[From Tufts February 2010 Issue]
Hobbes, my 5-year-old male, neutered tabby was recently diagnosed with cystitis (a bladder infection). My veterinarian recommended that I feed him canned food, at least for a month.
There are two other cats in my home. Until now, “meal time” has consisted of keeping a bowl filled with kibble so that the food is always available. How can I get Hobbes and my other cats trained to eat at set times? Or, how can I make sure that Hobbes only eats canned food and does not try to nibble on dry food during the day?
Dear Linda: Cats diagnosed with cystitis do better when fed canned food rather than dry food. There are several therapeutic diets that are designed for cats with lower urinary problems. These diets come in dry formulations as well as canned food.
There are some cats who simply will not touch canned food. For these cats, the dry version of these therapeutic diets should be fed, because these diets are designed for your cat’s specific medical problem, and can prevent or reduce future episodes if fed consistently. The canned versions of these diets, however, are ideal.
Trying to switch a cat from dry to canned food can be tricky. If your cat refuses to eat canned foods initially, you may carefully switch from dry to canned food by gradually compressing feeding times. Instead of leaving dry food down all of the time, start compressing that availability to four hours twice daily for a few days. Over the next couple of weeks, compress that availability to three hours, then two, then one hour and finally, to a half-hour twice a day. Call your cat to alert that it is feeding time when you put out the food so that he becomes trained to eat at specified meal times.
Once your cat is trained (don’t hurry the process — it may take two to three weeks), start introducing some canned food with the dry, gradually increasing the proportion of canned to dry. If you are motivated and patient, this works well.
Recognize that some cats are finicky and are reluctant to eat new foods. In fact, some cats easily become addicted to certain types of foods — like people who become addicted to cigarettes or drugs, this isn’t always good for them.
A cat willing to eat only one kind of food will be much more difficult to support nutritionally when sick and must be fed a different diet to address his health needs. Some veterinarians are concerned that this practice of serving only one kind of food for years can actually contribute to the development of food allergies in cats or trigger inflammatory bowel disease.
Many experts recommend providing a rotating healthy diet for cats that consists of a variety of food brands and types (canned versus dry). They recommend switching food types and brands at least two to four times annually — as long as your cats are healthy and do not experience any digestive upset. Some cats accept this approach, but if your cat doesn’t eat the new food, do not force the issue by starving him. Cats who don’t eat are susceptible to a serious disease called fatty liver syndrome (hepatic lipidosis), which is a potentially fatal liver condition.
Remember that the object is to increase your cat’s motivation to try something new without starving him or her — just inducing a mild feeling of hunger. Do not let your cat lose weight, and don’t push the issue too hard. Some cats would rather get sick than switch. It is best to work with your veterinarian during this process.
Sally Perea, DVM, DACVN
Catnip’s veterinary nutritionist