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By Jennifer Coates, DVM
Changes to a cat’s diet should be made gradually. In fact, taking five to seven days to mix increasing amounts of the new brand of cat food in with decreasing amounts of the old brand reduces the chances that your cat will develop an upset stomach or refuse to eat. But what do you do when you have to switch your pet's food quickly due to a food recall or other circumstance, like a diet-related illness?
To minimize the risk that your cat will have a bad reaction to the rapid diet change, there are some important steps you must take.
Pick a new cat food that closely matches the previously used variety. For example, if your cat was eating a lamb and rice product that was recalled, purchase another company’s lamb and rice formulation. Read the ingredient list. If you can match up the first few ingredients, the foods will be fairly similar. Also, review the guaranteed analysis on both labels. Avoid big changes in the percentages of protein, fat, and fiber, whenever possible.
Once you get the new cat food home, start by offering your cat a small meal. If he or she eats it and doesn’t develop any tummy troubles as a result, offer another small meal a few hours later. Gradually increase the size and decrease the frequency of your offerings until you are back to your normal schedule in a day or two. If your cat doesn’t dig in to the new food, pick it up and don’t offer anything (including treats) for eight hours or so. It is okay to let your cat get a little hungry, so long as you continue to offer the new food every 6 – 8 hours and then pick it up if it is not eaten. Continue this pattern for 24 hours. If you cannot get your cat to eat the new food within this timeframe, consult your veterinarian and try another formulation — but avoid frequent changes in flavor as this can promote finicky eating habits.
If your cat has an especially sensitive stomach and you are forced into making a rapid diet change, consider switching to an easily digestible formula to begin with and then gradually mix in small amounts of the new, long-term food a few days later. Probiotic supplements can also reduce the chance that your cat will develop diarrhea when its diet suddenly changes.
If you can't find a new cat food your cat likes or, if despite all your precautions, the change in diet resulted in vomiting, diarrhea, or other signs of gastrointestinal distress, talk to your veterinarian. He or she may be able to suggest other cat food brands – brands that are not affected by the recall or foods which are less likely to cause your cat a diet-related malady.
The digestive tract containing the stomach and intestine