Last updated June 2019
Feeding your cat a species-appropriate diet is the most important thing you can do for her lifelong health. You can’t control your cat’s genetics, but you can control what you feed her. Cats are obligate carnivores, which means they need meat not only to survive, but to thrive. Even though cat food manufacturers would have you believe differently, a cat’s diet needs don’t change all that much over the course of her life.
Life stages explained
So-called life stages diets come for kittens, young adults, mature adults, and seniors. There is no single definition for what age range each life stage actually comprises. The guidelines that make the most sense to me were issued by the American Association of Feline Practitioners, which classifies life stages as follows:
- Kitten: birth to 6 months
- Junior: 7 months to 2 years
- Prime: 3 to 6 years
- Mature: 7 to 10 years
- Senior: 11 to 14 years
- Geriatric: 15 plus years
The AAFP developed these life stage guidelines to address age-specific healthcare recommendations and to emphasize educating clients about behavior and environmental issues that promote a healthy lifestyle, and how they may change as cats age.
Only two life stages really matter
When it comes to a cat’s nutritional needs, there are really only two life stages that matter: kitten and adult. In the wild, kittens will nurse from their mother for the first three to four months of their lives. After that, the mother will gradually introduce her kittens to solid food by teaching them to hunt. The prey they learn to catch is what cats in the wild will eat for the rest of their lives.
As if segmenting diets into life stages diets wasn’t enough, cat food manufacturers have also come up with so-called lifestyle diets. Foods range from special diets for indoor cats, spayed and neutered cats, active cats, and more. There are even breed-specific diets. Does it really make sense that a purebred cat should have different nutritional needs from a mixed breed cat?
Weight loss diets
It’s not surprising that in a country obsessed with weight loss diets, cat food manufacturers jumped on that band wagon, too. There is no question that obesity is a significant feline health threat, with more than 50% of America’s cats being overweight. It is true that calorie needs will vary depending on a cat’s activity level, age, and health status, but weight loss diets are not the answer to keep cats at a healthy weight. Most of these diets are lower in calories and higher in fiber, which makes no sense for a species with low carbohydrate requirements.
Rather than feeding a specific diet to get your cat to loose weight, stop free choice feeding (leaving food out at all times,) eliminate dry food, and feed a premium grain-free raw or canned diet. Adjust the amounts you feed according to your cat’s weight and activity levels.
You’ve probably seen them on the shelves at your local veterinary hospital, or maybe your cat is currently eating one of these foods: so-called prescription diets that are formulated for cats with specific health conditions ranging from allergies to gastro-intestinal problems to kidney disease. Sadly, the majority of these diets are a poor nutritional choice for cats. Many are too high in carbohydrates and contain wheat, corn and soy – ingredients that have no logical place in the diet of an obligate carnivore.
Marketing at the expense of your cat’s health
When you’re choosing what to feed your cat, don’t fall for the marketing hype. Educate yourself about species-appropriate nutrition.
The optimal diet for a cat is a properly formulated raw, home-cooked or grain-free canned diet. Educate yourself about why dry food is the worst nutritional choice for cats. Feed the best quality wet food you can afford. Feed a variety of different foods, and adjust feeding amounts according to your cat’s individual lifestyle.