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Why Are Cats So Dang Fussy Over Their Food?

Christie Long is a small animal veterinarian with 10 years experience in medicine, surgery, and acupuncture. As PetCoach's Chief Veterinarian, she directs a global team of veterinarians fielding inquiries regarding all aspects of pet car...

Dogs will eat anything you put in front of them — cats are a different story

Remember those old Fancy Feast commercials? The ones that depicted the perfectly coiffed, hopelessly white cat delicately nibbling from a crystal goblet? The message was yes, cats are picky eaters, but even the most discerning feline will fall for the taste of Fancy Feast.

The truth is that not all cats will even eat Fancy Feast, and sometimes you’ve got to think outside the box to find a diet that your cat will eat. Read on to learn about feline pickiness and how to combat it.

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Cats are not small dogs

One of my favorite veterinary terms is “indiscriminate eater.” We often use it when we describe our beloved canine friends, as they are famous for eating almost any item, food or not, that doesn’t eat them first.

Cats, thankfully, are much choosier about what they will eat than dogs are. Because of this, we see many fewer toxicities and obstructions secondary to ingestion of foreign objects in cats than we do in dogs. But if there’s a downside to their discerning palates, it can be that for some of them, finding a food that they like, or switching to a new food that’s necessary for medical reasons, can seem dang-near impossible.

Why are they like this?

Who knows? I have never seen any scientific research that explains why cats can be so difficult to feed. However, before you spend months and months and thousands of dollars trying everything that your local pet store has to offer, first consider whether this isn’t just your cat’s way of emptying your bank account, but actually a medical issue that needs to be addressed.

“Hyporexia” is the term we use to describe the state of having a decreased appetite, and it can be a sign of anything from kidney disease to cancer to food allergies. Even if your cat seems normal in every other way, a decrease in appetite, especially if it’s abrupt, should be checked out by your veterinarian.

Everything’s normal — now what?

If your cat checks out medically but still won’t eat, consider trying a cafeteria-style approach. Use paper plates to put out several samples of different foods. Draw a circle on the plate around each portion with a pencil or pen and label which food was put in which section — that way you don’t have to hover over your cat while he eats (which they hate, of course) — and you can come back later and decipher what’s been eaten and what’s been shunned.

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Stink up the joint

Regardless of your station in life, you probably never imagined that you’d one day be playing chef to a cat. But consider a bit of gentle warming in the microwave to release the aroma of the food. Cats seem to be very heavily influenced by the smell of their food, perhaps even more so than the taste, so oftentimes a 10-second turn in the microwave will increase their interest level. Note that this typically only works for wet food, as the smell of kibble doesn’t really seem to change much with warming.

Pull out all the stops

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Sometimes a bit of low-sodium chicken broth drizzled over your cat’s food or a teaspoon of chicken baby food (no onions or garlic, please) as a topping can help to get your cat more interested in his food. Make sure that if your cat has any health problems or you’re trying to get him to lose a few pounds, you talk to your veterinarian about whether this is appropriate to try.

What if my cat hates the food my veterinarian prescribed?

If your cat needs to eat a special diet because of a previously diagnosed medical problem, and she absolutely refuses to entertain the idea of giving that diet a chance in her world, don’t give up. Your veterinarian prescribed that food for a good reason, and it’s important to do everything you can to make the switch successfully.

In general, cats hate change, and they often feel that way about their food. So try a very gradual switchover to the new stuff, putting both varieties out in separate bowls as a trial run or mixing them together. Over the course of several days, keep increasing the proportion of food that is the new food and decreasing the old stuff.

If your cat just “can’t even!” with the new stuff, ask your veterinarian if there is an alternative. All of the major prescription food manufacturers make diets for most of the common feline health issues, so ask to try a different brand. Many times a cat will prefer a different brand’s flavor profile, and you can feed the appropriate diet successfully.

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