Choosing a cat food can be a painstaking process — so much so that some of us stick with buying the same pet food for our cat’s entire life. “The truth is,” says Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, “we now know our pet’s dietary needs can and do change over time due to factors like their life stage, their overall health, and their activity level.”
What Age Should I Change My Cat’s Food?
When it comes to nutrition, there are three life stages which experts believe are important times in your cat’s life to discuss with your veterinarian. The first is the kitten life stage. During this period a cat food rated for “growth” is needed because it is specifically designed for puppies and kittens according to the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials, which sets standards for pet foods in the United States). “Puppies and kittens that are growing require pet foods with a higher protein level and a higher calorie count…to meet their growth requirements,” says Dr. Lorie Huston. “If these nutritional demands are not met, your pet’s growth may be stunted and/or your pet may become ill.” Pet foods rated for “reproduction" or "gestation/lactation” are also a benefit for pregnant or lactating females.
The second life stage for which you should consult your veterinarian about dietary changes is the adult life stage. “Obesity is the most common nutritional disease seen in both dogs and cats today,” says Dr. Huston. “One reason for this is improper life stage feeding. For example, [an adult] dog or cat — especially one that leads a sedentary lifestyle — may become overweight or even obese if fed pet food meant for puppies or kittens.” Pet food labeled as "all life stage" can also deliver excessive fat and nutrients your adult pet does not require, as it is formulated for kittens and puppies. Instead you should be looking for cat food rated “adult maintenance” by the AAFCO.
The third life stage to be mindful of is the senior life stage. Senior pets often have medical issues that may benefit from dietary changes. For example, a veterinarian may recommend a pet food that contains glucosamine and/or fatty acids such as DHA and EPA for senior cats with mobility issues. According to Dr. Huston, feeding the appropriate pet food can also sometimes be an effective method to manage diseases like chronic kidney disease and heart disease. The AAFCO does not have a senior life stage, so look for a pet food with an adult maintenance statement for your senior cat.
What are other Signs it’s Time to Change My Cat’s Food?
In addition to consulting with your veterinarian about nutrition as your cat undergoes changes in life stage and lifestyle, it’s vital to watch out for certain visible signs a change in diet is needed. Here are six common signs you’ll want to be wary of…
1. Dull, Flaky Coat
Diets rich in essential fatty acids are a key component in keeping a cat’s skin healthy, and therefore his or her coat, in tip-top shape. Many at foods are designed with skin and coat improvement in mind. Look for a diet containing both Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids to make your cat’s coat shiny and bright in no time.
If your cat had recently undergone a stressful event, illness, or surgery, he may understandably be a little worn out. Diets with high levels of antioxidants can help boost the immune response to accelerate your cat’s recovery and get them back on their feet in no time. Remember: a cat who is suddenly acting lethargic and weak should be evaluated by a veterinarian before making dietary changes.
Depending on the size of the animal, pets are considered middle-aged to senior around 5-7 years. And as our cats age, their nutrient requirements change too. Senior diets, for example, are generally lower in calories but higher in fiber, and often have supplements specific to this life stage such as joint support and antioxidants. Forgo “all life stage” pet food for senior pets, says Dr. Vogelsang. It is formulated with kittens and puppies in mind and will deliver excessive “fat and nutrients your senior pet does not require”.
4. Hefty Midsection
It doesn’t take much for a pet to wind up with some extra weight on their frame — and this is particularly noticeable with small cats. “If your pet needs to lose a few inches,” says Dr. Vogelsang, “a diet specifically designated for weight loss will ensure that they still have the proper amount of essential nutrients, vitamins, and minerals while ingesting fewer calories.” These diets take advantage of the latest research in pet weight management to ensure your cat is on their way to a healthier weight in no time! If your cat is extremely overweight or obese, however, it's best that you consult with your veterinarian for a therapeutic nutritional solution.
5. GI Disturbances
“Chronic flatulence, loose stool, or rumbly stomachs can be the result of food intolerance or the low quality of food that you’re feeding your pet,” says Dr. Vogelsang. GI upset is an inconvenience to owners as well as being uncomfortable for your pet. Consult with your veterinarian as the solution may be as easy as switching to premium cat food or a sensitive stomach diet that’s right for your pet.
6. Itchy Cat
Allergies are common in pets, and food is just one of several possible causes. Regardless of the cause, though, allergic pets may benefit from a low-allergen diet that reduces the amount of potential allergens they are exposed to. Your veterinarian can recommend either a prescription diet or an over the counter sensitive skin diet, depending on your cat’s particular needs.
Plan for Success
Choosing the proper diet is one of the most important ways to ensure your cat’s long-term health, but it’s no substitute for medical care. If you suspect your cat may benefit from a new diet, consult a veterinarian! Good food and good choices lead to a long, healthy, happy life.
Portions of this article were adapted from Six Signs it’s Time to Change Your Pet’s Food by Jessica Vogelsang, DVM.