Healthy food is the first step to a healthy body. We all know that. Unfortunately, we also know that unhealthy foods usually taste way better, and they can be hard to give up. All of this is just as true for our pets. As I covered in my previous article, Kibble Is Bad For Your Pets, kibble is the junk food of the pet food world. Everything good that’s supposed to go into kibble doesn’t survive the process that turns it into a long-lasting pile of dry pellets, and a lot of bad things are created and added along the way.
Most people have no idea. If that included you, it’s not something to kick yourself for. We all grew up learning that those big bags of dry food on grocery store shelves are made with the “best ingredients” that our pals need for “complete, balanced diets.” The pictures on the bags sure look healthy, and there’s a sense of security that comes with having several weeks-worth of food ready to go; you may forget to make your own lunch before going to work, but your pet will never have to fret about skipping a meal. It’s right there, waiting to be scooped into their bowl in a matter of seconds.
We all did the best we could with what we knew, and if you’re reading this article, then you clearly care about learning more and doing even better. With an explosion of research now taking place in the field of nutrition – both human and animal – and with the world’s knowledge at our fingertips, there is no shortage of opportunities to strive for better health. I’m just gratified if the information I provide can help be a step along that process, even and especially if it’s the first step.
All that said, shifting the way you handle cat and dog health and nutrition isn’t easy, and that’s not your fault, either. The fact is, if you’re committed to feeding your pets healthier, then making drastic changes to their diets all at once may not be the best solution. A transition period between kibble and a brand new diet may be important for both of you.
Why Humans Need A Transition
Off the top of your head, how much do you know about feline and canine digestion? Do you know their ideal ratios of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates? How about the essential nutrients they need? Do you know good sources for those, how those sources react to each other, and what all those nutrients actually do in the animals’ bodies? Do you know if your pet has any food allergies or intolerances?
If you’re drawing blanks, then changing your pet’s diet is not something you should jump into cold turkey, whether with ready-made meals from a company or homemade meals from your kitchen.
Your cats and dogs, for their part, may not have any trouble digging into a brand new formula – though they might, as I’ll talk more about in the next section – but isn’t the point of providing a healthier diet to know that what you’re choosing is, in fact, healthier than what you gave before? Not because someone told you it’s healthier, or because the ingredients list is “shorter,” but because you know for yourself, with your own base of knowledge, that your pets are truly getting what they need.
On the human side, this is what a gradual transition period from kibble allows. While you slowly introduce new foods to your pet’s diet, you’ll have time to do your own research. Always start that research by consulting a veterinarian who’s knowledgeable about animal nutrition. They’ll be able to tell you how animal diets work, discuss the many options that are out there in relation to your unique fur buddy, and run the tests that will tell you if there are any ingredients or cooking methods you should avoid. For example, chicken allergies are downright common in dogs, yet chicken is one of the main ingredients in most commercial dry and wet dog foods.
A professional will get you started and help point you in the right direction. Never jump ahead without getting expert advice fist.
Why Pets Need A Transition
While you learn more about what your pets need, they may be going through their own struggles to kick kibble, and this is where a gradual transition will help them as well. If your pet has trouble getting off of kibble, these may be some reasons why:
It’s Addicting. As I discussed in my article on kibble, the carbs that are packed into dry food can make it terribly addicting, and as I said at the beginning of this article, junk food is awfully hard to give up. Kibble breeds picky eaters, ones who may resist the loss of their favorite, tasty foods and treats. They may even go through the same sorts of behavioral withdrawal symptoms that humans do when coming off an addiction, including restlessness and obnoxious begging for food, or depression and lethargy.
If you pet’s personality or energy levels shift when they stop getting kibble, those symptoms should be monitored closely, and you should talk to your vet about it. Ideally, slowly cutting them off through a transition rather than switching cold turkey should help reduce such effects.
Kibble was Easier On Their Tummies. This may sound odd at first. How can something unhealthy be easier on the digestive tract than good nutrition? Well, in the long term it’s not. In the short term, though, a sensitive animal’s stomach may be so used to digesting kibble that it’s actually adjusted itself to better process those dry, carb-packed pellets. When that happens, introducing new foods can cause major upset.
It’s not unusual for pets who are suddenly switched onto new diets to suffer from things like vomiting and diarrhea. Slow transitions can help their digestive tracts slowly adapt back to optimal functioning and health.
Other Foods Are Just Too Different. Anyone who remembers the Trix cereal debacle of 2015-2017 remembers how fans of those sugary puffs went up in arms after General Mills removed artificial colors and flavors from their recipes. Why? Because the colors were no longer as vibrant, and that was too unappealing. Smell, taste, texture, and appearance matter when it comes to food, psychologically speaking.
The same is true for pets who are used to eating kibble. Kibble is crunchy, grainy, and has a very particular type of flavor and smell. Fresh foods will have all sorts of weird smells wafting off them, with unfamiliar textures from stringy to crunchy to chewy, and they won’t taste anything like what your pet has been eating their whole life. This can be the most difficult aspect of changing your pet’s diet – the idea that they simply don’t like it as much as they like kibble. Even with a transition, a picky eater will require time and patience to rehabilitate.
Transitioning Will Teach You What Your Vet Can’t. Your pet may drive you crazy, barking or meowing in your face to make you cave in and give them an unhealthy treat they love – until you find a healthy one they’ll accept instead, hopefully. They may throw up after you introduce a new ingredient to their food, even though it didn’t show up as a problem in veterinary tests. They may pick around something that you add and refuse to touch it no matter what you do. All of this will be maddening, and if you observe carefully, it will serve as a very important tool to teach you about what your pet needs.
In all your research on fresh or DIY pet food, you will come up with many companies and ideas that sound like good forever diets. By paying attention during an initial transition period, you’ll be able to narrow down those possibilities to what you know will work best for your pet, tests and recommendations aside.
How To Transition
Most domestic dogs are able to transition straight from kibble to an alternate diet with relative ease. Options include canned wet food, fresh cooked/frozen food (including homemade), or a raw diet. Yes, even from kibble to raw meat can be a relatively painless change. However, for dogs who have health troubles or are picky eaters, a more gradual shift off kibble can help smooth the ride.
For truly stubborn dogs or ones with particularly sensitive stomachs, a transition from kibble to canned wet food can serve as a bridge if you’re considering adding fresh or raw ingredients to their diet. Simply follow the same steps below with canned wet food first, then once your dog is entirely off kibble, start again with other ingredients.
- Start Slow. After talking to your veterinarian about which foods are safe for your dog to eat, you can start by introducing the new canned food or new ingredients to their kibble in small amounts at meal times, 20-25% new to 75-80% kibble. Fresh fruits, vegetables, and plain cooked meats will all provide important nutrients while their bodies adjust to a new food source. Their stool may soften or they may get diarrhea. If the diarrhea is severe, you should stop adding the new food and see your vet, but if it simply very soft stool, that is a normal part of the transition. Continue feeding the same small amount of new food until their stool becomes firm and healthy again.
- I will go over raw diets thoroughly in an upcoming post, but for the purposes of this article, if you’re considering raw for your dog, do not mix kibble with raw meat or organs. This can cause major digestive upset. If you’d like to get your dog on a raw diet straight from kibble with a transition period, I recommend feeding them as separate meals – kibble in the morning and raw in the evening, or vice versa.
- If digestive upset is still a problem, you can ask your vet about adding a digestive enzyme to their meals as well.
- Be patient. If your dog is a picky eater, try adding a single new ingredient to their meals at a time to see how they react to it. If they don’t care for fresh fruits and vegetables, you can try baking or steaming them to soften the taste and texture; sometimes that does the trick.
- I will not make any fruit, vegetable, or meat recommendations in this article because I really want to drive the point that your first step in a pet diet transition process should be to see your vet, before you start with any procedures or self-taught information. Use my article the way your teachers wished you used your textbooks in school; you’re just reading a section ahead, the day before your teacher (your vet) covers the material in class. You’re showing great initiative, but don’t try to pass the test until you get all the info you need.
- Work your way up. Once you’ve found ingredients that your dog likes, and your vet has helped you figure out a blend and ratio that will have all the nutrients your dog needs, you can gradually increase the amount of fresh food and decrease the amount of kibble at meal times (20-25% at a time) until they’re off kibble for good! At each level, observe your dog’s stool and wait until it’s firm again to increase the amount of new food.
- Make sure to feed your dog enough! Adult dogs require 3-4% of their healthy body weight in food daily, though you should get your veterinarian’s recommendation and also use your dog’s ribs as a measure as well. If you can see ribs, feed them a bit more. If you can’t feel ribs at all when you rub their belly, cut back the amount in their meals. Puppies require more food, about 10% of their body weight, until their growth slows as they reach their adult size.
As no cat owner will be surprised to hear, cats can be tricky to figure out. Some may take to a new diet immediately, while others will have their own ideas about what they need and a purely feline certainty that they are right and us humans are wrong.
Alternate diet options for cats are about the same as for dogs, without any added produce, of course: canned food, homemade cooked/raw recipes, or commercial raw cat food. However, it’s more difficult to get cats all the nutrients they need without fruits and vegetables as easy sources, so no homemade recipe or commercial raw recipe should be attempted without professional guidance.
The steps for transitioning cats off kibble are also essentially the same as above for dogs, but there are some important rules to remember:
- Cats are obligate carnivores. They need meat, organs, calcium, and some other supplements necessary for simulating the entire body of a dead rodent or bird, like what they would eat in the wild, without any fruits or vegetables at all.
- Cats cannot skip meals. Do not try to out-stubborn your cats, or they could become seriously ill from missed meals. If they won’t take what you give them, then simply relinquish the kibble, because the most important thing is that they eat.
- Cats imprint on their food source. This is why cat owners are warned against suddenly changing even the brand of kibble a cat is used to, because a new recipe may cause digestive upset. Dietary transitions aren’t just useful for cats – they’re necessary.
- Cats should not eat too much fish. This will cause a vitamin B deficiency and can cause allergic reactions. More cats have allergies to fish than any other ingredient in cat food.
- Adult cats should eat 3-4% of their healthy adult weight daily. This is generally around 4-6 ounces (115-170 grams) but may be more or less depending on the size of your cat. Kittens require more food, possibly anywhere from 10-12 ounces (280-340 grams) divided over four daily meals.
Who’s Ready To Get Started?
So who’s ready to start transitioning their pet off kibble (once more, for old time’s sake: by first talking to your veterinarian about it)? Don’t forget to do your own part in educating yourself on your fur buddy’s dietary needs, and with other sources of information as well! Not just my own upcoming articles that will cover pet nutrition and diet options.
The first step of any long process is always the hardest, but remember that your pets are relying on you to take care of them. They can’t do it for themselves. Changing the way you think about and treat health, whether yours or your pet’s, is never simple, but you’ll come out on the other side smarter and with a happier, healthier companion.