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I've had my cat for several years now, and up until a couple weeks ago, I've been free-feeding her dry food. My vet has just told me that she's a little overweight (the cat, not the vet), and instructed me to stop both the free-feeding and the dry food. Instead, the vet wants me to use a meal-feeding plan with wet food, to try to get the cat's weight down.

Sadly, the cat does not seem to be on board with this plan. When I open a can of food, she's always interested enough to run over and sniff it, but never enough to eat it. She will always eat it eventually, but only a bit at a time, which seems to defeat the purpose of meal feeding. Also, while the food sits out, it dries out, which can't be good for it, and attracts fruit flies, which is annoying for me.

The brand of the food doesn't seem to affect her behavior. I thought she might pick up on the fact that the feeding schedule was changing after a few days, but it's been two weeks and this is still going on. How can I get her to eat when it's mealtime? My only thought is removing the food a certain amount of time after I set it out, but that would surely lead to her going hungry for at least a few meals.

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Cats have a natural hunt-eat-groom-sleep cycle that you can take advantage of in this sort of situation.

Hunt: About a 10-30 minutes (depending on your cat's energy level) before meal time, start playing with your cat with an interactive wand toy such as Da Bird. You want to simulate prey movements with the toy. Try out moving along the ground (like a snake or mouse) as well as in the air (like a bird) until you know what most interests your cat. Hunting will stimulate your cat's appetite.

Eat: Once your cat shows signs of getting tired (loosing interest), then feed your cat its wet food meal. Leave the food out for 30 minutes and then pick it up (discard). Your cat will eventually learn that it needs to eat during meal time!

Groom/Sleep: You should then observe the groom and sleep phases of the cycle. We do a feeding right before bed so they let us sleep :-)

Weigh your cat frequently Anytime you are changing your cat's meal structure you should weigh your cat every few days to make sure that she doesn't loose more than "1%-2% of their current body weight per week." (per Lisa A. Pierson, DVM). If your cat starts to loose weight faster than that because she's still not eating a full meal, try a food that has more calories per ounce (there are some cat food composition charts like this one available on the web).

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I think it is just a matter of going gradually enough.

You could remove the dry food 1-2 hours before meal time to make sure she didn't eat too much already. As she's interested enough to come when you open the can, give her 1/4 of the can only, "lock" her in the room for a limited time (10-15 minutes top). Increase the amount slowly (over one month: 1/4, 1/2, 3/4, full can?), she should get the idea progressively.

You can also arrange the dry food in a way that the bowl is empty by the time you'll give her her wet food.

It's been a year now that I'm feeding my two cats wet food in the evening, plus free access to dry food all day. We can really see that around mealtime they stop going for the dry food and they come in the kitchen by themselves, they eat their meal and then they sleep for a few hours. It took some time to have a clear schedule like that.

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    Yours are well-trained! Ours start pestering us for the wet food mid-morning despite having plenty of dry food available. I think with them the trigger is "we're home" rather than dinner time since both of us work and the evening feed during the week happens when we get home from work. So weekends they think that since we're home we should be giving them wet food... – Kate Paulk Aug 18 '14 at 11:03
  • Sorry I wasn't clear at first, there's no dry food in the picture at all anymore. I've updated the question to reflect this. – Pops Aug 18 '14 at 14:55
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When my vet advised me to make diet changes, she told me to do it gradually. Switching cats over to a new food, let alone a new type of food or a new schedule, "cold turkey" doesn't work. For example, when changing a type of food (like when I changed to an allergenic diet) she had me mix the old and new foods together, first mixing a little new into a lot of old and then shifting the proportions over several days.

It seems that you'll need to take a similar approach; start reducing the amount of dry food available but don't take it away entirely, and at the same time start increasing the amount of canned food (at set feeding times). This might take a week or two. If you jumped straight to the canned food and that's not working out, I suggest backing off: put out some dry (but not as much as they're used to having), and then proceed as above.

Also, despite their lengthy and loud protestations, healthy cats can manage missing a meal (or part of one, if they picked at the food). So long as they're eating (and especially drinking) something, and they are otherwise healthy (no kidney disease, diabetes, etc), they'll be fine and they'll eat when they get hungry enough.

  • After my last chat with my vet, I thought "cold turkey" was exactly what I was being told to do. I guess I'll bring this up again at the next appointment for clarification. – Pops Aug 19 '14 at 22:10
  • Hmm, interesting. I don't know about yours, but with my vet I can call with questions like that (call, leave a message, and I'll get a return call), so you don't have to wait until your next visit to find out. – Monica Cellio Aug 19 '14 at 22:28
  • Yeah, but my next visit happens to be scheduled for tomorrow for unrelated reasons. – Pops Aug 19 '14 at 22:29
  • Oh! Well in that case, let us know what you find out. – Monica Cellio Aug 19 '14 at 22:36
  • They didn't have a strong opinion, particularly because it was a change from dry to wet. They said it might be worth mixing in a little dry food for the first week, but not longer than that. Had it been a switch from one dry food to another, they would've advised more of a gradual changeover. – Pops Aug 21 '14 at 3:31
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In my case, this worked itself out on its own. Two days after I asked this question, my cat started eating on the meal schedule without any additional changes or intervention on my part. I guess it just took her a little longer than normal to adjust to the change.

Copying in the info from my earlier comment:
My vet didn't have a strong opinion on changing foods "cold turkey" vs. changing gradually by blending the dry and wet together at first, particularly because it was a change from dry to wet. They said it might be worth mixing in a little dry food for the first week, but not longer than that. Had it been a switch from one dry food to another, they would've advised more of a gradual changeover.

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