Tips for Getting an Elderly Cat to Eat
Cats are wonderful pets and companions, and have been living alongside humans for thousands of years. The average lifepan of a housecat is anywhere from 12-20 years, with many modern cats making it into their teens before showing any signs of advanced age. But eventually every pet cat will grow old, and need special care in their golden years.
One of the most common problems for elderly cats is loss of appetite. Cats will often lose weight as they reach their senior years, and one of the reasons for this is because their food intake decreases. This may happen because of difficulties with digestion, changes in ability to smell or taste, or pain in the teeth and mouth. Whatever the reason, getting a senior cat to eat enough food to stay healthy can be a challenge! (Note: This advice is not meant to replace the trained knowledge of a veterinarian; please see your vet regularly!)
One way to encourage an elderly cat to eat more is to change the texture of the food. Many cats eat dry kibble for most of their lives, and most of them do very well on it. But older cats may have difficulty chewing hard food due to missing teeth, sore gums, or other dental disease. This may result in swallowing pieces of kibble whole, which could lead to choking or poor digestion, or refusal of crunchy food altogether.
Switching to canned cat food may help with this problem. Canned food doesn't require chewing, which prevents pain while eating. It is also easier to digest because of the soft texture and high water content. And the stronger smell of moist food may help cats whose sense of smell has been dulled with age. Some cats like extra water added, making a soupy texture that they can lap up with their tongue.
Some cats are picky about flavor, so experiment with different flavors or brands until you find one your cat loves!
In the wild, food eaten by cats would always be warm, most likely the body heat from freshly killed prey. But commercial varieties of pet food are usually served at room temperature, or even cold in the case of partially eaten cans that are kept in the refrigerator. Cool temperatures help to mask scents, and many cats will refuse food if they can't smell it.
Warming the food can be helpful. Dinner can be gently warmed to raise it to body temperature and enhance the scent, making it more attractive to your cat. Be very careful not to overheat, since that could burn the cat's mouth! Plated food can be gently warmed in a microwave (be sure to test before serving to make sure it's not too hot!), or a refrigerated can can be immersed in warm water for a few minutes to bring it to a higher temperature.
There are countless varieties of commercial pet foods, and many of them are tailored to a certain life stage. Common varieties are kitten, adult, senior, hairball prevention, indoor, and weight loss formulas. It's usually best to feed your cat the type of food that is optimized for its particular life stage, but sometimes it can be advantageous to switch it up.
Senior cats often have digestive difficulties, making it harder for them to digest their food and absorb the calories and nutrients from it. Kitten food is usually much more calorie dense and nutritious than adult foods, because it is made to satisfy the needs of a growing kitten. As a result, feeding kitten food to a senior cat can help the animal counteract the loss of digestion and get the nutrition it needs. As a plus, many cats prefer the smell and taste of kitten food, resulting in better eating.
One warning, though: it's not a good idea to feed kitten food to a senior cat with kidney problems, since kitten food often contains higher levels of protein. It's important to get regular bloodwork for any senior cat, so you and your vet can be aware of any potential organ issues.
A final tip for coaxing an older cat to eat are flavored toppings. Finely grated Parmesan cheese sprinkled on top of food gives it some extra smell and flavor. Tuna or sardine juice can be added to entice fish-loving felines to eat. And there are several commercially available products that add flavor to food as well. My favorite is FortiFlora by Purina. It's a probiotic powder that you sprinkle on top of food. My cats LOVE it, and will gladly lick it up with or without food! It has the extra advantage of supplying helpful bacteria to the digestive system, which may help digestion as well.
With some extra attention and a few tricks up your sleeve, an elderly cat can be encouraged to keep eating and maintain their body weight. And of course don't forget the importance of affection in the care of your senior pet! With proper care and love, your cat can have a long, healthy, happy life.