Almost nothing scares cat owners more than the prospect of changing their pet’s diet.
We want to help you! Here are tried and true techniques that work, so you can get your pet on a healthier, more species-appropriate diet to help them live a long and vital life.
We are indebted to the Feline Nutrition Foundation for their step-by-step suggestions, as well as the excellent websites Little Big Cat and CatInfo.org. We strongly recommend cat owners get to know these sites for their wealth of knowledge that can help you care for your cat.
You can download our Pet Health Guide on this topic with all these tips and more.
THE KEY TO SWITCHING CATS TO A NEW FOOD IS LETTING THEM THINK IT’S THEIR DECISION
You can’t force cats to eat, and if you stress out and push too hard you’ll simply convince them that this new food really is a bad idea. Your cat may dive right into the new food you offer, or they may take a month or two or three of slow encounters and taste testing.
Cats are hardwired to fixate on certain foods, especially if they were fed a limited menu in early life. They aren’t being finicky, they’re being cats.
CAUTION: DON’T TRY TO STARVE YOUR CAT INTO EATING A NEW DIET
This can be dangerous, especially for obese cats. Fasting a cat for more than 24 hours (or even 12 for an obese cat) can cause hepatic lipidosis, a potentially fatal condition. Even a small amount of food will prevent this condition so take your time with meal changes and transition incrementally.
GOING TOO FAST MAY UPSET THEIR DIGESTION
Even if your cat loves the new food don’t be too quick switching them to a completely different type of diet. If they get an upset stomach from a complete change in one meal you may end up with a cat that refuses to eat that “dangerous” food after all.
LET THEM SMELL IT OUT
Cats are very scent-oriented when it comes to food.
- Any food you’re trying to stop feeding should be put away in a sealed container where they can’t get at it (the further away the better).
- The goal is to reduce their fixation on that scent being associated with eating and to reorient their habit to the new food smells.
- Letting them see and smell new foods while they are eating their old diet helps them to make this change.
- Warming the new foods will improve their smell, especially if it’s been refrigerated.
FIRST SWITCH FROM FREE-FEEDING TO MEALTIMES
The habit of letting cats snack on a constantly available bowl of dry food is a hard habit to break but it’s essential to shift away from this feeding style.
- The hunger that develops between meals will help them accept new foods.
- Put their food down 2-3 times a day for 30 minutes, then pick it up and put it away.
- Some cats won’t eat “old” food, which you may find frustrating, so just don’t put down too much at a time.
- If you have a busy or multi-pet household they may prefer a quieter place to eat than the kitchen.
DRY to WET
Some cats that have lived all their lives on dry food find it very challenging to switch to anything wet.
- Start by putting their food on a plate instead of a bowl.
- Plating allows for full whisker freedom, helping them to avoid getting their whiskers in the “nasty” wet food.
- Plating also allows for a dab of wet food to be placed near, but not too near, their dry food.
- Once they’re willing to lick the wet food you can slowly begin to increase the amount. This step may take a while, don’t worry.
- You can also put some dry food right on top of the wet food, so even if they pick it off they’ll get a tiny taste of the new wet food.
- Experiment with different canned food styles and meats. Include stew-type foods so they can experience the unique mouthfeel of chunks of meat.
WET to RAW
When your cat is on scheduled meals and happily eating wet food you can start offering raw food using a similar process.
- Raw food doesn’t smell anything like canned food, so the process may be slow.
- Start by mixing a tiny amount of raw, one-quarter of a teaspoon, into their wet food.
- In addition, put a small amount of raw on their plate near their current food. This helps them get used to the scent and will allow you to see if they’re up for trying it on its own.
Be sure to offer different meats when integrating canned or raw food into your cat’s diet. Not only is variety important for nutrition, but it may also make it easier to switch your cat.
If they become fixated on a single raw diet offer the new varieties on the side, just as we recommend when first offering any new food.
ENTICING TOPPINGS FOR THE MOST FINICKY
To encourage the most finicky cats you can experiment with dusting the new and existing food with their favorite dry treat (fish flakes, grated parmesan, or freeze-dried meat treats), or even the dry food they can’t give up. While it’s generally recommended to avoid fish during this process because of its over-the-top enticement rating, you may need to use it if your cat is especially reluctant or already a fish flavor addict. Bonito flakes are convenient, especially when you crush them up for dusting over and mixing into their current food.