Life Stages and Lifestyle Diets: Does Your Cat Really Need Them?

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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.

Lifestyle diets

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.

Prescription diets

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.

Photo: istockphoto

 

26 Comments on Life Stages and Lifestyle Diets: Does Your Cat Really Need Them?

  1. Connie - Tails from the Foster Kittens
    March 30, 2017 at 12:02 pm (2 years ago)

    As a foster home for neonatal kittens and as a raw feeder, I don’t believe there really is a difference between the life stage of “kitten” and the life stage of “cat” beyond one is nursing and not eating solid food. Once a kitten is weaned, it should be eating a high protein, high moisture, low carb diet just like adult cats do. If you dig down into the “requirements” set by humans for cats, you will see there isn’t that much of a difference, and I would argue that they simply made up the difference to be able to sell different types of food. After all, in the wild, there are no ‘kitten mice’. http://www.kittyblog.net/2016/06/commercial-pet-foods-kitten-food-vs-cat.html

    Reply
    • Jean Hofve, DVM
      March 30, 2017 at 4:34 pm (2 years ago)

      I sure agree with you, Connie! The nutritional standards only recognize two basic life stages, adult, and everything else (kitten, gestation, lactation). Once weaned, cats in the wild eat the exact same diet (prey) for the rest of their lives. Pet food companies (and some vets) like to complicate it because they can make more money that way. Clever marketing, yes; nutritionally necessary, absolutely not.

      Reply
  2. samantha millea
    January 9, 2017 at 2:54 pm (3 years ago)

    I use to feed my 3 cats wet food, it was the best wet food we could afford then when my cats went to the vet for a yearly check up I pointed out that one of them had sore gums (his gums around his teeth was all red and irritated) and plaque on his teeth. The vet then recommended dry food that they sold there and that they had good results from using this brand of food. The food is Hills vet essentials thats designed to break up in a certain way to clean his teeth. He hated the food at first, he prefered wet food but the other two cats liked the flavour. I’ve been feeding them this food for about a year and I haven’t noticed any results reguarding my cats teeth but my partner swears that the cats teeth seem better to him. Now im reading articles like this one and wondering if I’m doing the right thing. I’ve tried brusing his teeth but he doesn’t like it and I was using a tooth paste that I could let him lick off my finger that was supose to form a protective layer on his teeth to prevent plaque sticking to them but my vet said this would only work if he didn’t have plaque to start with. After reading articles like this one I don’t know what to believe. I would really like to trust my vet but I have doubts. I just want to help my cat with his gum and teeth problems, the other 2 cats are fine and have healthy gums and teeth.

    Reply
    • Jean Hofve, DVM
      January 10, 2017 at 4:21 am (3 years ago)

      Hi Samantha, I am a retired feline veterinarian and perennial student of feline nutrition… The development of dental disease is mostly determined by genetics; food isn’t as big a factor as pet food makers want you to think. Hill’s t/d and similar foods, as well as “dental” treats, chews, bones, etc., may clean the tartar off the enamel surface of the teeth, so they look good. Looks, however, aren’t everything! Nothing but thorough daily brushing or a full dental cleaning gets under the gumline where dental disease starts and finishes. (Personally, I clean my cat’s teeth under anesthesia, as needed.) I recommend exactly the same as Ingrid (who is very knowledgeable and trustworthy!)… high-protein, high-moisture foods like canned, raw, or homemade, fed in discrete meals. No dry food, no chewy, hard, or biscuit-type treats. Teeth can be cleaned, but obesity, arthritis, urinary tract problems, diabetes, and other serious health risks that come with dry food, well those are harder to fix and take a greater toll on your cat’s overall health!

      Reply
      • Samantha Millea
        January 10, 2017 at 8:57 am (3 years ago)

        Hi Jean, thank you for your reply I knew that gum disease is determined by genetics but was under the impression that dry food could help. When it comes to cat nutrition I feel overwhelmed at all the choices that there is but hopefully now thanks to your reply I can find something better than the dry food i’ve been feeding my cats 🙂

        Reply
        • Jean Hofve, DVM
          January 10, 2017 at 12:13 pm (3 years ago)

          Yeah, pet food companies love to push that myth, because their profit margin on dry food is so much bigger than wet foods. Even most veterinarians believe it (because their education so often comes from Hill’s!) But the research does not support it. You could give your cat a couple of pieces of t/d as a daily treat, but as a steady diet… yuck!

          Reply
  3. Oscar
    November 30, 2014 at 11:51 pm (5 years ago)

    Hi Ingrid,

    I was just wondering if you were a Vet or what qualification do you have?

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      December 1, 2014 at 6:53 am (5 years ago)

      I am a former veterinary hospital manager, and have researched feline nutrition for many years. Unfortunately, veterinarians aren’t always your best source of information when it comes to nutrition. Vets only get very little nutritional education in vet school, and what little they do receive is sponsored by major pet food companies. This is not all that different from MD’s, who also receive very little nutritional education in medical school. Here’s more information on this unfortunate situation: http://consciouscat.net/2010/08/30/feline-nutrition-who-bears-the-responsibility/

      Reply
  4. Donna
    August 11, 2014 at 7:30 pm (5 years ago)

    Great article! After switching my two cats to a raw diet almost 7 months ago I am sold on it. They were dry-food addicts, walking away from high quality grain-free canned to beg for kibble and treats. First, I stopped free feeding, then I began by mixing a small amount of canned with the dry food and very gradually changing the proportions of dry to canned until they were on canned only. I waited a few months before the next step to raw and transitioned them the same way, adding just a spoonful or so of the raw to the canned they were already eating at first. It took a little over two weeks for them to be completely on raw. I’ve seen so many positive changes in my cats since then: they have more energy and are less shy, they no longer beg for treats right after meals and throughout the day, their weights are spot on, their poop is virtually odorless, their coats are so silky people have asked if they’ve just been groomed when they haven’t or if I put something special on their coats to make them that way. One has had feline herpes in one eye since she was a kitten, it was always very watery and a little puffy around it and despite regularly adding lysine to her food (per my vet) every few weeks it would flare up with gunky discharge and need prescription ointment; at this point it’s been at least 4 months since the last flare up, it’s still just a tad watery at times but no more puffiness. I’m sure the raw diet has strengthened her immune system! My other cat used to have pretty frequent regurgitation and hairballs…but not anymore. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done for them and only wish I’d done it sooner!

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      August 12, 2014 at 6:26 am (5 years ago)

      Thanks for sharing your experience with switching your cats to a raw diet, Donna. The difference it makes is amazing, isn’t it?

      Reply
  5. Sue Brandes
    August 11, 2014 at 12:46 pm (5 years ago)

    Thank you for an informative post Ingrid.

    Reply
  6. Laura & 6 furry kids
    August 11, 2014 at 10:14 am (5 years ago)

    I fight this battle in my house on a daily basis. I have 1 cat that is resistant to anything other than low quality dry food. We’ve tried every transition trick, but quite often she even snubs her favorite dry food. She’s a diva! I also have an obese cat that developed urinary blockage problems that due to his obesity is not a good candidate for the PU surgery. He was on Royal Canin SO and did well on it, until he dropped 9 lbs quickly and was diagnosed with diabetes. He’s now on a low carb canned grain free wet food diet only and is doing amazingly well. Yes, he’s insulin dependent (working on getting him to remission) but he’s under control and hasn’t had another urinary blockage. And he’s discovered the raw diet his siblings eat! Funny how a cat that wouldn’t even smell it now loves it–with a little pro biotic sprinkled on top. I wish I would have switched him to canned only diet when he had his first blockage.
    I’m also a feline volunteer with our local shelter and always trying to educate the public on good feline nutrition. Sadly the kibble is easy and readily available–and too many people think it helps with dental issues too. Thanks for providing an excellent reference site!

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      August 11, 2014 at 11:02 am (5 years ago)

      Thank you for educating the public on feline nutrition at your local shelter, Laura!

      Reply
  7. Alice Daniels
    August 11, 2014 at 10:02 am (5 years ago)

    Altho my Maine Coon cat weighs about 21 lbs….my vet prescribed a prescription dry food for him to lose weight. He hated it! I kept mixing it until I was able to give him a bowl of just the prescribed food. He urinated in the bowl. He is a very fussy eater, and won’t eat ANY wet food If that is all I offer, he refuses to eat..I have tried every brand because I know it is better for him, but no luck. Right now he eats a dry commercial brand that has most of the things he needs. 1/3 of a cup twice a day.He even dislikes any treats. And he will not eat any human food, cooked or raw. I have had about 20 cats over the years, but never one this fussy.

    Reply
      • Alice Daniels
        August 11, 2014 at 11:28 am (5 years ago)

        I read your recommendation and thank you so much. I will try some of your suggestions and see if I can get him on a better diet. I will add that I adopted my boy when he was 3 yrs old, and he was a stray for at least 6 months before being caught by the shelter where I found him. I love him so much and all I want is for him to be a happy, healthy, boy. Thank you again, Ingrid.

        Reply
  8. Cindy
    August 11, 2014 at 9:55 am (5 years ago)

    I have 2 Ragdolls – brother and sister – that for different reasons are on Feline CD. She kept getting bladder infections and he had crystals and couldn’t pee. I do not like feeding them the prescription diet, but have had not luck finding a diet for these conditions on the internet. How do you go about finding a holistic veterinarian? I have made several phone calls to veterinarians in my area, but none do diets. I so want to get them off the dry food. I have tried the canned and both will not eat it, even after a few days with no food.

    Reply
  9. flipgirl
    August 11, 2014 at 6:42 am (5 years ago)

    I agree with most of this article. However, I would like to add a caveat to the part on prescription diets. I do agree they contain corn and are low in protein but some of the diets meant for certain conditions require a lower protein count. According to research by Hills, corn was found to be digestible and one of the least allergenic ingredients (cats are usually allergic to proteins more so than carbobydrates; though not to say that it is not possible). Corn is used in prescription diets to provide a lower, but digestible protein. Diabetic cats, on the other hand, require a higher protein, lower carbohydrate diet so the prescription diets are formulated as such. The ingreredients are not the greatest I agree as most of the diets have some kind of pork by-product; more often than actual meat. All I am saying is that the diets are geared toward certain conditions and the ingredients may be included to meet the requirements of those conditions.. I work in a clinic and have seen great success with some of the diets. I am not saying I like the ingredients; their maintenance foods are not very rich in protein. My own dog had urinary crystals and I refused to feed the rx diet and found a supplement to help acidify her urine (she bad struvite crystals). Mind you this was after doing a bunch of research. For cats with urinary issues, there are some who need to be on the rx diets for life to avoid urinary obstruction. Rx diets do have their place. And to their credit, their feline diets do not contain fruits and veggies (other than corn) that cats don’t need and cannot digest.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      August 11, 2014 at 6:59 am (5 years ago)

      You can find healthier alternatives to these prescription diets by working with a holistically oriented veterinarian. Many of he conditions these diets are designed to address can be managed by supplementing a premium diet with quality ingredients (as you found out with your dog).

      Reply
      • flipgirl
        August 11, 2014 at 10:52 pm (5 years ago)

        Ingrid, I agree. I was just making a point that the rx diets are formulated a certain way for a reason and not necessarily a bad one. I did look into another line of veterinary foods which is all natural (same brand as the supplement I used) and now there is another rx brand caed Rayne which has whole ingredients. Their line is limited; offering novel proteins, digestion and urinary formulas at the moment. I have actually sold some of the products. A holistic vet is a good ideabut maybe not financially accessible to most. I called one and her consult fee was $140. I know it is only one but natural and holistic methods usually are more expensive. I tend to gravitate towards an integrative approach. I try to investigate both sides. Working in the industry has given me lots of opportunities to research nutrition and whatever ails my furbrood.

        Reply
  10. Dianne
    August 11, 2014 at 3:48 am (5 years ago)

    I always enjoy reading your blog; it’s at the top of my list. But I cannot agree with this article on not feeding cats dry food. My cat, Chloe, had a kidney disease and she died six (6) years ago on her own. Chloe was 24 yrs. old, and a fighter to the end! I fed her dry cat food, and canned food too. I have always fed my cats dry food w/no problem. I guess it’s to each their own………….

    Reply
    • Catwoman
      August 11, 2014 at 9:18 am (5 years ago)

      How fabulous to have a cat that lives to be 24! But feeding cats dry food leads to kidney disease, and who wants their cats to suffer from that at any age? Yes, they may live a long time, but they’re living with a fatal illness, which can be long and painful before it kills them. Cats are great at masking chronic pain, but ask a human with renal failure how they feel, and you’ll learn about what cats experience, too. Imagine how much healthier your cat may have been on a diet rich in protein and water. It would have protected her kidneys and provided much better nutrition. I’ve had several cats die in their late teens from renal failure… and finally learned my lesson. When you think about this article, and others like it, feeding wet, high-protein, low-carb food seems like simple common sense. And having read about the truly horrible ingredients and methods used to make kibble, I shudder walking past the pet food aisle in grocery stores now, after years of shopping there. It’s illogical to say that dry food was good for a cat who died of kidney failure. While 24 is a great age, kidney disease ultimately causes suffering at any age.

      Reply
      • Ingrid
        August 11, 2014 at 9:43 am (5 years ago)

        While I obviously agree with you that dry food is not good for cats, and I’m with you on shuddering at the thought of what goes into kibble, I think you might be generalizing a bit too much with your statement that kidney disease causes suffering at any age. Many cats live with some level of reduced kidney function, and if managed properly, can live comfortably into even the ripe old age of 24, as was the case with Chloe. Of course, then you have to question why so many cats have kidney disease in the first place – and that may once again go back to the prevalence of feeding dry food.

        The reality is that some cats, just like some people, will thrive on what most of us would consider a poor diet. It’s no different on the human side – some people who eat copious amounts of junk food every day live to be in their 90’s while others who exercise and eat a healthy have a heart attack at a young age. It’s those outliers that make those of us who try to educate others about optimal nutrition and health realize that we can’t know everything. 🙂

        Reply

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