By Dr. Becker
I often emphasize the importance of variety in the diets of cats and dogs, both in my practice and here at Mercola Healthy Pets. Just as humans benefit by eating a variety of foods, so do companion animals.
One very important reason for offering your pet nutritional variety is to help prevent food allergies. When the same food containing the same protein (especially if it is low quality, rendered protein) is fed day in and day out for months or years, intolerances often develop.
Many pet owners settle on an inexpensive commercial pet food their dog or cat seems to love, and they feed that food – and only that food – for long periods of time. Eventually, many of these pets develop sensitivities to certain ingredients in the food, often the low-grade protein source.
Now, according to a recently published study, there’s another reason to offer variety in your pet’s meals – especially if your pet is a cat.
Feeding Dry Food Exclusively Turns Cats Off to Food that is Healthier for Them
Many of you who are owned by a cat are already painfully aware of how difficult it can be to make changes to your finicky feline’s dry food diet. In fact, it’s such a universal problem that scientists conduct research on how cats develop dietary preferences.
One such study was published in January of this year in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior titled “Effects of early experience on food acceptance in a colony of adult research cats: A preliminary study,” researchers set out to discover whether kittens fed moist diets, then switched to kibble, would make an easier transition back to moist food than kittens fed dry food from the start.
The study involved 18 adult cats who had been exclusively fed moist food or kibble from the time they were weaned.
Thirteen cats were fed either commercial canned, commercial raw or homemade raw diets exclusively from the age of 9 weeks to 20 weeks. Another 5 cats were fed only dry food during the same period.
At the end of the post-weaning period, all 18 cats were fed a commercial dry diet for a period of 7 up to 23 months.
As adults the 18 cats were offered 1 of 3 moist foods (commercial canned, commercial raw, or homemade raw), with the following interesting results:
- The kitties fed exclusively kibble for greater than a 7 month period after weaning were not interested in the moist diets, including the cats fed a moist diet during the post-weaning period.
- For the cats fed one of the moist diets during the post-weaning period, the less time spent on the dry food diet, the better the cats maintained their weight when moist food was reintroduced. Four of 5 cats (80%) fed dry food for only 7 months maintained their weight on reintroduction of moist foods, compared with 2 of 5 cats (40%) who maintained weight after 17 months on dry food.
- Kittens fed canned foods were more accepting of both raw and canned diets than kittens fed exclusively raw during the post-weaning period.
Nutritional Variety Throughout Life Helps Cats Adapt to Dietary Changes
This study certainly illustrates the importance of dietary variety for cats throughout their lives.
In particular, periods of feeding exclusively dry food seem to have a significantly negative effect on the ability of cats to accept a transition to a more species-appropriate diet. The researchers observed that “any benefit of feeding moist foods early in life seems to be overcome by feeding dry expanded foods for an extended period.”
The fact that kittens fed canned diets were later more accepting of raw or canned foods as compared with those fed raw diets is probably due to differences in the texture of the two types of food. Apparently kittens fed a raw diet post-weaning are able to distinguish between canned and “real” food as adults, unlike cats fed canned food after weaning.
The study authors are careful to point out that this is a preliminary study and larger numbers of cats are needed to verify these results and determine their significance. However, they believe the study supports the benefit of offering dietary variety throughout a cat’s life to preserve adaptability to changes in nutrition that may be necessary or desirable.
Given the difficulty so many cat owners face when they try to transition their pet to a different type of food, I certainly agree. And while I think an entirely fresh food diet is optimal, I also feel it can be very beneficial for healthy pets to be offered a wide variety of fresh, raw, dehydrated raw and high quality canned foods.
I’m not a fan of kibble, especially for cats, because even very high quality dry pet food lacks moisture content. Moisture is a key component in species-appropriate nutrition for felines, so I really discourage feeding any dry food to kitties.
If you’re owned by a cat and want to transition her to a more species-appropriate diet, you can learn how to do it step-by-step in my two-part video, How to Win the Healthy Food Battle with Your Fussy Feline, part 1 and part 2.