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The Myth of the Finicky Cat
- Updated: Friday, May 24, 2019 05:43 PM
- Published: Saturday, October 11, 2014 04:01 PM
- Written by Margaret Gates
I'm often asked what to do when kitty doesn't want to eat the new raw cat food you're offering. I hear words like "stubborn" and "finicky." While that may describe what's going on, it's from a decidedly human perspective. I think it's time to delve into a little cat psychology to help us understand what's happening in that little kitty brain. People like to say they are creatures of habit. I would agree, but habit isn't quite the right word. They stick to what works. That kind of behavior makes a lot of sense for them. They learn what works pretty early in their lives. It's especially true when it comes to food. Notice I say "learn." While cats are predators and have a hunter's natural instincts, those instincts are basic. They learn the nuances and details as they grow up. All that play behavior is practice for the hunt. They may look like they're just having fun, but don't be deceived, this is How to Be a Cat 101 for them. They're practicing the skills they need to survive.
In the wild, a mom would bring prey – either already dead or close to it – back to her kittens. This is not only for practice in hunting, but also to learn what it smells, looks and tastes like. This prepares the kittens for what they will have to do for themselves. They are taking the skill set they are born with and applying it to the local fauna, whatever that might be. They are learning what works to stay fed. This is the single most important lesson they will learn, along with how not to get eaten. Even if they aren't consciously aware of it, their brains get it. These lessons get filed in the "remember this or die" category.
Your kitty probably didn't get those lessons, but she doesn't know that. She still took those early, first meals and dutifully filed them away as vitally important. With this in mind, it's a little easier to understand why some cats look at a new food in total puzzlement, not understanding that it's food. They've already learned what it takes to survive in the world they know. For them, changing what has worked so far probably seems like a very bad idea, indeed. This is why the younger a cat is when you try to transition them to raw cat food, the easier it usually goes.
Now that we have a better idea of what's going on in kitty's mind, you can see why "stubborn" doesn't apply. She's just good at being a cat – applying those successful life lessons to the real world. In fact, they are brilliant – at being cats. "Finicky" also doesn't apply. Look at what they eat in the wild – practically anything that moves and can be caught. As a species, they are anything but finicky. But once they learn what works as far as food is concerned, getting them to change can be hard.
All that said, they can learn to change. Any cat can. You just have to find what works for that individual. When I switched my clowder to raw food years ago, they all took to it right away, except for Kai. He absolutely refused to eat it. I tried mixing a little raw cat food into his canned, but he'd eat around it. He didn't understand this was food. He knew what food was – and this wasn't it. I tried a different tactic. I fed him his canned food on a plate and put a small spoonful of raw food next to it. I knew he wouldn't eat it, but that wasn't what I was trying to do. I wanted him to associate the subtle smell of the raw food with dinner. I knew he could learn. He had already proven he was very good at learning. I told him I could keep this up as long as was necessary. For three months, the raw food was on his plate at every meal, with no exceptions. For three months, he ignored it. But his cat brain, the part that can learn, wasn't ignoring it. One day, after those long three months, I turned around to find him wolfing down a plate of raw rabbit. He needed time to learn something new, or more accurately, to unlearn something he already knew.
Even Stanley, the Feline Nutrition logo kitty, had to be taught. She loved raw food for cats, but I couldn't get her to eat chunks of meat. This was important for her dental health, so I needed to do something about it. She seemed interested, but it was as if she didn't know how to eat it. It makes sense. She had only eaten meat that was ground up. She, too, had learned well what food was. I tried cutting the meat up into tiny cubes, and she still didn't know what to do. So, I picked up one of those little pieces and offered it to her on my finger. This got her interest. She ate it. Yes! I kept testing to see if she would eat it if I put it back on the plate. In the beginning, that didn't work. After a week or so, she would eat the little pieces from the plate. Over the next six weeks, I slowly upped the size of the pieces I gave her until she went for the bigger chunks. Now, she gnaws with the best of them.
So, if you're having trouble transitioning your cat, don't give up and don't get frustrated. Remember, the cat that seems stubborn is actually demonstrating she is good at learning. You just have to find the right way to help her.
Margaret Gates is the founder of the Feline Nutrition Foundation.