Unique Nutritional Needs of Cats

Unique Nutritional Needs of Cats: What Cats Really Need

We love our feline companions and want to ensure that they live a long, healthy life. One of the most important ways to achieve this is by providing them with a well-balanced diet that meets their unique nutritional needs.

As obligate carnivores, cats have unique nutritional requirements that are quite different from dogs and humans. Cats need certain nutrients, like protein and fat, in large amounts, while other nutrients like carbohydrates are unnecessary.  Understanding your cat’s distinct needs is key to providing the best diet for health and longevity.  

So what exactly do cats’ diets really need? The following will explain in detail.

Animal-based proteins

As obligate carnivores, cats have evolved to rely heavily on proteins and fats in their diet to produce the energy needed by their body. Unlike humans and dogs, cats require protein at all times to maintain blood sugar levels, and their livers continue to secrete enzymes to break down proteins in the body to provide energy, build new cells, and maintain other bodily functions.

If the dietary protein intake is insufficient, cats will automatically extract protein from muscles or internal organs to meet their needs. This can lead to a deterioration in cat health, muscle atrophy, reduced immunity, and body functions. Therefore, it is clear that protein consumption in cats is extremely high, and it is the most important nutrient in their diet.

Animal-based proteins are the best source of protein for cats. On average, at least half of their daily diet should consist of meat or animal-based protein. This includes poultry, beef, lamb, and fish. Additionally, organ meats, such as liver and kidney, are an excellent source of protein for cats.


In addition to protein, fat provides an important energy source for cats. As obligate carnivores, cats can efficiently utilize glycerol in fat to generate the energy their bodies require. Fat also allows cats to store certain fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins A, D, E, and K.  

Two fatty acids—linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid) and arachidonic acid—are essential in a cat’s diet because cats cannot produce them on their own. Arachidonic acid is found exclusively in animal tissues, livers, and egg yolks. For this reason, cats should get plenty of fat from animal sources in their daily diet. In general, fat should make up 20-40% of a cat’s total daily calories.

A lack of fat in a cat’s diet can lead to slow growth, dry skin and hair, dandruff, decreased energy, and increased susceptibility to infection. While fat is often vilified, cat owners should not avoid it. Cats need fat more—and are better able to utilize it—than humans and even dogs.


Water is essential for cats to survive, even more so than food. A cat can go weeks without food, but it cannot survive for more than a week without water. Water is crucial for every cell in a cat’s body to function, maintain body temperature and aid in digestion and excretion.

However, many cat owners overlook the importance of water and believe that dry food is sufficient. This can deprive cats of the water they need to stay healthy.

Cats’ ancestors originated from water-scarce deserts, so their bodies are programmed to obtain water from their prey, which contains about 70% water. Unlike dogs and humans, cats’ thirst mechanism is less sensitive, so they may not drink water even when they’re thirsty. Thus, if a cat drinks a lot of water, it may actually indicate severe dehydration.

Carbohydrates Are Not Necessary in a Cat’s Diet

Unlike humans and some other animals, cats do not require carbohydrates in their diet. Proteins and fats are the primary sources of energy for cats, and they can obtain all the nutrients they need from a well-balanced, high-protein diet.

Carbohydrates can overload their digestive system and hinder protein absorption since cats lack some enzymes to digest them. Unlike omnivorous animals, cats’ livers cannot efficiently clear excess blood sugar caused by high-carbohydrate diets, leading to obesity and diabetes. Excess carbohydrate intake is responsible for these common health issues in modern cats.


Taurine is an amino acid that is crucial in a cat’s diet because they cannot produce enough taurine to meet their needs. Without enough taurine in their daily diet over an extended period, cats can go blind from central retinal degeneration within two years. Long-term taurine deficiency can also lead to severe issues like dilated cardiomyopathy, infertility, or miscarriage in cats.      

Perhaps due to instinct, many cats especially love taurine-rich foods like clams, oysters, fish, poultry, and organ meats. These animal-based proteins are high in taurine, making them good options for ensuring cats get adequate amounts of this critical amino acid.


Arginine is an amino acid that cats must get from food. It helps cats break down protein waste products. Without enough arginine, poisonous ammonia can build up in a cat’s blood.

Cats can make some amino acids, but not arginine. They need to eat it. Meat, fish, and eggs have lots of arginine. As long as cats eat a diet high in these, they will get all the arginine they need.

If a cat doesn’t get enough arginine, its body can’t remove ammonia waste very well. Too much ammonia in the blood is dangerous and can make a cat very sick. But when cats eat lots of meat protein, arginine deficiency is usually not a problem.

Vitamin A

Unlike humans and dogs, cats cannot convert plant-based carotenoids into vitamin A. They must get preformed vitamin A from animal-sourced foods. Vitamin A is essential for healthy eyes, bones, muscles, skin, and reproduction in cats.

Foods naturally high in vitamin A include fish oil, liver, egg yolks, and dairy. Fish oil and liver are especially potent sources. However, since vitamin A is fat-soluble, too much can build up in a cat’s body and become toxic over time. If cats eat plenty of meat protein, they usually get all the vitamin A they need. 

Vitamin D

Cats can’t make their own vitamin D from sunlight like people. Their skin lacks the compounds needed to convert sunlight into vitamin D. As obligate carnivores, cats must get vitamin D from the animal-based diet they are evolved to eat – specifically, the fat and liver in meat.

Vitamin D is essential for cats to absorb calcium and phosphorus, maintain bone health, and support growth. While most commercial cat foods are fortified with vitamin D, homemade diets require supplementation to avoid deficiency.

The vitamin B complex 

The vitamin B complex is crucial for the overall health of cats. It plays a vital role in maintaining the nervous system, skin, hair, eyes, liver, muscles, and brain. Unlike dogs, cats need a higher amount of various B vitamins – about 6 to 8 times more!

Most B vitamins are water-soluble, which means they are not stored in the cat’s body. Therefore, cats must consume enough B vitamins every day. Moreover, vitamin B complex is easily lost during high-temperature food processing. Therefore, many high-quality cat foods in the market add extra vitamin B complex to ensure adequate intake, eliminating the need for additional supplementation.

However, some cats may require additional vitamin B complex supplementation, such as those who are ill, weak, or stressed. For example, if they have recently moved or if there are new members in the family, they may benefit from extra supplementation.

The Perfect Diet for Cats: What to Feed Them

Cats have unique nutritional needs, so it’s essential to understand what their ideal diet should look like. While wild cats feed on rats, small birds, and insects, it’s impossible for city-dwelling cats to do the same. However, we can still provide them with a natural and healthy diet.

Dr. Deborah Greco, a New York-based veterinarian, recommends using natural cat food, such as rats, as a guide. A rat’s nutritional analysis shows that an ideal diet for a healthy adult cat should contain:

  • At least 45% animal protein
  • Around 25-45% fat
  • Less than 10% carbohydrates
  • Less than 2% dietary fiber
  • Not less than 63% moisture

When buying cat food, look for products that meet these recommended proportions to ensure that your cat’s nutritional needs are met.

In Conclusion

cats have unique nutritional needs that must be met through their diet. A diet that is deficient in protein, fat, taurine, and moisture can lead to serious health problems, such as muscle wasting, a weakened immune system, dilated cardiomyopathy, blindness, and dehydration.

As cat owners, we must prioritize feeding our cats a well-balanced diet that meets their unique nutritional needs. A diet that is rich in animal-based proteins, fats, and moisture can help ensure that our feline companions live a long, healthy life. If you have any concerns about your cat’s diet or nutrition, consult with your veterinarian to develop a diet plan that is tailored to their unique needs.

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