Changing a Cat’s Food: How-To
You’ve just realized something that makes your heart jump—you have to change your cat’s food. It seems overwhelming since you panic when the store is out of your cat’s favorite flavor. And you wouldn’t dare swap pate for chunks.
So what are you going to do now? Don’t worry—it is possible to convert even picky eaters to a new diet most of the time. Here are some tips for success when changing your cat’s food.
Reasons for Changing a Cat’s Food
Perhaps the most important reason for swapping your cat’s food for another is when your veterinarian recommends an immediate diet change because of a health condition. Or perhaps the food that your cat has always eaten has been discontinued or recalled, or it’s now just too difficult to find or too expensive.
You might also need to look for something new if your cat simply doesn’t seem to like their food as much as they used to. Maybe you’ve been doing research on cat nutrition and you want to upgrade to food with better ingredients, or switch from a high-carbohydrate dry food to a high-protein canned food. Age plays a role as well. At some point, kittens need to transition to adult cat food, and adult cats will eventually move to a senior formula.
Whatever the underlying reason, you don’t want your cat to go on an extended hunger strike when you introduce the new diet.
How to Find a Similar Formula When Changing a Cat’s Food
If you have to change your cat’s food because of an issue like a recall, it will be easiest to transition to a similar food. Here’s how to compare foods using the three factors that are most important to your cat.
Main Ingredients (Meats)
If you can match the first few ingredients on the label to the old food, it might be close enough for your cat to accept with minimal questioning and inspection. So if your kitty is used to a formula with tuna, salmon, and shrimp, look for another brand or formula that has these three as their major ingredients.
Another helpful tip is to look at the guaranteed analysis on both labels. If possible, try to avoid major shifts, especially in the percentages of protein and fat. This can be more of an issue when changing from dry to canned food, since dry food is generally higher in carbohydrates.
Many cats are particularly sensitive to “mouth feel” or texture, so if they are particular to pate, look for a pate in the new formula. If you have a gravy licker, look for a new formula with a lot of gravy. And if cuts are your cat’s favorite, find a wet food formula with chunks of meat.
For some cats, mouth feel is as important or even more important than the actual flavor! These cats will often forgive some changes in flavor if the food still feels right to them.
Steps for Switching Cat Foods
In most cases, unless your veterinarian recommends otherwise for health reasons, switching cat foods should be done gradually over one to two weeks to avoid causing gastrointestinal upset by a quick diet change.
You can give most kitties a good introduction to the new flavor by following this guide:
Days 1-2: Feed 75% old food and 25% new food.
Days 3-4: Change to a 50%-50% mix.
Days 5-6: Feed 75% new food and 25% old food.
Day 7: In most cases, you can feed the new food exclusively.
If on any day, you see any signs that your cat isn’t tolerating the change well (not eating, vomiting, diarrhea), go back to the amount that was tolerated and stay there for a few days before moving on. Some cats take longer than others, so don’t get discouraged if it takes two weeks or even longer to transition your cat to a new food.
Switching From Dry to Wet or Wet to Dry
These same steps will also work when changing from one type of food to another, such as dry to canned or vice versa. Keep in mind that if you want to switch to dry food only, it is significantly higher in carbohydrates than canned food and should be fed in moderation, if at all.
Usually, mixing dry and wet food together is unpopular with cats, since the dry food gets soggy and the wet food becomes mealy. A better idea is to put them in separate bowls as you make the switch.
If your kitty is only eating the old food, try mixing them, or just decrease the amount of old food you offer to encourage your cat to consider the new food.
Rotational Diets for Cats
You can also try out a rotational diet. Rotational diets can help make sure that your kitty never becomes “hooked” on only one brand or flavor. The basic concept is simple—feed a variety of foods. The rotation can happen daily, weekly, or monthly, but the idea is that since the food is constantly changing, your cat won’t be so stressed when one of those foods is different.
You can then slow or eliminate the rotation if you need to put your cat on a special diet for health reasons simply by increasing its frequency in the rotation.
If you want your cat to have a little dry food, try feeding multiple small meals of canned food during the day, and then put a very small amount of dry food out at bedtime for overnight snacking.
Troubleshooting When Switching Cat Foods
When changing your cat’s food, perhaps the most important factor is that they continue to eat. It may be less than usual, but there must be a reasonable amount of food eaten every 24 hours.
If cats do not ingest enough protein on a daily basis, it is possible for them to rapidly develop hepatic lipidosis, a severe liver condition. If your cat isn’t eating at least 3 tablespoons of food per day, call your veterinarian.
If your kitty has not eaten the portion of new food after 18 hours, you can try putting a small portion (for example, 3 tablespoons) of the old food down for just the next 6 hours. This encourages your cat to eat the new food since it’s the only food available for most of the day, but also ensures that enough calories have been consumed within 24 hours to prevent problems.
Watch for the development of gastrointestinal (GI) signs such as vomiting and diarrhea. These can be signs that the transition was done too quickly, or that the new food is not settling well with their system. The first step is to slow down the transition to the last amount that was well-tolerated and take a more gradual approach. If this does not work and GI signs persist beyond 24 hours or are severe, call your veterinarian. .
There are some conditions (especially urinary tract problems and gastrointestinal diseases) that require a fast switch.
In most cases, transitioning your cat’s food goes the smoothest when they can dictate the speed of the change. With time and patience, your kitty will soon be enjoying the healthy food you’ve chosen.
Featured image: iStock.com/Lightspruch
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