TIPS AND TRAPS FOR FEEDING FADDY CATS
Cats are naturally careful eaters as their digestive system is not good at breaking down toxins. Because cats are so sensitive to poisons, their senses of taste and smell must prevent them from eating food which could be harmful to them. An excellent sense of smell warns them of stale or contaminated food and if their sense of smell fails, so does their appetite. Unfortunately, the same mechanism which helps cats avoid harmful foods can turn it into a faddy eater.
Faddy eaters may be fixated on one or two types of food. This may lead to an unbalanced diet if its preferred foods are 'treat' foods or to problems if the food becomes unavailable. For these reasons, it's unwise to allow a cat to become a faddy eater.
Unfortunately it's all too easy to be manipulated without realising it. You avoid one or two flavours because your cat isn't keen on them. It will eat them once it gets hungry enough, but it knows you will crack before it does. Instead, you stock up on the flavours it eats readily. In this way, you reinforce its food fads until they become firm habits which can be very hard to break.
Before deciding that your cat is simply a faddy eater which is training you to buy only certain types of food, look for good reasons for it to refuse food. Make sure there are no underlying problems before you before label it finicky and try to reform it.
FUSSY, OFF-COLOUR OR FULL UP?
Make sure your cat is healthy before you tackle any food fads. A number of medical problems can make cats finicky eaters - like ill humans, they won't eat unless the food is especially tempting. A cat with a stomach upset won't eat till it feels better. If a bunged-up nose is the problem, offer pungent foods or warm the food to make it smell more appetising. If your cat's appetite doesn't return within 24 hours or it appears ill, consult your vet as there may be a more serious problem.
Cats are highly intolerant of mouth pain. Dental or oral problems including bad teeth, gum disease, sore tongue, wounds inside the mouth or mouth ulcers make it hard to eat and can completely stop a cat from eating. Sometimes the mouth pain may make it difficult to eat certain types of food, but the cat still eats very soft food, giving the impression of finicky habits. If your has groomed contaminants from its fur it may have burnt its mouth or throat - it needs urgent medical treatment as it may also have ingested poison. Sometimes a cat requires tube feeding while the mouth heals. Throat infections can make it uncomfortable for the cat to swallow.
Stress can also upset feline appetites. Factors range from a new baby, a house move or a new cat next-door (spend time reassuring your cat) to the smell of paint when redecorating (feed the cat away from the offputting smell - al fresco if necessary!).
Other factors which can make cats finisky include:
The temperature of the food. Most cats don't like food which is too cold. Cold food doesn't smell as strongly as warm food (compare the smell of frozen or chilled fish to the smell of fish warmed on the stove). Serve food at room temperature or warm it slightly to mimic the temperature of fresh caught prey.
The food bowls. Cats dislike deep or narrow food bowls which constrict their sensitive whiskers. Some types of plastic give off smells which, to the cat, smells as though the food is contaminated. Some are allergic to plastic and develop a skin rash from plastic food bowls. Switch to a shallow china or metal dish. Cats may be willing to use narrow bowls to get to a treat food or forbidden food, but not for everyday eating.
Hygiene. Cats don't like the smell of stale food so use a clean bowl for each meal and keep the eating area clean. Stale food could harbour multiplying bacteria which can cause food poisoning. Stale food may also have visible fly eggs on it.
Detergents. The smell of washing-up liquid (dish-soap) on a food bowl can put cats off their food with good reason - the detergent residue could be toxic. Always rinse the bowls well after dish-washing.
Flavours. Even the most undemanding cat may dislike one particular flavour or texture. Faddy cats, however, dislike MOST flavours. Chunks-in-gravy and chunks-in-jelly can be a particular problem as cats lick up the gravy or jelly but leave the chunks to go stale. Gravy/jelly alone isn't a balanced diet. Either switch to a 'supermeat' variety or mash the chunks into the jelly/gravy.
Medication. Cats soon learn to avoid their normal food after only a few days of finding medicine in it. The cat's sense of taste is so good that medication odourless to humans is detectable to cats. Try putting medication in a smelly 'treat' food such as pilchard or strong cheese, and vary the treats.
Stale Food. The food might be 'off' - tinned food left open on the shelf will go stale. Dry food (kibble) in sacks or boxes can pick up the damp or strong smells. The box may fit neatly beside the washing powder, but cats don't like Persil-flavoured biscuit. Store dry food in sealed containers (check that the container doesn't have a strong plasticky smell). Keep tinned covered in a cold place (pantry or fridge) and allow the serving of food (not the whole can) to reach room temperature before feeding it to the cat. If your cat only eats small amounts of wet food, buy small tins or small foil trays. These are more expensive to buy, but there is less wastage.
Not hungry. It isn't hungry enough to eat the whole serving. Reduce serving sizes rather than encouraging it to clean its plate and become overweight. Some cats prefer to eat little and often; dry or semi-moist food stays fresh longer. Some cats have digestive systems which only accept small amounts of food at a time. Feed small, frequent meals (as you would do when feeding kittens).
Height of foodbowl. This is an odd one for most people. Some cats have problems eating from a bowl on the floor. Sometimes this is a medical problem with the oesophagus (food-pipe) and/or stomach which can also cause the cat to vomit up what it has just eaten. Older cats and those with joint trouble have problems crouching down to eat their food. Place the food (and water) bowls on a raised surface e.g. block of wood so that the cat can eat while standing up.
Hunting and scavenging. Indoor-outdoor cats have the opportunity to hunt and scavenge. perhaps a neighbour is feeding it treats unaware that it is refusing food at home. To avoid hurting any feelings, you could tell neighbours that it is on a medical diet and treats could harm or even kill it. Your neighbour might be getting great pleasure from feeding the cat so another solution is to give the neighbour a small container of its 'permitted food' and a allow her to feed it a handful of this each day, but explain that other types of food will lead to high vet bills. One of my cats wears a tag saying she is allergic to milk - she hasn't had any squitter-attacks since wearing this tag.
FUSSY FELINES ARE MADE, NOT BORN
Kittens which receive a variety of foods during weaning develop varied tastes. Those weaned onto a monotonous diet often refuse unfamiliar foods later in life, although some may try new foods after watching what other cats (or humans) eat. Good eating habits start early, and should be reinforced throughout a cat's life. In laboratory experiments, kittens were weaned onto a potato-based diet (the food contained added nutrients essential for their growth and health) and later on in life they refused to eat unfamiliar meat-based diets. Certain fishmongers' cats don't even attempt to eat the fish because they were never given fish when they were young - they have never learnt that it is food.
These habits can be changed, but it takes time. Aphrodite recognised only two types of food when I obtained her aged 5 months. She ate dry food or canned tuna. She never learnt to eat standard canned food, but over a long period of time we introduced her to a variety of fresh and cooked meats and fish as well as cheese. This was important in order to medicate her. Tablets simply do not mix with dry biscuits.
If a cat eats only one particular cat food, problems occur if that variety is unavailable or the recipe changes. Many owners believe that cats eventually eat what it is offered rather than starve. In practice (such as the laboratory cats fed on potato), a cat may not recognise an unfamiliar food as being edible and a prolonged fast can cause liver damage. Wean the cat onto other varieties by mixing small amounts of the new food into its usual food and gradually changing the ratio of new flavour to old.
Many cats eat the same food for several days then get bored. The anxious owner offers a variety of foods until finding something the cat accepts. The cat soon learns to manipulate its owner and get food which it likes, but which might be nutritionally inadequate. Occasional treats of liver, tuna etc add variety to the menu, but cats can become addicted to treat-foods. If you feed treat-foods to the virtual exclusion of balanced cat foods, your cat risks illness through vitamin imbalances.
Rather than giving in to a sardine addict and replacing its balanced breakfast with a dish of sardines, mash a little sardine into the cat food and return your cat to a balanced diet by gradually reducing the amount of sardine mixed into its meals.
Offer a variety of tastes and textures early in a cat's life so that it gets used to different flavours and types of food. If you acquire a mature cat which is set in its ways, offer it titbits of different foods and slowly build up the variety.
Vary the flavours offered rather than giving the same one every day. Although cats don't nutritionally need variety (if the food is balanced and 'complete'), most will get bored of the same food day in day out. A cat which doesn't get bored of a monotonous diet will pose a problem if you can't get its usual foodstuff.
Introduce menu changes over a period of weeks by mixing a small amount of new food into the regular food rather than letting the cat manipulate you into feeding it an unbalanced diet. If the regular food has suddenly become unavailable (withdrawn from sale etc), then mix a small amount of a treat food (canned fish etc) into the new food to encourage the cat to eat and reduce the amount of treat food over the next few meals.
Some cats are deterred by an unfamiliar texture. Most prefer their food chopped into lumps rather than mashed to a pulp, although cats with sore mouths may need a softer consistency. When swapping varieties, try to find foods with a similar texture to its usual foods. Start introducing your cat to small amounts of foods which have different textures, if necessary using the gradual mixing technique.
THE PROBLEM WITH PRESCRIPTIONS
Prescription foods are made in relatively small quantities and usually in only one flavour and texture. For this reason, some cats do not readily accept them. Some tinned prescription foods are very solid and cats may not like the gluey, pate consistency. I found that mixing in a little water (or gravy or tomato juice from a sardine can if allowed) created a more acceptable texture and perhaps a more attractive flavour.
Ask the vet if you can introduce prescription food gradually by mixing it with the cat's normal food or mixing in a little tomato juice from a sardine can. Always ask first - your cat's wellbeing could depend on it eating unadulterated prescription diet. If the prescription food comes in both tinned and biscuit form this might add variety to an otherwise monotonous diet. Many cats have distinct texture preferences.
Cats bored by restricted diets may beg treats elsewhere. A friend with a cat on prescribed food gave neighbours small tubs of dried prescription food for when her cat goes visiting. Her cat's collar disc reads "Don't feed me treats - I'm ill. Treats could kill me".
If the cat steadfastly refuses to eat the prescription diet (and believe me, some cats would rather starve than eat a foodstuff which they find unpalatable or unfamiliar) then ask if there are any alternatives to the prescription diet e.g. home-cooked chicken and rice mix or a similar prescription food from a different manufacturer. Some vets are sponsored by particular food manufacturers and can only supply you with one brand of food from the clinic, but another manufacturer might have something similar which your cat will eat.
There are various 'kitty condiments' available - things to sprinkle onto catfood to add texture or spice. 'Catisfaction' powder adds flavour when sprinkled on food while 'Whiskas Crunch' varies the texture. Other 'sprinklies' include Garlic Granules (my ginger moggy adores garlic naan), chopped parsley, grated carrot, crumbled toast and, according to my brother-in-law, tropical fish food. Many cats enjoy nibbling greens, but if you don't fancy adding a parsley garnish, 'Denes' catfoods already contain herbs.
Use 'sprinklies' in moderation to add variety. Always check that it is safe for the cat to eat; for example onion will lead to a form of anaemia while human chocolate contains various substances which are toxic.
If your faddy cat steadfastly refuses to be reformed and you think it may be suffering from a vitamin imbalance, consult a vet. Most faddy cats can be reformed given time, patience and persuasion.
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