Feeding Inactive Adult Cats

By Tammy Hunter, DVM; Robin Downing, DVM, DAAPM, DACVSMR, CVPP, CRPP

My cat is getting older and she is not as active as she once was. How should I feed her based on her lower activity levels?

Over 60% of cats in North America are overweight or obese, so paying attention to the balance between activity and calorie intake is important. The first step in preventing an aging cat from gaining weight is to talk to your veterinarian for guidance about two things:

  • What nutrient formulation is most appropriate for this cat at this time in her life?
  • How much should be fed at each meal? Another way to think about this is to calculate a total daily portion and divide it by however many meals are desired.

If your cat has any specific health issues like kidney disease, then she may need to eat a very precise therapeutic nutrient profile in order to remain healthy.

Should I choose foods marked “light," “lower calorie,” or “weight control?” Will one of these keep her lean?

Unfortunately, cat food marketing is filled with verbiage that sometimes over-promises weight management. Your veterinarian can help you sort through the hype as you choose a formula that best fits your cat’s needs. The dry matter analysis of cat food formulas provides data that allows for a head-to-head comparison. Dry matter data provides protein levels and fat content, as well as information like the sodium content. It is also important to find out the calorie density of the diet.

Once I choose a food that my cat likes, how do I prevent her from gaining weight?

Once you have chosen a formula and have calculated a reasonable daily portion based on caloric density, the best way to stay on track and prevent unwanted weight gain is to combine portion control with regular, formal weigh-ins. Regular weigh-ins at the veterinarian’s office (ideally, every 4–8 weeks) provide accountability and help prevent unplanned weight gain and weight loss.

You can also help keep your cat at a healthy weight by using interactive toys to encourage exercise and mental stimulation. Automatic feeders can also be helpful by rationing out the desired amount of food and providing meals at different times of the day.

Are there any snacks or treats that will not interfere with my plan to keep my cat lean? 

Talk to your veterinarian about the most appropriate snacks for your cat. There are many prescription treats made specifically for weight loss that your veterinarian can help you choose. Be careful when choosing treats or snacks from the grocery or pet store shelves. It is worth tracking down the calorie content of your preferred treats in order to better calculate how many can or should be offered in a day. This is another opportunity for your veterinarian to provide input and guidance based on the dry matter analysis of the treats you are considering.

Finally, some “food for thought."

Many inactive adult cats are inactive because they are dealing with a medical issue that prevents them from doing all the things they would otherwise do. For instance, some cats are inactive due to metabolic diseases like heart disease or diabetes mellitus. Other cats are less active due to the pain from osteoarthritis (OA). Approximately 20% of all cats, and 80-90% of aging cats, suffer from painful OA. It is easy for cat owners to mistakenly presume that the signs of OA are simply signs that the cat is “getting old." There are several factors that lead to this misconception.

  • Cats tend to be very stoic about their pain and try to maintain their daily routine. As their OA progresses, their activity will decrease over time.
  • Because OA is an insidious disease that progresses over time, signs develop gradually. Losing the ability to be active, losing stamina, losing interest in family activities—all are potential signs of pain.

Every inactive adult cat should be evaluated for OA and other metabolic diseases that can contribute to decreased energy, decreased stamina, and decreased activity. If they are diagnosed and treated appropriately, they may not be inactive for long!

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