Basics of Feline Nutrition

Basics of Feline Nutrition

Unlike dogs which are omnivores (designed to eat a combination of animal and plant foods), cats are carnivores, meaning that they need nutrients found only in animal meat. Cats evolved as hunters that consume prey containing high amounts of protein, moderate amounts of fat, and a minimal amount of carbohydrates, and their diet still requires these general proportions today. Cats also require more than a dozen other nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and amino acids.

Cats have special dietary needs that omnivores do not therefore they should not be fed as vegetarians or vegans and should always have some animal protein (meat) in their diets. That does not mean that they can safely eat only meat – cats can digest and utilize nutrients from plants and a very high or all meat diet is dangerous for cats

Some of the special nutritional requirements of felines include:

Protein: Cats need more protein than humans or dogs. An adult cat needs up to three times more protein than dogs or herbivores like cows.

Arginine: Arginine is an amino acid found in meat and is a unique requirement of cats. Cats lack the enzyme needed to make arginine  and so it must be provided. It is involved in removing ammonia from the body. If ammonia is not removed, cats can suffer weight loss, vomiting, neurological problems, and even death.

Taurine: This is another amino acid that cats do not produce themselves. Taurine is important in kittens for them to grow normally into adults. When cats have a diets to low in taurine

Although your cat needs certain amounts of each specific nutrient to be healthy, more is not always better. This is particularly true of vitamins and minerals, so the use of supplements is usually not necessary if you are feeding a balanced and complete diet. Supplements can be harmful to your cat, and they should never be given without a veterinarian’s approval. Cats should have access to clean, fresh water at all times.

What foods are available?:

There are several types of commercial food available for cats including dry, semi-moist, and canned.

Dry: Dry food contains between six and 10 percent water. Depending on the specific formulation, a mixture of ingredients are combined, extruded, and dried into bite-sized pieces. Ingredients can include meat/poultry or meat/poultry byproducts, grains, fish meal, fiber, milk products, and vitamin & mineral supplements.

Dry cat food is relatively inexpensive, and since it does not dry out, it offers owners the convenience of “free choice” feeding. However, dry food may be less palatable to a cat than moist or semi-moist food, and depending on the types and quality of the ingredients, may also be less digestible. If you do use dry food, it is important to store unused portions in a cool, dry location, and not to use the food after its expiration date.

Semi-moist: Meat and meat byproducts are the primary ingredients of semi-moist food, which contains approximately 35 percent moisture. Other materials, including soybean meal, cereals, grain byproducts, and preservatives are added to make the final product. The cost of semi-moist food is generally mid-range.

Canned: Canned cat food has a moisture content of at least 75 percent, making it a good dietary source of water. It is generally the most expensive type of cat food, but is also highly palatable for most cats. Many different varieties are available, which can be helpful if your cat is a finicky eater. Canned food has the longest shelf life when unopened, but any unused portion of opened canned cat food should be refrigerated to maintain quality and prevent spoilage.

What to choose?

Commercially prepared cat foods have been developed to give your cat the correct balance of nutrients and calories. Basic minimum nutritional requirements for cats have been established by the Feline Nutrition Expert (FNE) Subcommittee of the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), and manufacturers use these standards in producing cat foods.

Reading the nutrition label on food packaging is the best way to compare cat foods. Also important is to read the ingredients list. As with human foods, the items are listed in order of decreasing proportional weight. Look for foods in which meat, meat byproducts, or seafood are listed among the first few ingredients, as this indicates the food probably contains enough animal-source ingredients to supply essential amino acids and fatty acids.

A cat’s nutritional requirements change through different stages of life. These stages include kittenhood, adulthood, pregnancy, and lactation. The nutritional claim on the cat food label should state the stage of a cat’s life cycle for which the food is complete and balanced, and that it meets the requirements of the AAFCO. Some cat foods are formulated for all life stages, which can simplify the selection process for owners with multiple cats of different ages.

Cat owners often ask if the should feed their cat a homemade diet and the short answer is no. Like with dogs, making your own cat food is difficult and time-consuming. And the high likelihood that the recipes you select will not be nutritionally balanced will cause more harm than good. It is recommended that cat owners purchase nutritionally balanced commercial foods unless a veterinarian recommends a specific homemade diet for medical reasons.

Additionally, maintaining a healthy weight is another important consideration. Obesity is the most common nutrition-related problem in cats, and makes cats susceptible to a number of health problems, including arthritis and diabetes. Ask your veterinarian to help you determine the ideal body weight for your cat and follow their suggestions for adjusting your cat’s diet to reach and maintain that weight

As always, we encourage all pet owners to consult with their veterinarian or a certified veterinary nutritionist when making choices about your pet’s diet and nutritional needs.


[“Cats Are Not Small Dogs” Veterinary Nutrition, Tufts University]

[ “Feeding Your Cat” Feline Health Center, Cornell University ]


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