Feeding Your Newly Adopted Dog or Cat
Few things are more exciting for animal lovers than bringing home an adopted pet.
Perhaps you’ve been wanting to give an animal a Forever Home for a long time, and now you are finally able to. Maybe you’ve been visiting shelters for a while, searching for that special animal that you just know is yours.
Or maybe an animal in need stole your heart out of the blue, and you suddenly found yourself filling out adoption paperwork and giddily preparing your home for their arrival.
No matter how you came to your new furry family member, those first days, weeks, and months can be both thrilling and nerve-wracking. There are so many questions that need addressing!
Will my pet like his or her new home? Will my new pet like me? Will my new pet be scared? Is my new pet recovering from abuse? Is my new pet house trained?
What will my new pet eat? Did I get them the right food? How should I feed them?
Your adopted pet’s food goes hand-in-hand (paw-in-paw?) with their mental well-being. As animals derive comfort and meaning from food, the “how, what, and where” of feeding your new pet can significantly impact the ease of which they acclimate to their new life.
Keeping a few basic things in mind when feeding your new furry family member might significantly cut down on the stress and anxiety that could come with a new home.
What Should My Adopted Dog or Cat Eat?
Though the temptation may be to buy your new pet a fancy new food in order to spoil them rotten, it’s best to keep them on the food they were eating at the shelter or their foster home for at least a few days.
With so many things changing in their life, food is the one consistency you can offer them. Plus, giving them food they are used to will help guard them against stomach upset (though it may still happen if they are very stressed out).
If possible, find out which pet food they are eating before you bring them home, make sure you have at least two weeks worth. Some shelters or fosters will send you home with a bag of your pet’s food, just be sure to confirm this before you pick up your pet.
You may ask, “If I’m planning on switch my pet’s food, why have two weeks worth on hand? Don’t I only need a few days?”
It’s not quite that simple.
Though your new pet may only eat full meals of their old food for a few days, you will need to transition them to their new food by mixing it with their old food. The general guide to food transitioning that we like is:
Day One and Day Two
1/4 new food to 3/4 old food (all meals)
Day Three and Day Four
1/2 new food to 1/2 old food (all meals)
Day Five and Day Six
3/4 new food to 1/4 old food (all meals)
Day Seven onward
All meals are the new food
It’s worth nothing that when transitioning, your pet may experience some diarrhea, especially if the difference between the new food and the old food is rather drastic (ex. going from a kibble to a raw or higher protein food). Unless the diarrhea is very severe and your pet seems to be in distress (go to the vet under such circumstances), a little stomach upset and/or soft stool is normal. The body needs time to adjust.
Adding a little bit of no salt, no sugar, 100 percent pure steamed and pureed pumpkin (nothing else) to their food can help settle their stomach. We like Nummy Tum Tum canned organic pumpkin for pets.
Additionally, some pets are much slower to transition. Those first days, you may only be able to mix in a tiny amount of the new food. That’s OK. It’s better to go slow and give your pet a positive experience, then to force them and put them off their food.
I once had a cat who took a solid month to transition from kibble to a dehydrated cat food. Those first days she would only tolerate a pinky finger sized dollop of the new food mixed with her old food. Though it was slow-going, she eventually fully transitioned to her new food (and loved it) with almost no distress.
Food Allergies/Sensitivities, and Skin Issues
Flexibility is important when finding the right diet for your adopted pet. As you may know very little to nothing about your pet’s background, they could have food allergies or sensitivities that will only appear with time. If your pet develops hot spots, inflamed patches, bald patches, or patches on their belly, limbs, hindquarters, tail that have been chewed raw, you should consult your vet about a food allergy or sensitivity.
If your pet does have a food allergy or sensitivity, you will likely need to change their food and/or protein source until you find one that works for them. Try to stick with single protein foods (pet foods that only have one meat in them, not a mix) so you can accurately determine what they are sensitive to.
A common food sensitivity that could exhibit in skin or coat issues is a sensitivity to grain. If this is the case, then your dog or cat may need a grain free diet.
Before you adopt a pet, especially one with visible skin or coat issues, it’s important to understand that healing them and getting them to their best health may take a lot of time, trial and error, and dedication.
Feeding a Skinny or Malnourished Pet
Many shelter or rescue animals will come to you underweight. This could be due to abuse, lack of access to food, even depression. Regardless, part of your job will be to help them gain weight in a healthy way.
The first step should always be to consult your vet. While your cat or dog may just need good nutrition and regular meals, you will want to clear any underlying diseases or medical conditions. Your vet may also be able to give you advice on calorie intake and how to safely increase food consumption.
Some basic rules of them when feeding a malnourished, skinny cat or dog:
Select the highest quality pet food you can afford. One that has a specific animal protein as its first ingredient (like “chicken” or “beef” not a nondescript “meat meal” or corn as the first ingredient) and has a good balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fats. The food should have a solid balance of vegetables and grains (if you pet can eat grains).
It’s not just about adding calories to your pet’s diet, it’s about high quality foods that are readily absorbable. Too many calories too fast can lead to diarrhea and vomiting.
Feed your cat or dog multiple, moderately sized meals per day. Giving them huge meals once or twice a day can be too much all at once and lead to stomach distress. Smaller meals are better absorbed and will lead to better overall well-being and successful consistent weight gain. Try feeding a meal every four hours during the day.
If your pet is not putting on weight, plateaus, or is still truly hungry after meals, you can slowly increase the meal sizes or add another small meal to the rotation.
Exercise! Though this may seem counterintuitive, exercising your dog or cat can increase their appetite and help them to build some bulk through muscle. Exercise will also help to battle stress for your pet, allowing them to keep weight on better.
Make sure you give your new dog or cat a food bowl that is just theirs. Asking them to share bowls might cause territorial behavior on the part of your new pet or old pets, resulting in aggression.
Also, feed your new pet separately from your existing pets, at least at first. Find a quiet spot or a separate room to place their food and water dishes. Your pet is contending with a lot of news smells, sounds, and information – try to make their “food zone” as calming as possible.
Though your animals may all seem friendly in the yard or living room, even the sweetest dogs or cats might get possessive or fearful when food is involved. You can’t always be sure what sort of environment they came from; if they had to fight to keep their food. This can be especially prevalent in rescue dogs.
Food Guarding and Mealtime Aggression in Dogs
Before having all your dogs eat at once in the same location, many adopted dogs need time to feel comfortable and confident that nobody is going to steal their food.
Some food aggression behavior to keep an eye out for in dogs:
Growling when other animals or people are near while they are eating (meals, a chew, a treat)
Barking at other nearby animals or people when they are eating
Aggressive body language toward anybody near them when food or a chew is involved
While some dogs just need time to get used to their new home, other dogs who were victims of serious trauma might become more demonstrative in their aggression – snapping or lunging when they think another dog or a human is attempting to take their food.
If this is the case, it’s very important to consult a professional like a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, or a Certified Professional Dog Trainer. Such professionals can help you humanely and effectively teach your dog that he doesn’t have to guard his food, without putting you or your family members in harm’s way.
Until a professional can work with you to repair the behavior, do keep your dog separate from other animals when food is involved, and be sure that all the humans in your house know not to surprise him or reach out to him while he’s eating. Remember, this behavior does not make him a “bad dog”, just a dog who has suffered trauma and is acting out of fear.
Crating your adopted dog while he eats might be a good temporary solution. (Contrary to what many believe, crate training your dog is not “jailing them” but rather gives them a small, manageable area that they know is their safe place. A whole house can be overwhelming to a rescue dog!) In some cases, dogs who eat in their crate will not exhibit any growling or aggressive behavior, even if another dog walks by, because they know they are safe in their crate.
Most importantly, do not let food aggression in dogs go unchecked. The longer you let it continue, the longer it reinforces the behavior, making it harder to stop.
Can Cats Have Food Aggression?
Yes, your adopted cat can exhibit food guarding or food aggression behavior.
Such behavior might appear as:
Growling while eating if other animals or even people are present
Hissing or swatting at other animals or people when they are eating
Fighting other cats away from their food, taking another cat’s food
Aggressively guarding the eating area as their territory
The most effective way to combat mealtime aggression in cats is to feed them separately – food and water dishes far apart, in different parts of the home if necessary.
This way, each cat can feel confident that their food is theirs. In some cases you may have a cat that eats quickly, then runs over to take another cat’s food. If that happens, a closed door between the cats at mealtime may be required. If done consistently and in a positive manner, the cats will quickly get used to this schedule, and get comfortable with it.
While we recommend feeding cats meals instead of free-feeding anyway (as it tends to keep indoor cats at a healthier weight), feeding food aggressive cats meals is very important.
Meals give you control over how, when, and where a cat eats, plus it stops one cat from lording over the food, thus preventing other cats in the household from eating.
If a cat is especially hostile, talking to your vet or a certified behaviorist may be necessary, but most cats can learn to relax if their eating schedule allows them some privacy.
A consistent schedule for an adopted dog or cat is vital in helping them adapt and gain confidence.
Eventually many dogs and cats can learn to eat with their other furry family members or humans present, but some will require separate feeding for the rest of their lives. Being prepared and accepting of each scenario will help keep both you and your pets stress-free and happy.
My New Pet Won’t Eat
Many animals will get to a new home and just hide for a while, refusing to eat.
Their whole world has just turned upside-down (again) and they need some time to adjust on their own terms.
This is especially common in cats. In such cases it’s best to give them some time to adjust. Wherever they decide to hide out, be it under a bed or being the couch, continue to offer them food and spend time sitting nearby talking to them. Make sure they have access to water and their litter box near their hiding spot.
Eventually most cats will come out to eat, investigate, or use the litter box, but it could take a day or so. Don’t force it. If a cat has not eaten, drank, or used the litter box in several days (or they haven’t urinated/defecated at all, even if it’s an “accident”) contact your vet.
Similarly a dog, especially one that has suffered abuse or trauma, may hide or remain in their crate at first. Give them a quiet space away from other animals or high traffic areas of the house, and offer them food, water, and access to their outdoor “bathroom spot” regularly.
Sit nearby and speak calmly to them, praising them and petting them when you offer them food. This can help them to form a positive association with feeding time. Some dogs and cats will need to be hand fed initially.
If a dog does not eat or drink for several days, call your vet.
There’s no hiding the fact that adopting a dog or cat can be hard work. You are not only required to provide for their physical needs, but also their mental and emotional needs. However, food might be the most direct path to both.
By providing good food and a safe place to eat it, you just may be communicating to your pet in the clearest terms possible: I love you.
Wishing you and your furry family members warm homes and full bellies,
~Your Loyal Calvin & Susie Blogger
Note: Always check with your vet before making any changes to your pet’s diet. The Calvin & Susie Blogger always researches to the best of her ability, but she is not a vet. This blog is not in any way meant to replace veterinary advice or care. When in doubt, always ask a vet.