Cat food has come a long way in the last century. The first commercial pet food in America was a dog biscuit from England that arrived circa 1860. And while there’s no record of how many pets were in America at the time, there are now approximately 81 million cats living in American households. To meet the needs of this huge population, cat food has not just grown in quantity, but it has advanced in quality and variety, too.

Walk down the aisles at a pet store and you’ll see food for growing kittens, aging cats and fat cats. There is food that helps avoid urinary tract trouble and food that prevents teeth and gum problems. There’s food for sensitive digestive systems, food that prevents hairballs and food for indoor cats. How do you know if your cat needs to be eating any of these specialized foods? Here’s information to help you to decide:

What the Categories Mean
Specialized food bought in a store can target the unique nutritional needs in a cat’s life stage, as well as lessen the chances and help control certain health problems. Nine cat food categories to choose from include:

  • For kittens
    Food for kittens is fortified with vitamins and minerals that ensure proper bone, brain and vision development. It can also include antioxidants that may help to strengthen a kitten’s immune system.
  • For older cats
    Food designed for older cats is often made to be more flavorful (since they can lose a sense of taste and eat less than they need) and more easily digestible (to make sure they get the needed nutrition). “Older” for cats generally means seven years of age or higher, says Robert Flecker, DVM, of Hillside Veterinary Group in Portland, Ore.
  • For hairball prevention
    Cats regularly swallow their own fur while grooming themselves, and this can result in vomiting clumps of undigested hair. Although this is harmless to the cat, it can be unpleasant for you. Cat food that prevents this includes ingredients that cause the fur to be more easily passed through the cat’s digestive system. If your cat’s hairball problem persists, Dr.Flecker recommends taking your pet to its veterinarian to rule out any underlying illness, such as inflammatory bowel disease.
  • For urinary tract health
    Has your cat suffered from urinary tract problems in the past? Nutrition providing reduced urinary pH and low dietary magnesium can help maintain your cat’s urinary tract health.
  • For sensitive digestive systems
    Cats with sensitive digestive systems might benefit from sensitive stomach foods that combine complex carbohydrates, like rice, with easy-to-digest protein, such as that from eggs. Some foods made for cats with sensitive stomachs contain fiber combinations that also help to keep tummy troubles at bay.
  • For the overweight or indoor cat
    Overweight cat foods and indoor cat foods are lower in calories since indoor cats are generally less active than they would be if they were in the wild. Is your cat overweight? If its abdomen is large and round, and your feline has trouble walking, the answer could be “yes,” and you should check out the lower calorie selections. If you’re not sure about your cat’s weight status, ask your veterinarian.
  • For a healthy, shiny coat
    If your cat’s coat is looking dull, first establish a regular brushing routine, because brushing helps to remove tangles and to redistribute natural oils. For extra good measure, consider feeding a cat chow designed to make your feline’s coat shinier. Because this type of food often contains fish oils, it nourishes your cat’s skin, which can result in healthier-looking fur.
  • For multi-cat households
    If your household has several adult cats in residence, there’s even a category of cat food just for you. Multi-cat household food provides overall good nutrition, including high-level protein for energy, as well as ingredients that can help reach an optimal weight, so the cats may all benefit from one food.
  • For teeth and gum health
    Another cat health issue concerns teeth problems related to gum disease. Several cat food companies offer dental diet foods that are especially crunchy, so that when a cat chews, plaque doesn’t have a chance to build up, says Dr. Flecker. If you suspect your cat has gum disease, take it to the doctor. Signs include red and swollen gums as well as bad breath and sometimes even weight loss.

How to Choose and Introduce a New Food
First, keep in mind your cat’s age, since some foods are linked to a cat’s stage of life. For the other categories, consider the health concerns you have for your cat and buy foods that will help lessen the chances of those problems.

Cats are famously finicky about food, so introducing a new food requires attention on your part. “I recommend easing a cat onto a special diet over a period of a week,” says Dr. Flecker, who offers this sequence:

  • For the first two days, your cat’s meals should consist of 25% of the new food and 75% of the food it’s used to.
  • For the next two days, adjust that ratio to 50-50. Then, in the following two days, shift the percentage to 75% new food and 25% old food.
  • Thereafter, feed your cat 100% new food and you should get no complaints.

The Bottom Line
Above all, when considering your cat’s food, go for the best you can buy. “I recommend premium quality cat food,” says Dr. Flecker. “Ideally, it should be food that has been tested in food trials.” To find out if a pet food company has done this, simply check the company’s web site or call their customer care telephone number and ask.

The advances in cat nutrition must be working, as the percentage of cats older than six years of age has nearly doubled in just over a decade, according to the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. Dedicated animal lover Amy Reichbach of Los Angeles, Calif., can attest to that fact. Reichbach’s beloved cat, Iris, accompanied her through college and into the early years of her marriage. “As she got older I gave Iris the best senior diet food,” says Reichbach, who adds that Iris lived to be nearly 80 in human years.