Conscious Cat

July 3, 2013 42 Comments

How to Get Finicky Cats to Eat

Posted by Ingrid

cat_eating

If you’ve read The Conscious Cat for any length of time, you know that cats should be eating a species-appropriate diet of raw, grain-free canned or properly balanced home-prepared food. Cats should never eat dry food, and the money you invest in high-quality, premium food will result in better health and lower vet bills for your feline family members. I’m always delighted when I hear from readers who have switched their cats from a low quality and/or dry diet to a healthier diet because of something they’ve read here on my site.

Sometimes, switching a kitty off the human equivalent of junk food can be challenging. Understanding why cats are finicky, and knowing how to safely make the switch to a healthier diet, or encouraging fussy cats to eat, is an important step toward better health for your cats.

What Makes Cats Finicky?

Rule out medical issues. Loss of appetite, especially when it comes on suddenly, can be an indicator of a series medical problem. When a previously healthy cats stops eating for more than 24-48 hours, this is cause for concern, and requires a veterinary visit. Cats can develop a condition called hepatic lipidosis or fatty liver disease, which can be life-threatening if not treated promptly.

Finicky eaters are made, not born. Kittens who are fed a variety of foods after being weaned from their mother develop varied tastes. Those fed the same food all the time often refuse unfamiliar foods later in life. In addition to ensuring optimal nutrition and decreasing the risk of developing food allergies, feeding a rotation diet will expose cats to different proteins, textures and flavors, which makes them less likely to become finicky and stop eating. Additionally, if your cat eats one brand exclusively, and that brand changes its formula, or is recalled, you’ll find yourself without a ready alternative you know your cat will eat.

Do you have the right food bowls? Cats don’t like narrow or deep bowls. They don’t like it when their sensitive whiskers touch the side of the bowls. Plastic food bowls can give off smells that are offensive to sensitive feline noses, and they can also cause chin rashes in sensitive cats.

Cleanliness. Make sure your food bowls are kept scrupulously clean, but don’t use detergents with a strong scent to wash bowls and the area around the bowls.

Don’t mix medication into a full meal. While giving medications with food can work well, don’t mix it in with the cat’s regular food. Most medications alter the flavor of food, and even though your cat may eat the food with the medication mixed in the first few times, you may be inadvertently creating a food aversion. If you must use food to give medication, use a small amount of a different food, and then feed the cat’s regular meal.

Hard core dry food addicts. One reason why it can be so challenging to get a cat to accept healthier food is in part due to what pet food manufacturers do to make these dry food so enticing to cats. As part of the production process, the baked or extruded kibble is sprayed with animal digest (and yes, it’s pretty much as disgusting as it sounds: digest is material which results from chemical and/or enzymatic hydrolisis of clean and undecomposed animal tissue.) Cats love the taste of these digests; for some cats, it’s like kitty crack and actually causes them to be addicted. Some cats also love the texture of dry food and may resist the drastic change in texture from dry to grain-free canned or raw food.

How to Tempt Finicky Eaters

Go slow, and be patient. The key is to transition these hard-core dry food addicts is to go slow, and be patient. And you may need a few tricks up your sleeve. For some cats, it may take several months. I’ve heard of one cat whose human would put down a small amount of canned food next to his dry food every day for several weeks. He refused to touch it, so she wound up throwing it out each time. Then one day, several weeks into the transition, he gobbled up the raw food and never touched his dry food again!

Stop free choice feeding. If your cat is eating only dry food, and you leave food out at all times, stop this practice immediately. This step is critical. Feed twice a day, at set meal times, and take up what the cat doesn’t eat within about half an hour. She gets no other food until the next meal time. Your cat will not try anything new if you keep his bowl filled with the old, familiar food 24/7.

Be prepared that your cat will make you feel like you’re letting him starve. This phase of the process can be much harder on the human than it is on the cat. Persistence is key. A little hunger at meal times can be a powerful motivator to get a cat to accept the new food.

Gradually increase the amount of the new food, and decrease the amount of the old food, until you’re only feeding the new food.

Add some incentives to tempt finicky eaters.

  • Sprinkle freeze dried chicken or salmon on top.
  • Drizzle a little bit of tuna or clam juice drizzled over the food
  • Add small pieces of cooked cooked meat
  • Spread a spoonful of meat-based baby food (make sure it doesn’t contain onion powder) on top of the meal
  • Sprinkle parmesan cheese over the food (yes, the stuff in the green can)
  • Sprinkle nutritional yeast over the food
  • As a last resort, crush a small amount of kibble over the food

Minimize intestinal upset. Most people recommend to transition to a new food gradually, by reducing the amount of the old food and increasing the amount of the new food over a number of days to avoid upset stomach and soft stools. I’ve found that when transitioning to grain-free food, this is usually not an issue, but it’s always best to err on the side of caution.

I do recommend adding a good probiotic every day. I actually recommend this not just during the transition period, but as a lifelong immune system booster. Probiotics come in unflavored powders and can be mixed in with the food. I use Dr. Goodpet’s Feline Digestive Enzymes, a mix of enzymes and probiotics.

Dealing with a finicky cat can be frustrating, and it can take time and patience, but these tips should go a long way toward getting your kitty eating healthier food.

Photo: istockphoto

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42 Responses to “How to Get Finicky Cats to Eat”

  1. Marg says:

    That is some great info. I have one cat that will not eat canned food. But he stays outside right now and eats with the group. Once he is staying inside again, I am going to give it a try again,
    Also I do have a question. I did switch Mahoney over to the grain free food and she is on the enzymes and she not thrown up at all. My question is should, I be giving her different kinds of grain free food?? The enzymes really does help them and also the canned food.
    Glad you wrote this. It gives me the push to work on some of my other cats to eat nothing but the grain free.
    Thanks

  2. Vickster says:

    The sprinkled parmesan cheese worked for us! I was desperate to find a way to entice my Angel girl to canned food, but she wouldn’t eat it. Then one day I was surfing the web, and somewhere I saw the suggestion of grated parmesan cheese. Next thing, I was at the grocery store, brought it home and voila! Angel and her brother Chucky now are exclusively on wet food. I even feed wet to my feral/stray cats, except when it’s too cold, or too hot (flies…yuck!) Great post again, Ingrid!

  3. Our cat Billy had a very difficult time accepting canned food. I tried adding all the incentives you mention but he would always walk from the food. What finally worked was offering him four or five kernels of dry food and as soon as he swallowed the last kernel I would place the dish of canned food under his nose and he would eat it. If I got him eating something he liked he would continue to eat whatever I slipped under his nose.

  4. Gayle says:

    This is a timely article for me because I have a question about grain free diets. Would a grain free diet cause constipation in my cat? Don’t cats need some fiber? I have been giving grain free dry cat food to my cats and yesterday, one of them was given an enema by our Vet because she had a bunch of “stuff” in her intestine. I am now wondering if feeding her this grain free diet caused this problem?

    • Ingrid says:

      Grain-free canned food usually doesn’t cause constipation, Gayle, but it’s possible. Try adding some canned pumpkin (1/4 to 1/2 a teaspoon per meal) and see if that helps. Make sure it’s straight pumpkin and not the pie filling.

  5. Michelle says:

    Great advice! I’ve attempted to change to better food for my girls with little success. I’ll try these little tricks. Thank you!

  6. Heather says:

    My cats will eat only wet food, but they will also only eat chunky style wet food. This is quite a challenge for me since there is only two brands of chunky grain free food and they are both very expensive. None of the chunky style food comes in big cans. I have tried enticing them to eat pate style food with tuna juice, dried chicken/salmon, kitty sprinkles, cheese etc but they just take a few nibbles and leave.

    They do eat raw (if we are having chicken/turkey/fish), but tend to run off somewhere to hide and eat it (??).

  7. Clare says:

    we transitioned our cat to grain free wet food after hairballs became a big issue. he ate the grain free for nearly 2 weeks fine and then stopped, we took him to the vet as we were worried, he has a clean bill of health, but is now a really finnicky eater, we have tried many varities of food, he appears to like tuna and salmon with vegetables from Veruva, but i know that he is not eating well yet on the new grain free diet. he has also become active early in the AM as in 3am ! he never was like that he slept through the night, i ignore him but he crys and mewows to get attention, i am wondering will this all sort itself out ?
    he has not pooped regularly either since switching, the vet recommeded a laxative (cant recall the name) to add to his food now and then to keep him regular. whaany thoughts ?
    the great news is that he has not thrown up any hair ball since we swtiched him and that is just great as i felt so bad for him hacking a hairball maybe twice a week, his coat is also gorgeous now, he is a tuxedo cat,

    • Ingrid says:

      For some cats, stools will become less frequent when on a quality grain-free diet. These diets tend to result in less waste. I would add a good probiotic to his food. It sounds like he’s doing well on the new diet and just requires some “tweaking.”

  8. Vicki says:

    We switched over to the good canned food about 6 months ago. What a difference! Barney has lost 6 pounds and has much more energy. We sprinkle yeast powder on his food and also a capsule of chromium in the morning. We have a fantastic vet who has changed our cat’s life.

  9. Julie says:

    We have 2 cats, an elderly die-hard dry kibble eater, the other loved the dry kibble, but would also eat some moist. When our vet suggested a gradual change to Instinct moist, it was a difficult transition, but we have managed to do it. Your suggestion for pulling up the free range bowl of dry was scary for us, but we needed to do it. Now both cats eat Duck & Chicken varieties of Instinct moist, and we use the leftover bag of Instinct dry kibble as nighttime “treats” and give them each 5-10 little nuggets, which is kitty crack for them. I sprinkle some derma herbs (from the vet) and Dinovite into the elderly cats food, and her fur has never been nicer, and she pulls out her hair much less. Great suggestions in your article, and they truly work if you don’t give in.

  10. Nicol says:

    I thought that dry food is healthier than wet food. This is what the vet told us. My cat is always eating dry food in the morning and wet at night.

  11. Nicol says:

    Which wet food are grain free? What she likes is gourmet gold. Is this grain free?

  12. Shavonne says:

    My cat eats hardly anything no matter what I try to feed her, but she drinks a lot. She doesn’t lose nor gain any weight, and she acts very normal; the vet said there was nothing wrong with her to pinpoint why she eats so little and drinks so much. Her main diet is dry kitty kibble, but I mix in wet canned food every couple of days which she enjoys; I simply can’t afford an all wet food diet for her. I’ve tried moistening the kibble with this cat “gravy” I found at PetSmart which supposedly has vitamin supplements in it- nothing. I’ve tried sprinkling a small pinch of shredded cheese or swirling in a quarter tablespoon of sour cream (both of which she enjoys)- nothing. I’ve tried a few small pieces of chicken and beef- nothing. Her food bowl is accessible all day but I only put in a set amount of food twice a day. I deep clean her bowls once a week. She still only eats a few bites per meal. Any advice or explanations?

  13. Sarah says:

    As a vet tech, I have a couple of other bits of advice for you all. Canned food is good for cats – particularly males – as it has a lot of moisture and this will help cats prone to Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease or urinary cystitis. But, cats do tend to gain weight on canned food, so be sure not to over-feed. Also, canned food can make your cat more prone to tarter buildup and dental disease. I recommend brushing your cat’s teeth (pet toothpaste, never human stuff) or at least using a dental water additive to help prevent tarter.
    Finally, never ever EVER let your cat go more than a day without eating. Unlike people and dogs, cats absolutely cannot tolerate missing meals (fasting) – they will quickly develop a life-threatening condition called “hepatic lipidosis”, which is a very serious liver issue. Gradual changes to the diet, as described above, is a must. With finicky dogs, it’s ok to let them not eat until they are hungry enough to eat what it is you offer them, but you cannot do that with cats.
    :)

    • Ingrid says:

      Thank you for sharing your advice, Sarah. I disagree with you on two points: in my experience, most cats actually loose weight once they start eating only canned food. Dry food is too high in carbohydrates, and that tends to encourage weight gain. As for canned food making cats more prone to dental disease, that myth just won’t die, and unfortunately, many vets continue to perpetuate it. The animal digest that dry food is coated with to increase palatability (and yes, it’s just as disgusting as it sounds) leaves a residue in the cat’s mouth that actually encourages the growth of tartar and plaque. As for the theory that dry food scrapes tartar off teeth, most cats don’t chew their kibble long enough for any of the scraping action that is the theory behind this myth to kick in. What little they do chew shatters into small pieces. Some pet food manufacturers offer a “dental diet” that is made up of larger than normal sized kibble to encourage chewing, but in my years at veterinary practices, I’ve seen many cats swallow even those larger size pieces whole. Your recommendation to brush is great – it’s the only way to prevent tartar – and it’s not nearly as hard as it sounds.

  14. Clare says:

    How long is it ok to leave out wet food, i accidently forgot to take it up one night and he had it eaten in the morning, meanwhile if i gave him fresh wet in the am he would not eat it, he is trying to detox from kibble for 7 years but is slowly getting there, its very hard and i worry that he is not eating enough, he is also agitated and not as relaxed and playful as when he was on dry kibble, he wants to eat grass so i cannot let him out to lounge on the chairs in the sun like he used to,

    its a fustrating process no doubt

    • Datdamwuf says:

      I hope it’s OK too, I leave canned food out all the time and they seem to like it “aged” better, been doing it for years so pretty sure it’s not an issue. after all a wild cat will bury food and come back to it later so I just figured it would be fine.

  15. Queenieee says:

    I hope I”m not a terrible cat mom for what I’m about to tell you…but if what I’ve been doing is wrong, I certainly want to stop. I go deep sea fishing and last year when I got my three new babies, the youngest (and most feral) would steal the skin strips that identify the type of fish it was after I’d taken if off during freezing, and he would eat it. It was a fairly small strip. It was ocean fresh and had little (if any) actual raw fish on it. Since then, I’ve given him “treats” when I go fishing of fresh fish skin that has raw fish meat still attached…is this a bad thing??

    • Ingrid says:

      Fish as an occasional treat should not be a problem, Queenieee. I don’t recommend feeding fish on a regular basis, here’s why: http://consciouscat.net/2011/07/18/does-your-cat-love-fish/

      • Queenieee says:

        Thank you…I read the article, and the fish I’m feeding wouldn’t fit into any of those categories as they are fresh caught, wild, (mostly) rock fish such red snapper, grouper, blue bass, chuckle heads, etc. Again, they are NOT farmed, they are caught wild off Channel Island National Park. My concern was the fact that I was feeding them RAW meat, even though it wasn’t a large amount or often, for some reason, I became concerned about potential parasites. As long as I don’t have to worry about parasites, I will continue my practice, since I seldom fish more than once a month. If I’m extremely lucky, I go twice a month,but that’s very rare. I guess I’ll just consider my cats lucky to get royal treatment to be able to get fresh, raw fish occasionally!! Thanks for your help.

  16. Susan says:

    One of my cats suddenly developed diabetes. I switched him to low carb high protein canned food (Evo) along with 2 insulin shots a day and in 2 1/2 weeks he is in remission. He will never eat dry again. I have a multiple cat household and only 1 is giving me a problem to the switch over from dry to canned. I will try the Parmesan cheese tonight and see if that helps with her.

  17. Lisa says:

    Great article Ingrid, I’ll have to try the parm cheese for my little Miss Molly as I’d like to get her on raw . She’ll eat air dried or freeze dried raw but nothing from the freezer. Mikey loves raw but bc of Molly, she’s holding us up for a full transition. They eat mostly ZiwiPeak canned. Btw, I enjoyed meeting you at the Col Square holiday market, brr! Keep up the great work and best for 2014!

    • Ingrid says:

      Thanks, Lisa, and Happy New Year to you! It was a pleasure to meet you in NYC, despite the cold! Let me know whether the parmesan cheese works for Miss Molly.

  18. Sam says:

    Hello

    How would I entice my cat that has just had surgery on Thursday the 2nd to eat some small amounts of food regularly? She went from being overweight to skin and bones eating her kitty litter. First trip to the vet had blood work and it came back normal. She was diagnosed with stress. She was sent home then after a few more weeks she went back on Christmas eve to vet. He ordered a ultrasound. This found a blockage (tumor). So her surgery involved taking out the tumor part of her bowel and joining her small intestine to large. Major surgery and then three days of vet care. Its cost me a fortune and also her tumor has been sent off, they believe she has lymphoma. I’m praying she doesn’t.
    Sorry for the long rant however since she is skin and bones I need her to eat small meals regularly to get her strength up and put on weight.
    Ive offered all sorts of foods however she has only eat minimal lamb mince once at 8am and once at 8pm. Its stressing me and making our family fall apart as im so concerned for her and neglect everyone else.
    Please help any way you can.
    Much appreciated

    • Ingrid says:

      I’m sorry about your kitty. If you’ve already tried all the suggestions in the article, and none of them are getting your cat to eat, you may need to talk to your vet about a feeding tube.

  19. Tami Amburn says:

    I have to try the parm cheese for Cali. She is kidney and comes and goes with her eating. I agree that we make them picky eaters and its very hard to change once it done. You forgot to mention heating up slightly in microwave to entice them some.

    Very interesting comments tho.

    • Pam says:

      I feed wet and dry….My fur boy,Sosa is used to dry and enjoys it so I give him some but a small amount. My fur girl, Clawdeen isn’t that crazy about dry food. What I do with the wet food is add a small amount of water to it to “gravy” it…and I always heat the wet food for a few seconds in the microwave. I figure I don’t like cold food so why should they.Put it on a plate, heat it and then put it in the bowls. So far no kidney issues…both pee fine….

  20. Helene Rosenzweig says:

    My Sami was eating pate when I brought her home at 6 weeks. Then she quit eating the pate and she went on to shreds. I also put out dry . Was eating shreds and now she’s ignoring it. I was thinking of switching brands but I’m gonna try some of your tips like add parmeson cheese and put it in a wider bowl. Hope it works. Helene

  21. Margie says:

    Leo is a 3 yr old male that was recently diagnosed with crystals even tho I was giving him a grain free diet almost all his life. I think it was the nutritional yeast that I sprinkled on his food (that he got totally spoiled with and wouldn’t eat anything without it) that added the imbalance of magnesium and caused the crystals.

    He’s had a touch and go with recovery because about 1 1/2 weeks I let him back outside and a day or two later he started throwing up dramatically (5 times in a day and a half) and became extremely dehydrated. I switched vets to a holistic vet and she agrees with me that we need to get him switched over to a raw diet and OFF that nasty and unhealthy c/d diet. Her recommendations were 24 hours on a bland boiled chicken diet and no c/d for that time because she suspected this might be a contributor to his vomiting. He actually tolerated this and with some homeopathic remedies he made a dramatic turn around. He was so hungry but not really eating the chicken the next day so I gave him some (small amount) of the c/d and the next morning he was vomiting again. So no more c/d!!

    But that makes it so hard because he won’t eat ANYTHING. No canned, and I can’t give him any dry because it’s too high in mag. The ONLY thing he’ll eat is wheatgrass. I bought some to juice and he was really interested so I gave him some and he was begging for more. I was afraid to give him too much because I’ve always seen this as a way that cats employ to vomit. But I know that greens are very healthy for you.

    He’s playing, drinking, peeing, sleeping and bored as heck to stay inside, but I’m keeping him in till I’m sure he’s out of health danger.

    Any tips for transitioning since we can’t “go slow” from an old to a new food?

    • Ingrid says:

      Have you tried all the tips outlined in this article? Since he seems to love wheatgrass so much, have you tried sprinkling some over his food?

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