Guest post by Fern Slack, DVM
You have done your research. You know that cats are obligate carnivores who need meat in their diet not just to survive, but to thrive. You understand why cats should never eat dry food. You’ve found the right premium grain-free canned or raw diet.
Now you have a case or a frozen bag of this great new food – and your cat “won’t eat it.” He puts up his nose and walks away, and you are left with a stack of useless cans or bags and a strong sense of annoyance. You feel frustration, because you are now acutely aware of what you should be feeding, but just exactly how are you supposed to convince your “finicky” cat that it’s good for him and that he needs to eat it?
The rules are simple. Put your new, wonderful, healthy cat food down for 20 minutes, twice a day. Then pick it up. Whatever your cat eats in that time period is what he needs.
There is no need to count calories. None of this “3/4 of a can” stuff. Some days, it will be two cans at a sitting; other days, 1/3 of a can. That’s because every day, their energy usage is different, so their energy requirements are different. Makes sense, right?
No dry food. No leaving food out for nibbling. Simple.
The transition process, however, is not simple. Many deeply devoted cat parents fail. And by far, the most common reason cat parents fail is that they have been given no expectations (or wildly incorrect or inadequate ones) regarding how the process is going to unfold.
Obstacles you may encounter during the transition
You may encounter one or more of the following obstacles, but fear not: you can overcome them.
1. Cats generally don’t like change of any kind, and they will be temporarily grumpy about a change in their food.
What you do: ignore the grumpiness. You wouldn’t give a screaming toddler a Mai Tai just because he’s demanding it, would you? You know better than your cat. You really do.
2. Some cats are actually carb addicted. This will greatly magnify the temporary grumpiness in cats who have this problem.
What you do: still ignore the grumpiness. If you are working with this cat, your challenge level will be higher, but you CAN do it. Get ear plugs, practice your Zen meditation, sing really loud, take a walk. It will all be better soon (more on that below.)
3. Some cats will throw total or near-total hunger strikes.
What you do: Pick up the cat food at the end of the 20 minute period, whether your cat ate or not. Most cats will catch on pretty quickly that food isn’t going to be down all the time any more, and they’ll get hungry and eat. The more stubborn ones will keep on refusing the new food because it’s new or because they are carb addicted.
There is a potential danger here unique to felines: Hepatic Lipidosis, a nasty disorder caused by an abnormal storage of fat in the liver in response to perceived starvation. This has to be taken into account, and to do that, you’ll follow the 72-hour Rule: if your cat goes 3 days without eating A SINGLE BITE, give about 1/2 meal-portion of the old food. Then start the 3 day cycle again. I have yet to see a single cat last more than three cycles before eating the new food. This may be the single most important thing for you to know. That, and that your cat will not starve to death if he misses a few meals.
4. Once your cat does eat the new food, he STILL may not be happy about it for a while. He may groan and moan, and knock over your bedside table lamp, and trip you up in the kitchen, and whatever else he can think of to annoy you. This can last for approximately three weeks, at which point a switch in the brain somewhere usually gets thrown, and suddenly it is as though this was always his food and his feeding routine, and peace is restored.
What you do: Know that there truly is a light at the end of your tunnel. Understanding this will give you the fortitude to soldier on in the face of kitty-hissy-fit adversity.
Find yourself a cat loving friend or family member, preferably one who’s been through this; someone you can call, kind of like an AA sponsor, whenever you are considering giving in. It’s amazing what a little peer support can do.
Helpful hint if you are a parent: Think of your cat as a two-year-old toddler. You already know how (and why!) to say no to your child when she pulls a Terrible Two on you. It is exactly the same with your cat. Your cat is simply a whiny child, and you already know how to deal with that.
What you do: Ignore the melodrama. It will pass. You know better than your cat. Never doubt it.
Helpful hint if you are not a parent: Visualize your cat as a whiny teenager. You can be pretty sure that no teenager is going to actually starve to death if they don’t get the potato chips, Twinkies, and colas they so desperately plead for. They want you to believe it, but you know better.
What you do: Don’t believe your cat’s “poor me” act. Cats lie. They’ll look you right in the face and swear to God that no one has fed them in weeks, and they are going to die right in front of you if you don’t break out a bag of Kolorful Kitty Krunchies this very instant! And they’ll back up their argument with giant, soulful, moist kitty eyes and promises of kisses and cuddles – but now you know it’s all a giant fakeout. Go cross one more day off the calendar – you’re almost at that magic three week mark. Don’t give up now!
Armed with realistic expectations of the obstacles you will face and the tools to surmount those obstacles, you can succeed in getting that nagging, loveable, complaining, endearing armful of fuzz to eat what you want her to eat. When you want her to eat it. And have a peaceful home too.
And the very real payoff for your 3 weeks of frustration is that your kitty will be slimmer, healthier, happier, more playful and much less prone to a painfully long list of diseases. Spend more on your cat food and you’ll spend less on your vet visits. Even for a vet, that sounds like a good thing.
Dr. Slack graduated from the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Georgia, and has been working exclusively with cats since 1993. She is the owner of Uniquely Cats Veterinary Center in Boulder, CO.