The Myth of the Finicky Cat
Last Updated on Saturday, July 02, 2016 07:48 PM
Published on Saturday, October 11, 2014 04:10 PM
Written by Margaret Gates
One of the questions I get asked most is what to do about a cat that doesn't want to eat the new raw meat diet you are offering. I hear words like "stubborn" and "finicky." While that may describe what's going on, it is 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 that cats are creatures of habit. I would agree, but habit isn't quite the right word. Cats stick with what works. That kind of behavior makes a lot of sense for them and 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 cat play behavior is essentially practice for the hunt. They may look like they are just having fun, but don't be deceived, this is How-to-Be-a-Cat 101 for them. They are practicing the skills they will need to survive.
In the wild, a mother cat would bring prey – either already dead or close to it – back to her kittens. Not only for practice in hunting, but to learn what it smells like, looks like and most importantly, 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 probably the single most important lesson they will learn – along with how not to be eaten – and 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 companion cat probably didn't get those lessons, but your cat 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 just look at a new food in total puzzlement and don't even seem to understand that it's food. They have already learned what it takes to survive in the world they know, and 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, the easier it usually is.
Kai being skeptical.
Now that we have a better idea of what is going on in the cat's mind, you can see why "stubborn" doesn't apply. Your cat is just very good at being a cat - applying those successful life lessons to the real world. In fact, cats are brilliant – at being cats. "Finicky" also doesn't apply. Look at what cats will eat in the wild – practically anything that moves and can be caught – and 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 cat. For example, when I switched all of my cats to raw diets years ago, they all took to it right away except for one. Kai absolutely refused to eat the new food. I tried mixing a little raw food into his canned, but he'd eat around it. I figured he just 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 start associating the subtle smell of the raw food with dinner. I knew he could learn. He had already proven he was actually very good at learning. I told him that I could keep this up as long as was necessary. For three months the raw food was there on his plate, at every meal, 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 three months, I turned around to find him wolfing down a plate of raw rabbit. He just needed time to learn something new or more accurately, to unlearn something he already knew.
Even Stanley, the Feline Nutrition logo-cat, had to be taught. She loved raw food and ate all different kinds of meat, 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 in the meat, but it was as if she didn't know how to eat it. Makes sense, she had only ever eaten meat that was ground up, she too had learned very well what food was. I tried cutting the meat up very small – little 1/8" 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 and 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, but after a week or so, she would eat the little pieces from the plate. Over the next six weeks or so, I slowly upped the size of the pieces I gave her until she never hesitated at the bigger chunks. She now gnaws with the best of them.
So, if you are having trouble transitioning your cat, don't give up and don't get frustrated. Remember, the cat that seems stubborn to you is actually demonstrating that she is very good at learning. You just have to find the way to help her learn this new thing.
We have tips for helping your cat to transition
to a raw diet in the Nutrition section.
Margaret Gates is the founder the Feline Nutrition Foundation.