Transitioning to Timed Meals OR New Food
By Laurie D. Goldstein & Lisa Provost
An important note: starving cats into eating doesn’t work and can be dangerous, especially in IBD or overweight kitties. (It takes less than 48 hours for fatty liver to develop. Please read more in the fatty liver section of this site). Hunger, however, IS good for them, and is a motivator in this process.
The Key to a Successful Transition: Timed Meals
If your kitty is already eating timed meals, please skip to “Transitioning to a New Food.”
Establish the concept of “meal time.”
Obviously critical to a successful transition to timed meals is getting those nibblers to eat enough food AT meals. The components of establishing “meal time” are:
The Time: Establish a routine for the TIMING of meals. Determine when and how often you can feed meals. Feed meals as close to the same time every day as possible (at least during the transition). If you are usually home during the day, if you can feed 8 or 10 small meals over the course of a day (at first), you’ll be able to pull that free-fed kibble sooner. If you work, you may need to leave the kibble out (or out part time) at first to ensure your cat is eating enough calories daily.
The Place: Designate a specific AREA where meals are fed. This is part of the routine: an established place for eating meals. This should be someplace that is as different as possible from where their free-fed kibble is or was – but a place where you want them eating. A different part of the kitchen (or whatever) is fine. DO NOT CHASE AFTER YOUR CAT TO GET THEM TO EAT. Meal time is at THIS time, in THIS place.
A Signal: Designate a “call” that signals to your cat that it IS meal time. Pick a word, phrase or sound, and get your cats associating that word, phrase or sound with coming to eat.
The Amount of Food: Free-feeding is when food is left behind after eating. A meal is where all of the food is consumed in one sitting. Set your cat up to be successful! Determine how much food your cat(s) will eat at one sitting. Put whatever you’re going to feed them down for 10 to 15 minutes – or just pull it up after they eat some and leave. How much did they eat? 10 pieces of kibble? Half an ounce of canned food? One quarter can of food? One quarter ounce of raw or homemade? Whatever you’re using, and whatever that amount is, for subsequent meals, put down that amount of food. Do not expect them to eat more than that at “meal time” at first. You need to feed as many meals a day as required to get all the calories they need into them based on how much food they can or will eat at one sitting.
TIP: If feeding canned, freeze the leftover portion of the can by putting it in an ice cube tray or using a teaspoon to form small portions on wax paper. When frozen, dump cubes or blobs into a bag and label what type of food it is. To thaw, put portion into a baggy in lukewarm water.
Pulling the Free-Feeding Kibble
It is how much food your kitties will consume at those designated meal times that determines how often you need to feed them OR when you can pull the free-fed kibble if your schedule is not flexible enough to feed as many meals a day as they “need” at first. Pulling the free-fed kibble can be done in stages. If you are not at home to feed many small meals, you can start by pulling the food when you get up, and putting down a measured amount of kibble before you go to bed. During the day, feed only meals. If your cat is hungry after a meal, increase the amount of food offered (up to the point that the amount they should be consuming daily has been divided into the number of meals you are targeting). Three meals a day is the minimum ideal. For IBD cats, as many small meals a day as you can manage is even better. Meals do not need to be evenly spaced. Most find that before work, after work, and before bed works just fine, though young kittens do need to be fed more frequently.
Some cats will transition to timed meals within a few weeks. Some cats may take a few months (or more). The time required is usually related to age. Do not push kitty because you are frustrated. The last thing you need is a stressed, confused cat. This is not a race! Go at kitty’s pace.
Troubleshooting the Transition
In your transition to timed meals, if you find that kitty vomits stomach acid/bile between meals once you’ve pulled the kibble, this means you DO need to feed more frequently. Their bodies will adjust with more time. Note: the additional food need not be a meal: a small treat may be all they need to absorb the bile build-up and tide them over to meal time. The most common times bile-build up vomiting occurs is at night. You may need to feed the last meal of the day later; the first meal of the day earlier; or leave a measured amount of kibble out overnight. Perfect treats for bile absorption are freeze dried meat or liver treats.
Transitioning to a New Type of Food (Canned, Raw, or Homemade)
How to Begin Introducing the New Food
A large part of the problem we face with our cats in the transition to a new food is not only the change in texture, but the new smell (or lack of smell when transitioning to home cooked or raw). Some cats are very sensitive to the temperature of their foods, so frozen food may need to be warmed first.
The transition options:
1) Using the current food (kibble or canned) (having already transitioned to at least some timed meals);
2) Simply adding timed meals of raw or canned while leaving the kibble out part-time.How to proceed depends on
– how you want to transition
– whether or not your cat will eat meals in addition to having the free-fed food left out initially (whether they like the new food or do not like the new food)
– your schedule
IT IS VERY IMPORTANT YOUR CAT EAT ENOUGH FOOD DURING THE TRANSITION. Starving cats into eating does not work and is dangerous, especially in IBD, CKD, or overweight kitties. Cats are not metabolically designed to use fat stores, and their livers easily get overwhelmed with fat, causing a disease called Hepatic Lipidosis (fatty liver). The way to avoid this is to ensure your cat is eating enough calories during any transition. This is essential. THAT they eat is more important than WHAT they eat until they are reliably eating enough food at timed meals.
So How Much Does My Cat Need to Eat During the Transition?
According to Dr. Lisa Pierson at catinfo.org, your cat is safe from developing fatty liver disease if consuming at least 15 calories per pound per day. This number is figured on lean body weight, not fat weight. So if your cat weighs 18 pounds but really should weigh 12 pounds, your cat needs to consume at least 180 calories per day. (12 pounds lean body mass X 15 calories/pound/day = 180 calories/day). This would be the minimum requirement.
The Role of Hunger in a Transition
While cats are metabolically designed to eat many small meals a day (think hunting mice or other small mammals), their GI systems perform best when they have periods when they are hungry. Indigestible solids (like hair) are the last thing to empty from the stomach, and it requires those strong peristaltic waves created by hunger “pangs.” Hunger pangs help them pass hairballs more easily. Don’t worry about letting your kitty go hungry for short periods of time, it is a natural state for them and an acceptable part of the process, as long as the minimum daily requirements stated above are kept. IBD cats and cats with kidney disease do tend to develop excess bile more easily than healthy cats, so you may find you need to feed more frequently or provide treats between meals if you have and IBD kitty or cat with kidney disease. If using treats, count those calories and feed less food at meals so you don’t wind up with a fat cat.
MY CAT DOES NOT LIKE THE NEW FOOD (Skip to the next section if your cat likes it!)
If your cat does not like the canned, raw, or homemade food, then you need to use the kibble to transition to timed meals before proceeding with the new food introduction. You will use their love of kibble to transition them to the new food, but meal times must be established: until they’re eating some timed meals, you have no way to introduce the new food using the kibble.
Starting the Transition
When kitty is eating timed meals at least during the day, you can start the introduction to the new food. Put a small amount of the new food under the kibble, mix a bit into the canned food, or set a little dollop next to the kibble or next to the canned food. Don’t worry if they don’t eat the new food. The point is just to get them associating the new food AS food. Let them eat around it, and just get used to the presence of the new food. If kitty walks away from the dish without eating any food because of the presence of the new food, reduce the amount of new food in there, coat it with a dusting of a crushed treat they love (a “topper”), or set it on a separate dish next to their dish of food. You can still coat it with a topper. You may have to take it down to an amount that looks like a pea. You may have to crush kibble or freeze dried treats, etc. and coat that pea-sized dollop heavily. Or use a favorite treat: crush it, powder it, drizzle it over the little bit of new food in the dish to distinguish it from the regular food, but to disguise the smell of the new food. Don’t worry if kitty won’t taste it so long as they’re eating the food in the dish.
They Key to a Successful Transition: Persistence
Just keep at it. Many, many cats have taken weeks and even months to just lick at that powdered favorite treat over the extremely small dollop of new food. Just turn off your clock and remember – you understand how important a healthier diet is. Your kitty does not. The last thing we want for an IBD cat is stress. So just keep offering that little bit, every meal, every day. Once your cat starts eating that wee bit of food under the treat topping, you can increase the amount of new food – use the topping (or rotate toppings) – and reduce the amount of the old food. At some point, you’ll be able to eliminate the old food, and then you’ll be able over time to reduce the amount of topping. Patience wins out. This is a journey, and it should be viewed as a puzzle, a challenge. How many times have we said this now? It is not a race!
MY CAT LIKES THE NEW FOOD!
This is wonderful! But it is important, especially with IBD kitties, to go slowly. If you are transitioning to home cooked or raw, please introduce one new protein at a time, and not all at once. Make it 1/4 of the meal for the first day. If there is no vomiting and no problems in the litter box, make it half the meal the next day, & etc. If your cat likes the new food, but doesn’t eat enough at “meal time” because kitty is used to nibbling, you have two options: Divide the food into more frequent, smaller meals. If this doesn’t work with your schedule, you can put down a measured amount of kibble overnight and pull the kibble during the day (or however your schedule works). Feed as many meals as you can. Determine how much of the new food your cat will eat at one sitting. Put out that amount of food at meal time (meal time should only be 10 – 15 minutes long). Slowly increase the amount of food offered; as kitty eats more of the new food, reduce the amount of kibble left out to free feed at night, or if already on timed meals, reduce the number of meals being fed. Again, if you’re feeding more meals than you ultimately want to have in the schedule, once there is no more free-fed kibble left out, start increasing the amount of food fed at the meals you want to keep, and slowly drop the “extra” meals one by one.
Praise helps. Praise kitty for eating at meal time. Make meal times exciting. Have a quick play session before a meal to stimulate the “hunt – eat” instinct. Incentivize them to eat meals. Stop feeding treats between meals (other than to absorb bile as necessary), and sprinkle bits of treat (toppers) on the meals. Compared to kibble, the new food may not have as much smell (to kitty). With canned food, heating it up may be helpful. You can either use the microwave for a few seconds or mix a little bit of warm water into the food if they like gravy. Another option is to put the food in a baggie and warm it up in a bowl of warm water prior to serving. For raw with bone, DO NOT MICROWAVE. Cooked bones are sharp. Only warm up the food in a baggie in warm water. For those transitioning to raw or homemade, your kitty may be sensitive to the temperature. Some prefer it cold; others prefer it room temperature or warm. Experiment!
Obviously the point of a transition is to get kitty eating a healthier diet. So it’s a good idea to try to find a healthy topper your cat prefers to the kibble, Whiskas or Temptations treats (or whatever) you’ve been using/giving. Many cats love:
Freeze dried chicken
Freeze dried liver
Freeze dried salmon
Freeze dried shrimp
Tuna water can be drizzled on the food (not tuna in oil!)
Tips from Alex’s mom Lisa:
Try some cans of Weruva fish flavored food or Tiki Cat. Don’t use human grade tuna or any other fish as it contains more mercury and toxins than their livers can handle. Start giving them some canned fish in between dry food and slowly decrease the amount of dry every three or four days. If you think of the new food in terms of not just taste but scent, this will help you understand how heavily they rely on scent for eating. The area in a cat’s nose for detecting smells is ten times larger than that of a human’s nose, which makes them highly receptive to scents. A larger part of their brain is devoted to deciphering scent messages. In addition to this, a cat’s tongue can tell the differences between salty, sweet, sour and bitter tastes. If your cat has a cold, feline herpes virus or respiratory issues like asthma or upper respiratory infections, this will highly affect their eating habits if not kept under control. If they can’t smell it, they won’t eat it.
If they can’t have seafood at all, go for the novel proteins like duck, rabbit and/or venison. If they can have seafood and you’re able to finally eliminate or drastically reduce the amount of dry food, start incorporating some of those other protein sources as well. Maybe even mix it together with the seafood in small increments, a teaspoon at a time, gradually decreasing the seafood amount. My cats like Nature’s Variety, Soulistic, Tiki Cat and a brand from Only NaturalPet called I and Love and You. You can even try Fancy Feast pates, no grains or soy.
I don’t believe in feeding only one protein or food. It can lead to food intolerance and allergies. Switch it up, and slowly; pay attention to any reactions they may have to that food. Keep a diary of how they liked it and if it helped or caused problems. There are so many protein sources available now it shouldn’t be hard to find several different ones. Beef, chicken, lamb, turkey, venison, duck, rabbit, bison, even goat, etc. If they’re still resisting, try adding some fat free chicken broth. Some animals do well on particular meats like turkey or beef and some have severe allergies to them. If you try raw meat, and your cat gets a severe reaction like diarrhea or vomiting, wait a little while and let their tummy calm down before trying something else like chicken or rabbit! Mine have expensive taste and love when I’m cooking a rib eye steak for myself. I give them a couple of raw pieces and they dig right in.
Don’t give up, just give a tiny amount for a week or two and see how that goes. Don’t go full force next time, let their body get used to it and see if it can handle different meat. Then increase it slowly. Don’t ever let your cat go more than 24 hours without food to coax it into eating a new food. This is very dangerous, as it takes as little as 48 hours for a cat’s liver to become damaged and fatty liver disease to start setting in. I hear people say all the time, “they’ll eat when they get hungry enough”. That’s just not the case. A cat can and will starve themselves before they’ll eat something they hate. My Alex had fatty liver disease and this is a life threatening condition. Please see the fatty liver page.
Most cats don’t like cold food from the fridge so even leftover canned food should be left on the counter for about five minutes to get it as close to room temperature as possible. Although mine are strange, they actually like their home cooked food straight from the fridge, they won’t eat it warm. Raw food that’s been thawed in the fridge should be done the same way. Let it sit on the counter for just a few minutes to get the chill out or warm it in a baggie with warm water as instructed in the above article. Some cats will tear right into raw food, they’re wild, feline instincts kick right in. Others will sit there, look at it and start playing with it. Mine gave me a look at first as if to say, “What the heck am I supposed to do with this”? First time I put down liver my Lacey dipped her paws in it and flung it all over the wall. Then I tried a heart…she used it as a hockey puck all over the kitchen.
You can also try small amounts of ground turkey, ground chicken and ground bison (buffalo). All of them If you can’t put your cat on a completely raw diet, my advice is to definitely add it into their food. Some raw is better than none at all, especially for an IBD kitty or one with any gastric issues. The enzymes present in raw food are the best things to heal their digestive tract. Just make sure to get a good, quality meat source. Check the company’s website and look at their farming and packaging practices. You can also check the FDA’s website to see if that company has had any recalls.
For more information check the About Raw and Raw Instructions pages.