Once a Picky Eater, Always a Picky Eater?

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Does it sometimes seem like your cat is such a finicky eater that she is taunting you by turning up her nose at what you feed her? Do you worry that she is not getting enough calories to keep up her health? Do you keep switching her food in the hope that you will finally hit on something that makes her go at her meals with gusto, only to find that she is becoming pickier than ever?

Take heart. Your cat is probably not as finicky an eater as you imagine. Remember, a 12-pound cat requires only about 250 calories a day. That’s very little food compared to what humans eat, so it’s not like you need to see her voraciously dive into her meals to get the nutrition she needs.

Furthermore, you may be contributing to any finickiness you happen to notice. Consider that cats are generally happy to eat the same food day after day, according to the veterinarians at the Tufts Cummings School’s Clinical Nutrition Service. They may not eat it the moment you put it out for them, but that’s perfectly fine. If that makes you nervous, however, and you start replacing the food with other foods that you hope your cat will gobble up immediately, you are inadvertently training your pet to understand that she does not have to eat the first thing offered to her and that something more delectable or interesting may come along. You are also teaching her to expect variety on a regular basis when she never would have thought about it otherwise.

Not only does that potentially create a picky eater, it is also not necessarily good for the cat. Some cats have sensitive stomachs, and always changing what they eat could result in an upset tummy or other GI upset.

A better bet is to just put out your pet’s food and let her decide when and how much to eat. If your cat chooses to eat only some, or even none, of her food, that’s okay. At the next mealtime, just throw out what was in her bowl and start over. Hunger is a very powerful biological drive, much more powerful than a hankering for variety.

That said, there are instances in which it’s reasonable to become concerned that your cat may be eating too little. It’s also reasonable to make sure your cat does actually like the food you put in front of her. Here are some tips for assessing the situation — and for making things right if it turns out your cat is truly not eating enough.

A decrease in appetite. If your cat starts eating less than she normally does and the behavior persists, something could be wrong medically and a visit to the veterinarian is in order. Things that can diminish appetite run the gamut from tooth pain to life-threatening diseases to something as simple as antibiotics a cat may be taking to clear an infection. The cause of the drop in calorie intake needs to be addressed.

Newly developed food aversion. Think of a time you felt sick to your stomach in association with eating a particular food, even if it wasn’t the food that made your insides churn but just a coincidence. Just imagining the food might make you feel queasy. A cat, too, can develop an aversion to a food that she associates with not feeling well. If you think that might be the case, try feeding her a totally different food. Use a new dish so she doesn’t so much as smell a trace of the old food. If she still will not eat, a veterinary consult is your next step.

The anxiety factor. Even if you do not keep switching your cat’s food in the hope that she will eat more, she may sense your anxiety about her eating habits. She won’t know why you become nervous at mealtime, but she will know to begin associating mealtime with the idea that something’s wrong, or upsetting. And that in turn could blunt her appetite. If you think that might be the case, see what happens if someone else feeds your cat. Or put the food in the bowl and then walk out of the room so that you take your own emotions out of the equation.

Palatability issues. In some cases it’s simply that your pet may not particularly like what you put in front of her. While you don’t want to become a short order “cook” who has to keep changing what’s fed to create a satisfied “customer,” neither do you want your cat to feel stuck eating something she truly doesn’t like. Consider your own preferences. You might eat liver and lima beans day after day if that was all that was available, but you wouldn’t necessarily be happy about it.

For that reason it’s good to keep in mind that pet food comes in many forms — stews, pates, loafs, shredded, and so on. If you feel it’s necessary, you can try a different type of food based on flavor or texture and keep a log to see a pattern in your cat’s preferences.

You can also enhance your cat’s diet with “toppings,” as long as they don’t amount to more than 10 percent of her calorie intake. Don’t bother with sweet toppings like honey or maple syrup. Cats don’t have taste receptors for sweet foods. But some good taste enhancers for healthy cats include chopped chicken breast (50 calories per quarter cup) and homemade chicken broth (which will have less sodium than store-bought and won’t include onions or garlic, which are bad for cats).

Another option is to add a little of another complete and balanced food as a topper. For example, instead of a broth, use a stew or gravy-based canned food to add a little into the cat’s current dry food. It will add variety without unbalancing the diet. Of course, if your pet has any medical conditions, always check with your vet to make sure anything you add to the diet is okay for her, even if it’s a new complete and balanced food.

Final tip: If you’re going to try a taste enhancer, add it to a new food before your cat has a chance to refuse it. Otherwise, she could view it as a “reward” for turning up her nose at the food on the first try.

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