Change Those Eating Habits

The party line has always been not to feed cats variety, but Athens, Georgia-based veterinary nutritionist Dr. Donna Raditic suggests rethinking this theory. Even for cats, she says, variety is the spice of life.



If you happen to get your cat as an inquisitive kitten, encouraging diet variety is not likely going to be a challenge. “If you can be proactive, you’re ahead of the game,” she says. “Kittens are generally curious enough to eat pretty much anything you offer. Hopefully, you offer variety before the window closes on trying new things.”

Numerous studies demonstrate that humans can have a hard time as adults trying new food types they didn’t enjoy as children. While some dogs have similarly entrenched taste buds, most canines will try anything edible at any point in their lives if it smells good and even sometimes to their detriment, devouring items not so edible. Cats are famous for being finicky eaters; however, what really happens is that over time cats become habituated to whatever they are fed, based on the taste, smell and especially the texture of the food.

“We really don’t know why this is the case; as predators, maybe it’s because ancestors of the domestic cat had to learn from a young age what dinner might be and what is safe to eat,” Dr. Raditic says. “But we know most domestic outdoor cats don’t only eat one thing like indoor cats do. We also know their feeding habits develop early.”

In cats, those feeding habits become a near addiction, again based on taste, smell and texture. Cats become loyal to food based on these three parameters. Veterinarians have historically suggested choosing a brand you and your cat like and if the cat is doing well, stick to it. It’s what veterinary behaviorist Dr. Meghan Herron calls the “If it’s not broken, then don’t fix it concept.” If the cat is doing well, why mess with success?

Enter Dr. Raditic the disrupter. She says, “Think about what cats do in the wild. It makes sense (that unless your cat is currently on a special or prescription diet) to offer your cat two or three diets, each with different textures, tastes and smells.”



While kittens may enjoy food variation, adult cats are likely to be hesitant at first. You may have to experiment to determine what works.

Try these simple tips:

+ Choose different textures, moist and dry. If you are anti-dry, offer periodic dry treats, so at least they become familiar with that unique texture.

+ Offer not only different brands but food from altogether different companies. And while Dr. Raditic is a fan of the big players such as Purina, Mars and Hill’s, spice it up a bit by mixing in food from some smaller companies, even some raw diets.

Of course, you try to gradually add the new diet into the old — but some cats can’t be fooled. They can either pick out their existing diet without trying the new one or avoid the food dish altogether. Making matters worse, the cat may require a new diet because he or she is ill.

And, of course, Dr. Raditic says to talk to your veterinarian before choosing any diet.



So, what’s the advantage of all this variation? “You’re increasing the GI tolerance, so the gut flora is not only accustomed to one food and one set of nutrients,” Dr. Raditic says.

To be sure, it’s important to make any change in diet gradual, but if all along the gut flora is accustomed to some variety, it’s less likely that stomach upset will occur. More importantly, the cat won’t become married to only one product.

Many cats aren’t fans of some prescription diets under the best of circum- stances. Cats may not even consider any new diet, because they’ve become habituated to whatever they’ve been eating. As a result, these cats can go days with- out a meal. That’s right — they’d rather go hungry than eat. And when this occurs, cats can suffer from potentially fatal.



Dr. Herron, co-editor of Decoding Your Cat and a veterinary behaviorist at Gigi’s, an animal nonprofit in Columbus, Ohio, says that inappetence may be a cue for tricks of the trade, such as:

  1. Pour chicken bouillon into the food dish, and then pour it out so that the essence of chicken remains.
  2. Get several special or prescription diet choices and create a buffet, hoping that your cat chooses at least one.
  3. Another idea from both Dr. Herron and Dr. Raditic is to make feeding interactive and even fun, if you can. Lots of cats enjoy food puzzles. “Certainly, there is no downside to activating a cat’s prey drive,” Dr. Raditic says. “Cats are born to hunt and are better off for it if we can replicate this indoors.”
  4. Warming food in a microwave can help release the aroma to make it more appetizing.
  5. If the cat prefers moist food, add water to the dry food and crush it to moisten.
  6. Feed your cat out of eyesight from other pets. Dr. Herron points out that cats like to eat alone, and they don’t want to share their food bowl with other cats (except if they are raising kittens) — and certainly shar-ing with the slobbery family dog isn’t ideal. All this only adds to the stress of switching diets. Dr. Herron’s favorite method is to place an activated microchip on the cat who is adjusting to a new special diet, so only that cat can enter a room via an e-baby gate or e-pet gate. However, other cats may simply climb over the gate or you may not have the spare room available. A favorite DIY project is to construct a door that will open using the microchip on a large dog crate. “A large dog crate is enclosed to offer safety and privacy, but the visibility allows a cat to see what’s going on.”

Dietary changes are inevitable, and Dr. Raditic believes in being proactive to hopefully prevent a struggle, often at a time when the cat is ill.

Lure them in!

Adding something irresistible to the food bowl often works to lure cats to eat. (Of course, check with your veterinarian before you do so). The idea is to add tuna, as just one example — enough tuna so that your cat eats even if the new food is only 10% of what’s there. Then over time, gradually add more food as you simultaneously slowly remove tuna or whatever the special item is.

Here’s a list of some of Dr. Raditic and Dr. Herron’s favorites to lure cats to their new food:

Nutritional yeast (easy enough to simply sprinkle on the food).

Tuna, salmon, sardines (or just the tuna, salmon or sardine juice)

Parmesan cheese

Bonito flakes

Freeze-dried liver

Manufactured treats (countless choices are available, and cats have a wide array of individual preferences)

Angel food cake


Veterinary appetite stimulants: Mirtazapine or Entyce, for example.

Steve Dale is a certified animal behavior consultant who’s authored several books, including the e-book Good Cat, and has contributed to many, including ‘The Cat: Clinical Medicine and Management’, edited by Dr. Susan Little. He hosts two national radio shows and is heard on WGN Radio, Chicago, and seen on syndi-cated HouseSmartsTV. 


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