Special Diets and Multi-Cat Homes

Some diseases or conditions require that a cat eat a special diet or receive medications mixed into their food. Special diet changes are pretty simple if you have only one cat – you just need the cat to cooperate and eat the new food. In a multi-cat home these kinds of changes can be a bit harder to manage.

Before you get started in trying to work out a strategy for feeding there are a few important questions you must answer.

  1. Is it safe for my healthy cat to eat my sick cat’s food? If so, is there a limit to how much is safe?
  2. Is it safe for my sick cat to eat any of the healthy cat’s food? If so, is there a limit to how much is safe?

If it is safe for healthy and sick cats to share food you have a bit more flexibility in how you handle feedings. If it is not safe you will have to work a little bit harder. Let’s take a look at a few different scenarios.

Sick Food: Safe to Share Any Amount

This is the absolute easiest situation to deal with. In this scenario the sick cats and the healthy cats can all eat the special diet with no restrictions. This is likely to happen if you’re dealing with food allergies or feeding a hydrolyzed protein diet to control GI symptoms like vomiting or diarrhea. In this case the special food has the same nutrition profile as “normal” cat food, so, unless your vet says otherwise, you can freely give this food to all cats.

The biggest challenges you might face with this scenario are:

  • The healthy cats don’t want the special diet
  • The special diet is too expensive to feed to all cats

Every Other Scenario

If you’re not able to feed the special diet to all cats then you’re going to have to work a little bit harder.

Not Safe to Share Any Foods

This will be the hardest scenario to manage. In this one the sick cat can’t eat any of the healthy cat’s food, and the healthy cat can’t eat any of the sick cat’s food. This situation will be especially challenging if your cats are accustomed to being “grazers” with complete access to food 24/7.

How to handle it

selective access feeding station with RFID cat doors
  • Feed cats in separate rooms or separate spaces
    • If you don’t have extra rooms to lock the cats in while eating you could consider getting small dog crates to use as feeding stations
    • Create a DIY Selective Access feeding station by combining an RFID cat door with a small dog crate to control which cat can enter to get food.
    • Feed one cat on the ground and another cat on a high counter or table
  • Microchip or Selective Access feeders can limit which pet has access to the food
    • There are cheaper options than the one I linked, but the linked one works for both wet and dry food
  • Transition cats to set mealtimes instead of grazing
    • Some cats will refuse to accept this change, and it does take quite awhile to make it happen if your cat has a long history of grazing
    • Combine set mealtimes with separate feeding and it may be very easy to keep the cats out of each other’s food

Some Sharing is Safe

If some food sharing is safe you first have to figure out how much of which kind of food is safe to share. That will determine how you proceed.

Safe to share special food, not normal food

In this case you may want to try transitioning your cats to mealtimes, or get them used to the idea of “meals” instead of constant grazing. If you put out specific meals in the morning and evening you can likely give your healthy cat normal food while your sick cat is busy eating the special food. Then, when the “mealtime” is over and you’re going to put out food for grazing you can put out the special food.

To help cats transition to eating more at a “meal” try putting out less food for them to graze on. If you’re not sure how much to put out:

  1. Preparing the amount you normally leave out, but measure it before you give it to the cats so you know what you did. Write this number down.
  2. At the next “mealtime,” measure what was left over in the grazing food. Write this number down too.
  3. Do some math to figure out how much food to leave out for the next grazing time. Subtract the amount left over (#2) from the amount you started with (#1).
  4. Repeat this process until you’re able to leave out slightly less food than what the cats would graze on during that period. If you leave a little less than they need they will be hungry for the next meal.

Safe to share normal food, not special food

This is the opposite of the previous scenario, but you can handle it in exactly the same way.

Safe to share both foods

This is probably the easiest scenario to work with. In this case you can simply put out both foods for the cats. If you’re feeding a wet food and the flavors are compatible you can likely mix them together to ensure the cats can’t eat more of one food than the other.

Mixing works with dry food too, but if the foods have dramatically different shapes/textures the cats might still eat more of one than the other. Cats are sometimes very texture-conscious and they may pick up then immediately drop a piece of kibble if they don’t like the way the shape feels in their mouth.

If you have dogs…

If you have dogs, and are particularly crafty, you can also construct a feeding station that protects your cat food from your dogs.

How I Feed My Cats

In my house there are 5 cats. Two of my cats (Oliver and Shiva) are healthy. The other 3 cats all have health issues. Thomas has kidney disease, Muffy has kidney disease and diabetes, and Cat has kidney disease, diabetes, and GI cancer.

Muffy is a dry food addict, and the only one of my cats who eats kibble in any significant quantity. Muffy’s dry food is given in her room – the bedroom she was isolated in when I first adopted her in 2018. The other cats have full access to this room, but Muffy is the only one who spends significant time in there.

There are 2 kinds of kibble that Muffy gets. At mealtimes she gets Hill’s k/d Chicken kibble. For grazing she gets Young Again Zero Mature Health kibble.

All of the cats have access to whatever kibble is left over when Muffy is done eating. She’s a little bit of a bully, so they won’t try to take her food away from her.

Wet food is available for all the cats, including Muffy, 24/7 in my house. For breakfast and lunch that food is a homemade diet that is safe for the healthy cats to eat and also safe for CKD and diabetes. Muffy likes this one a lot, so she eats a fair amount of it. I don’t need to limit this food in any way or do anything special to it.

For dinner and overnight the cats receive commercially available canned foods and/or prescription renal diets. I’m a bit flexible with this.

The non-prescription foods I feed are ones that are safe for CKD and diabetes. These are foods with moderate protein content, low phosphorous, and low carbohydrate. There aren’t many foods that fit that criteria, but the ones I know of are:

  • Soulistic Chicken Pate
  • Soulistic Chicken and Turkey Pate
  • Weruva BFF PLAY (pate) Checkmate (chicken)
  • Weruva BFF PLAY (pate) Topsy Turvey (chicken and turkey)

Thomas and Muffy require some special mix-ins to their commercial food. These mix-ins aren’t safe for the other cats, even thought the food itself is. The way I work with this is to give each cat a very small individual plate with 1 tablespoon of food or less. For the other cats the little plate is just food. For Thomas and Muffy the little plate has all the extra stuff added in. Everyone eats their little plate first, then they can do their grazing off a larger communal plate of food once they’re done.

I tend to feed the little plates separately. Thomas likes to eat in high spaces so I’ll give his meal on top of a counter. Muffy likes to eat in her room or in the hallway to her room. Oliver is a bit of a lazy bones these days, so I’ll usually take his meal to wherever he is at. Cat and Shiva both eat in the kitchen, so they’re separated by only a small distance.

When I feed prescription renal foods I try to limit that to just the 3 cats with CKD and then give normal canned food to the 2 healthy cats. Once everyone is done eating their individual meals I’ll usually take the leftovers and mix them all together on a single plate for grazing. In this way the cats will all be eating some normal food and some prescription food.