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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