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Diet is the brick and mortar of health. This article lays out some often-ignored principles of feline nutrition and explains why cats have a better chance at optimal health if they are fed a quality canned food diet instead of dry kibble. Putting a little thought into what you feed your cat(s) can pay big dividends over their lifetime and very possibly help them avoid serious, painful and costly illnesses. An increasing number of American Veterinary Medical Association members, including board-certified veterinary practitioners, are now strongly recommending the feeding of canned food instead of dry kibble.
Cats, like children, often resist what is best for them. The two most frequent comments that I hear from people when trying to convince them to feed their cats a healthier diet are “my cat won’t eat canned food” and “but my cat really likes his dry food.” Children really like potato chips and ice cream but that certainly does not mean those food items constitute optimal nutrition.
The transition process often involves much more than just plunking down a new food item. Time, patience and tricks are often required.
One reason that cats like dry food so much is because the pet food companies do not play fair when manufacturing this sub-optimal food source. They coat the kibble with extremely enticing animal digest sprays which are very pleasing to a cat – making a poor quality diet very desirable to the target animal.
In addition to the aforementioned coating of dry food with animal digests, another issue is one of a crunchy texture which is very different from canned food. Cats are very resistant to such a drastic change in the texture of their food.
If you are convinced that getting your cat off of dry food is the way to go, read on for some tips on how to accomplish this.
The key is to do it slowly and with patience and incorporate various tricks for the stubborn cats. The most important issue is actually making the change, not how fast you accomplish it.
I must say that my cats tested every ounce of patience I had over a 3+ month period of time during their transition from dry to canned food. They had been on dry food their entire lives and did not recognize canned food as food. My cats ranged in age from 2 years to 10 years at the time of the transition.
The single biggest mistake I see people make time and again is to say that their cat “won’t touch” the new food and then panic and fill up the bowl with dry food. In many cases, it is simply not that easy to get cats off of dry food. (See Molly’s Story for a look at one very stubborn cat.)
There are two categories of cats – those that will eat canned food and those that will be extremely resistant to eating anything other than dry food. If your cat falls into the first category, lucky you. These cats will take to it with the attitude of “finally – an appropriate diet for my species.” In this case, if your cat has been on all dry food, or only receives canned food as an occasional ‘treat’, start by feeding canned food in increasing amounts. Gradually decrease the dry, taking about a week to fully switch the cat over to 100 percent canned food.
Some cats may experience softer stools during the transition. I do not worry if this happens and tend to ‘ride it out.’ If diarrhea results from the diet change you will either need to experiment with different canned foods or slow the transition down and do it over a period of several weeks.
Note that in over 40 years spent in this profession, I have never met a cat that needed dry food to stay healthy but some need to be transitioned more slowly than others.
The average cat should eat ~180 – 220 calories per day which will be found in 5-6 ounces of the average canned food.
However, note that high protein/low fat/low carb foods like Weruva Paw Lickin’ Chicken and some Tiki Cat varieties are very low in calories (see the Cat Food Composition chart – far right column) so you will need to feed much more than 5-6 ounces which can get quite expensive.
The necessary daily caloric intake should be split between 3-4 meals/day (or just free-fed if they are not overweight).
When determining how much you should be feeding your cat once transitioned to canned food, keep it simple. Too fat? Feed less. Too thin? Feed more.
If you are unlucky like I was, and your cat does not recognize the fact that he is a carnivore and would live a healthier life if eating canned food, (or a homemade diet) then you will have some work to do. Some cats that have been on dry food for their entire life will be quite resistant to the diet change and may take several weeks or longer to make the transition to a healthier diet.
For ‘resistant-to-change’ cats, you will need to use the normal sensation of hunger to help with the transition. For this reason, it is very important to stop free-feeding dry food. This is the first, and very critical, step. You need to establish set mealtimes. They are not going to try anything new if their bowl of junk food is in front of them 24/7.
Cats do not need food available at all times. It really is okay for them to experience a hunger pain! That said, it was very hard for me to listen to my cats begging for food even though I was strong in my conviction that I was heading them in the best direction for optimal health. It truly was a stressful time for me and them. Actually, I think it was harder on me!
This is where many people fail and just give in and fill up the dry food bowl. There were a few times when I had to call my ‘sponsor’ and was instructed to “just leave the house if you can’t take looking into those eyes!” I left the house. Those pitiful little cries of “I have not had food for two WHOLE hours!” were hard to take. But, lo and behold, they were just fine when I returned. Not one cat had died from hunger.
On the other hand, do not attempt to withhold food for long periods of time (greater than 24 hours) with the hope that your cat will choose the new food. You need to ‘convince’ them that a high quality canned food really is good for them, rather than to try starving them into it – which does not work anyway. Allowing a cat to go without food – especially an overweight cat – for a long period of time (greater than 48 hours) can be quite dangerous and may result in hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver disease).
Hepatic lipidosis can also develop when a cat consumes 50% or less of his daily caloric requirements over a period of many days. The definition of “many” varies from cat-to-cat. For this reason it is important to understand that you need to have some idea of the calories from canned food combined with the calories from dry food that your cat is consuming on a daily basis while you are implementing the transition to canned food.
I have never seen a cat develop hepatic lipidosis when consuming at least 15 calories per pound per day. This number is figured on lean body weight, not fat weight.
If your cat weighs 18 pounds but really should weigh 12 pounds, please make sure that he is consuming ~180 calories per day. (12 pounds lean body mass X 15 calories/pound/day = ~180 calories/day)
In reality, the cat in the above example would probably be completely safe at only 150 calories per day.
If you have a small female cat that should only weigh 9 pounds, please make sure that she is consuming at least 135 calories per day.
Canned foods never list the calorie content on the can but many dry foods do list this information on the bag. A rough guideline for the calorie content of most canned foods that are 78% moisture is ~30 calories/ounce but can range from 20 to 40 calories/ounce as shown by the chart linked above.
Most cats will lose some weight during the transition to canned food. Given that a very high percentage of cats are overweight to begin with, this is a favorable result of the diet change – as long as they do not lose too much weight too fast. A cat should never lose more than 1-2% of his body weight per week.
I highly suggest that all cat caregivers weigh their cats periodically especially if they are over 10 years of age. This will help ensure a safe transition to a healthier diet and, in general, weight loss is often the first sign of ill health for any reason. I make it a point to weigh my cats at least once each month especially since they are now over 10 years of age.
Here is a scale that is reasonably priced: Salter Baby and Toddler scale. It weighs to the nearest 1/2 ounce and has a ‘hold’ button on it that helps obtain an accurate weight even for a cat that is moving around a bit.
Here is another scale that may be even better because its base is as long as the scale. Red Cross Baby Scale. This is important for cats that are trained to walk onto it otherwise, scales like the Salter one linked above may tip. This would scare the cat and harm the scale.
All of my cats lost weight during the three months that it took to switch them to canned but none of them became too thin. They slimmed down to a nice lean body weight – losing fat while maintaining their muscle mass. They also became much more active.
If your cat is overweight, please see the Feline Obesity page.
Resign yourself to the fact that you will be very frustrated at times and you will be wasting canned food as they turn up their nose at it. Also, you may want to immediately switch your cat to a dry food that has fewer calories from carbohydrates than most dry foods. (e.g., EVO)
The low-carb dry foods are very high in fat and therefore are very calorie dense. These foods must be portion-controlled otherwise, your cat may end up gaining weight. Note that dry Innova EVO has 612 calories per cup. One quarter of a cup contains 153 calories so be very careful to pay attention to how much of these high calorie dry foods you feed.
The caloric needs of an average cat can range between 150 – 250 calories/day depending on their lean body weight and activity level.
The low-carb dry foods are also very high in phosphorus. This is especially detrimental for cats with compromised kidney function.
And, of course, these low-carb dry foods are water-depleted – just like all dry foods – putting your cat at risk for serious urinary tract problems. They are also cooked at very high temperatures in order to dry them out.
I do not recommend these dry foods for long-term feeding for all of the reasons stated above. Please use them only as transition diets.
Be sure to stay away from any “light” varieties since those types of foods are very high in carbohydrates.
Here are some various tricks for the stubborn ones.
Keep in mind that different tricks work on different cats:
If you want to take the transition very slowly, you can feed the amount that your cat normally consumes in a 24 hour period – split up into two feedings to get him used to meal feeding. Many people, however, are unsure as to how much their free-fed cat really eats so I would start off by figuring out the calories that your cat needs to maintain his weight if he does not need to lose any weight.
Leave the dry food down for 20 minutes, and then remove any uneaten portion. Repeat in 8-12 hours depending on if you are feeding 2 or 3 times per day. During the first few days of transitioning to a set schedule, you can offer canned food during the dry food meals, or in-between meals. The stubborn ones, however, will not touch it. Do not despair – all cats will eventually eat canned food if their caregiver is determined, methodical, and patient enough. Once your cat is on a schedule you will notice that he is more enthusiastic about food during his proper mealtimes and will be much more inclined to try something new.
Again, most cats only need 150-250 calories/day. The dry food bag should tell you how many calories are in a cup of food but if it does not, you can call the company.