By Ann-Marie Cole (Cert. Animal Nutrition, Dip. Canine Health & Nutrition)
Cats have long had a reputation of being fussy creatures, but is this an accurate way to describe them?
First, we have to understand how cats’ function, cats imprint on what they are taught to eat from a young age, in the wild this would be the prey the mother rings back to them and exposes them to until they leave her side and venture out on their own, this education teaches them what is safe to consume. In a domestic setting cats eat what we give them, mostly this comes down to extruded kibble foods and canned food, with many shelters and vets recommending dry food only diets this is what so many cats are imprinted to consume, and it can be very difficult to teach them that new healthy foods are indeed safe and are even edible. Ideally when we are raising a kitten, we want to expose them to many textures, tastes, and smells as is healthy and possible to prevent a fussy adult cat.
We must then look at how a cat would feed itself in the wild, a wild or feral cat would spend much time seeking out prey, stalking and hunting, no meal comes free. With companion pets we make life very easy, we serve up meals on a plate with very little to no effort invested on the cat’s part. We can change this by offering a play session before meals, teaser toys are fantastic for this as we can somewhat mimic natural stalking and hunting behaviours, this expels some energy and readies our cats to consume a meal. If you have a cat that isn’t overly enthusiastic about their meals, or you are trying to transition them to a healthier diet and facing some resistance play can be an important tool in increasing their natural instincts and appetite. Playing before meals should become a regular part of your cats feeding and wellbeing routine.
When it comes to introducing new textures and types of foods we may need to take very gradual steps, I found when introducing a new raw diet to one of my cats Aslan who had been on a dry only diet previous to adopting him he was incredibly affected by texture, minced foods were particularly rejected due to their dense tacky feel, adding in some water to make the food easier to lick up improved it’s palatability, over time I reduced the water to the stage he will happily consume the food without added water, so it can be very beneficial to play around with different methods of offering the food. Feeding slightly warm or at room temperature can also help to increase the scent rather than taking food directly from the refrigerator. Over time even the fussiest of cats can learn that new food items can be exciting and introducing new options can become easier. Regular rotation of foods is also important to reduce a cat becoming fixated on the one food item.
Beyond the basics of individual imprinting and behavioural traits we also need to look at what may be occurring biologically inside our cats. There are studies that show the microbiome can directly affect our cravings for food by microbes sending messages via the Vagus nerve directly to our brains to provide instructions on what those microbes want us to consume either to support their own needs and/or out-complete rival microbes, this can be both good and bad when it comes down to what we are driven to want to consume. For example, a carnivore that has been eating a high carbohydrate diet may have a microbiome that largely supports a diet of carbohydrate consumption that will continue to influence the brain into wanting to consume more carbohydrates, when we want to put them onto a high meat protein, low carbohydrate diet which is closest to a naturally structured diet for a felid we may find that our cats want to continue to consume and have strong cravings for more carbohydrates. It can take time and sometimes support via supplements to rebuild a healthy microbiome that supports healthier eating choices.
Ultimately one of the most important things we can do for kittens is to provide as much variety in healthy food options as possible in their first 6-12 months of life to set them and their microbiome up for success. Incorporating play into every day feeding routines can be game changing in replicating natural feeding cycles and promoting physical activity. When we do have issues with fussiness, we need to work towards implementing variety in a gentle way working step by step with our cats and ensuring we are also supporting their microbiome through this process of change.
1. Is eating behavior manipulated by the gastrointestinal microbiota? Evolutionary pressures and potential mechanisms. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4270213/