Feeding the Elderly Cat: What is an Optimum Diet?

It’s both a joy and a pleasure to be owned by elderly kitties. While some older cats may require special care due to the many common ailments to which some aged cats are prone, having a kitty that has reached a ripe old age says a lot about both their excellent genetics and/or the prudent care they have received.

To help maintain elderly kitties in the best possible health, choosing the most species appropriate diet to feed cats is a priority. But with the wide variety of cat food on the market today, designed to meet the nutritional needs of this elderly feline population, it can be somewhat confusing to decide which one is the best to feed, and some veterinarians still prescribe low-protein diets.

Hubble on seat
Photo credit: Sir Hubble Pinkerton 15 ½ year old OSH Jo Singer
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However, according to an article written by veterinarian, Dr. Karen Becker – an expert in feline nutrition,

“For many years, veterinarians recommended reduced protein diets for older cats.”

Dr. Becker explains the reason why veterinarians suggested feeding elderly cats a reduced protein diet since:

“After a lifetime of eating commercial pet food containing poor quality protein that is difficult to digest, a cat’s kidney and liver function is compromised….As crazy as it sounds, reduced-protein senior cat formulas came into being because of the terrible quality of cat foods on the market.”

As stated by Dr. Becker, premature ageing in cats, digestion, organ dysfunction and detoxification is created by diets that are hard to digest and assimilate. Fortunately, however, many veterinarians are learning today that, in fact, elderly cats actually need more protein than younger kitties.

Dr. Delmar Finco, a veterinary nutritionist discovered in 1992 that as pets age, the requirements for protein really increase. In fact, restricting protein in animals with kidney failure didn’t increase their longevity or enhance their health.

Since low protein diets have traditionally been recommended for cats with kidney disease, what I found most interesting in Dr. Becker’s article was that back in 1992, Dr. Finco’s research uncovered that cats who were fed low protein diets developed hypoproteinemia, (a condition where there is an abnormally low level of protein in the blood). They also became catabolic (the body basically wasting away), and lose weight. He discovered that the more protein was restricted these kitties became even sicker. What Dr. Finco actually discovered is that it was the level of phosphorus in foods that worsened kidney disease; basically not the amount of protein.

However, today, many veterinarians recommend that diets containing excellent highly digestible and assimilable quality protein are appropriate for kitties with kidney and liver issues. However, at the same time it is also recommended to restrict phosphorous levels.

Dr. Becker cautions that cats who have progressed into later stages of kidney failure, “as defined by the International Interest Society (IRIS) are recommended to be fed a reduced amount of high quality protein, but offered to them in a kidney- friendly fresh food format.”

What’s most important in feeding senior cats is to feed them the highest quality protein. Feeding a highly digestible protein that contains high moisture content makes it so much easier for their ageing organs to process.

Raw or “gently cooked” fresh food is an excellent diet for elderly cats. Dr. Becker recommends that if it is impossible to feed raw that dehydrated or freeze-dried balanced food reconstituted with plenty of water is good second choice. All foods that are served “dry” can, in the long run cause problems.

Of course, to prevent serious liver problems cats must eat. Some cats often become totally addicted to poor quality cat food. So if you have a junk-food addict senior, Dr. Becker recommends “Adding a whole body supplement, such as,” Feline Whole Body Support.”

What primary diet do you feed your elderly cats? Share what has worked for you in a comment.

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26 thoughts on “Feeding the Elderly Cat: What is an Optimum Diet?”

  1. We have been advocating a high quality high protein diet for over 12 years. The single most important measure of the lean muscle mass on an elderly cat is the muscle condition score (MCS). This is a reliable way of measuring how a nutrition intervention can help or hurt a cat. In case after case, over the last 8 years, we get a muscle condition score increase in 30 days in Chronic Renal Insufficiency cats. For example, a MCS of 1/3 goes to a 2/3. The original study for feeding cats correctly was done at TAMU by the uncorrupted Dr. Deb Zoran that states that cats are obligate carnivores. “The Carnivore Connection” We know for a fact that a 12 yo cat absorbs 20% LESS protein from its gut than when it was younger; at 15 yo it is 25% less absorbed protein! We recommend carbs at less than 5% (absolutely no kibble). No vets only diets are sold here ever. They are garbage and cats deserve much better. A cat is satiated by protein and low carb diets. Kibble diets (25-45% carbs) get cats fat. It is too simple. Our clinic’s median age of death for our wellness cats is 16 – 18 years old. I really hate cancer.
    All the vet schools allow the big pet food companies to hold Noon seminars with pop and pizza while the “nutrition” lecturer strokes these student’s delicate egos. It is unethical to say the least. The vet school nutrition professors are told what they can research and what they can publish by big pet food. Just as bad are the feline internists (ABVP) stating that loose DM blood glucose regulation and carbs at 25% is just fine to manage a diabetic cat is criminal. We have a 100% remission rate on virgin DM cats (n=37) I am starting to lose count of the remissions over the last 12 years. Of course we have a few non-believers that feed kibble and their cats are not on regular cat vet visits. I feel sad for these cats. Renal disease here is managed very well with supplements and medications with absolutely no need for expensive garbage therapeutic diets that BTW are NOT proven by the FDA to be safe and effective. Vet schools are cash strapped so they go for the corporate dollars. In many ways this is the State legislature’s responsibility for not funding their State’s vet schools adequately. This is also why a vet education is currently so impossibly high priced.

    1. Many thanks, Ron, for visiting and providing such a useful and transparent insight into the connection between big business and veterinarians. Veterinarians really need to be wholly independent and have the highest ethical standards. That is what most people think of them as. Unfortunately it is not always true.

      Thanks also for providing excellent information about cat food and the elderly cat.

    2. All I can say to you Dr. Gaskin in BLESS YOU. Since excellent species appropriate nutrition is the foundation of health for our cats, one would THINK that a lot of time would be devoted to proper nutritional education for our veterinary students. It made me cringe when I learned that perhaps ONE day is devoted to this crucial, basic necessity and is given by the folks who work for the companies producing low quality food.

  2. Cat care has advanced tremendously since I got my first cat in 1970. Most of my cats have been mixed breed, with a sprinkling of purebreds. They got the diets prescribed by vets until i started thinking for myself. I’ve had cats live well into their 20’s and most have reached old age. I have 6 now, all are special needs, 2 for physical problems, 3 are deaf and one has other issues. All have come to me as strays or dumped-in-the-desert cats. They range in age from 15 years to 5 years. 1 gets Purina UR for chronic UTI. 1 gets Royal Canin Fiber
    Response for IBD and pancreatitis. The other 4 get a mixture of canned and dry Purina. They also all get some cooked chicken and chicken and beef broth-all homemade. Steamed veggies of their choice are also served-I grow my own, so whatever I can harvest before the rabbits and others get it is what we eat. They are also fed in different rooms, so they don’t have to gobble. I also have a wonderful vet, who will work with me (I’m a retired vet assistant of over 40 years). There are some vets out there who will take your observations into account when dealing with your precious family members. I’ve found over the years that most small animal practices are mostly concerned with dogs. I had a vet for my dogs, one for my horses and goats and a cat only vet for my cats. The trick is finding that special vet.

    1. Susan Gort! That is so very true about veterinarians, in my experience for over 50 years of living with kitties, both purebred and several wonderful mixed breed cats. We have removed all dry food from their diets and have had excellent results feeding only wet food of high quality and to deal with any medical conditions for short periods of time. I am blessed with a wonderful veterinarian- THEY are SO hard to find- those that truly understand that cats are not little dogs. Their needs are so different. We feed very little plant based protein since cats are obligate carnivores. In fact, I am feeding a limited ingredient food now and pick out all the peas and carrots that have been added to bulk up the product and make it cheaper for the manufacturer (in my humble opinion). I wish that some company would make a LI diet without veggies.. and add more meat to the formula.

  3. Yes, Many things are complicated and complex these days, and that’s probably why so many people defer to “authorities”. I rarely have, and always do my due diligence before taking anyone’s word, no matter what degree they have. They are still ruled by personal opinion and preference, which we tend to forget.

    For example, vets who de-claw and vets who don’t. The information is the same, but opinions differ. And the money aspect affects opinions!

    Years ago, I went to an endocrinologist for hyper thyroid. He resented that I was doing research, and when I said “NO” to radiation, he pointed at this certificates on the wall. It was my clue to discontinue seeing him. I took the meds, and felt much better in a few weeks. Later the hyper turned into hypo, and I continue to take thyroid meds. It’s one thing I haven’t discontinued, and my present doc says I have to continue the rest of my life. I haven’t had a conversation with her about it though, and I have stopped on my own previously. More research is needed. My test results seem o.k.

    If a decision is about health or quality of life for me or my cat, I will not make an impulsive decision unless it’s an emergency.

  4. EVERYthing is so complicated in these times that it seems almost impossible to do anything! However, my family’s cats have lived long lives for the most part, as have my cats; we lost our sweet Mainey man last November at age 21, and my feline family now ranges from 11-19. I feed a high quality variety of tinned foods and a high quality dry food is available free choice. We have a well maintained water fountain plus a couple of bowls of water available 24/7-365. It seems to work pretty well.

  5. Great article, Jo.

    My food choices for elderly cats depends on their age and overall health. As described, any sane person could go mad looking at the various food choices on retail shelves. Personally, I just call it all hype.

    I’ve had several elderly cats. Mostly, for those 10-16 y/o, I really agree that protein deprivation is more threatening than any good derived. Those cats, I usually feed lightly cooked chicken and fish, especially if they have digestive or mastication issues.

    My policy for cats over 16 y/o is that they can have anything that they want. They earned the right.

    1. I think any person or animal over 16 should have anything they want, with a few exceptions.

      My kids never had a kurfew, which seems unbelievable to many. It was my husband who waited up, thinking of the worst case scenario of them lying in a ditch. I just went to bed, and said if anything happens, we’ll get a call; Worrying doesn’t help them or us. I raised my kids to be responsible for the consequences of their decisions.

      I wouldn’t do the same with my cats, because in my mind they are like eternal two year olds, which means I don’t allow playing in the street or letting them have treats that I know are unhealthy. I’m always watching for things that may be dangerous for them. It’s foxtail season, so after we go out for a walk, I go over her body with my fingers and a flea comb. Even when I think I got them all, I still find a few buried in her long fur. They are a choking hazard, and they can be problematic if they enter the nostrils.

      Other than those things, I’m a liberal, but watchful mom.

  6. Sandra Murphey,

    For research minded folks I always recommend “The Truth About Cat Food” Susan Thixton’s amazing site. She does incredible research and reports her findings on her site. http://truthaboutpetfood.com/

    She also publishes a really excellent newsletter (there is a nominal subscription cost) called PetsumerReports
    http://www.petsumerreport.com/. This really is an eye-opener about all pet food- not just feline, as is “The Truth about Pet Food”. I have been a subscriber for many years and have certainly had an eyeful of what the FDA maintains is appropriate pet food; it is totally disgusting and very scary.

    1. Thanks Jo, I’m very familiar with Susan Thixton’s work, and have been a member, and advocate for about 7 years. I’ve often commented on it here. But it never hurts to repeat it.

  7. Michael, I don’t think it’s going to happen (more good experiences with vets) due to the nature of the game. Our experiences in general, reflect the ups and downs of life itself. The only way we can have more ups is to make “investigative research” a priority. Most working people are unable to do this, so are subject to more “slings and arrows” because they lack knowledge.

    I see this as job potential for those of us retired folks who are research oriented. My day revolves around research of one kind or another, usually having to do with enhancing life of humans and animals.

    I’ve been this way long before the Internet arrived on the scene, and I used to pour over volumes of books at the library. I actually built my business on the back of research, which increased my profit margin 25%. It enabled me to make a minimum of 25 cents more on each dollar of product sales. And to find new sources at better prices.

    Research has been a powerful tool for me, and I learned many years ago to be aware of the “source”. That’s not to say that there isn’t prejudice in studies, and that results can’t be skewed. So, effective research is actually a complex process that many people aren’t equipped to do.

    I came across a cat website yesterday, and after reading for a short time, I said to myself “This person is mis-informed”. Then I saw that the site only had 65 likes on FB, as opposed to those qualified sites such as Cat Centric with over 5,000 likes, and growing daily. I’m not sure how many readers POC has, but it’s my “go to” site for cat information. I contribute new information as I find it. And always post comments on my personal FB page, and the one for CAT Advocate. Sharing wisdom and knowledge is the greatest thing we can do for each other. We will always have unique experiences, but sharing them can make a difference in our lives.

    Withholding helpful information is like keeping all the cookies for oneself, instead of sharing. There are lots of cookies available on POC! Thanks to you, and so many caring, sharing readers.

  8. Sandra Murphey, what gets me really fired up are the breed specific cat foods. Supposedly I should be feeding a diet for Siamese/Oriental cats for my OSHes, and a mixed-breed formula for our moggie. I gotta tell you that some of the cat food manufacturers will think up anything to engage consumers who think that they are doing JUST the right thing for their cats; no matter what their age.

    It just drives me up the wall!!! And you are correct- most of the nutrition education that is given to vet students is done BY the cat food manufacturers, who are peddling their wares so the newly graduated vets will fill the shelves in their waiting rooms with the company’s products. Some of my vet friends tell me that they received ONE day of nutrition training. Ain’t that just dandy?

  9. Jo, I appreciate your information. I didn’t change the diet of my aging cats at all. They continued to receive basic low quality canned and dry food. They were indoor/outdoor and ate their share of live prey on 5 aces in Hawaii, before moving to Northern Califoria, where they were indoor only, with no more live prey. They lived to 12 and 13yrs. In those days I knew nothing about cat care, but they were healthy and rarely saw a vet. I wonder now if that contributed to their health?

    Although I’ve come to the point of not trusting vets in general, there must have been some studies done about the effects of protein on older kitties. I immediately wonder who might have done these studies? That’s always a clue that many people don’t consider. (the source of studies) Could they have been done by pet food manufacturers? That’s just me connecting the (potential) dots. The other possibility is that the studies were done by those in veterinary science, which would support the prescription foods that seem to have less protein. It’s been awhile since I looked at some of those labels, but I seem to remember corn as one of the first ingredients.

    I’m hoping that someone can do research to find the source of the directive to feed less protein to aging cats. I’m focused on doing research for my kitty who has an infected tooth, and ways I can help alleviate some of her pain, until I get her in for surgery.

    1. I think you have touched on something there: the studies that may have been funded by the manufacturers. The presence of the manufacturers is insidious. They influence veterinary schools sometimes and there is no question that they can also create bias in studies to make there food more acceptable at the expense cats’ health.

      I, too, am losing faith in veterinarians. My experiences are not always good. I should have more good experiences.

    2. Sandra, please don’t let her suffer much longer. Has she lost any weight? Is she eating at all?

      1. Dee, She’s still eating raw food, though not as much. She’s 8.3, and was 8.12 a few months ago, but for a long time she was about 7.5, so she’s heavier than she’s ever been. She’s a small kitty, with a lot of fluffy fur.

        She’s scheduled for a 2nd opinion tomorrow. I picked up all the records so the new vet will have them as a reference. The last time she was in with a UTI. They took urine from “the table”, and we know that’s not very reliable. They diagnosed it as “bacterial UTI”, which is rare in cats. So, all the more reason for my mistrust!

        I’m giving her Oral Health, Lysine, and Rescue Remedy. I’m holding off on pain meds, but did give her a bit of homemade Canna butter to help her relax, and she slept all day.

    3. Sandra, you will hate this, but cats CAN have aspirin in small doses. 1/4 tablet on a spoon with water added until melted, drawn up in a syringe…administer.
      Do what you are comfortable with; but, this has worked over and over for me until I could get my cats’ teeth taken care of. Most always, as a heads up, most of my cats with dental issues, had to have most of their teeth extracted.

    4. The original low protein diet research for kidney disease management was done with corporate funding many years ago at the U of MN vet school by Dr Carl Osborne and Dr David Polzin. Diets like K/D and NF came into existence. They were never intended to be permanent diets because they are NOT life sustaining. Severe sarcopenia results over time. They are phosphorus restricted which we do with Al(OH)3 supplement. We only use it if the blood phosphorus is not low normal.

  10. Thanks for this Jo. Interesting article. What I don’t understand is why vets recommended a low protein diet for elderly cats.

    1. Great question. Lower phosphorus may be necessary but cats need protein to maintain muscle mass. As obligate carnivores this is a requirement. Many vets have already changed their thoughts about low protein but many still maintain the old school thinking!! SIGH.

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