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I heard that if you feed cats processed cat food for a period of time, their palate/stomach will be unable to eat natural food again (meat, rat, etc). Is that correct?

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    I presume you heard this from a cat who was demanding to be fed? – chrylis -cautiouslyoptimistic- Sep 2 at 18:44
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    Even well fed indoor/outdoor cats supplement their diets with prey. – waltinator Sep 2 at 22:24
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    If your cat is out and hunting, it's not an indoor cat. – Davor Sep 4 at 7:40
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It's not really true - at the physiological level, I certainly cannot see how prolonged consumption of processed food could disable a cat from being able to digest natural food. However, I could see the trace element of truth in this statement's essence, which might explain it's plausible origin.

Cats, compared to dogs, are known to be a bit of picky eaters. Unlike dogs, cats could literally starve themselves to death in case of the available food not suiting their fancy - that's how picky they could be*. At the same time, please take into account that it's in the cat food manufacturers' best interest to make their products as tasty as possible, and they certainly have all the necessary means to do the research and come up with the optimal formula.

As a result, transitioning from processed cat food to natural food could in a way resemble - apologies for not coming up with a better analogy - transitioning a child's diet from prolonged dining in fancy restaurants and eating pizzas with a whole variety of alluring flavors, to unseasoned and blandly-tasting homemade food. The child would surely be resistant and need some time to transition - which, as other answers already mentioned, is the case in all diet changes - but it doesn't mean that the child's physiology and metabolism had been changed in a way that disabled them from digesting natural food. Like the child in this hypothetical scenario, a cat could just get psychologically used to a certain kind of tasty food, forming a deeply-rooted habit.

My analogy to human diet is obviously not the best and it's not directly one-to-one - yes, cat food manufacturers don't enhance flavor by using spices known in human cuisine, like black pepper, chili, onion, garlic, etc. Not only cats experience taste differently from humans, but also some of the human cuisine spices are extremely toxic to cats.

But my point still stands; as Trond Hansen noted in the comment, cat food manufacturers are using flavor enhancers, known as palatants, which could be seen as analogs of spices used in our human cuisine. Also, manufacturers do in fact research for the optimal texture, humidity, salinity, tenderness, etc. of the food to suit cats' fancy as much as they can. A cat used to this kind of food could just have been in some sense addicted to a great taste (addicted in the sense of psychological habit, not physiological dependency, though) - together with the before-mentioned cats' pickiness, attempts of such diet transition could give the convincing, albeit completely false impression of their inability to eat natural food ever again.


References to the statement marked with asterisk:

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    @nick012000 the answer from lila is correct in that catfood does not contain spices that are used in food for human consumption,but it does contain some of the same flavour enhancers that are used in human food production(salt,flavouring based on different types of yeast,cheese products) pets.thenest.com/flavor-enhancers-cats-10660.html – trond hansen Sep 3 at 4:45
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    "Unlike dogs, cats could literally starve themselves to death in case of the available food not suiting their fancy - that's how picky they could be."... source? ;) – MaxD Sep 3 at 12:32
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    @nick012000 What I meant was they don't use human cuisine spices as black pepper, chilli, onion, garlic, etc. Apologies if my wording wasn't clear, but that should be obvious from the context as that's the whole point of the paragraph - they don't use flavor enchancers in the form of black pepper, etc. but they do enchance the flavor in other ways by researching and applying the optimal and the most appetizing texture of the food, etc. – lila Sep 3 at 16:49
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    @MaxD I couldn't find the exact source for now but I promise I will look for it later and message you; generally cats could be extremely picky for food and at the same time cat refusing to eat anything for any longer than 24 hours is a serious alarming signal as it can result in a fatal metabolic disease known as feline hepatic lipidosis, also known as feline fatty liver syndrome; one should never assume that a cat would eventually get hungry enough to eat something because the onset of this disease is extremely fast; as little as 2 to 3 days without food could result in cat's death. – lila Sep 3 at 17:06
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    @lila I think it would be a good idea to include a source for the stuff about cats starving themself in the main answer instead of leaving it in the comments. No guarantee the comments will stay around :-) – eirikdaude Sep 7 at 11:54
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No, that is categorically false.

Now, it does take a cat some time (on the order of a week or two) to adjust to a new diet. But that's true of any new diet, whether you're moving from natural to processed, processed to natural, or between two different types of processed food. It's possible that whoever started that rumor just misunderstood the fact that cats need time to adapt.

It's also possible that a cat raised in captivity and kept indoors all the time might not know how to hunt their own food. In this case, it's less a matter of being unable to eat "natural" food, and more about being unable to get it in the first place.

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    On the last point, my mostly-indoor cats will hunt and kill small prey, but they don’t seem to understand how to get to the meat inside the fur/feathers. They will happily eat raw meat from the store, though. – StephenS Sep 2 at 21:20
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    can it change abruptly? What if suddenly there is only new diet? – Ooker Sep 2 at 22:14
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    @Ooker gastric distress is what happens if you give them a sudden dietary change. Which may include vomiting, and nearly always includes horrible diarrhea. – Allison C Sep 2 at 22:36
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    @StephenS That's fascinating. Is that something they are forced to learn from just being way too hungry and can eventually figure out? Or must they be taught it? – DKNguyen Sep 2 at 23:16
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    @Ooker ANY transition in food will lead to gastric distress. Additionally, lila's answer was an analogy using humans--think "McDonalds" to "broccoli," both of which you shouldn't feed your cat. Balanced homemade cat food is not an easy thing to prepare, and shouldn't be attempted without advice and guidance from your vet (as well as regular checkups to ensure it's balanced). – Allison C Sep 3 at 13:03
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As Fraxinus has said this, in practice doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

A lot of cats are known for begging for almost any food, just like dogs, and as the owner of 3 cats that are fed procesed cat food I can personally attest that they will eat anything. 1 of them goes and hunts birds and mice all the time and the other 2 will eat chicken or bacon or pretty much anything I give them.

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    A lot of cats are very finicky. And most birds killed by cats are not eaten by the cat. – Acccumulation Sep 3 at 4:19
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    Do they actually eat the animals they kill? – nasch Sep 3 at 16:36
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    @nasch It depends. We have had several cats, depending on their taste they ate their kills, but sometimes they just brought them over to show us what they caught, One of our cats would refuse to eat moles it hunted, while other one would happy steal the kill. Meanwhile, another cat refused to eat any fish unless it was freshly caught. As in "just got this fish off the hook aaaand the cat stole it" level of fresh. Anything else? He would not eat. Cats are notoriously finicky eaters. – Mandemon Sep 7 at 12:28
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From a practical experience with a few cats: wrong.

All cats that I am aware of (most of them fed cat food for their entire lives) line next to anyone trying to cook meat.

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    your answer is a bit short,please add a bit more information. – trond hansen Sep 2 at 7:56

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