So you have a picky cat, eh? I’ve been working with animals for couple years, and looked after plenty cats. Every cat has its own personality, and… eating habits. I’ve had numerous cat pawrents reach out to me asking for any tips on picky eaters – so I decided to create this blog post.
Treat this post like a library – you can take one
book strategy at a time, or couple… and return them if they don’t work for you. And you can come by whenever needed! Also if you do have any questions or concerns, feel free to drop by my contact page and let me know what’s on your mind 🤗
Also, there will be a very similar post made pretty soon, explaining the science behind those methods. It will be linked here once it’s made 😊
Are cats REALLY picky?
Though cats are domesticated animals, they still have their instincts and “motivators”. Their lives are “programmed” to: don’t die from hunger, don’t die from predators, don’t die from bad food, produce offspring, eat/find food… you get the idea 😸😸
So, why, are cats “picky” if their goal is to “eat/find food”?
Kittens have a critical window in their development between the ages of 2 and 8 weeks. During those weeks, they learn at a rapid rate and soak in new experiences like a sponge. At about 10 weeks, the teething process begins and they start exploring (more) solid foods. As kittens get more and more exposed to different foods, they register it as “edible”. But once that “development window” ends, the cat is going to be more cautious with his/her food choices.
Imagine yourself visiting a new restaurant – a new cuisine food, one you’re not used to. Maybe it’s a really authentic restaurant and even their menu is in a different language, or mentions foods/ingredients you’ve never heard of. (I mean, if you’re like me, you would Google the place and figured out what you’re gonna order way ahead of time… including possible alternatives, in case my original decision is unavailable for some reasons). Most likely you are rather hesitant, maybe even reluctant to the food… because you have no information about it.
Cats feel the same about food they haven’t been “exposed to”. They don’t know whether it is safe to eat or poisonous. So when introducing any “new” food, you might need to show him/her that this stuff is, in fact, edible. And we both know negotiating with a cat takes a whole lotta time and patience.
Long Story Short
Cats learn what food is at very young age. Once that “learning period” ends, they will be more cautious to try novel food. Some cats are more “adventurous” than others and will be more open to trying new foods.
Why is my cat
picky not interested in food?
Now that we established that cats are not picky – just cautious, you might think to yourself, “well, that makes sense, but why is my cat not wanting to eat the food he gets, like, everyday?”
Possible reason: Boredom
Believe it or not, but you can find an answer within that question itself. Imagine yourself eating your favourite dish everyday, for every meal (I think I would choose pierogies or maybe curry). I’m sure the first couple meals it would be like a dream come true. But after a while you would be so over that dish that the idea of it would make you sick.
I’m sure some might think at this point, „I understand that, but how am I supposed to feed my cat different foods when my cat doesn’t even want to consider eating them?” We will talk about that later (you can skip to the „introducing new foods” section)
Possible reason: too easily accessible
Kibble is one of the easiest forms to feed your pet. You can leave it out and not worry about it getting bad, so your pet can help itself and eat anytime. That in itself can also make your cat lose interest in food, for couple reasons.
If I had snacks accessible to me at all times, and lived my life like a cat, I wouldn’t bother coming when mom called me for dinner. Why? Cause I probably just ate some of the snacks. 😂 I also know that I’m not gonna starve if I skip dinner – I’ll just have some more snacks later on.
If you do feed kibble and canned food, try using some interactive toys to serve the kibble. It’s a great alternative to free feeding – your cat needs to work a little to get the food and it’s not as easily accessible. It also allows you to portion the kibble, so your cat won’t be “too full” for the canned food.
Possible reason: not enticing enough
I’m sure you give your pet the best food possible and you work hard to provide for yourself and your pet. It really is not the choice of food… kinda?
Kibble is highly processed food and in order to be palatable, it’s coated with some addictive chemicals. I wrote a separate blog post explaining why kibble is not a healthy choice of cat food, if you’re interested in learning more.
So if your cat has an option of kibble (that s/he is addicted to) and other food, s/he might try it… but the chances are very high that s/he will refuse it and stick with kibble.
If you don’t believe a cat could be addicted to kibble, try to switch your cat to no kibble diet… you will have no doubts after that.
Possible reason: “too foreign”
If the above reasons don’t apply to you(r cat) and you’re “battling” with a “picky” cat, it might be that your pet is not used to the food.
There is more to food than just its taste – smell, texture, temperature… any and either of those can “scare” your cat if s/he is unfamiliar with it.
Cats don’t like to be outside of their comfort zone – they are creatures of habit and routine. And once again, every cat is different and is going to be in a different spot of this “spectrum”.
Keep reading to find out what you can do to “trick” your pet into eating the food 🤗
How to negotiate with a “picky” cat
Here are some of my foolproof methods to get the cats to eat. Like I said in the beginning, I’ve worked with many cats and each had its own preferences. For some, I only needed to change a small thing, and for some I needed to bring out the whole “toolbox”. So try out whatever seems best to you – it might be just one of the below tricks, or couple of them. And remember that consistency and patience are the key. Some cats will need more time than others.
Before I get to the list, I want to mention that the goal is to help your cat see that the food is, in fact, food. Remember that there is no picky cats – only cautious ones. And unfortunately cats can’t talk to us to tell us why the food is “looking sus” to them… this is something we gotta figure out ourselves. Each of the below tricks will apply to at least one aspect of food – taste, smell, texture, temperature… you name it.
This one is pretty simple – you use a topper of your choice (or your cat’s choice) to make the meal more “appealing”. We really are trying to help the cat realize we aren’t trying to poison him with the food 😂
You can use whatever your cat likes the most – treats, tuna, tuna water, tube treats… you name it. I like to switch the toppers up so Chumka doesn’t get used to just one.
Just know that your pet may get used to having topper on top, and will require it on each meal… Guilty as charged! 🙈
And here is a little observation I made, based on Chumka and some of the cats I looked after…
Add crushed kibble on top
I wanted to create a separate point for this one, as it can be quite powerful and it’s a great way to introduce new food to your cat. If your cat is used to eating only kibble, of course.
Like I mentioned before (and in this blog post), kibble is coated with some addictive chemicals that make the food palatable to cats. If your cat refuses to eat wet food, try adding some kibble on top – it can either be in its “normal” form or crushed. This can “trick” your pet into thinking the new food is something s/he is already familiar with.
If you’re switching your cat into a new diet, you will slowly decrease the amount of kibble on top of the new food… but we will talk about it later in this post! 🙂
Store the food in a container
I used to use one of those can covers to store opened cat food in the fridge, and I had 50% chances of my cat eating the food on the next meal. The chances increased in my favour when I started storing the opened food in a sealed container – I have small glass containers but I’m sure BPA free plastic container would be fine:)
Now I couldn’t find much info on why exactly this happens… but I’ve noticed that a lot of cat owners could relate to this problem and storing the food in different container definitely helped.
I went down a rabbit hole to find some answers (if you know me, you know I will search every corner of the internet to find answers to my questions 🙈😂) and here is the most “reliable” answer I found… the USDA says that while it is okay to store canned food in the fridge, in the can, it’s not advisable. The canned food will better retain their flavour (and appearance, but cats don’t care much about that) if you transfer them to a glass or plastic container after opening.
Warm it up
This one is heavily connected with the above method… have you ever had your cat devour a newly opened can of food, but refused it either couple hours later or the next day? Yeah, same 🤦♀️
This study that observed (older) cats preferred eating food that was either at room temperature, or “prey temperature”. Another gem found in the study is this:
Furthermore, Bradshaw and Thorne (1992) proposed that cats prefer food served at body temperature, which may correlate with the temperature that fresh prey would be consumed in the wild. Edney (1973) also states that cats (age not defined) preferred product that was served at blood temperature or approximately 37°C-40⁰C, but after 40⁰C product preference declined rapidly.
You can warm up you pet’s food by leaving it on the counter for a little bit before mealtime. I once read a comment by this awesome cat lady, who puts her cat’s bowl into a pot with hot water. She then keeps it there until she’s happy with the temperature.
Offer it in a different place
We recently stayed at our friends’ house for couple weeks, looking after their place and their cats. Our cats have met before and I knew that it wouldn’t be a problem to have them live together for a bit. But Chumka was reluctant to eat – this is something that happens whenever we do a travel day, so I’m wasn’t overly worried at first. I did everything I usually do which is stick to the feeding routine, offer more enticing food, and give him more love around mealtimes. Normally he starts eating normally after 1-2 days, but this time there was no improvement. So I decided to try something out.
I moved his bowls (water and food) to a different location. I chose to offer him food in the office – it was much quieter room with less distractions, and some of our stuff was “stored” in there. The result? He was back to his normal eating habits!
If you have more than one pet at home, this might be a good option for you. Or if your pet is not used to “regular” noises at/ around home.
Maybe your pet doesn’t like eating on the floor and prefers to be a bit higher? Baby Chumka didn’t like eating on the floor because there was always “traffic”. So I moved his dishes a big higher, where he wasn’t as bothered.
Get different bowls
Try out different bowl styles and see if your cat has a preference. I personally don’t believe in whisker fatigue and plan on making a blog post about it – but some cats do better with shallow/ higher bowls. There are so many styles and designs to choose from – you will find something that you like 😊
Smaller meals but more often
Cats in wild eat several small meals a day. There is a study that shows some cats do prefer having “couple” smaller meals, rather than 2-3 “big” ones. I personally wouldn’t bend backwards to accommodate this, but there are things you can get to make it possible / easier.
Automatic feeders that keep food cold are life savers if you are gone for the day but want your pet to “eat on schedule”. You can program it however like you wish, and go about your day with a peace of mind.
Add a little warm water on top
Also, another little observation I made – adding just couple drops of water on the treats can make a huge difference. I believe that the moisture helps to make the treats’ aromas stronger, which can be even more enticing for pets.
Cats have relatively small numbers of taste buds (approximately 470) compared to dogs (1700), and humans (10,000). Since they have so few taste buds, they use other senses to perceive the taste of their food. Cat’s sense of smell is 14 times better than ours! They also have an organ called “Jacobson’s organ”, located in the roof of their mouth. This organ detects specific chemicals by using nerves that lead directly to the brain. The receptors pick up chemical substances that have no odor at all!
If the cat likes the way the food smells, s/he will taste it.
Play with them before meals
I think we can all agree that the food tastes the best when you’re tired and hungry. So why not try the same method on cats?
One “problem” I didn’t expect to have as an adventure cat owner is how difficult it can be to tire your cat out. At this point I either need to take Chumka out on a 4km (in miles) walk/hike or play for 20-30 minutes… twice a day 🙈
This method works best if you don’t free feed your cat for 2 reasons – bloat CAN happen in cats, so you don’t want to play with a cat when it just ate, and you want your cat to be somewhat hungry. It’s tough to “control” your cat’s eating habits when it’s free fed.
The goal with this one is to “imitate” wild cats and tap into those feline instincts. The cat hunts for the pray (playing), and then gets to enjoy it! This is method is most fool proof for me and the cats I had the privilege of working with.
The way I play with Chumka…
Disclaimer: I’m not telling you how to play with your pet, as each cat is different and has different needs, challenges and abilities.
We play in 2 sets – I play with him until he shows he’s tired (often until he starts panting) and then we stop for about 5 minutes, so he gets to rest and get his heart rate down. And then we do it again… until he either starts panting or loses interest in the toy. I do know that panting in cats can be a bad sign but this is a controlled environment and panting is a result of playing hard. I never continue playing until Chumka has rested and is ready for more. Even cat daddy mentioned he plays with his cats until they start panting.
Introducing new food
Last but certainly not least, let’s touch on how to introduce new food to our cautious cats. This topic deserves its own post – and I will make one – but I couldn’t post this one, without tapping into this subject.
You want to start this journey slowly – see what your cat is comfortable with, and experiment with its’ senses. Some cats will have no problem whatsoever (I switched Chumka cold turkey to raw – but I don’t recommend doing that 🙈) but most will be cautious.
The above methods will be very handy as each of them taps into a different “aspect of food”. So, if your cat is familiar with kibble and you offer some canned food – top it with kibble or crunchy treats. Or start with adding only a tablespoon (or less, if that’s what your cat wants) to the kibble, and continue adding a bit more, week by week. The same applies with introducing new proteins or brands.
I really hope you found this post helpful. If you know of a friend or a family member who struggles with a “picky” cat – share it with them! Thanks for sticking all the way to the end! Please give your pet some love from me! 😊💛
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- Food selection by the domestic cat, an obligate carnivore; J W Bradshaw, D Goodwin, V Legrand-Defrétin, H M Nott
Taste neophobia: Neural substrates and palatability; Steve Reilly
Nutritional peculiarities and diet palatability in the cat;
Aging cats prefer warm food; Ryan Eyre, Melanie Trehiou, Emily Marshall, Laura Carvell-Miller, Annabelle Goyon, Scott McGrane
Taste preferences and diet palatability in cats; Ahmet Yavuz Pekel