Published by: Ingrid King. Last Updated on: January 25, 2023 by Crystal Uys
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 Picky When it Comes to Food?
Rule out medical issues. Loss of appetite, especially when it comes on suddenly, can be an indicator of a serious medical problem. When a previously healthy cat 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 hydrolysis 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.
The 5 Tips How to Get a Picky Cat to Eat:
1. Go slow and be patient.
The key to transitioning 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!
2. 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.
3. Gradually increase the amount of the new food
Decrease the amount of the old food, until you’re only feeding the new food.
4. 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 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
5. Minimize intestinal upset.
Most people recommend transitioning 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 stomachs 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 to eat healthier food.
About the author
Ingrid King is an award-winning author, former veterinary hospital manager, and veterinary journalist who is passionate about cats.