How to Transition Your Stubborn Dry Food Only Cat to Wet or Raw Food in 3 Steps
Getting your cat to eat other foods after they have been eating dry food for a long time can take persistence. Keep trying different foods and techniques. The health benefits will be worth it.
My cat, Abby (pictured below), ate mostly dry food until the last year of her life when she decided to start eating wet food. She had also been diagnosed with gastrointestinal cancer around the same time. I think her body knew she needed better quality food. Dry food is a lower quality, high carbohydrate, low moisture food that is used often because it's inexpensive and convenient. But what about our cat's health? I stopped free feeding dry food after several of my cats developed illnesses including diabetes, stomach cancer, hypothyroidism and gastrointestinal cancer. Looking back, I cannot help but think that the nutritional quality of what they were eating negatively impacted their health. Dry food is so far removed from a cat's natural diet, cooked at very high temperatures and in order to be shelf stable for years, filled with preservatives. Canned food is also cooked at high temperatures and has preservatives, but it's higher protein and moisture content make it a better quality food when compared with kibble.
Commercial canned and raw food have a higher amount of animal protein (which is what cats really need as obligate carnivores), lower carbohydrates, and much need moisture when compared with dry food. Cats don't have a strong thirst drive, so the moisture is very important for their health. When just fed dry, it can be hard for cats to drink enough water to compensate.
I offer a variety of food to my cats including frozen raw, dehydrated raw, canned and a very small amount of kibble, about 1 tablespoon per cat each day. It's more like a treat. I put the kibble in puzzle feeders to provide mental stimulation and to mimic foraging.
For cats that have only been eating dry food, prepare for a potentially very slow transition (possibly months) as cats can be resistant to change and may need time to adjust. Your cat may eat the canned or raw food right away, but he may also be resistant. I went through this myself recently when I started integrating commercial raw food into the mix last summer for my 5 cats. Two cats took to it immediately and another two were a bit slower but caught on. Luke held out for 7 months before he would eat it. I offered it to him every day along with canned food. He would always eat the canned and leave the raw. Seven months later, he started eating the raw and now eats the raw first. So, patience and persistence can really pay off if you are dedicated to making this change for your cat.
3 STEPS TO ADDING CANNED OR RAW TO YOUR CAT'S DIET:
If you are free feeding dry, you will have to change to scheduled feeding times in order for your cat to be hungry and motivated to try the other food. I recommend at least 3 feedings, but you can also do more;
Prior to feeding, exercise your cat with a wand toy to increase his desire to eat;
Offer the wet or raw first, leave out for an hour. If your cat eats it, great! If not, provide his regular dry food. It's dangerous for your cat not to eat, so it's important that he's still eating during this transition.
TIPS IF YOUR CAT IS RESISTANT: Although your cat may not seem interested right away, patience is key. Keep offering canned or raw food, allowing cats to get used to its different smell and texture. You might offer it next to his dry food in a separate dish to allow him to become familiar with it. Also try:
Experiment with different brands, textures, and proteins to find your cat’s preferences. This is important as not all the food is the same. Some cats like pate and others prefer slices. Some cats like chicken while others prefer rabbit. With raw food, my cats like a particular brand more than the others even though it looks exactly the same to me and has the same ingredients listed;
Sprinkle canned or raw food with fish oil, tuna, cooked chicken breast, Parmesan cheese, favorite treats, or FortiFlora (highly palatable probiotic supplement);
Warming up canned food may make it more appealing - don't do this with raw;
Cover a teaspoon of canned or raw food with the regular dry food. If this works, gradually increase the amount of wet food as you decrease the amount of dry food.
Some advice out there is to keep your cat hungry and keep trying wet food. My philosophy is to keep it low stress. A cat eating, even if it’s dry food, is preferred over missing meals. Don’t give up. Dry food eaters may change their preference for wet food on their own terms, like Abby did. In the meantime, encourage water consumption by providing multiple sources of non-plastic water bowls, cleaned daily, and kept away from food. Water fountains may encourage drinking.
Update 6/13/2022. Originally published 12/04/2018
Jennifer Van de Kieft is a Certified Advanced Feline Training and Behavior Professional residing in Brooklyn, NYC.