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Food & Nutrition

Why Are Some Cats Such Picky Eaters?

Val Cairney March 8, 2024 12


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Why are some cats such picky eaters

Hi everyone, and thanks for joining me on this episode of Val Talk’s Pets.  In this episode I’m going to venture into another question that I often get about cats.  So many cat parents ask, “Why are some cats such picky eaters?”  And I’ll bet there are many listeners nodding their heads right now.  Yes, cats can be a challenge sometimes when it comes to eating.  So, let’s explore this whole issue about cats and being picky.  

The first thing we need to do is separate dry food from wet food.  Some cats are quite fine with a certain kibble, but when it comes to their canned food they get picky, and some cats are just the opposite. 

Let’s start with kibble.

Interesting that there are some articles that say that kibble is not good for cats.  I can’t imagine my cat not having some crunchy food.  As well, I have had some cat owners that say that their cat will not eat canned food no matter what type it is.  They just love their kibble.  So, is it bad to feed cat’s kibble?  The simple answer is no.  The more specific answer is no, but you need to know what you are feeding.  Remember cats are carnivores.  They need meat.  They need high-protein diets.  A cat cannot be a vegetarian.  When looking at kibble for a cat, you need to be a label reader.  What you are looking for is meat.  Meat, meat and meat.  Let me give you an example from a particular brand sold in pet specialty.  This is for an adult cat, not a weight management or senior or any particular formula, just for a regular adult cat.  “Fresh chicken, raw salmon, raw turkey, raw whole herring, raw whole mackerel, fresh chicken giblets, liver heart, raw turkey liver, fresh eggs, dehydrated chicken, dehydrated turkey, dehydrated herring, dehydrated chicken liver, raw rabbit and that is the first ingredients, followed by veg  and nutraceuticals and herbs.   Here is the ingredient panel from another brand in pet specialty.  Chicken meal, corn, corn gluten meal, brown rice, wheat, chicken fat, pea fiber, natural flavors, grain distillers dried yeast, dried beet pulp, vegetable oil, wheat gluten, fish oil, vitamin.  Which one do you think is best for a carnivore?  Well I think the answer is pretty obvious.  Brand #1 is catering to the high protein need of a cat in a very high quality way, using raw and fresh meats predominantly.  Brand #2 which I can tell you is popular, uses chicken only and uses chicken meal as the first ingredient which is the protein having been extruded and no other meat and uses corn and corn gluten as a protein which as we know is not an animal protein. 

Now, let me read you the ingredients from a commercial level brand.  This brand would be found in grocery stores and big box.  Ground yellow corn, chicken by-product meal, wheat, animal fat, corn gluten meal, soybean meal, pork meats and bone meal, chicken, wheat flour, brewer’s rice, salt, potassium chloride, caramel colour, vitamins.  Yikes!  So, this is the reason why some articles will say that kibble is not good for cats.  What they are really saying and often in the articles it does say, that many “commercial” dry cat foods are high in carbohydrates.  As we can see from brand #3 which is a commercial brand, it is extremely high in carbs and not good carbs.  But to confuse matters further, Brand #2 is a specialty brand, not sold in grocery and you can see where it falls down as well with a lack of animal protein from fresh sources and a high reliance on simple carbohydrates.  For this reason, as catster.com points out, being “high in carbohydrates () can lead to blood sugar spikes and weight gain.”  Plus, if we look at the value of the ingredient, are we actually getting good value?  Is the cat’s body using the ingredient optimally?  If not, we can see a lot more in the litter and be dealing with a stinky litter.  Bottom line for choosing kibble for your cat is that it has to be a high quality kibble and read that label to know you are not feeding high glycemic empty carbs.  As for what your cat will like is a whole other story.  Often the high protein kibbles are tastier for a cat because it does give them that taste of prey. 

The type of meat can be the challenge for trying to find a kibble that a cat will like.  There are quite a few chicken and turkey based formulas but also fish as well.  Finding the one your cat likes is the challenge.  Some cats are great with one kibble once you find the one they like.  Some cats are better having a rotation of proteins and that means you will change formulas having found say, two or three that they like. Because we are talking about cats and being picky, aside from finding a flavour the cat likes, you may also have to find a shape the cat likes.  You will see on some kibble bags the actual size and shape of the kibble.  Some cats only like certain shapes and that can be the reason why they turn their nose up at a certain kibble.  The idea here is to experiment with different shapes to see if that could be the reason for being picky.  The location of the food may also be a reason for not wanting to eat.  However, if the cat will eat their wet food no problem in that same location, then that isn’t the problem.  However, dental issues could be.  Eating crunchy food may be difficult if the cat is having dental issues.  This would explain why they will eat their wet food but not dry.  And underlying health issues can be a cause, but they often include not eating wet food as well. A vet visit is always a good idea.   So, for cats that are picky with their dry food, it is best to think about high quality foods, what shape of kibble your cat likes, what proteins they like and whether you need to rotationally feed.  If the cat just absolutely refuses to eat kibble, it’s not a bad thing, but you will have to try and encourage them to eat crunchy treats which they probably will because they are usually quite tasty or be practicing a regular dental regimen.  And with dry food, you must have lots of sources of water available to your cat.  It is often recommended that you have several bowls of water around the house.  I find that my cat likes to drink out of the dog’s water bowl the most, which is actually in an elevated diner set.  He has to stand up and rest his front paws on the bowl to drink but hey, that’s the way he wants to do it and Tundra is a gentleman who has no problem sharing.  

Okay so let’s get to some eating facts about cats.  Cats left to their own devices will hunt for small prey at night or early morning. They tend to catch a few things throughout their hunting sprees and eat more frequently than they would being served meals.  This is why it is more convenient to have a cat that will eat kibble because they can go back and forth to their kibble bowl throughout the day and night,  feeding literally their ancestral desires.  Wet food for cats is something we tend to give as specific meals to our cats.  Breakfast and dinner for example they are given their allotment of canned food and we generally expect them to eat all of what we have given them.  That’s not really the natural way for a cat to eat so if a cat were to eat a bit of their canned food and come back later, I wouldn’t worry about it.  Many cat parents also find that their cats love the first meal from the tin when it is just opened, but are not interested after it has been refrigerated.  Well, that stands to reason as well.  As petmd.com points out, “fresh prey is usually warm when consumed.  As such, your cat may also prefer her food warmed up, whether that’s wet food heated to body temperature or dry food moistened with a bit of warm water.”  This is why you see so many varieties for cats that come in small 3oz tins.  This isn’t the most cost effective way to feed a cat or several cats, but it may be the cost effective way to go if all you do is throw out uneaten tins of food.  

Another reason a cat may be picky to certain flavours and textures is actually an interesting one.  I have had many cat parents say, “What cat do you know that won’t eat fish?”  Well, the answer is, one that was never introduced to it.  Yup cats do a funny eating thing where if their mother didn’t eat a particular thing or introduce the kittens to something particular, they won’t eat it.  Petmd.com states, “Kittens learn from their mother which solid foods are safe and preferable.  The mother cat’s diet while pregnant can influence the types of foods her kittens will prefer as they mature.  Because of this, it’s important to introduce young kittens to foods with different flavors, textures, sizes, shapes and consistencies to help them be more accepting of a variety of foods as adults.”  So, this can be one of the reasons behind being picky.  Your cat may never have been introduced to that flavour and therefore thinks they shouldn’t eat it.  In this same vein, cats can also do aversion eating.  This means that if they had a bad experience eating something that made them sick, they may never eat that particular food again.  As petmd.com further clarifies, that a cat for example, may be fed a certain food while at the veterinarians for a hospital stay and may associate that food with the stressful experience and not eat that food again. 

So far we may have found that our cat is picky because they may not like the temperature of their food or they may have never been introduced to a particular flavour or they associate the flavour with a negative experience like being sick or something stressful. Another contributing factor for being picky is things like where the food bowl is placed.  We tend to think it best to feed the cats in the kitchen but the kitchen may be too busy and this puts the cat off.  If we have a multiple pet home, we also tend to feed all the animals at once which means the dog may be gulping down food at the same time and this can put a cat off as well.  Now I figure this would be a given but just to be sure, never put the cat’s food near the kitty litter.  And cats don’t like things dirty, so having a clean bowl is important to avoid food negativity.  

The other thing to think about when feeding wet food to your cat is whether they like pate style, stew, shredded, minced or smooth loaf or pouch food.  Yes, that is a lot.  But believe me, cats have their preferences.  Some cats are pate cats only and some are stew cats only.  I suggest trying small cans to find out their preference.  Some cats love pouched food.  Pouch food is quite loose with usually a fair bit of gravy.  Cats that like that texture really love pouched food.  But, again it’s a preference and you will just have to experiment to find out which one is your cat’s favourite.  

The idea behind feeding wet food is due to its high water content and high protein with high moisture is ideal for cats.  So if someone were to have trouble getting their cat to eat food with moisture, trying raw food may get some good results.  In the raw frozen food selections, some brands will have a line specifically for cats and usually they have some good protein selections.  If not, you can choose from the regular line you just have to make sure you choose the protein only choices for your little carnivore.  

Now you could try using some freeze dried raw as a topper on either kibble or canned food to see if you can bump up the flavour a bit for a cat that is being picky.  That is also worth a try.

So are cats picky?  Some are.  Some are not.  My work cat eats anything.  I’ve never seen her turn down any wet food or kibble.  She eats a fairly consistent diet but when it comes to wet food, she is open to anything. My cat at home is just starting to get a bit more finicky and that’s probably because he is a senior now and his taste buds are different so he is just not tasting things the same.  I’m making note of the ones or one he likes in the tin and if that is the only one he wants, then that’s fine. 

I guess when it comes to cats and their fussy ways the list can be a bit long. In terms of dry food, it could be the texture or shape of the kibble that they do not like or it could be the protein flavour.  Can you mix the kibble up?  Sure!  If that keeps your cat happy to rotate different kibble, then go for it.  Can you add some warm water to make the kibble more ancestral?  Yes you can. Does it really matter if your cat won’t eat kibble?  Not really.  It just means you have to be proactive with dental care and it will cost you more to feed him.  In terms of wet food you have to find the texture your cat likes and you have to find the flavour it likes.  Can you give a whole bunch of different flavours?  Sure.  But, I wouldn’t go overboard because you cat doesn’t know that there isn’t an endless supply of flavours at the store.  I would pick a few and rotate those.  Can you heat up the food?  Certainly. Can you use toppers to enhance the flavour?  Absolutely. Is raw food the answer? It might just be.  But stick to the pure protein formulas.  Is it normal for a cat to not eat what is traditionally seen as a cat staple?  Yes.  If kitty’s Mum never ate a certain type of food or introduced her kittens to it, your adult cat probably is going to stay away from it.  Your cat may also associate being sick or something stressful with a certain food.  I know I ate muscles in white wine cream sauce a few years ago and was sicker than I can even describe.  Have I eaten them again? Nope!  I’m with you kitty!

Yes, the list is a bit long for cats and their food idiosyncrasies. But, we also have quite a few solutions too.  And remember, always rule out any health issues by going to the vet for a checkup.   

I love cats and I prefer to not think of them as picky or finicky but more selective.  Yes, it can be frustrating with some cats, but the bottom line is, they have a reason.  It’s just up to you to find out what that is.  A little bit of trial and error and hopefully you will strike gold, because as I say, knowing is caring.

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Val Cairney

Hi everyone, and welcome to Val Talk’s Pets, the forum for pet parents and enthusiasts alike. So, I have been working in the pet industry now for almost 10 years and, on a daily basis, I handle a lot of issues and questions arising from pet parents. I am not a veterinarian but I do have certifications in Canine, Feline, Small Animal, Fish and Herptile and Avian Health and Nutrition from the University of California, Davis Extension, the Vet College.

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