So, now that you’ve read the last two posts, you’re convinced! You’re going to change what your pet is eating. That’s great! But there are things you need to know to avoid trouble.
The first thing to remember when switching your pet’s diet is that time is on your side. Except in rare cases, it is not an urgent matter, and you can—and should—take plenty of time to make the change.
Take Your Time
Many pets are used to having food available day and night (often called a “free choice” or “free feeding” schedule). Their guardians may have tried switching; they put a bowl of new food down, the animal turns up its nose, and therefore they conclude that their pet is too finicky and “can’t” switch foods. This is faulty logic; and there are multiple reasons why it fails.
• These animals, especially cats, are never hungry enough to try anything new. What if your kid comes home from school, eats a package of cheese and crackers and a handful of cookies, then doesn’t want to eat broccoli at dinner? While I sympathize (I hate broccoli!), I am not surprised. There’s no motivation—in this case, the primary one needed is hunger!
• Many times an animal will be intrigued and eat the new food the first time or two, so you run out and buy three cases of it. Then they won’t eat it again. This is very common with cats. No one knows for sure why they do this, but it may be because variety is the very thing they’re craving—and now you’ve served the same thing three times in a row! Yuck!
• There is a vast difference between foods. If a pet has been eating inexpensive, high-carb dry food and suddenly switches to a grain-free dry, or to canned, this is a huge shift in protein, fat, and carbohydrate proportions, as well as very different quality ingredients. This can cause a seriously upset tummy.
The first step, for free fed pets, is to go to a timed meal schedule, where you leave the food out for an hour in the morning and again for an hour in the evening, but put it away the rest of the time. Believe me, your pet will not starve to death in 12 hours, or 14 hours, or even 18 hours if you have to work late. Now your pet will be hungry at meal time, and thus more willing to try new things. This is particularly critical when switching from dry to wet food with a finicky eater.
Carnivores typically eat until they’re full, and then sleep it off before going hunting again. This gives their tummies time to rest between meals. This may be an important factor in preventing intestinal problems such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease.
With a timed meal schedule, you don’t have to worry so much about restricting the amounts you feed (especially with wet food); most animals will eventually self-regulate very well on this schedule.
Easy Does It
When you decide to make the transition from one food to another, particularly dry food, plan ahead. You don’t want to run completely out of one food and just slap down a bowl of something new in front of Fluffy’s nose. The normal bacteria in the gut are keyed to one type of food, and it takes time for the populations to shift enough to efficiently digest a new food. A sudden switch can cause tummy upset, which can lead to rejection of the food, as well as extremely unpleasant messes in the house!
If adding canned food or switching from dry to canned, this is also the time for an abundance of caution. These two forms of food are so different, that it will take some getting used to on the part of your pet’s tummy.
Once canned food is a regular staple, it doesn’t seem to be a problem to change flavors as often as every meal.
With dry food, for most dogs a four or eight-day changeover works best. Young dogs usually adjust quickly; older dogs may need a little more time. For the first day (or two), feed 75 percent old food mixed with 25 percent new food. Then 50 percent each of old and new food, then 25 percent old food and 75 percent new food, and finally all new food. This gives the dog’s resident gut bacteria time to gear up to handle the new ingredients properly.
Many cat guardians have tried—and failed—to switch their cat to a better diet. A primary reason for that is the tendency of cats to turn their noses up at any new food. Cats often require more a more gradual (that is, sneaky) approach, with more intermediate stages over two to three weeks.
Next time, we’ll talk about what to do when your finicky eater refuses to touch a new food no matter what, and what to do if problems occur during the switch.
Special Tricks for Cats and Other Finicky Eaters
How to Switch Foods Part II…
“Dogs will eat anything.” That’s what I thought until I met Elvis, a husky-white shepherd mix. A pickier critter you never will find—he’d rather starve than eat anything he isn’t in the mood for. Elvis taught me that a dog can be as finicky as the most persnickety cat, so the following tips and tricks can be applied to dogs and cats alike.
Although it’s true for any species, it’s particularly true for cats that their food preferences are formed during kittenhood. In fact, many cats who have eaten only dry food their whole lives simply don’t recognize anything else as “food.” In any case, getting a fussy pet just to change brands or flavors can be a major challenge. Animals prefer routine and dislike change in general, and messing with their dinner habits may not be welcome. But it is almost always possible to convert a dog or cat to a better diet.
Planning and patience are the keys to a successful switch. Even if your pet is one that eats everything with gusto, bear in mind that changing too fast can cause big tummy upset—and plenty of business for the carpet cleaners!
If you’re adding raw food, or switching from dry to canned, homemade, or raw, use caution and go very slowly. These forms of food are so vastly different that it will take some serious getting used to on the part of your pet’s tummy. In the case of dry food, it may be easier to switch to canned food first, and then move to raw or homemade later, if you desire. Just getting a dry-food addict to eat a good quality canned food is a worthwhile improvement!
If your pet refuses to touch dry food with canned or raw mixed in, offer only the new food for the first half of the meal period before offering their normal food. Many pets will be hungry enough to at least taste it. (Remember that when dry food gets wet, surface bacteria will rapidly grow and can cause serious tummy upset; discard it after 20 minutes.) If that doesn’t work, try these tricks:
* Start with plain meat, without veggies or supplements.
* Lightly brown the meat.
* Sprinkle a handful of kibbles on top of the new food.
* Smear some meat baby food on top (favorites are chicken, turkey, and ham).
* Drizzle a little tuna juice or chicken stock over the new food.
* Try both chunky (slices, shreds, nuggets, etc.) and paté type canned foods.
* Try different flavors or different brands.
* Crush the dry food into crumbs. Make tiny, bite-sized meatballs of the new food, and roll them in the crumbs. For a cat or tiny dog, don’t overestimate–keep the meatballs itty bitty!
* Be patient!
* Don’t give up!
Flower essences can help your pet to keep an open mind and be more willing to try new things.
If you’re converting a cat, make sure he’s eating at least a little at each meal. If not, take a step backwards in terms of percentages, or offer his favorite food by itself. Cats (especially overweight cats) can get into big trouble if they miss even two or three meals—they can quickly develop hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver disease). It is expensive to treat, and not all cats survive.
Many (if not most) animals will have a change in stool, even diarrhea, with a change of diet. As long as the animal is still eating well and acting fine, diarrhea is nothing to worry about; in fact, it’s pretty normal, and will often persist for a week or two. (CAUTION: If your pet has additional symptoms, such as lethargy, poor appetite, or persistent vomiting, stop the new food and contact your veterinarian; there may be something else going on.) There are several ways to prevent or resolve diarrhea due to diet change:
* Make the switch extra-slowly.
* Decrease the amount of new food and go back to a larger proportion of the old food.
* Add a digestive enzyme supplement. You can get one made for pets, or use a human version from the health food store. Plant-based enzymes work best for most pets, but some dogs do better with pancreatic extracts. The crucial enzymes are protease, lipase, amylase, and cellulase.
* Add probiotics and prebiotics. Probiotics are “friendly” bacteria such as L. acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidum that help balance the gut’s bacterial population. Prebiotics are special nutrients (oligosaccharides, such as Chicory or FOS) that keep the colon lining cells healthy.
- Only Natural Pet Probiotic Blend
- NF Spectra Probiotic (for cats and small dogs)
- Probiotic Pearls (for large dogs)
- Ark Naturals Gentle Digest for Dogs
There are also products that include a combination of enzymes, probiotics and/or prebiotics:
For the first two weeks after completing the changeover to the new food, closely monitor your animal’s appetite, stool quality and energy level, and be alert for unusual symptoms-–itchiness, runny eyes, diarrhea-–that could be telling you the food is not right for him. (Of course, if you see problems earlier, stop the changeover and go back to the old food. Try another brand, or a more gradual switch.) Eventually, you’ll be able to settle on a reasonable assortment of different foods you can use in rotation.
Remember, variety is critically important in your pet’s diet. As tempting as it is to stick with one brand or recipe or flavor that your pet prefers, be sure to mix it up with different meats and veggies. This ensures that your pet is getting a good balance of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals.
As always, your companion’s skin and coat quality, energy and activity level, and appetite are the best indicators of whether the food is compatible with his system and providing ample nutrition.