Even Vets Are Changing Their Feeding Advice for Cats Over 7

Is your cat getting up in years? If so, you’re not alone – estimates are that a significant number of cats (40 percent as of 2012) in the U.S. are over the age of 7.1

Unlike with humans and many dog breeds, it’s not always easy to tell a kitty’s age just by looking at her. And to confuse things a bit more, calculating her age in human years isn’t quite as simple as you’ve probably been led to believe.

Cats mature quickly during their first few years of life, and then things level off. According to Calculator Cat, one accepted method of converting a cat’s age to an equivalent human age is to add 15 years for the first year of life, 10 years for the second year of life, and 4 years for every after that.2

That means, for example, that a 4-year-old cat is 33 in human years (15 + 10 + 4 + 4).

It’s important to have a good idea of your cat’s age for many reasons, one of the most important of which is insure she stays well-nourished as she gets older.

Why Reduced Protein Diets Were Once Recommended for Aging Cats

For many years, veterinarians recommended reduced protein diets for older cats. This is because 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.

The chronic stress created by a diet that is hard to digest and assimilate causes premature aging and dysfunction in the organs of digestion and detoxification. This was a recipe for disaster, because as we’ve learned more recently, aging cats actually need more protein than their younger counterparts.

Cats at Every Stage of Life Need Plenty of High Quality Protein

In 1992, Dr. Delmar Finco, a veterinary nutritionist, discovered protein requirements actually increase as pets age. Even in animals with kidney failure, restricting protein didn’t improve their health or longevity.

In fact, Dr. Finco’s research proved cats on low protein diets developed hypoproteinemia. They had muscle wasting, became catabolic, and lost weight. The more that protein was restricted, the more ill these kitties became.

Dr. Finco discovered it was the level of phosphorus in foods, not necessarily the amount of protein that exacerbated kidney disease. Since that research was published, veterinary recommendations have changed.

These days, what we recommend for animals struggling with under-functioning kidneys and livers is a diet containing excellent quality protein that is highly digestible and assimilable. We also recommend restricting phosphorus in the diet, but not necessarily protein.

If your cat is in the later stages of kidney failure, as defined by the International Renal Interest Society (IRIS), a reduced amount of excellent quality protein is suggested, but should still be offered in a kidney-friendly fresh food format.

We know that cats, as carnivores, require lots of high quality protein not only to maintain good organ and immune function, but also to maintain healthy muscle mass as they go through life and the aging process.

Protein Quality is Crucial to the Health of Your Cat

The quality of the protein you feed your senior cat is of paramount importance. The more digestible and assimilable the protein, and the higher the moisture content of the food, the easier it is for aging organs to process.

Protein quality is extremely variable. There are highly assimilable and digestible proteins (proteins your pet’s body can easily absorb and make use of), and there are proteins that are wholly indigestible. For example beaks, feet, hides, tails and snouts are 100 percent protein, but all 100 percent is indigestible.

All protein has a biologic value, which is its usable amino acid content. Eggs have the highest biologic value at 100 percent. Fish is a close second at 92 percent. Feathers, as you might guess, have zero biologic value. They are all protein, but they are neither digestible nor assimilable.

There are also foods that are high in protein but biologically inappropriate for dogs and cats. Soy is a good example, with a biologic value of 67 percent. Many popular pet foods contain soy as a protein source, as well as corn.

This is an inexpensive way for pet food manufacturers to increase protein content on the guaranteed analysis printed on the label. But because soy and corn are not species-appropriate, they don’t belong in your cat’s diet.

Unfortunately, digestion and assimilation are not measured for pet foods, so manufacturers are not penalized for adding other types of protein that have no biologic value for the species of animal eating it.

In addition to corn and soy (as well as other grains) being inflammatory and incomplete proteins for carnivores, there’s a myriad of other reasons not to feed a high amount of carbs to cats. Mycotoxins, sugar load (which leads to lifestyle induced diabetes), as well as obesity and arthritis are all solid reasons to avoid offsetting high quality protein with cheap fillers.

The Diet I Recommend for Older Cats

Some foods are metabolically stressful, while others create low metabolic stress on your cat’s body. The nutrition that generates the least amount of metabolic stress for most cats, regardless of age, is whole, raw, unprocessed, organic, non-GMO, and in its natural form.

This of course includes animal meat, which should be the foundation of your kitty’s diet throughout her life.

Foods that have not been highly processed are the most assimilable for a cat’s body. These foods are biologically appropriate. All the moisture in the food remains in the food, whereas foods that have been extruded (most dry food) can have drastically depleted moisture content – as low as 12 percent.

If you can’t feed fresh food (raw or gently cooked), the second best diet is a dehydrated or freeze dried balanced diet that has been reconstituted with an abundance of water. Your cat’s kidneys and liver can be further stressed as a result of chronic low-grade dehydration, so all foods served “dry” can pose a problem long term.

Of course, if your cat is overweight, no matter her age, it makes sense to reduce calories and fat in the diet. What does not make sense is adding fiber. Many weight management (“low fat”) and senior cat food formulas contain loads of fiber, which is biologically inappropriate nutrition.

I recommend serving your cat food in its natural state to provide needed moisture, and to insure the highest level of biologic assimilation and digestion. That means feeding a balanced, antioxidant rich, species-appropriate diet that includes omega-3 essential fats, such as krill oil.

Moisture is an aging cat’s best friend, so encourage adequate hydration by offering a variety of water bowls around the house or a drinking fountain, in addition to minimizing (or preferably eliminating) dry food. However, if your kitty is addicted to terrible food, adding a whole body supplement, such as Feline Whole Body Support is a good idea.

Beneficial Supplements for Senior Kitties

• Providing your older cat with a SAMe (S-adenosylmethionine) supplement is a safe and effective way to stall or improve mental decline, improve mobility, and assist in liver detoxification. Consult your holistic veterinarian for the right dose size.

• Periodic detoxification with the herbs milk thistle and dandelion can be very beneficial, as can providing super green foods to nibble on (sunflower sprouts or wheat grass/”cat grass”). Chlorophyll, chlorella, or spirulina can also be offered in supplement form to enhance your cat’s detoxification processes.

• Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) have been shown to be safe for cats and can improve brain energy metabolism and decrease the amyloid protein buildup that results in brain lesions in older pets. Coconut oil is a rich source of MCTs and may also reduce hairballs.

I recommend 1/4 teaspoon for every 10 pounds of body weight twice daily for basic MCT support, if your cat will voluntarily eat it.

• If your senior kitty tends to prowl the house at night and vocalize, consider low dose melatonin, which is not only a sedative with a calming effect, but also an antioxidant. I also use Rhodiola, chamomile, and l-theanine with good results.

• Flower essences can be very beneficial in supporting the mental and emotional changes that accompany the aging process in cats. There are several good lines pre-blended for kitties, for example Spirit Essences, and this treatment option is completely safe for cats struggling with cognitive challenges, or those being treated for substantial disease.

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Maybe NOW More Cat Parents Will Make the Switch from Dry Food

More evidence has emerged linking dry food diets and feline lower urinary tract disease (FLUTD).

A study was conducted at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Koret School of Veterinary Medicine to evaluate urethral obstruction (UO), which is an extremely common, life-threatening condition in cats.

The urethra is a small tube through which urine flows from your cat’s bladder to the outside of the body.

Urethral obstructions are usually mineral crystals or stones, or plugs of inflammatory material that form in the kidneys (a process known as urolithiasis), pass down into the bladder, and get stuck in the urethra, blocking the passage of urine from the body.

The urethra in male cats is longer and narrower than in females, so obstructions are more often seen in males.

Once a blockage develops in the urethra, the kidneys continue to produce urine and the urine starts building up in the bladder.

This is not only painful for the cat, it can also quickly interfere with kidney function.

The job of the kidneys is to flush waste from the body, and when they aren’t working properly, toxins accumulate in the bloodstream.

Feline urethral obstructions, if not treated promptly, can result in death in a matter of days.

Risk Factors for Urethral Obstruction in Cats

According to many, no research to date has nailed down precisely the risk factors involved in the formation of urethral plugs in kitties.

Some reports indicate certain breeds are predisposed to stone formation, including Persians, Himalayans, Russian Blues Siamese, Birman and the Egyptian Mau.

It is also thought a cat’s environment carries risk factors for diseases of the lower urinary tract, specifically stressful living conditions, living indoors only, obesity, a sedentary lifestyle, and spaying/neutering.

For some reason, a dry food-only diet isn’t emphasized in most studies as a significant risk factor for development of feline lower urinary tract disease, including urethral obstruction. I find this absolutely mystifying, given what we know about the crucial role dietary moisture content plays in feline physiology.

The Jerusalem Study

The Jerusalem study, published last year in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, took another look at risk factors for urethral obstruction, clinical signs, outcomes and recurrence rates in 82 cats with UO and 82 control cats.

The kitties diagnosed with urethral obstruction had some interesting things in common, including:

  • They were significantly younger than the control cats; 82 percent were between 1 and 7 years old.
  • They were significantly heavier.
  • More were indoor-only cats than in the control group.
  • And… most were fed dry food only (68 out of 82, or 83 percent)… 14 ate a combination of wet and dry food… and exactly none were fed a diet of wet food only.

In the control group of 82 cats without urethral obstruction, who also happened to be older and leaner than the sick cats, a little over half were fed dry food only, 42 percent ate both wet and dry food, and 3 out of 82 were fed only wet food.

An Earlier Enlightening Study

Another very interesting study1 was done several years ago to measure the effect of feeding a specific type of food (designed to increase the acidity of urine) to cats with feline idiopathic cystitis (FIC). (FIC is another of the diseases of the lower urinary tract.)

Some of the cats were fed a canned formulation of the food, and some were fed a dry formulation.

The result?

After 1 year on the canned food, only 11 percent of FIC cats had a recurrence of the condition.

Recurrence in the dry food group after a year was 39 percent.

This study was conducted by the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition. Since Waltham is a pet food company2, it’s safe to assume the primary intent of the study was to find a product that could be sold specifically for cats with lower urinary tract disease.

In my opinion, what was important in this outcome wasn’t the urinary acidifying feature of Waltham’s formula — it was how much better the canned food-fed cats fared than the poor kitties fed the dry formulation of the same food.

Why Isn’t Dry Cat Food Being Clearly Identified as a Risk Factor for FLUTD?

The Waltham study was published in 1999. The Jerusalem study was published just last year – a dozen years later. Several other studies on the subject of feline lower urinary tract disease have been conducted in the meantime.

And yet many in the traditional veterinary community seem unwilling to acknowledge the clear evidence that dietary moisture is incredibly important to urinary tract health in cats.

We know how felines are designed and how they live in the wild. And we have multiple studies showing cats with lower urinary tract disease, in particular, benefit from high moisture content diets.

It is absolutely baffling to me why more veterinarians aren’t strongly encouraging all their cat-owning clients to transition their pets away from dry diets in the direction of food with a high moisture content.

For example, at a veterinary internal medicine symposium in 2011, an associate professor at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine presented a paper titled, Risk factors in feline lower urinary tract disease3. She cited both the Waltham and Jerusalem studies (and 19 others).

Here is an excerpt from her conclusion/recommendation:

“For both cats with urolithiasis and those with FIC, a diet high in moisture may be best, assuming the owner is willing to feed it and the cat is willing to eat it. A high moisture diet is recommended for cats with stones to decrease the urine concentration of mineral precursors and is the cornerstone of therapy for urolithiasis in human … and veterinary medicine. Increasing the water content for cats with FIC may help improve clinical signs by encouraging frequent voidings.”

This isn’t my idea of a ringing endorsement for the benefits of feeding FIC cats high moisture content diets.

But she does, at least, follow up with this suggestion:

“Increasing water content in the diet can be achieved most easily by feeding a canned diet; the canned food should be placed in a separate container next to the cat’s regular diet. If the canned food is not consumed, water can be added to the dry kibble to achieve higher moisture content, although 85% moisture is difficult to attain using this method.”

And I was also encouraged by this comment on the Jerusalem study by Dr. Indu Mani, Editor of Clinician’s Brief:

“This study is very useful to the practicing clinician. Cats with UO are common in the clinical setting. Any interventional behaviors or techniques to potentially decrease UO prevalence are welcome in the clinical setting. Emphasis on optimal body weight and canned food intake as treatment recommendations is important in the management of many chronic feline diseases.”

—Indu Mani, DVM, DSc

Why Your Cat’s Food Should Be Loaded with Moisture

Water is essential for all life forms.

Your cat doesn’t have a strong thirst drive compared to other species. Kitties are designed to get almost all the water they need from the food they eat.

Healthy cats don’t lap up water like other animals do. Many kitties are obsessed with moving water, of course, but they’re more interested in watching it or playing in it than drinking it.

With very few exceptions, only cats with underlying disease will drink a lot of water. Often the disease involves their lower urinary tract, especially if they are suffering from chronic, moderate dehydration thanks to a primarily dry food diet.

Cats in the wild hunt prey, and prey consists of about 75 percent water. Canned cat food contains at least that much moisture. Dry food, on the other hand, contains only about one tenth of that amount.

If you’re feeding your kitty mostly dry food, he’s probably drinking more water than he would if his diet was high in moisture content. But as a general rule, cats on dry food diets consume only about half the water cats on moisture-rich diets consume.

Now think for a minute about your cat’s lower urinary tract – specifically the bladder and kidneys, which need to be flushed constantly with adequate quantities of urine.

It’s easy to imagine the growing stress on those vital organs when your kitty’s body is operating on half the amount of water it requires to function normally – day in and day out, for months, years, or a lifetime.

A Word about Other Risk Factors for FLUTD/UO

In addition to the key finding from the Jerusalem study that the majority of cats who developed urethral obstruction were fed dry food only, obesity and indoor living were also significant factors.

Living indoors doesn’t have to be unhealthy for cats, and in fact, your kitty is much safer living inside. But housecats do need environmental enrichment to be optimally healthy.

The following articles offer some great tips on how to make your environment feline-friendly:

Obesity in cats tends to go hand-in-hand with a sedentary lifestyle and a dry food diet, especially if your kitty enjoys an all-day all-he-can-eat buffet (also known as free-feeding).

If your cat is overweight, it’s really important for his overall health and quality of life that you slim him down – but it must be done very, very gradually to avoid a life-threatening case of hepatic lipidosis. My Valuable Tips for Helping Your Heavy Cat video and article gives you all the information you need to diet your kitty safely.

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Source:  Clinician’s Brief April 12, 2011