By Dr. Dhananjay Pandit*

Cats are not as big as us or as dogs, but they undergo the same aging process. Your senior cat may still look and act young, but that doesn’t mean you should fill its feeding bowl with the same food it has always eaten. Depending on its health, your aging cat’s diet may require a change.

Your cat may still be a kitten at heart, but from a nutritional standpoint, the commonly accepted correlation between human age and feline age is – one year in cat age is equal to seven human years.

During the first year of life, felines age to the equivalent of a human teenager. By the time most cats are two years old, they are like a 24-year-old adult human being.  After two, they age at the rate of about four human years per cat year. Cats show middle age and retirement age at approximately 7 years and 11 years respectively. By the time a cat reaches his twelfth birthday, he is the equivalent of a 64-year-old human.

In their senior years, felines start to fall prey to many of the same ailments as we do. Some older cats experience a decreased immune response, altered glucose tolerance, decreased kidney function and several other changes like disorientation, reduced interaction, change in sleep patterns, house soiling, and reduced activity. So cats entering old age may benefit from eating food that is modified to meet some of their changing nutritional requirements.

Although some elderly cats may need to watch their waistlines, cats who are even older may have a hard time keeping weight on. Some aged cats, mostly those over the age of 12, stop gaining weight and start losing weight, actually requiring more calories. Studies show that most cats over the age of 12 have a decreased ability to digest fat, and about 20 percent of cats over the age of 12 have a decreased ability to digest protein.

Older cats, especially if underweight, can benefit from a diet with increased levels of high-quality protein and fat. Although some age-related problems respond favourably to increased fibre intake, feeding high-fibre foods is not recommended across the board for all senior cats, in part because fibre may decrease the absorption of some essential nutrients.

Older cats often don’t drink enough water, especially if the cat has impaired kidney function, and this can lead to dehydration. Offering wet food and placing additional bowls of fresh water around the house may help increase your cat’s water intake. One has to look at accessibility and increase the number of litter boxes to avoid accidental elimination as the cat is not energetic enough to travel to the litter box.

Cats are very sensitive to oral pain, and dental problems can make chewing painful, causing a cat to swallow food whole or avoid eating altogether. If your cat seems interested in food but does not eat, it could be suffering from oral pain. A visit to your Veterinarian becomes essential to address your cat’s dental issues. Dry foods designed for tartar removal may improve oral health if the situation is not advanced.

Some older cats experience decreased senses of taste and smell. If that’s the case with your cat, you will need to feed him particularly aromatic foods. Warming food slightly will cause its aroma to increase, which will often appeal to older cats. Just be sure to avoid overheating the food. Some cats eat better if they are petted while eating. Some also do better with several small meals a day.

The nutritional needs of older cats are influenced by any health problems they may have, many of which — such as kidney failure, diabetes mellitus and heart disease — are more common in older cats and often benefit from special dietary modifications made in prescription diets.

It is essential to monitor your cat’s calorie intake, since lack of appetite is one of the more common signs of disease. However, a good appetite does not rule out disease, because certain conditions (such as hyperthyroidism, diabetes mellitus,  malnutrition from malabsorption or maldigestion, parasites, and exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, among others) may result in normal or increased appetite.

Your veterinarian is the best person to talk to about your older cat’s individual diet needs. But for most healthy older cats, a commercial senior diet is available. Diets developed especially for senior cats often have increased digestibility to offset weight loss and decreased absorption of nutrients; increased antioxidants to help boost a weakening immune system; and increased palatability and softer kibbles.

Latest research based on Nutrigenomics are making breakthroughs in geriatric dog and cat health. Many global players such as Hills Pet Nutrition and Nestle Purina PetCare are studying molecular nutrition in canines and felines and trying to come up with genomics based nutritional therapies for pets.

It is sometimes a challenge to keep your older cat eating what you want him to, and you may have to make compromises. Talk to your veterinarian if your cat has changes in appetite or weight. Every cat, and every situation, is different. Respect the cat’s needs.

* Dr. Dhananjay Pandit is a veterinarian by profession. He specialises in clinical and wellness nutrition for cats and dogs. He has a special interest in enhancing the palatability of pet foods, treats, tablets and liquids for pets.