orange tabby cat licking paw

Nutrition

Could science hold the answer to senior cats' picky palate?

Insights from a new Waltham study may make mealtime easier for owners of older or fussy cats. And the answer could be as simple as warming their food. 

The research team wanted to find out if the temperature of wet food could make it more alluring to older cats as results from previous published research suggested, and if so, understand why.  

As they age, the sensitivity of senses like taste and smell (among others) are thought to decline. Both senses are important drivers of appetite, which is why it can be challenging to encourage older cats to eat the food they need to help maintain their body weight. 

Complete and balanced cat food contains all the nutrients in the correct amounts to help maintain their health. That means that ensuring that older cats tuck into and finish their dinner is an important part of supporting their needs as they age. 

The research results are quite clear.  

Warming the food made a significant difference to the amount of food that the cats ate. In the study, published in the Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, the research team offered the cats (all over 7 years old) the same wet food, but at different temperatures. The chilly option was 6⁰C (43⁰F), which is similar to the food that has been kept in a fridge. The second option was served at 21⁰C (70⁰F) to reflect room temperature and food that usually served from a pouch stored in a cupboard. The final offering was at 37⁰C (98⁰F), like the body temperature of their prey. 

The cats' top preference was the food at 37⁰C. Their second preference was at room temperature, and they ate the least amount of food offered when at 6⁰C.  

 

Top tips for pet owners to encourage their older cat to eat 

• Avoid serving cat food straight from the fridge:
Purchasing pet food in cans can offer the best value. However, when caring for a cat, each meal will only be a portion of the can, requiring the open tin to be stored in the fridge for freshness. To avoid plating-up a chilly offering, put the meal portion in a bowl and leave at room temperature until the food has warmed before giving to your cat. 

• Try warming the food above room temperature: 
For the tastiest meal, try warming the food. You can place the food container in a pan of warm water, or gently heat it up in a microwave using a microwave safe container. Make sure the food is only warm to touch, and not hot, which could harm your cat. 

Why is warm food preferred by older cats? 

There are several factors influencing the amount of food that cats eat: aroma, taste, texture, appearance, and composition. Researchers used the same product for the study, which means the food's appearance and composition didn’t change. The team also measured the consistency of the gravy in the food and found no change to it when heated.  

So what could be driving the differences? We asked the study lead, Dr. Scott McGrane, Research Manager at Waltham, to shed some light on this.  

“There may be two different areas that could come together to drive the preference we found in the cats evolution and food chemistry. Part of the study was to help understand what changes in the food and its aroma as it is heated. We found, for example, that more sulphur-containing compounds were released at 37⁰C. From our previous studies in food chemistry, and from the results published by other academics, we know that these compounds are extremely important in meat flavour- so they could make the difference to the pets. 

The other area that may be important links to cats natural and wild predatory instincts. They may have evolved to prefer food at body temperature, which could be an indicator to them that the prey is fresh or has been recently caught.” 

For more tips on cat nutrition and healthy weight, visit our cat care resources.