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How to Transition to a Raw Cat Food Diet

Updated: Sunday, June 02, 2019 02:18 PM
Published: Friday, May 15, 2009 11:46 AM
Written by Margaret Gates

Transitioning to raw food for cats is something that the majority of us will have to do until the time comes when people grab a kitten from its mother's teat and start feeding raw cat food from the beginning! But in the meantime, it's a major issue in cat nutrition. This step-by-step approach, and patience, will work for nearly every cat. Kittens need no transition; they take to raw cat food like ducks to water. They eat the same as adult cats, just more of it and more often. Kittens need about twice as much per ounce of body weight as an adult. All that growing to do! Their stomachs are small, so they need to eat more often than adults, about every 4 to 6 hours. If you're getting a kitten(s), start them off right and you won't have to worry about transitioning them. Also, kittens should be introduced to raw meaty bones, so they learn to eat them when they are young. Most kittens will readily tackle a chicken wing if offered. If you already have an older cat that will eat raw meaty bones, be sure to let the kittens learn from their older housemate. The kittens will copy the behaviors of the obligate carnivores around them.

Adolescent and Adult Cats

We'll look at this in three stages:

  • From dry to canned
  • From canned to raw
  • Adding raw meaty bones

The key to any transition is patience. The transition can be fast or very slow. In my household, transitioning to raw food for cats took about five seconds for some of them to three whole months for another. I have read about cats that took a year to transition. However long it takes yours, stick with it, it's worth it.

The transitioning tips below use the slow, gradual method. It usually works. Usually. For some cats, nothing seems to work. Give these methods a try and don't give up too soon. I thought Kai would never switch. Gearing myself up for feeding him separately forever, I turned around one day after three months and found him with his face buried in a plate of raw rabbit! I don't usually advocate using hunger to help transitioning your cat, other than the normal mealtime hunger of 12 hours or so, but you can try it if your cat is particularly stubborn. If your cat is adult, healthy and not obese, you can wait her out longer if she refuses to eat either canned or raw meals. How long can a cat go without eating? I wouldn't go longer than 36 hours. Be aware that any cat, especially an overweight cat, is at risk for hepatic lipidosis if they don't eat every day.

Whatever your cat eats at present, it's always worth a try to just offer her some raw cat food. She may surprise you. See if she will eat some cut up raw chicken or turkey, or some raw chicken liver. If she does…well, this may be easy.

From Dry to Grain-Free Canned

Cats become addicted to dry food, so this may be the hardest step, especially if your cat doesn't also eat canned.

For cats that will only eat dry:

First, stop free feeding the dry stuff. Your cat does not need to have it available at all times. Eating two or three meals a day is fine, as is going 12 hours between meals. You want your cat to associate it with a person – you – not a place.

Start bringing out it at regular mealtimes. Cats will learn the new routine very quickly. Leave it out for 30 minutes, and then put it away. At first, you may have to have more than two mealtimes a day. Cut back to two or three per day after a week, once your cat gets used to the whole idea of mealtimes. Put out one bowl for each cat, in separate rooms if necessary, so each cat feels relaxed about her meal.

Your cats will get hungry, but that's good. Nothing enhances a meal more than having an appetite. Just make sure each cat does eat, every day.

Once they seem used to mealtimes and are coming to you for their meals, start offering canned. Choose a quality, grain-free canned product. Avoid fish, as these overly strong flavors are addictive – to the point of refusing other flavors. Fish is not ideal for cats and should be fed sparingly as an occasional treat only. Try putting their dry food on a flat plate with a little of the canned on the side. If they won't eat the quality canned brand you chose, try a different brand. Use a lesser-quality type if needed, as the goal at this point is to get them eating canned at all. They may ignore it completely, but it will get them to start associating the smell with dinner. Give this a week or so.

If they still aren't interested, next try putting out a plate of the canned with some of their dry food on top, whole or crushed a little. Being a little hungry makes them more likely to try something new. They may just pick the kibble off – that's okay. They will be getting just a taste of the canned with it. Keep at this, even if you end up throwing away the canned. Try different canned products; your cat may like one more than another. If it looks like your cat is nibbling at the canned a bit, try putting out just the canned next time and see what happens. Some cats can be tempted by the gravy in some in the cans, and lick it off. That's a step forward for a confirmed dry-food addict.

Try some meat baby food. Some cats will eat this even if they refuse canned. Try letting them lick it off your finger. If they will eat it, put a little on top of their canned meal.

You can try putting a little canned on your finger, and putting a little in your cat's mouth. Only do this if it won't stress out or frighten your cat, as you definitely don't want them to have a bad association with the new food or be afraid of you.

You can also try topping canned food with a dehydrated meat treat. Cats love Halo LivaLittles® freeze dried chicken and Wildside Salmon® treats. Both of these are 100% meat, dehydrated into cubes. These products appeal to dry-food eaters as they are similar in texture, and the taste and odor are irresistible to most cats. Keep in mind that it's a treat, not a meal. Another good bribe topping is shaved bonito flakes. Mine love Kitty Kaviar®, which I used on raw food when transitioning them. Again, use fish products sparingly, not routinely.

You may ask "Why can't I just soak the dry food in water?" From Dr. Lisa Pierson, DVM, at CatInfo.org: "Dry food has a high bacterial content. Mold is also often found in dry food. There have been many deaths of dogs and cats secondary to eating mold mycotoxins, vomitoxins and aflatoxins which often contaminate the grains found in dry food. If you want to try the trick of wetting down the dry food to alter the texture, please leave it out for only 20-30 minutes then discard it. Bacteria and mold thrive in moisture."

Keep offering canned. Plain or with a bribe topping. Don't give up, no matter how long it takes. Even if it takes months and months. Really, it's that important for your cat. Eventually, they will figure out that this really is food.

Keep any dry food you have closed up as much as possible. Put it in an over-sized Ziploc®, or a large Tupperware® type container and then in a room the cats can't get into. When they get hungry, they will try to get to it. Once your cats are eating canned food, get rid of the dry food altogether. Out of the house. Cats have an excellent sense of smell; if it's in the house, they'll know.

Don't get discouraged if your cat turns her nose up at something she liked just the day before. This isn't unusual. That's how cats got that reputation for being finicky. Just try it again next time. Also, it isn't unusual for a cat to act ravenous one day and not be overly interested in eating the next. Don't worry about it if it happens occasionally.

Here's a tip: Take notes. Especially if you have more than one or two cats. Note which cats like what, and which flavors. You may have to try a lot of different kinds, It helps to have a record. It's okay at this point if your cat only likes one kind; getting her off dry food is what's paramount. Always try to get your cats eating a quality grain-free canned food, but it's acceptable if at first they will only eat a lesser quality food. Just be sure to transition to quality grain-free canned or raw cat food for the long run.

Once your cat is off dry food, and is used to mealtimes, give her at least a couple weeks on this new diet. Then start on the transition to raw food for cats.

For cats that eat dry and canned:

This one is easy. Get rid of all the dry food.

Give them a couple weeks to get used to an all grain-free canned diet, with regular mealtimes, and then start the switch to raw cat food.

From Grain-Free Canned to Raw Cat Food

First, try out some cut-up raw chicken or turkey, or chicken liver on your cat. Some cats go for it immediately. Most of my cats took to raw food right away, but it helped that they were young. Kittens take to raw cat food with no problems. The younger the cat, the easier the transition will probably be.

For your first try, either buy some commercially-prepared raw cat food, or make some homemade. My cats liked most of the different types of meat I tried: chicken, turkey, pheasant, quail and duck. Their hands – sorry – paws - down favorite is rabbit. This makes sense, as this is probably the closest to what they would be eating naturally. Or they know it's more expensive than chicken. Vary what they get so they don't get fixated on just one taste.

If they don't go for raw cat food right away, there are a number of things to try. Don't give up!

Make sure the raw food is warm. Think mouse body temperature. Don't microwave it. Microwaving cooks the food and reduces the nutrients you've been so careful to obtain. Put it in a Ziploc® type baggie and place it in a bowl of warm water for 5-15 minutes, depending on how thawed it is. It's sometimes easier to then cut the bottom corner off the baggie and squeeze the food out.

Put their canned food on a plate rather than in a bowl, and put a little raw food next to it. They probably won't eat it, but that's okay. The idea is to get them used to the smell of it, and to start associating that smell with their meal. As you may have noticed, fresh raw meat has a very slight, subtle odor. Cats that are used to smelly canned food may not recognize it as edible at first.

Mix a little of the raw food with their canned food. With my reluctant Kai, I started with a quarter teaspoon mixed into his meal. This is a tiny amount, and he would still sometimes eat around it. I kept it at this amount for a few weeks, and then upped it to a half teaspoon for another few weeks. I kept offering it to him plain also, on the side, but he never touched it. I increased it to about one teaspoon and kept it there. Hey cat, I can keep this up forever! He surprised me after three months by suddenly changing his mind and eating a plateful of rabbit. Unless this happens with you, just keep increasing the percentage of raw food, slowly, until it's all raw. Keep giving your cat the opportunity to eat a plain raw meal. Be patient. This is a big adjustment for your cat; let her guide you as to how fast you should go.

Try bribe foods sprinkled on top. Only use these if you need to; you don't want them to get hooked on these foods. Here are some toppings that worked for me:

  • Shaved bonito flakes. Use scissors in the can to cut it up into smaller flakes, something like oregano sized. It doesn't need to be refrigerated, but I keep it in there anyway so the cats can't get at it. They can smell it through the can.
  • Grated Parmesan cheese. Hey, it's Italian night!
  • Brewer's yeast. A good source of B vitamins. Don't use baking yeast. Don't use brewer's yeast on cats with digestive issues as it can cause bloating. Also, it can be allergenic to some cats.
  • Organic catnip. Just a little.
  • Crushed dehydrated treats. Cats love Halo LivaLittles® freeze dried chicken and Wildside Salmon® treats. Use fish products in moderation.
  • Juice from water-packed tuna or salmon.

Once your cats are eating raw cat food, be sure to introduce chunked meat into their meals, if you haven't already. For their dental health and for their jaw muscles, cats need to chew, using the sides of their jaws. Cats who have only ever eaten canned food haven't had to do much chewing, so you may have to start them gradually.

I add chunks, usually chicken, to all my homemade food and most of the commercial raw cat food I buy. It's more time consuming, but my cats are worth it. I hope to forestall expensive dental problems down the road. I add small pieces, about a quarter-inch square on average, but some twice that size. At first, some of the cats ate around them, but shortly they were all chewing away, and none of the chunks was ever left over. Start small, and gradually increase the size up to the biggest your cat will eat. The lack of chunks is probably my only complaint with commercial raw foods, but you can always, and should, add your own to any thawed food.

Raw Meaty Bones

This is the term for meat with bones, fed whole or in parts. Cats can eat small whole raw chicken parts or other small birds. Getting them to do it is sometimes the problem. I have one cat, Thodin, who is crazy for chicken wings. She will go nuts when I take any baggie out of the fridge, thinking she's going to get a wing. She picks it up in her mouth, and runs off to a favorite spot in the kitchen and chomps away. She eats almost all of it, usually leaving only a small bone piece. She'll pretty much eat as many as I'll give her. I'm getting so I love to hear the sound of bones crunching from the next room!

If your cat has been eating dry or canned food for a long time, it may take a little time for their jaws to work up good chewing muscles to be able to tackle raw meaty bones. Start with boneless chunks in her ground food. Once she's had some practice chewing on hunks of meat, try her out on a small chicken wing.

I didn't have to teach Thodin to eat meaty bones, but the others had to be enticed, encouraged and taught. Here are some ideas to try:

  • Try introducing raw meaty bones when your cats are hungry. They are more likely to give it a try.
  • Roll a chicken wing in a bribe food you know they like, to encourage them to try it. I had some success with finely-cut bonito flakes. Put the flakes in a baggie, add a chicken wing. Sort of like Shake 'n Bake® without the bake! A few of the cats would just lick off the flakes, but I got one to start chewing away on it on the very first try.
  • Add smaller meaty bones to their regular meals if they are already used to eating chunks.
  • Try other small game birds or rabbit. They might hate chicken but love Cornish game hens or quail.
  • Use your cat's natural instinct to copy. If you have one cat that will eat raw meaty bones, give it one when all your cats are hungry and let them watch. They know that cat has something good! After they show some interest, get out another and see if they'll go for it. I know this sounds a bit unusual, but I've seen it work. Use whatever method that gets them to better cat nutrition.

Margaret Gates is the founder of the Feline Nutrition Foundation.