How to Get a Cat to Eat Wet Food | Vet Shares 15 Best Tips
Many people assume all cats eat wet food, and it's just a matter of putting a bowl of canned food in front of them, which they'll immediately tuck into. As a new graduate vet who was frequently recommending a wet diet for various health conditions, it quickly became apparent that this was not the case. Many owners would say there was no point trying as their cat had always refused canned food.
However, if a vet recommends a wet diet, it is usually an important part of the treatment plan. As a result, I became passionate about converting dry food-only cats to canned food and, over the years, discovered a variety of tips and tricks on how to get a cat to eat wet food.
My own cats, when I first adopted them, were dry food addicts, and I wanted to incorporate wet food into their diet for the hydration benefits and to ensure they received adequate protein. It took a couple of months to get them both consistently eating wet food. One of my cats needed a lot of praise and encouragement and was pretty much spoon-fed initially, while the other would quickly become suspicious if I interfered too much. Now it brings me great joy to see them sit in anticipation every morning as I prepare their canned breakfast and hear the sound of them both eagerly tucking into their wet food.
In this article, we will discuss the following:
- Why some cats won't eat wet food (initially)
- The benefits of eating wet food and if it matters if a cat only eats dry food
- When and how to switch to a new diet
- 15 tips to get a cat to eat wet food instead of dry
- Recommended brands and how to select the best wet cat food
Why Won't My Cat Eat Wet Food?
If a cat has always eaten dry food, they can become accustomed to the crunchy texture and resist changing to softer food. They are affectionately referred to as 'dry food addicts'. Since cats can become set in their ways, it's best to feed them a range of textures, such as kibble, meaty chunks, and pate from kittenhood.
It's also advisable to take your cat to the vet for a general check, including their teeth, if they refuse wet food. Some cats prefer dry food if they have resorptive lesions, which are erosions on the tooth's surface. These lesions are painful and become aggravated if wet food sticks to them.
If your veterinarian gives them a clean bill of health, keep reading to find out how to get your cat to eat wet food.
Reasons It's Beneficial To Feed Your Cat Wet Food
- Your cat needs to increase their water intake for medical reasons, such as chronic kidney disease, feline lower urinary tract disease (crystals, bladder stones, feline idiopathic cystitis), or constipation.
- Your cat is a diabetic and would benefit from a diet high in protein and low in carbohydrates, which is easier to achieve with wet than dry food.
- Your cat is overweight, and even though it's possible to lose weight by eating dry kibble, it may be easier with canned food. The higher water content means fewer calories per gram and helps increase their feeling of fullness.
- Your cat receives medications or supplements, and hiding or mixing them in wet food is easier.
- Your cat eats dry foods, but you rarely see them drinking water and want to ensure they are well-hydrated.
- Even if your cat is young and healthy, establishing flexible eating habits is helpful, as they may develop a health condition later on that would benefit from a wet diet, such as chronic kidney disease.
Does It Matter if My Cat Only Eats Dry Kibble?
If your cat has been recommended a wet diet for a health condition, making the transition is important to help ensure an optimal outcome.
If your cat is healthy, feeding them only wet food, or a mixture of wet and dry food, is still beneficial. Cats have a low thirst drive, likely due to evolving in the desert. Their main source of water came from eating mice and birds, which are about 60-70% water, and if necessary, they can produce highly concentrated urine. Therefore, they rarely needed to drink and, for this reason, are not the best at staying hydrated if only fed dry food.
Providing canned food will help keep your cat well-hydrated, which is essential for their long-term health.
The benefits of dry food are that the cost tends to be lower, and it can be kept out during the day without spoiling, which is helpful for grazing cats. It's also easier to use with puzzle feeders, such as Trixie Activity Puzzles for Cats, which provide enrichment and mental stimulation. Although LickiMats are slow feeders that can be used with wet food and help enrich your cat's feeding experience.
Not all dry food diets are beneficial for teeth. If you feed dry food, consider a diet specifically formulated for plaque and tartar control, such as Hill's Science Diet Adult Oral Care. The kibbles are large, textured, and contain a matrix of fibers that promote chewing and function like a toothbrush.
If you decide to feed your cat only dry food or a mixture of wet and dry, read How to Get a Cat to Drink More Water to ensure they stay hydrated.
When Should I Switch My Cat to Eating Wet Food?
If your cat is healthy and happy, you can start to transition to wet food immediately.
However, switching to a new diet is not advisable if your cat is currently sick, for example, they are suffering from chronic kidney disease and need stabilizing first. A sick cat is likely already eating less, so it's not the right time to give them a diet they may not eat straight away since they need adequate nutrition to heal. Even if they eat the new diet, they may develop an aversion, meaning they will stop eating it once they feel better, as it reminds them of feeling unwell. Therefore, it's best to wait until they feel stronger before introducing the new food.
Changing the diet can also be stressful for some cats, so particularly for those suffering from lower urinary tract disease, such as cystitis, in which stress plays a significant role, it's important to make changes gradually and consider their emotional state in all aspects of their treatment plan.
Always ask your vet for advice about when to switch to a new diet if your cat is currently unwell.
Can I Suddenly Change From Dry to Wet Cat Food?
Even if your cat is eager to start eating canned food, you should transition slowly to avoid causing a tummy upset, such as diarrhea and vomiting. Over a week, gradually feed more of the new diet and less of the old.
How Do You Get a Picky Kitty to Start Eating Canned Food?
Be prepared that changing your fussy cat's eating habits could take weeks or months. If a cat has eaten dry food their entire life and you put a bowl of canned food down that they don't instantly eat, don't immediately give up.
2. Combine the Wet and Dry Food
Mix a tiny amount of wet food with their dry food. If they accept this, gradually add more wet and less dry each day. To avoid food wastage, take what you need from the can and store the rest in the fridge for 24-48 hours.
If your cat won't eat the wet and dry food mixed together, each day, place a teaspoon of wet food in their bowl next to the dry food, so they are just touching. Then, if they start eating the wet food, gradually increase the amount.
Another alternative is to put the wet food in the bowl first, then cover it with a layer of dry food. Hopefully, once they are in eating mode, they will eat the dry, then continue on to the wet food.
3. Start Meal Feeding
If they currently graze dry food throughout the day, start offering them two meals, one in the morning and one in the evening, without any food available in between. Your cat may be more willing to try wet food if they are hungrier when it's time to eat.
Offer them wet food and if it remains uneaten after 30-60 minutes, remove it and give them their dry food. After another 30-60 minutes, remove the dry food and don't offer them any more food until their next meal. It can be challenging if they beg for food between meals, but they will survive until their next feeding in less than 12 hours.
Once your cat is reliably eating wet food, it is advisable to switch to feeding small, frequent meals throughout the day instead of two larger meals (meal feeding). Cats wild ancestors typically ate 7-20 small meals throughout the day, such as mice, rodents, and reptiles. Mimicking their ancestors eating behavior as closely as possible is believed to lead to increased health and happiness.
While you're at work, the Cat Mate Automatic Feeder can be used to provide them with five meals throughout the day. It contains ice packs, so unlike other automatic feeders, it can be used with wet food and will keep it fresh.
4. Place Their Bowl on Ice Packs
Due to bacterial overgrowth, wet cat food should be discarded after 1-2 hours, depending on the temperature of your house. However, it will keep fresher longer if placed on flat ice packs allowing you to leave it out for several hours. Not only does this give you more time to see if they will eventually start eating it, but it can be beneficial for cats who are grazers with a tendency to eat a little at a time.
5. Use Treats
To get your cat to eat their new food, mix it with an irresistible treat, such as canned tuna in spring water (never in brine or oil) or a Churu Lickable Puree Treat. If they won't eat it mixed in, place the treat on top of the wet food and use a fork to smoosh it in a little bit more each day.
Freeze-dried chicken treats sprinkled on top of wet food are also effective as they provide an 'in-between texture' for your cat to get used to, i.e., not as soft as wet food but not as crunchy as dry food.
6. Offer Your Feline a Range of Foods
Experiment with different flavors of cat foods to see which they prefer, such as chicken or seafood, as well as different textures, such as pate, jelly, meat chunks, or shredded meat. If feeding a pate or jelly texture, some cats may prefer it to be broken up for them with a fork.
However, try to avoid switching foods too frequently. If you find one your kitty shows interest in, whether they sniff it a little longer or have a lick when they wouldn't touch the others, stick with it.
Once you find one wet food they consistently consume, it may be easier to transition to other flavors and textures that they initially wouldn't touch.
If you are feeding a prescription diet for a specific medical condition, you will be more limited in your options, but it's worth checking with your vet if there are other flavors or textures available from the same or a different brand.
7. Warm the Food Up
Try serving the food warm, which can help release the aromas. Some cats also find the taste of warm food more appealing. Aim for a mouse's body temperature, which is about 37°C.
Heat it in a microwave for a few seconds at a low setting, mix well, and carefully touch the food to test it's not too hot before serving. Alternatively, you can add a small amount of warm water and mix.
8. Offer Chilled Food
Some cats prefer chilled food, so experiment by offering it straight from the fridge in case it is preferred.
9. Feed Your Cat in a Quiet Location
Offer them wet food somewhere quiet, away from other pets. Some cats prefer to eat alone and may be more willing to try something new if there are no disturbances.
10. Let Them Observe Other Cats
Since cats tend to be curious, if you have another cat who loves wet food, let the cat you want to transition watch your other cat enjoying their meal.
11. Encourage Your Cat
Some cats respond well to having their chins, cheeks, and base of the tail scratched while you use a gentle and kind voice to encourage them. However, some cats won't respond well to the fuss as it only raises suspicion, and it's best to leave them alone with the food and get on with your day so as not to put any pressure on them.
12. Hand-Feed Your Cat
Offering small amounts of food on a spoon or your fingers and encouraging them to lick it off may help them realize it tastes good and kick-start their wet food transition.
13. Playtime Before Feeding
Before mealtime, playing with fishing rod-type toys and wand toys, which bring out their inner hunter, can stimulate their appetite and increase their willingness to eat the new food.
14. Use Wet Food as a Reward
If your cat performs any tricks or behaviors in exchange for a treat, offer them a small amount of wet food as a reward. Often they are accustomed to automatically take the treat out of habit, and once they taste the wet food, hopefully, they will enjoy it.
15. Add an Appealing Garnish
Enhance your cat's dining experience by adding a tantalizing garnish to their wet food, which may entice them to try it. However, If your cat has a medical condition, check with your vet before adding anything new to the diet.
What Is the Best Canned Cat Food?
Every cat will have their preferred flavor and texture, so it's often a matter of trial and error. Fish and chicken are usually good options to try first. You may also have more success with medium-sized meaty chunks, which are slightly more similar to kibble than pate or mousse.
When selecting a cat food, follow the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) Guidelines on Selecting Pet Foods. In summary, choose a food brand that:
- Employs at least one full-time qualified nutritionist
- Employs qualified and experienced pet food formulators
- Meets the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) or European Pet Food Industry Federation (FEDIAF) nutrient profile guidelines
- Has adequate quality control measures to ensure food safety
- Performs product research and nutritional studies
- Labels the product as 'complete', meaning it will provide all the nutrients your cat needs, rather than a complementary feed
Purina, Royal Canin, and Hill's are companies that go above and beyond fulfilling the WSAVA guidelines. They employ a team of full-time veterinary nutritional specialists and experts with degrees (MS/PhD) in animal nutrition. They also perform feeding trials to ensure diets are balanced and complete, and contribute extensively to animal nutrition research.
If there is another pet food company you prefer, check their website for information to ensure they fulfil the WSAVA recommended criteria, such as if they employ veterinary nutritionists, if the diets are labelled as 'complete', how they ensure food safety, and which nutrient profile guidelines they meet. If the information is not freely available, they should be easily contactable and happy to supply the requested information.