Spaying and neutering can be linked to excessive weight gain during this stage. Measure out mealtime portions to growing kittens to help prevent weight gain.
A young kitten needs a different calcium and phosphorus ratio than, say, a senior cat who has kidney issues.
This is also the ideal age to help your feline develop a diverse palate, so he does not become a fussy eater.
“A cat’s willingness as to what he eats is based on what he is exposed to eat within his first six months,” says Dr. Carney, on staff at the WestVet Emergency and Specialty Center in Garden City, Idaho. “This is the time to introduce your youngster to shreds, pate, whole meat, freeze-dried, vegetables and more. This way if you run out of your cat’s favorite food, he will be more apt to eat other types.”
Dr. Bullen adds, “I’m a huge fan of rotational feeding because if your cat ever develops a food allergy, needs to be hospitalized or put on a prescription diet, he is more apt to accept the new food and not go on a hunger strike.”
Once your feline becomes a young adult cat, it’s time to factor in your cat’s health status, activity level, if spayed or neutered and be weighed regularly. Working with your veterinarian, you can adjust the amount your cat eats to maintain an ideal body condition.
Overweight and obese cats can be at greater risk for such chronic health conditions as diabetes, osteoarthritis, urethral obstructions and some types of skin diseases.
Dr. Carney says this is why it’s important to not free feed your young adult cats, but rather, feed them measured-out meals twice a day. This gives you a baseline to share with your veterinarian, especially if you don’t know why your cat is suddenly gaining or losing weight.
Dr. Carney says it’s important to not free feed your young adult cats, but rather, feed them measuredout meals twice a day.
Mature, senior and geriatric
Once cats turn 7 and enter the mature adult cat stage, it’s a good time to have another chat with your veterinarian on their dietary needs and amount of food they should eat to avoid being overweight or underweight.
“As a cat ages, his ability to digest and absorb nutrients changes and, in general, it declines,” Dr. Carney says. “One-third of cats can’t absorb or digest protein as well at age 13 than they could do at age 6 or 7. So for senior cats and older, in order to maintain their weights, we need to give them easier-to-digest nutrients and more of them.”
Cats earning senior status may develop some digestive issues as well as health issues that can include kidney disease, diabetes, obesity, hyperthyroidism and osteoarthritis. They may need to be properly transitioned to a new diet, which may be one prescribed by veterinarians to best tackle a specific health concern.
At this stage, the debate over adding more protein or reducing protein in meals revs up.
“This is definitely a hot topic among veterinarians,” Dr. Carney says. “Over time, we have learned that it is more about what protein is available, how digestible it is and the calcium-to-phosphorus ratio in those protein sources. We have also learned that total protein restriction is not beneficial, especially in cats in early renal function stages.”
She adds, “What we know now is that in order for a cat to maintain his best weight and structure, he needs to eat a certain level of protein per pound per day. Cats need to eat an increased number of calories as they age in order to maintain their weight.”
Cats identified as pre-diabetic or in the early stages of diabetes benefit by being fed a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet. This is based on findings in recent studies.
“Cats are not designed metabolically to process carbohydrates well,” Dr. Carney says. “Cats who tend to eat a lot of carbohydrates become obese.”
In felines of all ages, drinking enough water to stay hydrated is vital to overall health. That’s where wet food comes in to play in older cats.
“Younger cats can do much better on dry food than older cats who need additional water because they naturally dehydrate as they age,” Dr. Carney says.
Cheers to Seniors
Most cat food brands have expanded their lines to include diets for life stages, particularly seniors. Here are just a few examples of diets that meet the specific needs of our sensational seniors:
Learn more from the AAHA/AAFP Life Stage Guidelines You can view the entire 22-page AAHA/AAFP Feline Life Stage Guidelines by going to aaha.org.