You are the proud guardian of an older cat. Well done, you’ve kept them healthy this far. But you’ve noticed, as many people do, that the rounded, curvy kitten you adopted now looks a little gaunt, less like the muscular athlete they used to be. Their nutritional needs are changing, so you need to change their diet accordingly.
As mammals age, and this goes for humans as much as cats, they lose muscle mass. This is because muscles don’t recover as fast from injury or exertion as we age. Older digestive systems also become less efficient. The loss of digestive efficiency makes it necessary to eat more protein to support the same amount of muscle. Unlike humans, cats are true carnivores, and must obtain their protein from meat sources.
There is a school of thought that older animals should receive less protein to accommodate their aging liver and kidneys. This is a fallacy and a dangerous one at that. A high-protein diet is essential for aging cats. If you don’t want your cat getting gaunt as they age, keep the following points in mind.
When should I start reexamining their diet?
The feline digestive system usually begins to decline between 10 and 12 years of age. However, sudden weight loss in a cat with 24/7 access to food is a major warning that something is wrong. You should head to the vet immediately, regardless of your cat’s age.
Between the ages of four and nine, your cat is middle-aged. A certain amount of muscle loss and lower activity level is normal. The amount of energy they require is less than a young cat, hence the tendency for middle-aged cats to gain some weight (something else they share with us!). A little bit is fine, but too much of a belly (being overweight, really) can shave years off their life. There are various lower-calorie foods available and many vets offer a Weight Watchers type of program. And of course, you could always teach kitty to wear a collar and leash and take her for a walk!
However, after this age, your cat’s digestive system’s efficiency declines, making it necessary to INCREASE the amount of calories they’ve been taking in, particularly in terms of protein. If this does not take place, your cat will experience accelerated loss of muscle mass, which can speed up ageing and make your cat less active and mobile.
How much protein will meet their nutritional needs?
To prevent loss of muscle mass, it’s recommended that your cat eat at least 6 to 8 grams of protein per kilogram of the cat (not the weight the cat is now, but the weight your vet thinks is healthy). It is critical that the diet of the cat be comprised of at least 50% protein from animal sources. Check the label carefully and don’t be afraid to get out a smartphone or calculator and do some sums right in the shop.
DO NOT rely on the opinion of the sales clerk at your local pet store unless you know for certain they’re an expert.
Commercial pet food
There are several high-protein brands of kibble and wet food on the market. To iterate, you need to check the label to make sure that Felix is getting at least 50% protein and that it is from animal sources. You want to avoid large amounts of vegetable protein and grain content in the kibble or wet food.
Feeding your cat at home
There are those who argue for making up your cat’s diet in your own kitchen. Consult your veterinarian about this as cats have sensitive digestive systems, and a sudden change in diet from kibble and canned food to raw meat could cause a serious bout of diarrhea, which is far more dangerous to senior cats than young ones. If you do start feeding raw meat, start slowly. A teaspoon a day is a good start, increasing by one teaspoon a day every week until they’re getting their necessary amount.
You should concentrate heavily on salmon, lamb, chicken and certain fishes (avoid fish like tuna though, which can contain high quantities of heavy metals). Organ meat such as heart and liver should be fed sparingly, because the sheer density of nutrients may upset your cat’s stomach if taken in large quantities. Even the largest domestic feline is never going to be able to kill something the size of a cow, so an entire ox liver is not something his digestive system was ever adapted to handle.
The walk to the rainbow bridge
Once your cat is over ten, you know you’re now dealing with his autumn years. With a little research and the help of an expert such as a veterinarian, it is possible that those years be dignified and healthy ones. Growing old is not optional, but growing old with quality of life is.