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Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:

I have been searching online for information about senior cat food, but there is a lot of conflicting advice. Carolan, a kitty in my house, is about 11 years old. I’m unsure if I should be switching his diet. A lot of sites said that the senior foods might say a specific age (usually 8 or 10 years) but that it varies with each cat. They say to watch the cat’s behavior instead.

Carolan still has plenty of energy and there haven’t been any changes in his behavior, but he has gotten into the habit of leaving a bite or two of kibble in his dish, even when we feed him less. Another issue: he has a urinary tract crystal problem and has to eat special food to treat that issue.

So my question is, is it OK to leave him on the same foods and not switch to a senior diet? And what signs should I look for to let me know if/when I should switch?

~ Ourika

LOLcat picture: When I was your age ....Siouxsie: Well, Ourika, there’s a lot of passion in the cat community when it comes to diet and nutrition, and we’re going to run the risk of opening a big can of worms by answering your question, because it’s an important one.

Thomas: Let’s start out by explaining the philosophy behind the development of “senior formula” diets. Cat food manufacturers began to make these products in reaction to increasing concern about obesity and disease in older cats.

Dahlia: Senior diets are made to be lower in calories and fat and higher in fiber, in order to address the obesity issue and help prevent constipation.

Siouxsie: The problem with this is, by reducing calories and fat, the manufacturers also reduce the tastiness of the food — which then leads to decreased appetite, which can cascade into a whole series of other problems as your cat loses lean muscle mass and loses his ability to effectively fight off illnesses.

Thomas: Senior foods used to have less protein than average adult maintenance diets, too. But because cats are obligate carnivores, they need a high level of protein in their diet to remain healthy.

Dahlia: It’s our opinion that the best way to keep your cat healthy is to skip the senior diet and feed a high-quality grain-free or raw diet. There are lots of great pre-made grain-free cat foods on the market these days — in fact, there are even a number of kibble brands that are made without grain!

Siouxsie: I’m 15 and I don’t eat senior formula food. My vet says I’m a fine, healthy kitty and he wouldn’t know I’m 15 unless Mama had told him.

Thomas: I’m 10, and I don’t eat senior food, either. I’m healthier on that grain-free diet than I ever was on anything else!

Dahlia: There are a lot of holistic vets and raw-food advocates that say feeding grain-free will also go a long way toward eliminating urinary tract issues in cats. That makes sense to us, because if you’re not feeding excess carbohydrates (and we can’t even digest carbohydrates because we don’t have the right enzymes in our saliva) and you’re feeding a meat diet that has the right acid-alkaline balance, that makes a big difference in urinary tract health, too.

Siouxsie: Another thing about canned and raw food is that it smells good and this will help to stimulate our appetites.

Thomas: In addition to feeding your cat high-quality grain-free food, be sure to monitor his weight: if he begins gaining weight, scale back the food a bit, and if he starts losing weight, bump up the amount a little bit.

Dahlia: If your cat keeps losing weight, take him to the vet! Weight loss can be a sign of a number of age-related illnesses including diabetes, hyperthyroidism and kidney failure. If he keeps gaining weight, work with your vet to get him on a nutrition and exercise program.

Siouxsie: Of course, now would be a good time to remind our readers that we’re not veterinarians and we are not saying that you should stop following your vet’s orders on the advice of three blogging cats! We’re also talking about generally healthy cats here. If your cat has an illness, it’s really important to work with your vet so you don’t harm your cat. Do your own research, talk about it with your vet, and come to your own conclusions.

Thomas: Speaking of vets, here’s a brochure from the Cornell Feline Health Center on the special needs of senior cats.

Dahlia: As cats live longer and healthier lives, the general point at which a cat is considered to be a senior has changed, too. Cats are considered senior between the ages of 11 and 14 and geriatric at the age of 15 and older.

Siouxsie: Geriatric? I’ll show ya some geriatric! *hissss*

Thomas: Take it easy, Siouxsie. Those are only general terms, and we all know that you are not at all geriatric — you’re noble and wise!

Dahlia: Kiss-up!

Siouxsie: The Conscious Cat website article How to Care for Your Older Cat has a good round-up of other health, nutrition and environmental factors to take into consideration as your cat gets older.

Thomas: If you’re interested in learning more about raw foods and the importance of a grain-free diet, we’d recommend checking out the Feline Nutrition Education Society. They’ve got lots of information about feeding your cat a species-appropriate diet, recipes, articles, and tip sheets on how to do it right so your cat gets all the nutrition he needs.

Dahlia: So, Ourika, we don’t think it’s necessary for you to switch Carolan to a senior diet. As long as he’s healthy and maintaining a good weight, just feed him a high-quality (and preferably grain-free) diet — and he’ll be with you for many years to come!

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