Ask a Cat Vet: How Do I Transition My Cat to a Healthy Diet?

cat-eating

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?

Simple rules

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.

Helpful hints

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.

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26 Comments on Ask a Cat Vet: How Do I Transition My Cat to a Healthy Diet?

  1. Vicki
    February 15, 2016 at 7:25 pm (3 years ago)

    One of my two cats will eat pretty much anything if she’s hungry enough–but the other is really stubborn. They get some poultry-based wet food and some raw rabbit, which the stubborn one sometimes decides to snub. The main problem is that Mr. Stubborn gets hungry during the night and beats the other cat up if we don’t put something out for him. We’ve caved and have been putting some dry food into a microchip-controlled feeder for him every evening so he can get it during the night, and of course now that’s all he wants to eat. I’d be happy to put up with him pitching a fit, but I can’t let him keep attacking his “sister.” She’s missing bits of fur on her shoulder and the top of her head right now from his last attack. He only does this when he isn’t getting fed when and what he wants. Do you have any suggestions about how to manage this kind of aggression? I’d really like for them both to be eating raw, and it wouldn’t be a problem with her.

    Reply
    • Fern Crist, DVM
      February 17, 2016 at 11:55 am (3 years ago)

      Mr. Stubborn is sure pulling a “Terrible Twos” on you! It always helps me to keep in mind that cats operate at the approximate emotional level of a toddler – and you wouldn’t give in to a screaming toddler, even if that toddler is a bully.

      My general approach here would be: Minimize stress to the extent possible. Separate the two cats at night for a finite food training period, without either isolation or punishment for Mr. S, during which time we get Mr. S past his resistance to the raw diet. Do not go back to dry food under any circumstances, as long as he will eat the canned. And make sure the canned is a “good” canned, a true carnivore food, and not full of veggies and fruits.

      How do we do this, step by step?

      1. Minimize stress: First, make sure you have Feliway soaked into every corner of your house. I’ll come back to stress issues in a bit.

      2. Separate and train: Get a large cage, preferably a wire one rather than a standard pet carrier. We want the cage large enough to accommodate a litter box, food and water bowls, and a nice sleeping area, as well as any toys or “lovey” items that will help make Mr. S. happy. The cage is not a punishment, and should therefore not be isolation in a bathroom or the like. There are two things we want to accomplish with the cage: protecting Mr. S’s sister at night, and keeping him confined with ONLY the food you want him eat overnight. A wire cage will allow interaction, sight, smell, sound and even limited touch – but he won’t be able to hurt his sister, and he will have to eat raw or be hungry, at least at night.

      I suggest that the morning feeding, for the time being, be the canned poultry food, and that they be fed together, with him out of the cage. That way, the canned food is being reinforced, and he’s getting at least one good meal a day while the training is going on.

      At night, give a feeding to them both, with him in the cage. At first, that feeding, too, will be the canned poultry. Leave it with him all night. We want him to establish a pattern of eating his evening meal in the cage, as a prelude to the next step. This could take several weeks.

      Once he is reliably eating his evening meal of canned food in the cage, you can change his evening meal to raw. Expect pushback here, and be prepared to use earplugs and lots of patience. (Think toddle hissy fit again here.) He’ll eat it when he’s hungry enough, AND when he finally accepts that you won’t give in and give him dry food again. That may take a while now — I totally understand why you caved the first time, but it’s important to accept that that may extend the time needed to train him to raw now, and that any additional caving will extend that time even further. As long as you hold your ground, he will accept the raw, although we may well be talking 3 weeks or longer.

      Once he is eating the raw reliably, we can theorize that he has “accepted” it and gotten past his stubbornness. We’ll test that theory by leaving him out overnight after the evening meal of raw, IF he eats it (if not, back in the cage!), and see whether he attacks her again. If he eats well, and does not attack her overnight, problem solved. If he eats well, and yet still attacks her overnight after all this, there’s something else in play.

      And now we are back to the stress question. As you know, cats are little stress sponges for their people. While this entire situation may well be simply food-triggered displacement aggression, the exclusively nocturnal side of it is unusual. It suggests to me to consider whether there is a nocturnal source of human stress in the household – and here it gets quite personal, as it must. Sexual tension? Alcoholism? Arguments? Physical or emotional anxieties or fears? These are commonly worse at night for us humans, and that can cause or exaggerate existing inter-cat aggression issues. You may want to take a good hard look at your human interactions and emotional situations, and evaluation whether human stress might be causing or influencing Mr. S’s behavior. Of course, if the tough love food retraining solves the problem, this may well be a moot point. For your sake, I do hope so!

      I hope this helps, and I wish you the strength, patience and love it will take to go through this process!

      Reply
      • Vicki
        February 17, 2016 at 9:53 pm (3 years ago)

        Thank you very, very much for all of these wonderful suggestions! Mr. Stubborn (who is also very charming, of course!) is kind of a meanie any time he doesn’t get what he wants or is frustrated, so perhaps the food isn’t even the main issue–though it’s the one we have noticed most consistently. It’s not only at night, but it may be more common then–or it may just be that that’s when we see it because that’s when we’re home.

        My husband is in grad school, and I’m pretty stressed at work, so human stress is probably part of the picture. We’ve tried to create a good environment–multiple litterboxes, a section of fenced yard they can safely visit, lots of separate sleeping and climbing spots, daily playtime, etc.–but I have not tried Feliway! We run air filters a lot, and I wasn’t sure whether they’d interfere with the room dispensers. I may try it anyway, and I have some of the spray.

        The canned food is the good stuff–Tiki Cat chicken, etc. And he does love his raw rabbit. I will invest in earplugs, remind myself that he’s not going to die from being grumpy or skipping a single meal, and stand up to my furry little toddler!

        Again, thank you so much for taking the time to share such detailed and helpful advice!

        Reply
  2. Irene White
    January 7, 2016 at 7:18 pm (3 years ago)

    I have a two year old female cat very active but she is gaining weight. She has been eating two cans of Fancy Feast a day. One at 5:30 am and one at 4 pm. i give her treats a couple of times a day. She no longer eats her dry food which I leave out for her to nibble on. I could use some advice as to what I should change to trim her down. She was 8 pounds now is 12 pounds.

    Reply
      • Irene White
        January 8, 2016 at 12:36 pm (3 years ago)

        Thank you for your help and for answering my question so soon. I would like my cat to eat both wet and dry food. So after my cat has lost the extra weight i will try a routine where I can give her both.

        Reply
  3. Cecelia
    November 9, 2015 at 11:09 am (4 years ago)

    I would like to know what should I do when I go away overnight. I would usually leave enough dry food for him to nibble on while I am gone and then feed him his wet when I return. Giving him an all wet food diet is great and I intend to do it, but what about the times when I must leave him for extended amount of time. I don’t have anyone close to me who can come and feed him.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      November 10, 2015 at 7:23 am (4 years ago)

      I recommend finding a cat sitter, Cecelia. I don’t think cats should ever be left alone, not even overnight, without having someone check on them at least once a day. Ask your vet for recommendations. Most vets will have referral information, and some will even have staff who will do cat sitting.

      Reply
  4. Elaine
    September 8, 2015 at 7:25 am (4 years ago)

    I have been feeding my cat wrong this whole time, since I did not know. I just portion out the food and let him nibble throughout the day. Should I ease him into the time restriction or just go for it?

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      September 8, 2015 at 4:21 pm (4 years ago)

      I would stop free feeding completely and go to twice or three times a day meal feeding, Elaine.

      Reply
      • Sharyl
        November 23, 2015 at 5:10 pm (4 years ago)

        Hi Ingrid, as mentioned I have 5 cats all on canned food and working on adding raw in. I usually feed 4x/day, they don’t eat everything all at once, so I leave it out for a bit. or leave it and leave shortly after. Is this okay or is it better to feed and give them 20 mins then pick it up? Also, are you familiar with sure feed feeder it involves either a microchip or collar, but only the designated kitty can get to the food. We also weigh them every 1-2 mos. It is just so hard with multi-cats who share food. They start eating then do a switcheroo.

        Reply
        • Ingrid
          November 23, 2015 at 5:19 pm (4 years ago)

          It just depends on how patient you are, Sharyl. If you want to train them to eat at meal time, I would leave the food out for 20 minutes or so, and then pick up anything that wasn’t eaten. Eventually, they’ll learn. And yes, I am familiar with the SureFeed microchip feeder, here’s a recent feature about it: http://consciouscat.net/2015/08/04/surefeed-microchip-pet-feeder-solves-food-problems-in-multi-pet-homes/ It’s great that you weigh your cats on a regular basis, it’s a great way to catch potential health issues early!

          Reply
  5. veronica hensiak
    September 7, 2015 at 12:58 pm (4 years ago)

    I just came across this article about feeding canned or raw food for your cat. What types of raw food do you feed a cat? I have a year old Snowshoe Siamese cat. She probably weighs about 5ilbs. She is a small cat and not sure what to feed or how much.

    Reply
  6. Kaia Denham
    December 22, 2014 at 4:04 pm (4 years ago)

    Sorry — it was just my own reaction to the wording, and I didn’t think that approach was right for all cats. I agree that if you have a very stubborn cat, you may have to resort to the 20 minute rule eventually with a mix of the foods, but I’ve never experienced that. I have never fed only one food, so they are used to variety. I have one that goes wild for anything raw, and she was born that way (her sisters and mom are that way too.) I have others that look at me and say “Really? You expect me to eat that?” But they will eat it canned or even the fresh frozen cubes when rehydrated. Being in rescue, I’ve had all types. There was one extremely obese girl who only wanted dry. I let her have it until her kittens were weaned and then started with a mix, eventually getting her down to grain free canned by the time she was adopted out. The new owners agreed to continue with that.

    Reply
    • Dr. Fern Crist
      December 22, 2014 at 4:17 pm (4 years ago)

      Kaia, I agree with you that it is not the correct approach for all cats. The article is intended for cats who are not ill and are simply switching foods to help them avoid illness in the future. Cats who are not well (and I include obesity in that category) will often need a completely different approach, and veterinary advice should be sought. It sounds to me as though you handled the obese girl you mentioned perfectly!

      I suspect you’ve had less problem with the type of stubbornness I described because you are already feeding a diet regimen with more than one food (which I believe is an excellent practice, by the way!) A cat who already sees change on a regular basis will not be nearly as likely to resist additional change on the principle that “I’m a cat, and change is bad.” A majority of domestic cats, in my experience, are fed one single food at every meal for years. This can also be just fine, as long as it is a good food. However, this practice backfires when a change is undertaken. These are the cats who will often fail to transition without a no-nonsense approach.

      I thank you for bringing up these excellent points, and I will restate them here: this is not the right approach for every cat; it is not needed for every cat; and you’ll have a much easier time with any transition if your daily dietary regimen already includes a variety of foods.

      Reply
  7. Kaia Denham
    December 22, 2014 at 1:53 pm (4 years ago)

    I agree with Abby’s vet, change should be done gradually by mixing the foods. There is no reason to make the cat miserable, or to even risk its life as happened to one of Diane’s cats. I find this vet’s approach to be quite harsh and controlling and would never use this approach.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      December 22, 2014 at 2:34 pm (4 years ago)

      Nowhere in this article does Dr. Crist suggest making cats’ lives miserable or risking their lives, Kaia. She’s simply presenting information that has worked for hundreds of cats in her care.

      Reply
  8. Diane
    December 22, 2014 at 12:54 pm (4 years ago)

    I’ve switched all our cats at the Rescue to a raw diet and am still working on one or two cats to be switched–although they have been off dry food for about six months. I cannot stress enough to be very watchful of who might NOT be eating if there is more than one cat to feed. I have one fluff ball that I finally realized was not eating and she was turning very, very yellow (hepatic lipidosis). I had to force feed her for about two months until she finally came around. She now is back to her old weight and happily eats the raw food, but I might have lost her had I not realized she wasn’t eating. It really is a good idea to weigh the cats to monitor their weight. Since most of our cats were relatively “wild” before we brought them in, some of them do not like to be handled and it can be very difficult to catch them to weight them. They usually don’t mind being petted, so when I get a chance I pet them and then lift them up to make sure they aren’t starving themselves! The raw diet has been wonderful for the health and weight of the cats–as long as they are monitored!

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      December 22, 2014 at 2:33 pm (4 years ago)

      I applaud you for feeding your rescue cats a raw diet, Diane! You raise an important point for multicat households – it can be more challenging to monitor everyone’s food intake.

      Reply
      • Dr. Fern Crist
        December 22, 2014 at 4:04 pm (4 years ago)

        Diane, you mention something here that is crucial. Thank you for bringing it up. Transitioning in a multicat household does indeed mean that every single cat must be watched. It can be a huge challenge, and that is true no matter what transitioning technique you use — and monitoring their weight can be a great alternative to counting mouthfuls when you have a pile of kitties. It’s much easier to prevent hepatic lipidosis than to treat it!

        Kudos, too, for the raw diet, particularly in your multi-cat household!

        Reply
  9. Sue Brandes
    December 22, 2014 at 11:48 am (4 years ago)

    Thanks for the post. I had to do this for my one cat’s special diet. I was afraid he wasn’t eating enough as it said 3/4 a cup a day and he’s not eating it all. He really doesn’t care for it but;he is eating it. He stares at me most of day looking for his old stuff or handouts and I am not budging. I feel he is now eating enough after I read this post. I was kind of worried.

    Reply
    • Dr. Fern Crist
      December 22, 2014 at 3:56 pm (4 years ago)

      Keep up the great work, Sue! His reluctance to eat it is probably not that he doesn’t care for it, as much as that it is “new” and “different.” It is a pro-survival trait in wild animals to avoid anything new until it proves not to be a threat, so his reaction to his special diet makes all kinds of sense. Feeling safe with the new food may take some time for him. But if this is diet he needs to be healthy, then the best course of action for you is to stick it out until he’s had time to accept it.

      Reply
  10. Abby
    December 22, 2014 at 7:07 am (4 years ago)

    According to the vets who took care of my cats, (thru the years), always transition the diet by decreasing the current food and adding the new food (to the plate) gradually.

    Reply
    • Ingrid
      December 22, 2014 at 2:31 pm (4 years ago)

      My experience has been that with grain-free foods, a gradual transition is not necessary. Most cats who are fed a rotation diet of a variety of grain-free raw or canned brands usually do not have any problems going from one food to the other.

      Reply
    • Dr. Fern Crist
      December 22, 2014 at 3:52 pm (4 years ago)

      Great comment, Abby. There are certainly cats for whom a gradual transition will be indicated medically. And there will be many cats who will succeed with a gradual transition, although in my experience, many more will fail. There is no single “right” transition method for every cat, even the one I generally recommend. Your own cat’s health and purrsonality must be taken into account, as well as your own schedule and numerous other factors; and of course, if your cat is not in the best of health, your vet should be consulted prior to any significant diet change, both for diet ingredients and optimal transitioning technique.

      Over the years, I have found (as Ingrid noted earlier) that the large majority of cats transition problem-free without a “weaning” process. In fact, I find that cats generally transition more easily without one. Clients often tell me that during the mixing process, their cat will eat all of the one food and none of the other (this is usually when mixing canned and dry), or will refuse to eat the mixture at all. This is natural cat behavior, but an undesirable result. This is all too often exactly the place where the poor frustrated cat parent gives up. We still have a kitty who is refusing the good stuff and holding out for the junk food. If we are to succeed in getting our cat to eat the good stuff and not the junk, we must often “out-stubborn our cat” – and contrary to the old saw, it can absolutely be done.

      Reply

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