Lifestages, Lifestyles, and Cat Food

The number and types of commercial cat food seems multiplying like rabbits. One online store carries 353 different dry foods, and 735 varieties of canned food! Here’s a sampling of the lifestages cat food is made for:

  • Babycat (0 to 4 months)
  • Kitten (0 or 4 to 12 months)
  • Adult (1 to 7 years)
  • Mature (7 to 10 years)
  • Senior (over 10 years)
  • Young adult (from time of spay/neuter to 7 years)
  • Young male (from time of neuter to 7 years)

In contrast, the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) has come up with its own lifestage classifications:

  • 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 years+)

This system divides lifestages by nutritional needs, behavior, and diseases common to each age group. It makes more sense in a way, because cats do tend to become overweight in middle age, and lose weight as seniors. But even AAFP recognizes that “any age groupings are inevitably arbitrary demarcations along a spectrum, and not absolutes.”

Then there are what I call “lifestyle” foods, including breed-specific diets. There are dozens of choices, including active, indoor, weight management, hairball, sensitive stomach, grain free, gluten free, urinary, kidney, hypoallergenic, multiple-cat, skin and coat, Siamese, Persian, Maine coon, and many more.

In addition, there are multiple food forms: dry, semi-moist, canned (including pouches), raw, dehydrated, freeze-dried, and homemade.

Pet food manufacturers also like to make quality claims to distinguish one from another. Today we have premium, super-premium, ultra-premium, gold, platinum, four-star, plus, extra, professional, prescription, human-grade, and of course, natural and organic. Except for the last two, there are no rules or definitions for any of these terms.

Yet after all is said and done, there are only TWO nutritional standards for cat food: adult and growth (kitten, pregnancy, lactation). “All life stages” foods comply with growth requirements. Everything else–everything–is purely marketing. The differences between these foods are primarily cosmetic–minor alterations in protein, fiber, and fat percentages, and perhaps one or more “glamour ingredients” such as blueberries, Omega-3 fatty acids, or kelp. These labels are designed to appeal to you, and have little to do with your cat’s health. (For more info, check out our other articles on pet food labels and marketing hype.)

Now, think about the cat species for a moment, and consider how nature divides up the feline’s lifestages. Young kittens and cubs, of course, nurse from their mom; this milk diet continues for 3 or 4 months, but after just a few weeks they are gradually introduced to solid food in the form of a variety of prey animals. And that’s what they eat until their dying day. So the “natural” cat only has 2 nutritionally distinct stages: nursing, and the rest of their lives.

It’s worth pointing out that, in nature, neither mother’s milk nor prey animals are cooked, pasteurized, irradiated, kibbled, freeze-dried, or otherwise processed. Milk contains the sugar lactose, which provides plenty of calories to support rapid growth; but once weaned, cats have no physiological need for carbohydrates. Their natural diet is grain-free, gluten-free, fresh, and raw; and it’s good for their skin, coat, liver, teeth, body weight, activity, allergies, kidneys, bladder, and every other age, body part and condition.

So when you’re choosing a cat food, don’t fall for the hype. Get the best quality wet foods you can afford and that your cat will eat. Don’t feed just one food all the time; cats need variety. Avoid foods containing “meat chunks” or “nuggets,” “shreds,” or other shapes, which are not meat at all but formed from texturized vegetable protein. Make sure your cat’s food covers all life stages; this is the most appropriate standard. If you’re still feeding dry or semi-moist food, today is a good day to start the transition to a better diet. For more information, please see our Nutrition category, which contains dozens of articles on holistic nutrition, supplements, and the pet food industry.

Please visit our Bookstore and check out our recently updated e-book, What Cats Should Eat, as well as other publications on feline obesity, lower urinary tract disease, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, and more! What Cats Should Eat  is also available from for their Kindle reader.



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12 comments for “Lifestages, Lifestyles, and Cat Food

  1. beruset
    January 13, 2013 at 11:35 pm

    You say to avoid foods containing shapes, what DO you recommend? Thank you

  2. jhofve77
    November 27, 2011 at 9:33 am

    This website is loaded with articles on nutrition, what and how to feed; but any food (that follows our recommendations) that’s labeled for All Life Stages will be fine.

  3. hilary
    November 26, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    i have a 9-10 week old kitten. its mom was killed by a car. what should i feed her and how much a day?

  4. jhofve77
    November 13, 2011 at 7:53 am

    Sorry, I can’t give individual veterinary advice. Please consult your veterinarian.

  5. Robin Wise
    November 11, 2011 at 11:44 am

    My baby kitten,{ PEANUT } is 2 month’s old, we feed him kitty dry food. We also give him a little bit of whiskas cat and kitty milk. How often do I feed him his milk or do I need to stop.
    Thank You,
    Robin Wise

  6. Michelle
    August 15, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    Cats on dry food tend to barf because the food expands as it is digested, thus becoming too much mass in the belly. Wet food is a more natural diet, and doesn’t expand, so you don’t have that problem.

  7. Chris
    August 9, 2011 at 6:35 pm

    I had a cat who would not eat any wet cat food at all, and he was diabetic for 6 years. I worked with him and was able to get him to eat raw ground beef. I would buy ground round, and freeze it in small packs…enough for 1-2 days. When I froze it, I would flatten it, so it would thaw quickly. He didn’t even care if it was really, really cold…he would eat it. At first he didn’t eat it, but I would put a teaspoon of it down on a plate, and leave it there for a few hours…he would smell it from time to time. I also would let him smell my plate when I was done eating….just to get him used to smelling other foods. He did like yogurt (get a quality, not the cheapest and plain) He won’t eat anything else raw except every once in a while raw ground turkey. The vet I had when he was first diagnosed with diabetes wanted him on Purinam DM, but it just made me crazy thinking he was eating purina food. I analyzed it on an excel spreadsheet and found that the only thing it had was 50% protein. so then I started looking for a 50% protein, and at first I couldn’t find any. but after a year or two, I did find some with 50% protein. What I settled on was Solid Gold Ingigo Moon. It was great for him. His blood sugar stablized, and his bowels cleared up. I think it was the best thing for him. I mention this because you say your cat is a bit heavy. He started loosing weight very slowly, like a half pound every 6 months. So I hope some of this helps you out. Eventually I changed vets to a holistic vet. I had him for 10 years, and I did the best I could. he had to have shots twice a day. I think if I had found the solid gold food and the holistic vet when he was first diagnosed, we could have gotten him off the shots. wishing you the best with your cats..chris

  8. jhofve77
    August 2, 2011 at 9:33 am

    Most working stiffs can feed in the morning, right after work, and at bedtime, which will allow you to feed smaller amounts at each meal. A trick to slow him down (at least a little bit!) is to spread the food out on a big plate. It is harder to corner that way! :)

  9. cindy
    August 2, 2011 at 8:19 am

    ….thx for the article, but it raises a question for me. The cat who is reluctant to switch also has a problem barfing if he eats too fast….so if I change from freefeeding dry to only putting it down twice a day it may exacerbate this issue….any ways of dealing with this? (I’m a working stiff, so feeding more than 2x/day is not possible) thanx again for your time and knowledge!

  10. jhofve77
    July 31, 2011 at 7:09 pm

    Have you read our article on Switching Foods? It includes every trick I’ve ever heard of for getting stubborn and finicky cats onto a better diet.

  11. cindy
    July 31, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    hi doc….

    i have had my rescue cats on dry and wet food since I got them (it’s what they were being fed where they came from). they are 2 now, and because the male is hypothyroid (non-congenital, but discovered at 5 months. Yeah, he’s a freak. ) and is a bit heavy, my vet wants me to switch him to wet food. He’s been on Royal Canin dry and he isn’t having anything to do with switching. He’ll go without eating rather than eat wet food. I’ve dropped the amount of dry to 2/3 of what it was (put out for both cats) and upped the high-end wet food, but there’s no movement toward the wet. I’ve tried all the top wet brands (in chicken variety), serving it wetter, chopped into little squares, mixing some dry food into it, opening new cans only…..nuthin. It seems that royal canin uses chicken fat as “digest” on their dry food, so I thought perhaps trying something like “Fortiflora” on the wet food might help? Or is there such a thing as a cat that just doesn’t like the texture of the wet foods? I’m supposed to get him to lower than 10% carbs….the royal canin is at 32%, and he’s getting a “flabdomen”….sigh… when he sits he looks like a penguin hiding an egg on his feet…. any advice for switching a stubborn dry food eater appreciated!

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