One of the best things you can do for your cat’s health is to stop feeding dry food. Dry food is the equivalent of junk food for cats. Many of the degnerative diseases we’re seeing in cats, including diabetes, urinary tract disease, kidney disease, and inflammatory bowel disease, may be directly linked to these foods.
Cats need meat and moisture
Cats are obligate carnivores. This means they need meat to survive. They cannot get enough nutritional support from plant-based proteins such as grains and vegetables, because, unlike humans and dogs, they lack the specific enzyme that processes plant-based proteins metabolically. They need few to no carbohydrates in their diet.
Cats also need moisture in their diets. They do not have a strong thirst drive when compared to other animals, and this can lead to chronic low-level dehydration when the cat’s main diet is a dry one. Even if your cat drinks water, it won’t be enough if she only eats dry food. A cat’s natural diet (prey) contains about 75% water. Dry food only contains 7-10%. Canned food contains somewhere around 75% (depending on the brand). Even though a cat on only dry food will drink more water than a cat who is eating canned food, when you add up the water they drink and the water that occurs in their diet, water intake still falls short for the cat on dry food. Considering how common urinary tract and kidney problems are in cats, this in itself should make a convincing argument against dry food.
Meal-feeding, not free-choice feeding
Many pet owners feed dry food because it can be left out during the day without spoiling while the cat is left at home alone. This method of free choice feeding is one of the leading contributors to obesity in cats. Cats, by nature, are hunters, and it doesn’t make sense that they should need access to food 24 hours a day. Meal feeding twice a day mimicks their natural hunting behavior much closer, and by feeding controlled portion sizes twice a day rather than leaving food out all day long, calorie intake, and weight, can be controlled much better.
Dry food does not clean teeth
The myth that dry food helps clean cats’ teeth is one of the most persistent beliefs when it comes to pet food, and it is simply not true. Most cats don’t chew their kibble long enough, if at all, 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 the chewing longer, but many cats swallow even those larger size pieces whole. Additionally, dry food leaves a carbohydrate residue in the cat’s mouth that actually encourages growth of tartar and plaque. And seriously, if it was true that dry kibble cleans teeth, wouldn’t human dentists recommend that we eat dry cereal to keep our teeth clean?
How to transition from dry to grain-free canned or raw food
Some cats will transition easily. The first time you feed them grain-free canned or raw food, they’ll start eating it right away, and I’m guessing what goes through their minds at that point is something along the lines of “finally, the humans have figured out what I’m supposed to be eating!”
Others can present more of a challenge. This is in no small 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.
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 canned or raw food
If your cat is already getting a small amount of canned food or raw food as a special treat, she will probably be much more receptive to being transitioned to all canned food or even raw food. All you have to do is gradually increase the amount of canned or raw food, and decrease the amount of dry food, until you’re only feeding canned or raw.
Add some incentives to tempt finicky eaters
Some hard core dry food addicts can be convinced to try canned or raw food by sprinkling freeze dried chicken or salmon on top of the food. A little bit of tuna or clam juice drizzled over the canned or raw food can also help. Other “bribes” can include cooked meat, cut in small pieces, a spoonful of meat-based baby food (make sure it doesn’t contain onion powder), or, as a last resort, a small amount of crushed kibble.
Never let your cat go without food for more than 24 hours
Be patient and persistent during the transition period, but never let your cat go without eating for more than 24 hours. Allowing a cat to go without food, especially one who is overweight, can result in a life-threatening condition called hepatic lipidosis.
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.
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.
Cat parents who have weaned their cats off of dry food are usually amazed at the difference. Overweight cats who have been unable to lose weight are starting to lose fat and build muscle. Haircoats look sleeker and shinier. Stools decrease in volume and smell. And most importantly, cats are healthier.