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Your Kitty May Need to Go to Chunk School

Updated: Sunday, May 19, 2019 04:32 PM
Published: Saturday, July 11, 2015 01:08 PM
Written by Margaret Gates

Frequently, I'm asked, "How do I get my cat to eat meat chunks and raw meaty bones?" I'm glad to hear this question because it means people understand how important it is for a cat's dental health to do some chewing. It's also important for their psychological health. Imagine if you ate only soft foods. As obligate carnivores, cats evolved powerful jaws that can slice through meat, skin, tendons and bones, yet we have taken away any opportunity for them to use their teeth. This can't be healthy physically or mentally.

Some of my cats jumped at the chance to eat chunks and meaty bones. Others had to be taught. In the wild, a mother cat would bring prey to her kittens to teach them these essential life skills. Kittens have the instinct to hunt, but aren't very skilled at actually putting it into practice. All that kitten play behavior is much more serious than the word "play" suggests. It's not frivolous. It is life and death learning. Before humans came along, a kitten that didn't learn to kill didn't live very long.

It's not surprising that our indoor-raised cats are sometimes clueless when it comes to a piece of meat. They never got those early prey lessons. Oh, they're great at capturing catnip mice and crinkly balls, but those lessons never got to the real thing. So, don't expect your kitty to "get it" when it comes to raw cat food.

Here's the story of how I taught Stanley – she's a girl kitty, despite the name. She's been eating raw cat food for a long time, but refused to eat meat chunks. Considering she's the Feline Nutrition logo cat, I told her she was setting a bad example for raw-fed kitties everywhere. I set out to educate her, since she missed out as a kitten. The rescue group told us she and her sister lost their mother early and had to be bottle fed. She has successfully caught errant mice that got into the house, but she never ate them. Good instincts, terrible follow through.

I knew she liked raw meat, as she ate her ground raw cat food with gusto. But, when presented with a chunk of meat, she would just sniff at it. She seemed interested, but at a loss as to what to do. I decided to go slowly. First, I cut some raw chicken into tiny pieces. I mean really small, one-quarter inch long and matchstick thick. I put these on a plate, expecting her to gobble them up. Nope, just sniff and stare. So, I picked up a piece, put it on my finger and offered it to her. She licked it off! Many cats will eat food that is hand-fed to them. This is something to keep in mind if you have a sick cat that won't eat. Remember, cats have poor close-up vision. Likely she can't see the meat very well, so be careful or you might get bitten.

For the next few days, I kept guiding her with the meat on my finger to a plate where I would place it. At first, she wouldn't eat it, but after a few days she was nibbling the little pieces right off the plate. Yes! Step one accomplished. Slowly, I increased the size of the pieces. Ocassionally, I still hand-fed her, but it was mostly from the plate. I made sure to do this at meal time. Not having eaten for 12 hours made her eager to eat. Pretty soon, she was grabbing big chunks off the communal kitty dinner plate. All she'd needed was a patient teacher.

What about cuts with bone? That was the next step. I waited a few weeks to let her get in some serious gnawing and build up her jaw muscles. Then, I got some chicken wings and my handy meat cleaver. I chopped the wing into small pieces. I put these on a plate to see if she would eat them. She licked at them, but didn't go for it. I started hand feeding again, and soon she was eating these morsels that had small bone pieces. Slowly, over a few weeks, I increased the size of the pieces. Soon, she was eating small one-quarter inch size pieces with the bone. Stanley now tackles a whole wing. But…she doesn't always eat the bone.

I wondered why. I finally figured out she needed more time to develop jaw strength. Like any muscles, it takes some time and work to build up strength in the jaw. She went from eating ground raw cat food that required no jaw strength to trying to use her jaws to cut bone. That's a big jump. She continues to get foods that challenge her jaws. Gizzards have been added to the menu as they are chewier than other meats. I continue to give her wings because chewing through the skin and cartilage is good jaw exercise. Also, she gets dehydrated rabbit ears to chew. I love seeing her really use those side teeth. I'm looking forward to hearing the lovely crunching of bones from her!

Note: if you're using a meat cleaver, all your four-footed friends must be confined. Keep them out of the kitchen. You need to swing a cleaver with some force to cut bone. It's just too dangerous to have any little paws anywhere near when you do so. Be safe!

Margaret Gates is the founder of the Feline Nutrition Foundation.