07/24/2013 10:54 am ET Updated Sep 23, 2013

Cats Fed a Variety of Foods Are Less Finicky

I often emphasize the importance of variety in the diet of cats and dogs, with both my veterinary clients and readers. Just as humans benefit by eating a variety of foods, so do companion animals.

One very important reason for offering your pet nutritional variety is to help prevent food allergies. When the same food containing the same protein is fed day in and day out for months or years, intolerances often develop.

Many pet owners settle on an inexpensive commercial pet food their dog or cat seems to love, and they feed that food -- and only that food -- for long periods of time. Eventually, many pets develop sensitivities to certain ingredients in the food, often the protein source.

Now, according to a recently published study, there's another reason to offer variety in your pet's meals -- especially if your pet is a cat.

Feeding Dry Food Exclusively Turns Cats Off to Food That is Healthier for Them

Many of you who own a cat are already painfully aware of how difficult it can be to make changes to your finicky feline's dry-food diet. In fact, it's such a universal problem that scientists conduct research on how cats develop dietary preferences.

One such study was published in January of this year in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior. Researchers set out to discover whether who were kittens fed moist diets, then switched to kibble, would make an easier transition back to moist food than kittens who were fed dry food from the start.

The study involved 18 adult cats that had been exclusively fed moist food or kibble from the time they were weaned.

Thirteen cats were fed either commercial canned food, commercial raw food or homemade raw diets exclusively from the age of 9 weeks to 20 weeks. Another five cats were fed only dry food during the same period.

At the end of the post-weaning period, all 18 cats were fed a commercial dry food diet for a period of 7 month up to 23 months.

As adults, the 18 cats were offered one of three moist foods (commercial canned, commercial raw, or homemade raw), with the following interesting results:

• The kitties fed exclusively kibble for more than a 7-month period after weaning were not interested in the moist diets, including the cats fed a moist diet during the post-weaning period.
• For the cats fed one of the moist diets during the post-weaning period, the less time spent on the dry food diet, the better the cats maintained their weight when moist food was reintroduced. Four of five cats (80 percent), who were fed dry food for only 7 months, maintained their weight on reintroduction of moist foods, compared with two of five cats (40 percent) who maintained weight after 17 months on dry food.
• Kittens fed canned foods were more accepting of both raw and canned diets than kittens fed exclusively raw during the post-weaning period.

Nutritional Variety Throughout Life Helps Cats Adapt to Dietary Changes

This study certainly illustrates the importance of dietary variety for cats throughout their lives.

In particular, periods of feeding exclusively dry food seem to have a significantly negative effect on the ability of cats to accept a transition to a more species-appropriate diet. The researchers observed, "any benefit of feeding moist foods early in life seems to be overcome by feeding dry expanded foods for an extended period."

The fact that kittens fed canned diets were later more accepting of raw or canned foods as compared with those fed raw diets is probably due to differences in the texture of the two types of food. Apparently kittens fed a raw diet post-weaning are able to distinguish between canned and "real" food as adults, unlike cats fed canned food after weaning.

The study authors are careful to point out that this is a preliminary study and larger numbers of cats are needed to verify these results and determine their significance. However, they believe the study supports the benefit of offering dietary variety throughout a cat's life to preserve adaptability to changes in nutrition that may be necessary or desirable.

Given the difficulty so many cat owners face when they try to transition their pet to a different type of food, I certainly agree. And while I think an entirely fresh food diet is optimal, I also feel it can be very beneficial for healthy pets to be offered a wide variety of fresh, raw, dehydrated raw and high quality canned foods.

I'm not a fan of kibble, especially for cats, because even very high-quality dry pet food lacks moisture content. Moisture is a key component in species-appropriate nutrition for felines, so I really discourage feeding any dry food to kitties.

Dr. Karen Becker is a proactive and integrative wellness veterinarian. You can visit her site at:

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