As pet owners become more aware of the importance of species-appropriate nutrition for their companion animals, I’m getting more and more questions about the best way to transition a cat’s diet from dry food, to canned, to raw.
If you’re owned by a cat, you probably know how challenging it can be to get your kitty to accept a new type of food.
By contrast, most dogs don’t give a hoot what they eat. In fact, I have dogs at home that will scoop up a bit of dirt or a piece of lint off the floor like it’s a gourmet meal. My pack will eat whatever food I put down – good or bad tasting, healthy or unhealthy – they eat it all.
Have you ever asked yourself why cats, unlike their canine counterparts, are so finicky at mealtime?
Your Kitty the Addict
It’s true. Cats have addictive natures. And their addictive tendencies extend to their taste buds. Your kitty is genetically wired to crave foods high in fat and salt.
And did you know many cats actually become addicted to the shape as well as the flavor of certain foods?
This is a fact cat food manufacturers are well aware of, which allows them to develop foods designed to be addictive – foods of a certain shape, with added salt, fat and sugar.
Disturbing but true -- there are research and development departments in many of the big commercial cat food companies whose job it is to study what shapes cats prefer. Whether it’s an “x” shape, a triangle, a circle, or maybe a tiny fish, the goal is to develop products your kitty will demand once he’s hooked.
This is how customers-for-life are created. Once your beloved Fluffy is addicted to a certain type of food, as you probably know too well, it can seem an impossible chore to introduce a different food into his diet.
I want you to know it is indeed possible to successfully switch your kitty to a healthy diet.
Challenging, yes, but so worth it! The single most impactful thing you can do for your cat’s health is to feed him a balanced, nutritionally appropriate diet. Virtually nothing else you do to take care of your kitty will mean as much to his health, happiness and longevity as the food you feed him.
Rule #1: This Is Not a Race
It is critically important that you transition your cat to her healthy new diet very, very slowly.
Your kitty has a unique metabolism. If you push dietary changes too quickly she’s very likely to just stop eating, because the new food doesn’t satisfy her cravings.
If she fasts, she runs a high risk of developing a life-threatening condition called hepatic lipidosis, also known as fatty liver disease.
That’s why you shouldn’t even consider making a “cold turkey” switch from your cat’s old food to a healthier food. Despite what you might have been led to believe, your kitty won’t necessarily eat when she gets hungry enough. Cats have been known to starve themselves to death by refusing to eat a certain type of food.
If your kitty refuses to eat and develops hepatic lipidosis, it will be tremendously costly to try to save her, and there are no guarantees. The last thing you want is a deathly ill kitty, massive vet bills, or the heartbreak of losing your pet altogether.
So please take this warning seriously. Convert your kitty very slowly to a new, healthier diet. Prepare to spend as much as six months, even a year, making the gradual transition to a raw food diet.
Your consistency, determination, patience – lots of patience – and yes, trickery, will one day soon be rewarded.
Rule #2: Given a Choice, Kitty Will Make the Wrong One
The thing is, your cat isn’t instinctively driven to eat healthy food, and this goes double if he’s addicted to low quality, rendered, fatty foods. (Rendered food is waste animal tissue and other byproducts that have been manipulated into an “edible” form.)
Given the choice of his usual processed, high fat, sodium laden “x” shaped kibble and a meal that is species-appropriate, living and raw, your misguided kitty will pick the former and turn up his nose at the food he really needs to be at his best.
Your feline companion is an obligate carnivore. If he lived outdoors on his own, he’d be hunting and dining on mice. Cats are designed to eat mice because mice provide exactly the type of protein and moisture content felines thrive on.
Those of us in the pet healthcare field, including the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP), who encourage cat owners to move their pets from dry food to canned food, do so because canned food more closely mimics your kitty’s natural diet. This reduces biologic stress, which in turn reduces disease potential.
Many dry cat foods are inexpensive. They’re certainly convenient. And they sustain life. But they are not biologically appropriate nor are they species-appropriate.
Feline kidney failure -- an all too common, debilitating and sometimes fatal condition -- is most often seen in cats that have lived in a state of low-grade, chronic dehydration their whole lives as the result of a dry food diet.
A Word About Carbohydrates
If the dry food you’re feeding your kitty is high in carbohydrates like corn, wheat, rice or potatoes, chances are she’s addicted to carbs.
Even though cats have no physical requirement for carbohydrates, unfortunately, they can become addicted to them quite easily.
Canned cat food can be very low in carbohydrates and some brands have no carbohydrate content at all. You’ll need to keep this in mind if you’re trying to convert a carb-addicted kitty to a low or no-carb canned food.
Making a Slow, Safe Transition from Dry to Canned Food
I recommend transitioning your cat from dry to canned food in one of two ways, which I’ll outline shortly.
But first -- if you’re in the habit of serving your kitty an all-day, all-he-can-eat buffet of dry food, it needs to stop. You’ll never convince your cat to eat canned food if he has constant access to a bowl of the dry stuff he craves.
Also, a key ingredient in getting your kitty interested in canned food is to create pockets of hunger in him. He’ll never have the chance to get a bit hungry (which is not to be confused with a dangerous self-imposed period of fasting) and curious about that serving of canned food if he’s eating from his dry food bowl whenever he likes.
The next step is to determine how many calories your kitty needs on a daily basis. You can ask your veterinarian for guidance, or if you want to figure it out yourself, you can view a video and discussion here.
- Method Number 1: Divide your cat’s entire daily allowance of dry food into three equal portions. For the first week to three weeks, serve your cat three meals, one at breakfast, the next at mid-day, and the third at dinner time. This will help your kitty grow accustomed to portion controlled meals rather than his all day buffet.
Initially, your cat will return to his empty breakfast bowl and wonder why there’s no food in it. No matter how your kitty reacts, you’ll need to practice tough love.
At noon (no sooner!), put down kitty’s second serving of dry food. Similar to what happened mid-morning, at some point in the afternoon he’ll return to his empty bowl and try to convince you by whatever means possible that you’re neglecting him. Remember – tough love!
At dinner time, give your cat his third and final serving of dry food.
Eventually your beloved feline will begrudgingly accept his new three meals-per-day schedule.
Once kitty is comfortably eating three portions of dry food per day, replace one of those meals with a serving of canned food. Since canned and dry food have different caloric content, make sure to adjust portion sizes to insure you’re still feeding the right amount of calories per day.
The daily mix has now changed from three meals of dry food to two dry, one canned. The transition has begun!
Now, some cats will do fine with this method – others will be quite opposed to it. If your kitty is in the latter group, again, tough love will be required. And consistency – determination – patience!
The two meals of dry food will provide enough calories that your cat will not develop liver problems. The pocket of hunger from reduced caloric intake should provide the stimulus he needs to eventually sample the canned food.
Once your cat has been comfortably eating two meals of dry food and one of canned for several weeks, change the mix again – to two meals of canned food and one dry. Don’t forget to adjust portions to achieve the right calorie count.
After several weeks of success with the two canned/one dry combination, you can complete the transition by serving only canned food at all three meals.
Congratulations! The toughest part of transitioning most cats to a nutritionally appropriate diet is the step from dry food to canned. If you’ve followed the steps above and your kitty is now eating only canned food, the worst is very likely behind you.
In the second half of this series I’ll discuss the differences in canned food quality and how to convert your kitty to an optimally healthy, raw food diet.