What Nutrients Do Cats Need? - Cat Info Detective

What Nutrients Do Cats Need?

Skye Blake-updated, white background

Hey folks, Skye Blake here following the feline nutrition trail, discovering what nutrients cats need (hint, they’re not all the same as dogs or people).

paw prints coming in from a distance

Why should you be interested in cat nutrition?

Sounds boring doesn’t it… but you might be surprised how important it is to know the basics.

Then you can make sound decisions on the best food for your cat.

Let’s discover more…

Where to Start?

tabby wild cat

Feline nutrition and food are complex topics that require a thorough understanding to be sure you’re giving your cat a complete, balanced diet.

Fortunately, if you know nothing else, you can get by with this…

  • Only buy food that says it’s complete and balanced for your cat’s stage of life.
  • It should say it meets or exceeds AAFCO or WSAVA minimum recommendations.

You may have to break out your Cat Info Detective magnifying glass to find it!

side of bag of dry cat food
“No Supplements Necessary… 100% complete and balanced nutrition for adult cats”

If you start by looking for these things and ignoring everything else on the package, you’ll be ahead of the game!

In the meantime, the question you need to ask is…

“Do I trust reputable pet food companies for complete and balanced food, or do I learn all about nutrition and make it myself?”

black, white mother cat with kittens

Nutrition is a serious matter and can’t be approached by following the latest trends or fads.

This is because an incomplete, unbalanced diet (say, giving only raw hamburger) robs your cat of specific vitamins and minerals she needs, creating serious health problems that can be fatal.

Which way do you go and who do you trust for accurate helpful information?

Who Should You Believe About Nutrition?

cartoon of cats listening to another cat giving a lecture

There’s not much clinical evidence to prove the many claims about what types of cat foods best meet nutritional needs.

But it’s well established that cats have certain unique needs that can’t be met by dog or human food.

Every cat has individual nutritional needs depending on their stage of life and medical condition.

I’ve found the most reliable starting point is with veterinarians, especially board-certified veterinary nutritionists.

What’s a Board-Certified Veterinary Nutritionist?

vet researcher looking in microscope

Board-certified veterinary nutritionists are specialists who are the most educated, qualified nutrition experts available.

They have the most comprehensive and complete, well-rounded understanding of nutrition.

There are also qualified vet nutritionists who haven’t taken the board tests but have the knowledge to help with your cat’s diet needs.

Your regular vet can advise you in most cases and can refer you to someone reliable if you’re dealing with a special medical condition.

Keeping an Open Mind
Let Me Think Now by Louis Wain
“Let Me Think Now” by Louis Wain

An important quality about a good nutritionist or vet is a willingness to look at the latest evidence and adapt their positions according to the evidence, even if it goes against what they believe to be the “right” position on an issue.

The tendency to “cherry pick” (interpret or use parts of a study to fit what someone wants it to say) is a real problem with people who cling inflexibly to certain views even when presented with evidence to the contrary.

Discover more about vet nutritionists at “What’s a Veterinary Nutritionist?“.

You can find them at American College of Veterinary Nutrition | ACVN.

Here’s a helpful veterinarian video explaining about nutritionists…

Discovering What Nutrients Cats Need

Cat "reading" a book

Since it’s important to understand the nutrients your cat needs to be healthy, let’s look at some facts…

Every cat’s diet has to have the right amount of protein, carbohydrates, and fat (macronutrients), along with vitamins and minerals (micronutrients) from digestible food.

Cats typically choose food that’s close to the proportions of proteins, carbs and fats that are in prey like rodents and birds.

2 cats eating wet food from pan

“The domestic cat’s wild ancestors (Felis silvestris) are known to be obligate carnivores.

From a nutritional perspective, this means that in their natural habitat cats consume small prey, including rodents and birds, which are high in protein, moderate in fat and include only minimal carbohydrates.

cat looking at mouse in den

Data from dietary habits of feral cats combined with compositional data of the consumed prey species revealed a typical diet containing a crude protein, crude fat and nitrogen-free extract (NFE) content of 52%, 46% and 2% of metabolisable energy (%ME), respectively [1].

cat watching birds (pigeons)

These dietary habits have led to specific and unique nutritional requirements.

In cats, the dietary requirements for protein, arginine, taurine, methionine and cystine, arachidonic acid, niacin, pyridoxine, vitamin A and vitamin D are greater than for omnivores due to metabolic differences… ” 1 Cats and Carbohydrates: The Carnivore Fantasy? – PMC (nih.gov)

Chronic Conditions

senior cat being groomed by other cat

If your cat has a chronic illness, such as diabetes, kidney or liver disease, there are specific foods you can use to help relieve and sometimes reverse those problems.

At the very least, you can give him food that’s easier for his body to handle.

What you use depends on your buddy’s illness, your vet’s recommendations, and what food you normally use.

Cats Are Obligate Carnivores

cat with mouse in mouth

Cats are “obligate carnivores”. What the heck is that? Aren’t we just cats?

Here’s a description from “What’s a carnivore?” by Nutrition RVN

“An obligate carnivore is an organism whose diet requires nutrients found only in animal flesh.

This does not mean they require a diet of only meat – it means their diet must have meat in it to meet their requirements. [emphasis added]

cat eating kibble from food bowl

Specifically, cats are unable to synthesize essential nutrients such as retinol, arginine, taurine, and arachidonic acid so in nature they must consume meat to supply these nutrients.

Obligate carnivores can ingest plant material and digest it to varying degrees, but may also ingest it purposely to induce vomiting.”2What’s a carnivore?”, nutrition rvn

cat watching mouse peeking out

If you’re serious about learning more here are a couple of interviews with board-certified veterinary nutritionist Lindsey Bullen.

These are about 45-50 minutes each and give more detailed information.

Definitely worth the time, especially if you’re considering taking on the work and responsibility of do-it-yourself nutrition.

Vegan/Vegetarian

confused woman

Believe it or not, there are people who are vegan and want to create “evidence” that cats can be vegan too.

Hmpff, imagine that… and people say we cats are crazy!

They even say it’s immoral to kill and eat animals… but that’s what we do, we’re cats!

cartoon drawing tabby cat looking at mouse

What about the immorality of forcing animals to go against their nature?

Responsible care of animals, whether food critters or pets, includes feeding them what gives them proper nutrition.

There’s a difference between senseless, irresponsible killing and responsible husbandry.

I know, rather than getting a cat or dog, get a pet rabbit… they love veggies!

Bioavailability of Nutrients

white mother cat with kittens, babies

When you listen to scientists and vets, you’ll hear them talk about a fancy word “bioavailability”, meaning how easily nutrients are absorbed into the body through the digestive system.

How quickly the nutrients become available to use is important for good health, energy, growth, and organ function.

We have to be able to play and get into mischief, right? (Hehe)

Brandy waiting for food

Some things are eaten but not absorbed, like fiber that passes through the digestive system, but is still considered bioavailable because it’s doing its job (ever been constipated? Yuck!)

“Macronutrients” (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) have high bioavailability.

“Micronutrients” (vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants) can vary widely in bioavailability so have to be individually added in the right amounts.

Discover more about micronutrients at “”What Vitamins Do Cats Need?

Proteins

raw beef - meat

The proteins in meat, made up of amino acids, are essential to our diet.

What Is Protein?

The simple answer is that protein is a class of compounds made up of amino acids that all living things need to survive.

Protein is a macronutrient that helps kittens grow, builds strong muscles, and keeps organs functioning properly in all cats.

chickens in a row

We fabulous felines can produce some amino acids in our bodies, but those we can’t (essential acids) can be found only in meat.

For example, if you feed your cat the same food as your dog, your cat will be missing vital nutrients like taurine, which is necessary for heart health.

Cats who don’t get taurine in their food die from heart failure.

siamese cat licking front paw

This certainly is a powerful argument for those who say we must have meat and that raw meat is best.

But is it scientifically true? Do we cats need the actual animal flesh (meat) or just the nutrients in the meat?

Remember, food is simply a vehicle for nutrients to be easily absorbed into the body for energy and good health.

tabby cat licking front paw

We have to love it too, of course!

In the case of dry food, which is grain based, manufacturers add the enzymes and other nutrients found in meat to make it balanced and complete, since actual meat isn’t in the food.

Is it sufficient to use grains and add the nutrients in that would be in meat?

wheat in field - litter, food

Veterinary nutritionists say this is fine because all the nutrients are there for a complete and balanced diet.

Those who claim that grain-based protein isn’t as good for cats as meat-based protein have not yet shown any proof this is true.

People Food & Dog Food… Not for Cats!

pizza

Humans eat all kinds of things… meat, vegetables, grains, fruits, eggs, dessert, even insects!

Dogs eat a mixture of meat and vegetables… frankly, they’ll eat anything they can get in their mouths!

Adult cats need 2-3 times the protein dogs need, and kittens need 1 1/2 times the protein puppies need.

English cocker spaniel dog next to dog food

This makes it very important not to give dog or human food to cats as a steady diet since there’s not enough protein.

Human food has ingredients like sugar that cats can’t digest, minerals in the wrong amounts, and other things that end up harming cats.

Human-grade plain muscle and organ meat, though, when properly prepared, can be part of a healthy cat’s diet.

Sugar & Other Sweeteners

sugar cubes

Ok, so let’s get something straight… you humans love your sweets but we cats don’t!

We don’t taste sweetness and our bodies can’t process sugar. So don’t give us any!

Here’s what science says about it…

“In a two-choice preference test, cats are unable to distinguish between pure water and sucrose dissolved in water…

tabby cat yawning, tongue

Neurophysiologic studies of the facial nerve demonstrated responses to salt, bitter, sour, amino acids and nucleotides taste stimuli…

No neural responses to sucrose and other sugars were detected in cats…

The sense of taste in cats is therefore similar to that of other mammals, with the exception of insensitivity to sweeteners.

ice cream in cone

The molecular basis for this feline sweet blindness is the lack of a sensory system to detect sweet stimuli… This was confirmed in lions.

Lions also possess the pseudogenized Tas1r2 and show no preference for any of the natural sugars and artificial sweeteners tested…” 3 Cats and Carbohydrates: The Carnivore Fantasy? – PMC (nih.gov)

Carbohydrates (CHO)

whole grain bread

Carbohydrates have become a controversial topic in the Cat Food World and there are misunderstandings fueling some claims about them.

Discover more at “Are Carbs Bad for Cat?

Fats

oil drops emulsion- CBD

Fat (fatty acid) is made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, with carbon being the predominant element.

It’s an essential macronutrient that’s stored in the body for protection, warmth, and energy.

Essential fatty acids must be added into your cat’s diet because they can’t be made by the body.

cat preparing to eat fish

They give your cat the most energy of all nutrients, more than protein and carbohydrates.

Essential omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids help our nervous system and brain function properly.

They’re also good for healthy skin and coat, helping wounds heal, and reducing inflammation.

oil in water

Fats make food taste better and help your cat’s body process vitamins and minerals that are essential for a shiny coat and healthy skin.

When eaten, fats turn into fatty acids and glycogen, which then becomes glucose energy.

Without fats, kittens can have stunted growth and all cats can develop kidney and liver problems.

fat, obese cream color cat

Some important vitamins found in fats are A, D, E, and K.

Fats are, however, higher in calories than carbohydrates and need to be balanced in your cat’s daily diet to help prevent obesity.

Sources of Fat

cat eating meat

Fat and essential fatty acids are in chicken, beef, salmon, liver and other organ meats used in cat food.

If extra fat is added to a particular diet, it’ll be specifically listed on the label (e.g., soybean oil).

Discover more about ingredient labels at “Reading Cat Food Labels“.

How Much Fat Does My Cat Need?

cat food in bowl

“The AAFCO minimum for fat in all cat foods is 9% on a dry matter basis [water removed].

Significantly higher levels of fat may be appropriate for cats who are highly active or have trouble maintaining their weight. 

Diets designed for weight loss will usually contain less fat in comparison to adult maintenance cat foods.” 4 Cat Nutrition: Guide to Cat Food Nutrients | PetMD

Vitamins & Minerals

vitamin C, B12

Vitamins and minerals (micronutrients) are extra substances that cats need to properly process everything they eat.

They’re vital for proper bone growth, nervous system function, good metabolism, and vision.

Common vitamins are B-complex and C (water-soluble), A, D, E, and K (fat-soluble).

Some examples of necessary minerals are calcium, potassium, iron, sodium, and copper.

Discover more about vitamins and minerals for cats at “What Vitamins Do Cats Need?

Nutrients Cats Need at Different Life Stages

2 orange tabby kittens

Every cat’s nutritional needs change from one life stage to another, from kitten to senior, active to lounging, robust health to the decline of age.

It’s important to be aware of these needs and discuss your cat’s individual situation with your vet, making diet adjustments along the way.

Once an adult, dietary needs stay stable unless disease or chronic conditions occur.

fat tawny cat

You’re responsible to feed your cat complete and balanced meals in appropriate portions to keep him fit and trim.

A fat cat is an unhealthy cat, leading to diseases like diabetes mellitus and arthritis, especially during the senior years (6+).

If your cat’s the right weight and in good health, you should be able to feel her ribs.

If you see ribs, she’s too thin… if you can’t feel them, she’s too fat.

Discover more about obesity at “Fat Cats – Unhealthy or Cute?

Pregnant & Lactating Queens

black, white mother cat with kittens

Kittens, pregnant and mother cats (“queen”) all need a lot more calories and nutrients than other cats.

If you have a pregnant cat, her diet will require enough nutrition for both her needs and her kittens’ growth.

pregnant orange tabby cat

Veterinarians usually recommend highly digestible, high quality kitten food while a queen is pregnant and after birth until the kittens are weaned.

Work with your vet throughout your cat’s pregnancy to give her the best care for her individual needs.

Discover more about proper feeding for this stage at “Feeding the Pregnant Cat” and “5 Tips On Proper Nutrition For Your Pregnant Cat”.

Kittens – Newborn to 4 Weeks

newborn kitten being bottle fed

Kittens in the first few months of life have special needs that require round-the-clock attention and care.

If their mother is healthy and able to care for them, she’ll give them all the nutrients they need.

Mother cat and 3 kittens

Feeding the mother properly will be your main concern until they’re weaned.

Then it’s up to you to feed them so they continue to grow healthy and strong.

Discover more about kitten food and nutritional needs at “Food for Kittens – Giving Them Good Nutrition“.

Senior, Geriatric Adults

old senior grey cat

As cats age they often tend to lose weight, but it’s individual.

Depending on your cat’s weight and health, choose food that has either more or less calories.

Talk to your vet about your elderly cat’s specific needs, since certain vitamins and minerals need to be adjusted, especially if your cat develops kidney, liver, or heart problems.

fat grey cat lounging next to cup of coffee

Older kitties can lose the ability to eat hard kibble, especially if they have dental problems.

If that’s the case, you’ll have to try various wet cat foods to discover what your cat will eat.

It’s important to understand what the ingredient list and other info means when you look at a bag or can of food.

Learn more at “Reading Cat Food Labels“.

Videos

go pro video camera, computer laptop

Here are some informative videos from experts that will give you a deeper understanding of feline nutrition… well worth the time to watch.

Cornell Veterinary Experts Address Feline Nutrition” is a video webinar featuring Bruce Kornreich, DVM, PhD, Joseph J. Wakshlag, DVM, PhD, DACVIM (Nutrition), DACVSMR, Kurt Venator, D.V.M., and Laura Goodman, PhD, Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, April 30,2021

Pet Nutrition Myth Busters…” is a helpful video by Lisa M. Freeman, DVM, PhD, DACVN, a board-certified vet nutritionist.

Where to Go From Here

siamese cat licking front paw

Now that you’ve learned what nutrients cats need, you’ll find it easier to decide what’s best for your situation.

Always check with your vet about your buddy’s medical condition to find food that supports her life stage and health.

Check these related pages for more about nutrition and cat food…


Cat Food!How Is Cat Food Made?
Cat Food Companies – Which Are Best?Cat Food Recalls – What Do They Mean?
Meat By Products In Cat FoodPet Food Regulations & Oversight
Reading Cat Food LabelsHow to Feed a Cat
Cat Food & Water BowlsCat Food Puzzles
Big Cat Food Paying Off Vets & Other MythsAre Carbs Bad for Cat?
Can Cats Drink Milk?Food for Kittens – Giving Them Good Nutrition
What Vitamins Do Cats Need?What’s the Best Cat Food?
Dry Cat Food (Kibble)Homemade Cat Food
Raw Cat Food – Good or Bad?Raw Meat Diet for Cats – Benefits vs. Risks
The Best Cat Food BrandsThe Best Kitten Food
Wet Cat FoodCat Food Allergies & Sensitivities
Dental Care for CatsFat Cats – Unhealthy or Cute?
What’s a Veterinary Nutritionist?

Sources

Sources used on this website are either primary or secondary.

Primary sources are always preferable and have the most reliable information because they’re original and directly referenced.

Scientific abstracts and data are good examples of primary sources.

Secondary sources are weaker because they usually consist of opinions or articles that give no sources of their own. Sometimes they refer to primary sources.

When I use secondary sources, most are those with some authority, such as veterinarian or cat behaviorist books and articles.

List of Sources

Carb Confusion Part 1: The Role of Carbohydrate in Pet Foods” – Clinical Nutrition Service at Cummings School (tufts.edu)

Carb Confusion: Part 2 – Measuring and Comparing Carbohydrate in Pet Foods” – Clinical Nutrition Service at Cummings School (tufts.edu)

Cat Nutrition: Guide to Cat Food Nutrients“, PetMD

Dietary Carbohydrates are NOT “Toxic” to Cats“, skeptvet.com

Digestion and Absorption of Carbohydrates, Proteins and Fats” by Sagar Aryal, thebiologynotes.com, March 25, 2022

Everything You Need To Know About Nutrient Bioavailability“, Nutrova, April 5, 2021

Fats – Sources, Types, Difference between Saturated and Unsaturated fat” (vedantu.com)

Front Matter | Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats“, The National Academies Press

Importance of Fats – Types of Fats, Sources and its Benefits” (byjus.com)

What Are Fermentable Carbohydrates?” By Janet Renee, MS, RD, livestrong.com

What’s a carnivore?” – nutrition rvn

Why Fat is Good for Your Cat” by Lorie Huston, DVM, PetMD, April 1, 2014

Updated January 9, 2023

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