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  • Writer's pictureDr Becca Leung

How to transition your dog or cat to a new food (homemade fresh, raw or commercial)

Updated: Mar 20

I’ve been lucky that I have never really needed to transition my dog, Boston, when it comes to food. She was always a good eater and loved food of any kind - the more, the better. She would also rarely get soft stools or diarrhoea even after a sudden diet change. But things are different now that she’s older (happy 10th birthday this week Boston!). She’s not as keen to eat absolutely anything and everything, and some foods do give her soft faeces. So, I have to be more mindful now about what I give her.

 

I know there are many dogs and cats like this, so I thought I would share some tips on how to transition a pet onto a new diet. The principle of transitioning applies whether you're introducing a new commercial diet or a home-made fresh diet that has supplements, such as with our CompleteMe meal completers. You can go through the transitioning steps the same way.

 

Why is it important to transition?

 

There are two main reasons why every pet should have a transition period when changing to a new diet. The first is to help with the acceptance of a new diet, which may or may not be an issue with your pet. The second, more important reason is to help reduce the risk of gastrointestinal (GI) signs. This can include anything from soft faeces to full-on diarrhoea, to nausea and vomiting. The problem is that with the latter, this can cause something called a “learned food aversion”. This is an ingrained phenomenon that occurs in many species, including humans. If you try a new food (or an alcoholic drink) for the first time, and feel ill after doing so, you can develop a repulsion to the food, as your body thinks it was clearly poisonous (even when it was not). The same thing can happen with our dogs and cats as well. Learned food aversion is a strong effect that can take months if not years to unlearn, which can be an issue if it’s a therapeutic food you’re trying to change them onto. That’s why doing what you can to avoid creating a learned food aversion is so important.

 

Transitioning your dog onto a new food



We generally recommend a 7-day transition for dogs. While some dogs can go through the transition period much quicker (or slower) - on average, 7 days seem to fit most dogs.




On the first day, replace 25% of your dog’s old food with the new food. I recommend placing the new food at the bottom on the bowl and adding the old food on top. This will allow your dog to start eating what’s familiar, giving them a chance to get their appetite going, before they get introduced to the new food towards the end of their meal.




After two days, if your dog is eating the food well without leaving the new food behind and there are no GI signs, then increase the new food to 50% of the meal and reduce the old to 50%. Do the same with the new food at the bottom and the old on top.




After another two days, if all is well, increase the new food to 75% of the meal, and reduce the old to 25%, still with the old food on top.




Finally, by day 7, you should be able to feed 100% of the new food.


These steps are just a rule of thumb, and some dogs can take a shorter or a longer amount of time. At any point, if there are GI signs or a reluctance to eat the new food, you can back off a bit and reduce the amount of new food for a few days. If you have a really picky dog, then you might need to start the new food off a tablespoon at a time and that’s okay. Increase the amount of new food at the speed and volume that suits your dog. In 99.5% of cases, there is no need to rush the transition period. Slow and steady wins the race.

 

Dog transitioning tips

 

  • Add a bit of your dog’s favourite treat on top of the new food before putting their old food on top.  

  • Drizzle some warmed broth on the new and old food.  

  • Try feeding their meal in a new location in the house to create interest.

 


 

Transitioning your cat onto a new food (not for the faint of heart)



Broadly, there are two types of cats out there when it comes to food. Technically it’s the same for dogs, but cats take it to a whole new level. There are neophilic cats, who love trying new things, but who may change their minds after a couple of days. And then there are neophobic cats, where change = bad things. While these two types of cats are different, I would still recommend starting with a plan to do a slow transition for any new diet – 14 days in fact. You can always speed up the transition for your neophilic cat, but at least you can gauge their response in the bowl (and in the litter box) and adjust accordingly.  




On the first day, introduce a teaspoon of the new diet with their old food by adding the new food to the side, slightly away from the old food. This will allow your cat to be introduced to the new food aromas, but they do not have to eat it. Do this for a few days and if your cat starts to show interest or even eat the new food, you can increase it to two teaspoons of the new food and start moving the food mounds closer together.




After day 4 or 5, if your cat is eating the teaspoons of new food and there are no GI signs, you can change to 25% of their meal as the new food, and 75% as the old food. The foods can start being friends and sit next to each other, side-by-side.




After day 7, if all is well, increase the new food to 50% of the meal and reduce the old food to 50%.




After day 10, if life is still good, increase the new food to 75% of the meal, and reduce the old food to 25%.

 



By day 14, your cat should be enjoying 100% of their new diet. Maybe.

 

If at any point there is reluctance to eat the new diet or there are GI signs, reduce how much of the new diet you’re giving for a few days. Only increase again if everything is going well.

 

Cat transitioning tips

 

  • If transitioning from a dry kibble to a fresh diet, it may be easier to transition to a canned food first. Then, once they’re eating the canned diet solely, you can transition from the canned to a cooked or raw diet.


  • Feed on a flat plate to avoid “whisker fatigue” which can bother some cats.

  • Warm the new food to 37C.  

  • Leave the food down overnight or during quiet periods.  

  • Crumble your cat’s favourite treats over the new food only and slowly reduce this as they start eating the new food.

 

An important thing to remember with cats especially, but also in dogs, is not to force them and withhold all food if they don’t want to eat the new diet. This can be dangerous particularly in overweight cats and it’s not the right way to encourage them to eat the new food anyways. Also, remember how I said slow and steady wins the race in picky dogs? Well, two steps forward, one step back can be the pace for some picky cats. But even for these guys, it’s all about patience. With the right strategy and persistence, even the most stubborn can be convinced!

If you'd like a printable handout with the information above, you can find those here. Also, please feel free to leave a comment about how you were able to transition your picky pet and any gems you could share - we would all appreciate it!




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