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How to Deal With a Cat That’s a Picky Eater

WebMD veterinary expert answers commonly asked questions about cats and finicky eating habits.
By Sandy Eckstein
WebMD Pet Health Feature

Is your cat a picky eater that turns up his nose at almost everything you serve? Why are some cats good eaters, while others act like they’d rather starve than eat what you give them? WebMD asked Tony Buffington, a nationally known expert in feline health and nutrition, for some tips on how to keep our kitties happy and well fed. Buffington is a member and past president of the American College of Veterinary Nutrition and a professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Ohio State University.

 

Q: Why does my cat like something one day and then won’t eat it the next?

A: In nature, cats are very open to trying new foods. So if a cat is finicky, something is wrong. It helps to understand how cats feed. Cats are solitary hunters. They aren’t pack hunters. They have a completely different evolutionary history with food than pack animals have.

In the wild, they eat between 10 and 20 meals a day, and they are opportunistic feeders. That means they eat when food is available. They hunt small prey, and those animals -- small birds, mice, bugs -- don’t have a lot of calories. That’s why they have to eat so often.

So if a cat is finicky, something is preventing its natural feeding behaviors. Then it’s a matter of figuring out what that is. It can be any number of things from it just doesn’t like the food to it’s too frightened to eat. Sometimes, just breaking a cat’s routine can put a cat off its food. This is especially true with indoor cats. They often perceive change as a threat.

 

Q: Does my cat need more than just dry food to eat? Why?

A: No, dry food is fine as long as it’s a commercially available food from a major manufacturer. Some people are radically opposed to dry food. Some people hate canned food. I think you should feed your cat what he likes.

 

Q: Should I free feed my cat (always leave food out) or just put food down for a short period of time?

A: Cats are nibblers and eat many small meals, so my preference is the daily ration of food be put out several times a day. Even better, put it in a foraging device. These are small plastic containers with holes in them. The cat has to play with them to get the food to fall out. It doesn’t just slow down a cat’s eating; it also stimulates the cat mentally.

 

Q: Should I cook for my cat instead of buying her food?

A: You can, but I don’t recommend it. It takes a lot of time, and you have to include supplements. If you want to do this, you really should talk to your veterinarian to be sure you’re doing it correctly. There are places that will sell you the supplements and then you can just add in the protein and carbohydrates. That is if you have the time and the interest.

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