What Can Cats Eat? Nutritional Considerations for Cats

Cats and dogs are a huge part of our fur-families but cats have their own set of nutrient requirements. Ultimately, this means that we cannot feed our cats as though they were small dogs  as this would result in multiple nutrient deficiencies.

Why are cats so different from dogs? Dogs are considered omnivorous, meaning that they can eat both animal and plant-based materials and have the digestive capacity to do so. 

So What Can Cats Eat?
Cats, on the other hand, are considered obligate carnivores.
 This tends to drive the perception that cats can only consume animal material which would be quite incorrect.

Rather it means that a substantial part of their diet must be from animal-derived material (muscles, fats, organ meats, etc.). Cats can eat plant material and obtain nutrients and other benefits from having plant material in their diet. However, they could not survive consuming only plant material.

Fruits and veggies offer many incredible things that animal material does not – and none of this is to say that having plant material in our cat’s food is bad or unwanted. Wild cats consume a variety of prey species (birds, rodents, etc.) and consume almost the entirety of the prey.

This means that they have essentially adapted to bypass certain reactions in the body to make specific nutrients because of their large presence in the diet. As such, cats have developed what we call “nutritional idiosyncrasies” – all of which make them the obligate carnivore.

Here we will delve into some of those key nutrients and learn more about what makes our feline friends so special!

1. Protein

This one may seem obvious given the above information, but it is no less important to state. Cats have a high requirement for protein. Protein is made up of amino acids, which is how we source our amino acids to make up our own protein.

Importantly, protein also can act as an energy source. Cats can use protein for energy more efficiently than carbohydrates.

2. Amino Acids

Protein is made up of amino acids. For dogs and cats, the essential amino acids include arginine, histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.

For cats, they have a much higher requirement for arginine. Arginine is used for removing ammonia. Inadequate amounts of arginine in the diet will lead to ammonia toxicity. This can ultimately result in weight loss, vomiting, and in serious cases, death.

Another amino acid of interest for cats is taurine. Humans, and dogs, can make taurine, but cats cannot. Therefore, taurine is an essential amino acid for cats.

Without taurine, cats may suffer from blindness and other eye-related disorders. Low taurine levels will result in an enlarged heart (dilated cardiomyopathy). There are also concerns for reproductive issues in cats with low taurine.

3. Arachidonic Acid

Arachidonic acid is usually synthesized from linolenic acid and is considered an omega-6 fatty acid. Unfortunately, cats are unable to synthesize arachidonic acid themselves and thus require it from their diet.

Sources of arachidonic acid are only found in animal material. When deficient in arachidonic acid, cats might experience problems with growth and reproduction.

4. Vitamin A

Beta-carotene, a common ingredient in plant material (i.e. carrots), is converted to vitamin A by a specific enzyme. While cats have the enzyme needed for this reaction, it is not as active as other species. Because of this, cats have a higher need for vitamin A.

If a diet is not balanced properly for vitamin A, cats can experience problems with their vision. In addition, vitamin A deficiencies can cause liver disorders and may negatively affect fat metabolism.

5. Niacin

Also known as vitamin B3, niacin is typically made from the amino acid tryptophan in the body. Niacin has important roles in energy production, energy use, digestion, and skin and coat health.

Cats can’t make niacin from tryptophan, making it an important vitamin that needs to be added to their diet. Luckily, niacin is high in many animal products, such as in muscles and organ meats.

Because of these nutritional idiosyncrasies, cats should be fed diets formulated according to their nutrient requirements.

At Tom&Sawyer, we ensure that our cat meals are complete and balanced according to AAFCO and made with lots of love for our feline friends!


Article Written by

Hannah Godfrey

BSc.H. | MSc. | Ph.D. Student in Animal Nutrition