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, and canned food. For the past few years, I was also offering a very small amount of kibble, about 1 tablespoon per cat each day. This past June, they stopped being excited about it, so I stopped buying it. We do still have snack time once per day which consists of freeze dried raw nibs and Greenie's dental treats either in puzzle feeders or hiding it around the apartment which has been great fun since we started playing that game.
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 a few years back when I started integrating commercial raw food into the mix 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:
1. Scheduled Feeding Time
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. Cats are designed to eat small but frequent meals. They have small stomachs and would catch approximately a dozen mice in the wild throughout the day.
Come up with a schedule that makes sense for you and your cat that has at least 3 meals and ideally a few more. I recommend starting with breakfast and ending with a meal before your bedtime. If you work outside the home, you might do a post-work meal as the 3rd meal. If you're around during the day, a small meal around your lunchtime could be the 4th.
2. Play followed by a Meal
When cats are hungry, that's when they hunt. To mimic that experience, play with your cat using a wand toy which best mimics a hunting experience. Wind down the play session by slowing things down and letting your cat enjoy catching the toy. This is the perfect time for a meal. Exercise can increase your cat's desire to eat.
3. Offer New Food First
Before putting out the kibble, leave out the new food for an hour. If your cat eats it, great! If not, provide their regular dry food. It's dangerous for your cat not to eat, so it's important that they are still eating during this transition.
Is your cat still resistant? I've got even more tips.
4 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. You might take it a step further and try to make the food more appealing by:
1. Experiment with different brands, textures, and proteins
I have a picky cat, Josh. It took me years to find out that he likes pork. As soon as I realized this and started feeding him freeze dried pork, he finally filled out as he was a bit underweight. I had tried so many foods but not a lot of cat food has pork. If you have a picky cat, it's important to try different types of foods to find what your cat likes. 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.
2. Add a Topper
Sprinkle canned or raw food with Parmesan cheese, favorite treats, or FortiFlora (highly palatable probiotic supplement - be careful with this one if your cat gets constipated). You can also try a little tuna or cooked chicken breast.
3. Gently Warm Food
Warming up canned food may make it more appealing - don't do this with raw unless the commercial raw food provides specific instructions on this. Warm food is closer to prey's body temperature. It also helps increase the olfactory component of flavor.
4. Try Hiding New Food inside Current Food
Cover a very small amount of the canned or raw food (no more than a teaspoon) with the regular dry food. If this works, gradually increase the amount of wet food as you decrease the amount of dry food.
STILL NOT WORKING? DON'T STRESS
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 8/25/2023. Originally published 12/04/2018
About the author: Jennifer Van de Kieft is a Certified Advanced Feline Training & Behavior Professional located in Brooklyn, NY. She owns Cat Advocate, a feline behavior consulting company. She provides cat guardians with the strategies, tools and knowledge needed to address their cat's behavior issues. Jennifer provides virtual consultations throughout the United States.