Your Kitty Goes to Chunk School

Your Kitty May Need to Go to Chunk School

I frequently get 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 only ever got to eat soft foods. Cats evolved powerful jaws that can slice through meat, skin, tendons and bones, yet we have mostly taken away any opportunity for them to actually use their teeth. This can't be healthy physically or mentally.
Some of my cats dove right in to eating chunks and meaty bones. Others had to be, in essence, 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 those instincts into practice. All that kitten play behavior is a lot 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 are excellent at capturing catnip mice and crinkly balls, but their lessons never got to the real thing. So, don't expect your kitty to "get it" when it comes to meat.
I am going to tell you what I did to teach one of our cats. Stanley – she is a girl kitty, despite the name – has been a raw fed kitty for a long time, but she refused to eat meat chunks. Considering that she is 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. I know from the rescue group I got her and her sister from that she lost her 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 meats, as she ate her ground raw diet with gusto. But, presented with a chunk of meat, she would just sniff at it and not eat 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 and 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; something to keep in mind if you have a sick cat that won't eat. Remember, cats have poor close-up vision; she likely can't see the meat very well, so, be careful or you might get inadvertently bitten.
For the next few days, I kept guiding her with the meat on my finger to a plate and I would put the meat on it. At first, she wouldn't eat it, but after a few days she was nibbling the little pieces right off of the plate. Yes! Step one accomplished. I then slowly increased the size of the pieces. I still occasionally hand-fed her, but it was mostly from the plate. I also made sure to do this at meal time. Not having eaten for 12 hours made her pretty 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 a bit. I then got some chicken wings and my handy meat cleaver. I chopped the wing into small pieces. I then put these on a plate to test if she would eat them. She did lick at them, but didn't go for it. I started the hand feeding again and soon she was eating these morsels that had very small bone pieces. Slowly, over a few weeks, I increased the size of the pieces, and soon she was eating small one-quarter inch size pieces with the bone. Stanley will now tackle a whole wing. But…she doesn't always eat the bone.
I wondered why. I finally figured out that she needed more time to develop jaw strength. Like any muscles, it takes some time and work to build up strength in jaw. She had gone from eating food that required pretty much no jaw strength at all, a ground diet, to trying to use her jaws to cut bone. That's a big jump. So, she continues to get foods that challenge her jaws. Gizzards have been added to the menu as they are chewier than other meats. I'll continue to give her wings because chewing through the skin and cartilage is good jaw exercise. She also gets dehydrated rabbit ears to chew on. I love to see her really using those side teeth. I'm looking forward to hearing the lovely crunching of bones from her!
Note: if you are using a meat cleaver, all of your four-footed friends must be confined, away from the kitchen. You need to swing a cleaver with some force to cut bone and it is 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.
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