Switching Cat Foods: How to Transition Your Cat’s Diet

Cats Learn What to Eat as Kittens

Swapping cat foods can be an easy task for some cats, while other cats may look on most foods with suspicion. How your cat thinks about food changes is impacted by their experiences with different foods during kittenhood. As an instinctual creature, your cat is ruled by what they learned about food as a kitten. If they only ate kibble as a kitten, they might not even recognize wet or raw food as edible.

That’s why food transitions can be so difficult for cats. It’s not about pickiness–it’s about instinct. Learning how to clearly identify food as kittens helps adult cats in the wild avoid non-food items that could be dangerous. But if your cat only thinks food comes in kibble form, they’re going to be incredibly cautious when trying new things. Be patient, and you’ll be able to introduce other foods into their regular diet rotation.

If you have a kitten, now’s your chance to introduce them to lots of different food forms and textures. Exposing them early to different types of raw and wet foods, as well as different proteins, will make feeding them as an adult easier. Plus, if they ever have to switch foods due to a medical need, they’ll likely be able to transition with minimal fuss.

Estimating How Much to Feed Your Cat on a New Diet

Checking calorie counts between different foods ensures that you’re feeding your cat just enough to help them thrive. Kibble calorie counts can vary widely per cup, and so can the calorie counts for raw and wet foods. But the biggest variances often occur when you switch from one food type to another.

Taking time to do some quick math can help ensure that you’re not underfeeding or overfeeding your cat. Find out how many calories your cat is already eating, and then do the math on how much of the new food you’ll need to match the exact calorie count.

While it may be tempting just to follow the recommendations on the back of the bag, those recommendations are often wildly divergent from what your cat actually needs to eat. Sometimes the recommendations can be inflated by as much as 20 to 30 percent. And if your cat is significantly more active than the average feline, you might have to feed them more to maintain a healthy body weight.

Think About Adding Digestive Supplements

Digestive supplements, such as prebiotics and digestive enzymes, can make a dietary transition easier for your cat. It’s rare that they’re actually necessary–a slow food transition should address most digestive system challenges–but they almost always improve your cat’s digestion.

The first supplement to consider are prebiotics. Unlike probiotics, which are the actual good bacteria, prebiotics are the substances that feed the good bacteria. When you give your cat prebiotics, it encourages the good bacteria in their system to multiply. You can give your cat prebiotics at every meal for their whole life, or just start giving them to them about a week before their food transition.

The second supplement type we recommend are digestive enzymes. These supplements are added to foods and help your cat digest their meal. They’re great for reducing the load on the pancreas, which will already be working hard to produce enough protease, amylase and lipase to digest their new food.

Both supplements can improve your cat’s digestive health, and plenty of owners feed these supplements to their cats at every meal. But even if you’re not interested in supplements every day, they may be worth the investment during food transitions. Also, if your cat has a sensitive stomach, supplements can make the change easier for their body.

Why Rotational Feeding Is the Best Choice for Your Cat

Rotational feeding protects against small nutritional imbalances between formulas

Rotational feeding is still the best possible choice for cats to ensure their long-term health. Not only does it protect against your cat deciding that they’ll only eat one protein type, but it also protects against small nutritional imbalances between formulas.

If you stay within the same brand and line of cat food, most of it is similar in protein and fats. Therefore, you could purchase cans of cat food that only differ by protein source and rotate through them as you’d like. This rotation not only protects against pickiness, but it will also help ensure that your cat is getting the nutrients they need and give them a chance to sample new foods.

Dry Matter Analysis: Comparing Different Cat Foods Effectively

Looking for a higher protein cat food? Want to know if your cat’s new food is higher in fat? Unlike human food, you can’t just look at the label for the answer, you have to do a bit of math.

Cat foods have wildly different moisture levels, which often obscures exactly how much protein and fat is indicated on the label. Before switching foods, it’s also important to know exactly how much fat is in both foods. If you’re switching to a food with 3 percent or more fat, then your cat’s body will need at least double the time to adjust during a transition. Skip this step, and you’re risking diarrhea, gas and other gastric upset for your cat.

To calculate dry matter, you want to subtract the percentage of moisture from 100 percent. The resulting number is the amount of dry matter in the food. Then, you can divide the food nutrient you are comparing by the dry matter of the specific food. Multiply the resulting decimal by 100 to get the percentage of that nutrient.

Once nutrients are converted into their dry matter equivalents, you can easily compare them. And that’s how you’ll know how your new food stacks up to your old food. Even if your cat doesn’t have specific dietary requirements, calculating and comparing dry matter can help you determine if a new food is packed with essential proteins or cheaper non-essential carbohydrates.

Transitioning Between Food Forms

Switching between the same food type usually sidesteps changes in food texture that are disconcerting for many cats. If you’re switching between two different types of raw food or wet food, making sure the textures are the same is best. Otherwise, plan on spending at least seven days switching between foods.

Regular Transition

Days 1-2 Days 3-4 Days 5-6 Day 7
Current Food 75% 50% 25%
New Food 25% 50% 75% 100%

Sensitive Stomach or High Fat

Days 1-4 Days 5-9 Days 10-13 Day 14
Current Food 75%50%25%
New Food 25%50%75%100%

The texture change between kibble and wet food can be a big adjustment for many cats. Luckily, most cats really love the increased smell of wet food, which can persuade many felines to make the switch. Seven days is adequate for most cats to switch between the two types of foods, but don’t get frustrated if it takes a bit longer.

Experimenting with mixing kibble and wet food together may help your cat acclimate to the switch. Some cats will accept food mixed together, while others will refuse it altogether. Many owners report success with placing the kibble in one bowl and the wet food beside it.

Regular Transition

Days 1-2Days 3-4 Days 5-6Day 7
Wet Food25%50%75%100%

Sensitive Stomach or High Fat

Days 1-4Days 5-9Days 10-13 Day 14
Wet Food25%50%75%100%

Switching cats from kibble to raw food can be difficult. Most cats need time to acclimate to the higher fat content of raw food, and the textures of the two foods are wildly divergent. Unless your cat is the adventurous type, we recommend that you take it slowly and consider switching from kibble to wet food rather than switching directly to raw.

There are the rare cats that will switch to a kibble-like freeze-dried raw food, and just completely reject the texture of wet food. For them, switching from kibble to raw food makes sense. But no matter what your justification, you’ll need to invest at least two weeks for the switch.

Regular Transition

Days 1-4Days 5-9Days 10-13Day 14
Raw Food25%50%75%100%

Sensitive Stomach Transition

Days 1-9Days 10-19 Days 20-27 Days 28
Raw Food25%50%75%100%

Many cats adore wet food, which can make a switch to raw food tough. There’s also a difference in texture that makes some switches challenging. Our advice is to take it slow and consider heating the raw food with warm water. Warm food has more aroma than cold food, which will make it more appealing to your cat.

Regular Transition

Days 1-4 Days 5-9Days 10-13 Day 14
Wet Food25%50%75%
Raw Food75%50%25%100%

Sensitive Stomach Transition

Days 1-9Days 10-19 Days 20-27Day 28
Wet Food25%50%75%
Raw Food75%50%25%100%

A cardboard cat carrier

When to Talk to Your Veterinarian About Feline Food Transitions

While you’ll probably be able to switch your cat between foods without veterinary help, there are a few reasons why you might want to call your veterinarian. If your cat needs to eat a prescription diet, but refuses, this is a question for your veterinarian. Prescription foods are an important part of treatment plans for some conditions, so let your vet know if your cat is giving the new food a cold shoulder.

Also, if at any time during the food transitions, your cat stops eating altogether, it’s important to get your veterinarian involved. Cats are vulnerable to fatty liver disease when they skip meals or lose weight too quickly. If at any time your cat stops eating for 36 hours, call your veterinarian immediately. Diarrhea or vomiting that doesn’t resolve within 24 hours may also require a conversation with your cat’s veterinarian.

Fatty Liver Disease: The Dangers of Cat Fasting. Unlike other animals, cats aren’t built for fasting. Cats expect several small meals a day, and their feral cousins hunt several times a day and catch small prey each time. During a food transition, your cat may avoid eating altogether. While you may be tempted to let hunger encourage your cat to eat–making this choice can be harmful for your cat. Your cat should never go longer 24 hours without eating—and 36 hours without food merits calling your veterinarian for advice.

Fasting can trigger fatty liver disease, also known as hepatic lipidosis, in cats. This potentially fatal condition can cause depression, muscle wasting, jaundice, drooling and other serious symptoms.

If you ever suspect that your cat has fatty liver disease, go see your veterinarian right away. They will be able to run blood and other diagnostic tests to determine what is the cause of your cat’s symptoms. When caught early, your veterinarian can help your cat, but they might require medication, IV fluids or force-feeding to get back to health.