Educational Resources

Transitioning Dry Food Addicts

Excerpted from Dr. Lisa Pierson's article, Transitioning Feline Dry Food Addicts to Canned Food

This is the hard part. Cats, like children, often resist what is best for them. The two most frequent comments that I hear from people when trying to convince them to feed their cats a healthier diet are "my cat won't eat canned food" and "but my cat really likes his dry food." Children really like potato chips and ice cream but that certainly does not mean those food items constitute optimal nutrition.

The transition process often involves much more than just plunking down a new food item. Time, patience, and tricks are often required.

One reason that cats like dry food so much is because the pet food companies do not play fair when manufacturing this sub-optimal food source. They coat the kibble with extremely enticing animal digest sprays which are very pleasing to a cat - making a poor-quality diet very desirable to the target animal.

In addition to the aforementioned coating of dry food with animal digest, another issue is a crunchy texture which is very different from canned food. Cats are very resistant to such a drastic change in the texture of their food.

If you are convinced that getting your cat off of dry food is the way to go, read on for some tips on how to accomplish this.

The key is to do it slowly and with patience and incorporate various tricks for the stubborn cats. The most important issue is actually making the change, not how fast you accomplish it. I must say that my cats treated every ounce of patience I had over a 3+ month period of time during their transition from dry to canned food. They had been on dry food their entire lives and did not recognize canned food as food.

The single biggest mistake I see people make time and again is to say that their cat "won't touch" the new food and then panic and fill up the bowl with dry food. In many cases, it is simply not that easy to get cats off of dry food.

There are two categories of cats - those who will eat canned food and those who will be extremely resistant to eating anything other than dry food. If your cat falls into the first category, lucky you. Their cats will take to it with the attitude of "finally - an appropriate diet for my species." In this case, if your cat has been on all dry food, or only received canned food as a 'treat' on occasion, start by feeding canned food in increasing amounts. Gradually decrease the dry, taking about a week to fully switch the cat over to 100 percent canned food.

Some cats may experience softer stools during the transition. I do not worry if this happens and tend to 'ride it out.' If diarrhea results from the diet changes you will either need to experiment with different canned foods or slow the transition down and do it over a period of several weeks.

the average cat should eat 4–6 ounces of canned food per day split between 2–3 meals but this is just a general guideline. When determining how much you should be feeding your cat once transitioned to canned food, keep it simple. Too fat? Feed less. Too thin? Feed more.

Now...for the stubborn cats...

If you are unlucky like I was, and your cat does not recognize the fact that he is a carnivore and would live a healthier life if eating canned food, (or a home-prepared raw meat diet) then you will have some work to do. Some cats that have been on dry food for their entire life will be quite resistant to the diet change and may take several weeks or longer to make the transition to a healthier diet.

For 'resistant-to-change' cats, you will need to use the normal sensation of hunger to help with the transition. For this reason, it is very important to stop free-feeding dry food. this is the first, and very critical, step. You need to establish set mealtimes. They are not going to try anything new in their bowl of junk food is in front of them 24/7.

Cats do not need food available at all times. It really is okay for them to experience a hunger paint! That said, it was very hard for me to listen to my cats begging for food even though I was strong in my conviction that I was heading them in the best direction for optimal health. It truly was a stressful time for me and then - actually, I think it was harder on me! This is where many people fail and just give in and fill up the dry food bowl. There were a few times when I had to call my 'sponsor' and was instructed to "just leave the house if you can't take looking into those eyes!" I left the house. Those pitiful little cries of "I have not had food for two WHOLE hours!" were hard to take. But lo and behold, they were just fine when I returned. Not one cat had died from hunger. 

On the other hand, do not attempt to withhold food for long periods of time (greater than 24 hours) with the hope that your cat will choose the new food. I prefer to try to 'convince' them that high-quality canned food really is good for them, rather than to try starving them into it - which does not work anyways. Allowing a cat to go without food - especially an overweight cat—for a long period of time (greater than 48 hours) can be quite dangerous and may result in hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver disease).

Hepatic lipidosis can also develop when a cat consumes 50% or less of his daily caloric requirements over a period of many days. The definition of "many" varies from cat to cat. For this reason, it is important to understand that you need to have some idea of the calories from canned food combined with the calories from dry food that your cat is consuming on a daily basis while you are implementing the transition to canned food. I have never seen a cat develop hepatic lipidosis when consuming at least 15 calories per pound per day. This number is figured on lean body weight, not fat weight. 

Example 1: If your cat weighs 18 pounds but really should weigh 12 pounds, please make sure that he is consuming at least ~180 calories per day (12 pounds lean body mass X 15 calories/pound/day =~180 calories/day).

Example 2: If your cat is a proper weight at 12 pounds, a simple formula for the minimum caloric needs to maintain the weight of most cats is (13.6 X weight of cat in pounds) + 70. Younger/more active cats may need more calories.

So, if your cat weighs 12 pounds and does not need to lose weight, please make sure that he is consuming ~233 calories/day (13.6 X 12) +70=233.

Canned foods never list the calorie content on the can but many dry foods do list this information on the bag. A rough guideline for the calorie content of most canned foods that are 78% moisture is ~30 calories/ounce but can range from 20 to 40 calories/ounce.

Most cats will lose some weight during the transition to canned food. Given that a very high percentage of cats are overweight, to begin with, this is a favorable result of the diet change - as long as they do not lose too much weight too fast! A cat should never lose more than 1–2% of his body weight per week - preferably closer to 1%.

I highly suggest that all cat caregivers weigh their cats periodically. this will help ensure a safe transition to a healthier diet and, in general, weight loss is often the first sign of ill health for any reason. I make it a point to weigh my cats at least twice yearly.

Health-O-Meter HDC 100-01 scale that weighs to the nearest 1/2 ounce and has a 'hold' button on it that helps obtain an accurate weight even for a cat that is moving around a bit.

Resign yourself to the fact that you will be very frustrated at times and you will be wasting canned food as they turn up their nose at it. Also, you may want to immediately switch your cat to dry food that has fewer calories from carbohydrates than most dry foods. The Sugar Cats dry food chart can help you pick one. There are three grain-free/low carbohydrate dry foods currently on the market. Natura/Innova's EVO, Wellness CORE, and Nature's Variety Instinct.

The low-carb dry foods are very high in fat and therefore are very calorie dense. These foods must be portion-controlled otherwise, your cat may end up gaining weight. Note that dry Innova EVO has 612 calories per cup according to the information on the bag. One-quarter of a cup contains 153 calories so be very careful to pay attention to how much of these high-calorie dry foods you feed.

The average cat only needs 200–250 calories/day.

the low-carb dry foods are also very high in phosphorus. This is especially detrimental for cats with compromised kidney function.

And, of course, these low-carb dry foods are water-depleted just like all dry foods are and are cooked at very high temperatures in order to dry them out.

I do not recommend these dry foods for long-term feeding for all of the reasons stated above. Please use them only as transition diets.

Be sure to stay away from any "light" varieties since those types of foods are very high in carbohydrates.

Here are some various tricks for the stubborn ones. Keep in mind that different tricks work on different cats:

  • If your cat has been eating dry food on a free-choice basis, take up the food and establish a schedule of two-three times per day feedings. I really do prefer just twice-daily feedings when trying to transition them. A normal, healthy hunger response after 12 hours goes a long way to convince them to try something new. If you want to make the transition very slowly, you can feed the amount that your cat normally consumes in a 24-hour period—split up into two feedings. Many people, however, are unsure as to how much their free-fed cat really eats so I would start off by figuring out the calories that your cat needs to maintain his weight if he does not need to lose any weight.

    Again most cats only need 200-250 calories/day. the dry food bag should tell you how many calories are in a cup of food.

    Leave the food down for 20 minutes, then remove any uneaten portions. Repeat in 8–12 hours depending on if you are feeding 2 or 3 times/day. During the first few days of transitioning to a set schedule, you can offer canned food during the dry food meal, or in-between meals. The stubborn ones, however, will not touch it. Do not despair—all cats will eventually eat canned food if their caregiver is determined, methodical, and patient enough. Once your cat is on a schedule you will notice that he is more enthusiastic about food during his proper mealtime and will be much more inclined to try something new. 
  • Once you have established scheduled mealtimes, you will most likely need to start feeding a bit less at each mealtime in order to get the normal sensation of hunger to work in your favor. Again, we are trying to use the normal sensation of hunger to help us out. We are not trying to starve the cat into the diet change.
  • Once your cat is on a schedule of meal-feeding instead of free-feeding, try feeding a meal of canned food only. If he will not eat it—and the very stubborn ones won't - try not to get frustrated—and do NOT put down dry food. Try some of the other tips listed below. If he still will not eat the canned food, let him get a bit hungrier. Offer the canned again in a couple of hours. Try a different brand/flavor or a different 'trick.' once it has been ~18 hours since he has eaten anything, give him just a small amount (1/4 of a cup—or less if it is EVO) of his dry food.

    Remember to be patient.
  • Exercising your cat with a tassel toy before feeding can also really help stimulate his appetite.
  • Cats' noses are much more sensitive than ours are. They can smell the dry food in the cupboards. I suggest either putting it in the refrigerator or putting it in a tightly sealed container. If they can smell it, they will hold out for it. Some people recommend getting it out of your horse completely, but this is not possible when you are dealing with a very stubborn cat that needs a bit of time and patience to make the transition happen.
  • The following worked for my cats: Sprinkle a very small amount of tuna—or any other favorite treat (some cats do not like fish and would prefer cooked chicken)—on the top of the canned food and then once they are eating this, start pressing it into the top of the new food. (the "light" tuna is better than the fancy white tuna because it has a stronger smell. Or, Trader Joe's makes a Cat Tuna that is very stinky). Be careful to decrease the amount of fish as soon as possible. Healthy problems can occur with a predominantly fish-based diet. Plus, you do not want to create a situation where your cat will only eat very fishy foods.
  • Make sure that any refrigerated canned food is warmed up a bit. Cats prefer their food at 'mouse body temperature.
  • Try offering some cooked (or raw) chicken or meat baby food. One of the goals is to get your cat used to eating food that does not crunch. He needs to get used to a different texture. Also, chicken is a great source of protein to point him in the proper direction toward a high protein, low carbohydrate diet. If he eats the chicken, he may head right into eating canned food. Then again...he may not.
  • Try sprinkling some Parmesan cheese on the canned food. Most cats love Parmesan cheese and this trick has been very successful for me.
  • Try a product called FortiFlora. Most cats LOVE FortiFlora and this has recently become my favorite trick. This is a probiotic made by Purina but you are not going to use it for its probiotic properties. You are just going to use it as a flavor enhancer. The base ingredient in FortiFlora is animal digest—the very substance that makes dry food so very enticing to cats. The directions say to use 1 package/day - and you can use this much if you want to—but this amount is not usually necessary. You may only need ~1/4 of a package—with part mixed into the food and part sprinkled on top of the food just as you would use salt and pepper on your own food.
  • There are numerous freeze-dried meat treats on the market that you can also sprinkle on top of the canned food. Halo's Liv A Littles is a popular choice.
  • Speaking of texture, a common question is "can I just soak the dry food in water?" I hedge more than just a bit at this question. Dry food has a high bacterial content. Mold is also often found in dry food. There have been many deaths of dogs and cats secondary to eating mold mycotoxins, vomitoxins, and aflatoxins which often contaminate the grains found in dry food. If you want to try the trick of wetting down the dry food to alter the texture, please leave it out for only 20–30 minutes then discard it. Bacterial and mold thrive in moisture.
  • Try dipping some dry food pieces into the juice from the canned food. Some cats may refuse to eat it if the dry food even touches the canned food. But if he will eat it with a bit of canned juice on it, try the 'chip and dip' trick. Scoop up a tiny bit of canned food onto the piece of dry food. Put them on a separate plate from his small portion of dry food. Some cats will eat their small portion of dry and then investigate the dry food with a tiny bit of canned on it.
  • Going one step further, try adding a few small pieces of the canned food to the small portion of dry food. Your cat may pick around the canned food but will get used to the smell—and texture—even if he does not eat any pieces of the new food.
  • Crush some dry food and sprinkle it on the top of the canned food.
  • If you do not think it will upset your cat, try gently rubbing a bit of canned food or juice on the cat's gums. This may get him interested in the taste and texture of the new food - but do it gently. You do not want to make this a stressful situation and create a food aversion. (this trick is commonly used to get just-weaned kittens used to eating canned food).
  • If you do not think it will upset your cat, use your finger to put a tiny bit of canned food or juice on his paw for him to lick off. This has not worked for me in the two cats I have tried it on but it is another idea. Make sure you do it without stressing your cat. Again, you do not want to create a food aversion.
  • If you have a multiple cat household, some cats like to eat alone in a less stressful environment, so you may need to take these cats into a separate, quiet room to think about the error of their ways—their carbohydrate/dry food addition. once in a quiet setting, away from the other cats, two of my cats would eat canned food/tuna 'meatballs' by hand. Not from a bowl, mind you, but only from my hand. I'm not sure who was being trained. They did eventually start eating from a bowl after a few hand-feedings.
  • Try various brands of flavors of canned foods—no matter how low in quality. You can worry about feeding a higher quality canned food later. The initial goal is just to get you used to eating canned food and not dry kibble.
  • Syringe-feeding is also another option but has to be done with finesse and patience so as to avoid a food aversion. If you choose to syringe-feed, you do not necessarily need to feed him a full meal. Sometimes just syringing a 1–2 cc's can 'jump-start' your cat into eating the canned food—maybe not the first time but it will at least get him to taste the new food and experience a foreign texture. The best way to syringe-feed is to kneel on the floor with your cat between your legs so he is facing the same way as you are. Then using a small (1cc/TB) syringe, slip it into the side of his mouth and give about 1/2 cc at a time. He may spit it out but you are just trying to get him used to the taste and texture, not stress him.

    No canned food will make it through the tip of a syringe but human meat baby food works well for this trick. you can also alter it down a bit if you need to.

    If you want to use canned cat food instead of baby food, you will need to cut the end off of the syringe so that the opening is as big as the barrel. Make sure that the tip is smooth If you do not want to cut the tip of the syringe off, you will need to puree a pate (versus chunks) type of food. I use pureed Wellness for this. I run it through the blender with a small amount of water (~3–4 tablespoons/5.35 ounce can). Then I strain it to remove anything big enough to clog the small tip of the syringe. Syringe-feeding pureed Wellness is also much more nutritious for sick animals than Hill's a/d which is often prescribed by veterinarians. Wellness is also a balanced diet - unlike human baby food.

    Even though human baby food is not a balanced diet for long-term use, it is a great tool that can be used to help transition a cat to a texture that he is not used to.
  • I did have to take drastic measures for a foster cat named Molly. She was dangerously obese (double what she should have weighed) and would not eat canned food even after two weeks of syringe-feeding her. She needed to go in for a dental so while she was under general anesthesia, I put in a feeding tube that went directly to her stomach. This took the stress off of both of us. After two weeks of feeding her via the tube, she started licking the canned food from my fingers and then suddenly decide it was time to eat it. That was a few years ago and she is now a playful, animated cat. Before the weight loss, she could barely walk, could not clean herself, and was quite possibly headed for diabetes.
  • Don't give up. One of my barn cats ate dry food for the first 12 years of her life. She would never touch the canned food that the other cats ate. Then, one day, she found her 'inner carnivore' and started eating canned food out of the blue! I was shocked. That was 4 years ago and she has been on a 100% canned food diet since she made the switch.

These are just a few tricks that you can try. Different tricks work on different cats. The key is to be patient. Remember, it took me three months to get my cats on 100% canned food. Most cats, however, should not take this long.

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