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Cat Food Nutrition Guidelines: From Kitten to Senior

Your cat's age is key to the amount and type of food you'll want to provide. You may also need to adjust the type of formula you feed based on their activity level or weight. Whether your cat has hairball issues, is an indoor cat, has been spayed or neutered, is pregnant, has a dry skin and coat or has a sensitive stomach, there are unique formulas that are specifically targeted to help meet their needs. Learn the basic guidelines for ensuring that you're feeding your cat the right food at every life stage.

What to Know About Kitten Nutrition

Kittens need more energy-producing nutrients—like proteins and fats—and more vitamins, minerals, and water than adult cats. Essential fatty acids help maintain the health of your kitten's skin and coat, reproductive system, and metabolism. Vitamins help develop their vision, as well as strong bones and healthy teeth. Food that is formulated especially for kittens provides all of these nutrients in the right amounts to help your kitten develop and grow into a healthy adult cat.

Since their smaller tummies fill up so quickly, kittens need the most concentrated form of nutrition possible, served in several small meals a day. Whether you feed your pet wet or dry food (or a combination of both) depends on personal preference. Never feed adult food to your kitten or vice versa. Kittens need more calories than adult cat food provides and adult cats do not need the level of fat and calories offered in kitten food. Failing to provide proper nutrition for your kitten could lead to malnutrition or obesity, improper bone and muscle development, or poor immune health.

When to Transition from Kitten to Adult Cat Food

When your kitten is approximately one year old, their nutritional needs will change and you'll want to switch your pet to an adult food with less protein and fat and fewer calories. This is a good time to consult your veterinarian about your cat's individual health requirements.

When transitioning your kitten to adult cat food, do so slowly over a period of 7–10 days. To begin the conversion, start with approximately 75 percent kitten food mixed with 25 percent of the new adult food. After about three days, increase the mixture of the adult to kitten food to 50 percent. About three days later, increase the adult mixture to 75 percent and reduce the kitten food to 25 percent. After that, you can switch to 100% adult food. You might also want to integrate wet food into your cat's diet for more variety and increased hydration.

Nutrition for Adult Cats

There are more formulas than ever to choose from for adult cats. While all brands of cat food labeled as "complete and balanced nutrition" will meet your cat's basic needs, some feature higher quality ingredients than others. For example, "natural" foods should contain recognizable whole-food ingredients with no additives, preservatives, artificial colors or flavors. Read the ingredient panel to learn what's in your cat's food and consult your veterinarian anytime you make a change to your cat's diet.

Many nutritional formulas target specific health and lifestyle issues:

  • Hairball control formulas contain higher levels of fiber to help prevent the formation of hairballs in your cat's digestive system.
  • Sensitive stomach formulas are crafted for easier digestion for cats with digestive sensitivities
  • Limited ingredient diets contain fewer selective ingredients for cats with food sensitivities or sensitive stomachs
  • Grain-free formulas contain no corn, wheat, rice, barley or soy for cats with specific grain sensitivities

Senior Cats

According to the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association, the number of years before a cat is considered a "senior" can range from about 7–10 years of age. At this point, you may need to transition to a new formula based on health or lifestyle changes caused by aging.

Just like people, older cats may start to develop a number of medical issues in their senior years—including dental problems, diabetes, loss of appetite, and arthritis. Your veterinarian can determine if your senior cat has any health concerns that require a specialized diet—in conjunction with proper medical treatment.

For example, a cat with dental problems may need to switch to a wet food diet, while a cat with diabetes might benefit from a diet high in fat and protein but low in carbohydrates. Older cats with a loss of appetite might enjoy their food being served warm, or with added water. Senior cats with arthritis may benefit from certain vitamins or supplements being added to their diet.

Do Not Feed Your Cat Dog Food

Do not reach for your dog's food when you're running low on cat food. Dog food doesn't contain enough protein or the right amino acids for your cat (including taurine). Also, dog food contains magnesium levels that are too high for your cat. Don't panic if you catch your cat sneaking a bite from your dog's bowl—just discourage the habit.

With proper care and a high-quality diet that best meets your cat's changing needs, you can help ensure that they live a long, healthy, and happy life.