Is Variety the Spice of Life?

Jennifer Coates, DVM
By Jennifer Coates, DVM on May 17, 2013

How do you feed your cat? Is it the same thing day in and day out, or do you spice it up a little and offer different foods from time to time? There is no right answer to this question. As with most aspects of cat care, it depends on the individual.

Some cats definitely do better when they eat the same thing every day. Reasons can vary from diet-responsive health problems like inflammatory bowel disease or food allergies, to a more generic “sensitive stomach” that rebels to change, to extreme finickiness. If your cat is thriving on a nutritionally complete and balanced diet that satisfies her whims and medical needs, I’m certainly not going to recommend making a change. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

On the other hand, a diet that includes some variety does have its benefits, as long as your cat’s gastrointestinal tract can handle it. Any life-stage appropriate, commercially prepared food that is labeled as being nutritionally complete should meet all of a cat’s basic (emphasis on the basic) dietary needs even when it is that individual’s sole source of nutrition. But to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, “There are unknown unknowns. Things we don't know we don't know.”

Our knowledge of feline nutrition is not perfect, and commercially prepared foods are not identical. One brand may contain a little more of this, another, a little less of that, and a third, something completely missing from the other two. One way to hedge your bets is to rotate through several different types of cat food in the hopes that, in the aggregate, they will supply just what is needed.

If you offer both canned and dry food on a daily basis, you are already doing this to some extent. You can mix things up even more by mixing two or more types of dry food together in the bowl, which also works if you feed dry food only. To maintain freshness, make sure you buy smaller bags of food since you’ll be going through them more slowly.

I don’t recommend offering a different variety of foods, either canned or dry, at every meal, however. Frequent flavor rotation has been implicated in the development of finicky eating behavior, probably because cats fed in this way learn that if they aren’t thrilled with what’s in front of them, they can just wait for something better to come along. If you feed primarily canned food or don’t like the idea of having multiple bags of kibble lying around, you can still provide your cat with variety by rotating through different products on a more gradual basis. Every few months, as you are running out of one type of food and are due to purchase more, switch brands. Take a few days to mix the old and new together to minimize the risk of gastrointestinal upset.

Of course, all of the foods that you offer should be of the highest quality possible, or you can’t expect to see much of a benefit from mixing things up a bit.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: buildscharater / via Flickr

Jennifer Coates, DVM


Jennifer Coates, DVM


Dr. Jennifer Coates is an accomplished veterinarian, writer, editor, and consultant with years of experience in the fields of veterinary...

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