Your cat's nutrition depends on her stage of life. Photography ©kozorog | Getty Images.
Your cat's nutrition depends on her stage of life. Photography ©kozorog | Getty Images.

Wondering What to Feed Your Cat Based on Age?

It's important to be concerned about identifying your cat's life stage when it comes to nutrition. Let's take a look at what's right to feed your cat.
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Popular folklore declares that cats have nine lives. But when it comes to feeding your felines, how many life stages do they really have? It depends on whom you ask. The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) and American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) identify six life stages in cats. The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) recognizes four life stages.

But it gets cloudier. Many veterinary nutritionists contend that there are only two key life stages that matter when it comes to meeting a cat’s nutritional needs: kittenhood and adulthood.

“When it comes to this issue, it seems like there are too many cooks in the kitchen, and everyone has their own opinion,” says Jean Hofve, DVM, a retired holistic veterinarian and author from Denver, Colorado. “To me, I see two life stages: adult maintenance or pregnant/growing.”

The power of protein

Cats need fatty acids from animal-based fats. Photography ©sdominick | Getty Images.
Cats need fatty acids from animal-based fats. Photography ©sdominick | Getty Images.

As obligate carnivores, kittens and cats need quality protein in their diets, says Joseph Bartges, DVM, PhD, a board-certified veterinarian in both nutrition and internal medicine and a professor at the University of Georgia’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Athens, Georgia.

“Because of growing, kittens require more protein and calorie-dense foods,” Dr. Bartges says. “They have higher requirements for some vitamins as well. One misconception is that as cats age they have a decrease in protein digestion. That’s not true. A recent study shows that 70 percent of cats older than 14 years old do not have a loss of protein digestibility. Cats can’t use fat from vegetable oils. They need fatty acids from animal-based fats.”

The best diet

So, let’s step back. Why should we even be concerned about identifying our feline’s life stage? As long as you are feeding quality food, your cat should be healthy, right? Maybe.

“You are what you eat, and your cat is, too,” says Kathryn Primm, DVM, a veterinarian and owner of the Applebrook Animal Hospital in Ooltewah, Tennessee, and host of the Nine Lives with Kat podcast on Pet Life Radio. “Science tells us that the body has different demands on it at different stages of life. When kittens are growing, they have different demands than when they are adults. And, it can be more specific than that, depending on the lifestyle of the cat.”

She continues, “Kittens are building brains, bones, muscles — everything. Adult cats are maintaining what they already built. And senior cats might be dealing with chronic diseases or weight management issues.” All three veterinarians recognize the need for therapeutic diets formulated for cats who have specific health conditions, such as urinary tract disease, hyperthyroidism or diabetes.

Dr. Bartges clarifies that AAFCO, a voluntary association of local, state and federal agencies, is in charge of regulating the sales and distribution of pet food. He says that any pet food sold across state lines by law must be complete and balanced and contain all the nutrition needed for all life stages, which AAFCO defines as these four:

  1. Adult maintenance
  2. Growth
  3. Gestation/lactation
  4. All life stages

“The guaranteed analysis and ingredient list on commercial pet food packaging are regulated,” he says. “Also regulated are the calories, size of the bag or can, whether the food is for dogs or cats, feeding guidelines and whom to contact.”

Dr. Hofve adds that commercial cat food can be labeled for one or more of these AAFCO-established standards. “But a food labeled for ‘all life stages’ must meet the more stringent nutritional requirements for growth and reproduction,” she says. “So, unless you are breeding your cat, you are fine feeding an all-life stages diet or adult maintenance diet.”

Marketing claims by commercial pet food companies can make life stages even trickier to decipher, says Dr. Bartges. “Some aspects of labeling have regulation — ‘for urinary tract health in cats’ basically refers to magnesium,” he says. “However, other information is
marketing as long as it doesn’t make a medical claim.”

Special diets

A kitten eyeing a bowl of food.
The right diet is important for your cat to stay healthy. Photography ©Okssi68 | Getty Images.

These days, store shelves and online pet supply sites feature commercial foods marketed to meet the nutritional needs of, say, senior Persians or active Bengals. “It can get a little crazy and confusing due to some of the marketing pitches,” Dr. Hofve says. “The key is to offer your cat variety, variety, variety — in terms of flavors, dry and wet food, and textures.”

One way to prevent your growing kitten or adopted cat from becoming a picky eater is to feed him a variety of flavors and textures. For example, if your cat likes wet food in chicken flavor, rotate canned food that comes in pate, gravy and shredded meat textures. For dry
food, look for kibble in different shapes and flavors, from beef to chicken to fish.

“By having an expanded palate, a cat is more apt to eat when he needs to be boarded or must stay overnight at a veterinary clinic for treatment,” she explains. “It is important a cat eat to help him heal following surgery or other procedure.”

Since adopting now 17-year-old Sundance as a kitten, Dr. Hofve has fed him a variety of cat food brands, flavors and textures. He’s relatively healthy for a geriatric cat. Some senior cats might have chronic diseases like arthritis, hyperthyroidism or gastrointestinal issues. They may also be over or underweight.

The right diet can help fortify them nutritionally and aid them in maintaining ideal weights. They may also benefit from supplements added to their diets to boost skin health, digestion and even mental enhancement. Before choosing a new food or supplement for your feline, consult your vet.

“Always ask your veterinarian to help you choose a commercial diet that factors your cat’s age, lifestyle and health condition,” Dr. Primm says. “For my clients, I select diets for their pets based on science and research that supports the claims on the label.”

Therapeutic diets

Food is fuel and it can be tasty medicine. Therapeutic diets have been developed and continue to evolve to help cats facing some medical conditions or health issues. Yes, these diets are more expensive than those you buy off store shelves and, yes, they do require a prescription by your veterinarian. Alone or in concert with medication, therapeutic diets aid with such issues as:

  1. Urinary tract disease
  2. Overactive thyroids (hyperthyroidism)
  3. Diabetes
  4. Kidney disease
  5. Allergies
  6. Hairballs
  7. Dementia or senility
  8. Dental disease
  9. Weight management

Thumbnail: Photography ©kozorog | Getty Images.

About the author

Arden Moore is a pet behavior consultant, author and master pet first-aid instructor who often teaches hands-on classes with her cool cat, Casey, and very tolerant dog, Kona. Each week, she hosts the Oh Behave Show on Pet Life Radio. Learn more at ardenmoore.com, and follow Arden on Twitter at @ArdenKnowsPets.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in Catster magazine. Have you seen the new Catster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting area of your vet’s office? Click here to subscribe to Catster and get the bimonthly magazine delivered to your home.

Read more about feeding cats on Catster.com:

11 thoughts on “Wondering What to Feed Your Cat Based on Age?”

  1. I recently adopted a 3-4 yr old fem orange Tabby, from a local humane society. She also is a very vocal talker and I love it too. She also loves her kibble but I would love her to eat a more natural diet even tho her kibble is one of the best and she loves it. I need a good directive as to what I can feed her. I have tried 3 different brands but turns her nose up to them.Help!

  2. My senior cat is very very picky. He’s gone through phases where he’s just skin and bones, he’s rejected so much food! Fresh king salmon? Steak tartare? Roast chicken? forget it! He’s pretty good now, but the main goal I have for feeding him is this: WHAT WILL HE EAT?! Forget about what he SHOULD eat; I’m ecstatic when he eats anything at all! Fortunately he’s decided he will accept some pretty pricey, top-quality catfood (much more expensive than what I’d buy for myself), so I’m going with that till he decides he’s tired of that too. Then it’s back to the drawing board.

  3. In their natural environment, cats eat warm, wet, raw, meat. The worst food for cats is dry kibble – that’s like making a cat eat dry leaves and twigs. End of debate.

  4. We just got 2 young adult cats. They were on kibble. We have them on canned but will be switching them to a raw diet next. We hope this will keep them healthy & happy a long time.

  5. We just got 2 young adult cats that were on a kibble diet & switched them to a good canned food. Next will be raw food diet. It can be shipped frozen & you can buy the supplements to add & portion it out. I’m hoping this will give them a healthy long happy life.

  6. why do so many *prescription* diets contain grains and other processed carbs? Vets should know better than selling this toxic, inflammatory stuff.

    1. I have a senior cat.She is always talking to me.I love it.She speaks when she wants something,if I ask her “what”,she answers back…I ask if she wants a snack,she really Meows.She talks wanting me to get up in the morning and etc.I went to a place in the country that advertised calico cats for free.When I went there wer a lot of cats…I picked up a beautiful cat and I asked if she had one that talks…well to my surprise,she pointed to one,so I put down the cat I was holding and took home the talking cat.The older she became,the more she talks.I love her,she is family.I enjoy her so much.
      So,answer if your are asking if your cat is talking to you and is looking at you,I would say Yes,she is talking to you.Have fun with it and teach her saying she will understand,you will have many years of fun with it.

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