View Full Version : Making the Switch: Tips and tricks for changing your cat's diet

April 17th 07, 07:46 PM

Making the Switch: Tips and tricks for changing your cat's diet
By Christie Keith, Special to SF Gate
Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Let's say your cat has a health problem requiring a diet change. Or
maybe your pet's regular food has been discontinued or it was recalled
in last month's massive pet food recall. Or maybe you're just a
masochist. Whatever the reason, you want to change your cat's diet,
but you're sure your cat has other plans.
Dog owners reading this are probably wondering what the big deal is.
Dogs, of course, will almost always eat whatever you put in front of
them and even things you thought were safely out of reach on top of
the refrigerator.
Cats can be a different story, although getting them to make the
switch from one diet to another is not usually as hard as people fear.
Many cats will happily eat a wide variety of foods, particularly those
who have been exposed to different types, textures and tastes in their
food bowl since kittenhood. Still, getting some cats to change what
they eat can be a challenge.
Ginger Sanders of PetHobbyist.com couldn't believe how hard it was to
get her cat Butch to switch to a veterinarian-prescribed diet when he
developed urinary tract problems. "I'd always had dogs, who would eat
pretty much anything I gave them, so this was a shock," she said. "He
really wouldn't eat the new food, not one bite." Warming his food and
the judicious application of tuna juice did the trick, but it took a
couple of weeks before Butch really accepted the new food.
The origin of feline finickiness lies, just as you always suspected,
in the feline brain. Cats as a species tend to imprint on specific
smells, shapes and textures as being "food" or "not-food" when they
are still kittens. This is obviously a survival advantage for wild or
feral cats, where knowing what's an appropriate meal and what's a
poisonous plant is indisputably a good thing. But it's not necessarily
optimum for house cats.
Humans often reinforce the imprinting process by offering their cats
only one type of food from the day they bring the kitten home. If a
cat has never had anything but dry food, it might be very hard for
that cat to realize that canned or homemade food is actually "food" at
all. Some cats take this so far as to imprint on one specific type of
dry food, eating that variety and nothing else. This is why it's a
good idea to expose your new kitten to different types of food from
the beginning, stopping the problem before it begins. People with cats
raised that way, and those with cats who simply didn't imprint that
strongly on their earlier diet, can probably just put the new food in
the bowl and that'll be that.
If, however, you already have a finicky feline and you need to make a
diet change, patience and planning are the two most important weapons
a cat owner can have: patience because most experts agree that the
important thing is making the change, not how fast you make it, and
planning because it's much more likely your cat will accept the new
diet if changes are made in small increments. Many owners get
frustrated when the cat resists the new diet and start making random
changes in how they feed their cats -- which only confuses the cat and
increases the chance of failure. Instead, get clear on the steps
you're going to follow and then follow them.
Dr. Lisa Pesch of Sebastopol's Veterinary Healing Arts Center suggests
that the first step in changing your cat's diet is to give meals at
specific intervals, rather than letting the cat graze on a bowl of dry
food that's left out all day.
"My recommendation for cats who are resisting a dietary change is to
offer two meals a day, rather than leaving food down all day for them
to eat at will," she said. "Put the food you want the cat to eat down
for half an hour. Only if that half hour goes by without the cat
eating any of the new food should you put down the food the cat
normally eats." For most cats, she says, a few days of this will be
all the cat needs to make the switch.
If that doesn't work, the next step is to try putting a bit of the old
food on top of the new food. "You can do some mixing, but mixing small
amounts of the food they're eating now into the food you want them to
switch to usually doesn't work," said Pesch. "If it's mixed in, it'll
smell too much like the old food and it won't help them adjust to the
new food. When there's a little bit of the old food on top, they'll
eat that first and will get some of the new food in their mouth along
with it. That helps them to get used to that taste and smell as being
part of 'food.' With time, you can gradually phase in more and more of
the new food, and they will eventually start eating it because they'll
perceive it as food."
This can be a slow process -- and one that won't work for some cats.
What happens if your cat really won't eat the new food, no matter how
slowly you introduce it? And what if your cat has been eating one of
the recalled foods or has a medical condition requiring an immediate
diet change and can't be given even a small portion of the old food
during a transition period?
"Although I don't usually advocate using the 'cold turkey,' or
fasting, approach for cats," Pesch said, "most people are more
concerned about their cat not eating than is warranted for any actual
medical reasons. For a healthy cat who is neither overweight nor
underweight, not eating for as long as three or four days is really
not a big issue. At that point, most cats will relent and eat the new
This process is not safe for all cats, such as those with diabetes,
she cautioned. In addition, some cats can develop a serious condition
known as hepatic lipidosis, so it's important to ask your veterinarian
if you cat is at risk and how careful you have to be during this
For such cats, a medically supervised switch may be necessary. "I know
a vet who works with cats who need rapid, safe diet changes while they
are hospitalized," said Pesch. "She purées the food and puts it into
plastic squeeze bottles, cutting the top off so there's a big enough
opening to squeeze the food through. Then she basically bottle-feeds
the cats. She says that in three days, most cats are eating the food
without a problem. After a few days, their taste buds adjust and the
new food tastes OK to them."
Are there cats who simply will never, ever change, no matter what
their owners try? Probably not, but the process can be extremely
difficult for some cat owners. "I would say that the failures usually
come from the owners not being able to cope with their cat's reaction,
rather than the cats themselves," she said. "The cat bugs them
constantly and becomes unmanageable at not being fed something they
consider to be food."
Pesch is a "from the trenches" expert on both feline finickiness and
human persistence. She adopted her cat Bella when she was brought to
her for treatment as a kitten. Bella was suffering from
gastrointestinal problems, made worse when she ate a needle and
thread, leaving her with permanent damage to her digestive tract. For
the last nine years, Pesch has had to make a number of medically
necessary changes to Bella's diet, all without Bella's cooperation.
Bella's problems included vomiting when she didn't eat frequently, as
well as gastric reflux and hyperacidity. If she didn't eat at least
every two hours, she'd start vomiting blood. Unfortunately, Bella was
refusing to eat anything but a food that was making her health
problems worse.
Needing to get Bella on a more suitable diet, Pesch took it slow --
very slow. "I just gradually kept offering her a little bit more of
the food she needed to be eating, really small amounts very
frequently," she said. "I started stretching out her meals to every
three hours, then every four hours and then every five hours. I
finally got her to where she could eat two meals a day. Then I finally
got her to where she could eat two meals a day of her new food. But
it's taken nine years."
Not all pet owners will have that kind of patience, and not all cats
have that kind of time. But Pesch thinks that the effort was well
worth it and that Bella's health problems might turn out to have a
silver lining. "It's interesting, but she's gotten healthier and
healthier as she's gotten older," she said. "A cat with such severe
lifelong problems doesn't usually get healthier as she gets older."
"Yeah, I've seen it all with Bella," Pesch said, laughing. "But she's
a great example that if you stick with it, you can do it."
Christie Keith is a contributing editor for Universal Press
Syndicate's Pet Connection and past director of the Pet Care Forum on
America Online. She lives in San Francisco.

April 18th 07, 01:34 AM
On Tue 17 Apr 2007 02:46:54p, chatnoir wrote in

> http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/g/a/2007/04/17/petscol.DTL
> Making the Switch: Tips and tricks for changing your cat's diet
> By Christie Keith, Special to SF Gate
> Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Thank you! As one with a very stubborn cat who refuses to eat
enough canned food to sustain her, I appreciate all reminders of
how hard some cats can be to switch, and that it pays off to
persevere. I really liked the explanation about how food that
isn't familiar from kittenhood isn't perceived as food at all. I
had to laugh at the end where it has taken 9 years to get where
she is with Bella, though. That wasn't encouraging! Well, ok, it
was, just longer than I'd like to read when it comes to such a
hard case. Thanks again for posting this.