What All Cats Need Every Day, Without Fail

cat eating meat

Story at-a-glance -

  • A recent pet food company survey revealed a fifth of U.K. cat parents don’t know their pets are carnivores
  • Over 25 percent of respondents admitted their cats suffered from diet-related weight problems and health conditions such as diabetes
  • Cats are true carnivores with very specific dietary requirements for animal protein, certain nutrients and moisture
  • It’s best to start weaned kittens off on the right paw with a nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate, fresh food diet; however, it’s also possible to transition adult cats — even dry-food addicted ones
  • The best diet for U.K. cats, and almost every kitty is a nutritionally balanced, homemade fresh food diet designed specifically for cats

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Recently I ran across a troubling but familiar-sounding article from across the pond about feline diets and their relationship to cats’ health. Research conducted by a pet food company, Lily’s Kitchen, and reported by The Independent, revealed that a fifth of pet parents in the U.K. don’t even know their cats are carnivores “… with one in 10 feeding them raw vegetables and another one in 20 serving up salad leaves.”1

As regular visitors here at Mercola Healthy Pets know very well, cats are not only carnivores, but also obligate carnivores who must have meat in their diets:

“An obligate carnivore (or true carnivore) is an animal that must eat meat in order to thrive (Syufy 2008). They may eat other foods, such as fruits, honey, grains, and so forth, but meat must be included in their diet.

True carnivores lack the physiology required for the efficient digestion of vegetable matter, and, in fact, some carnivorous mammals eat vegetation specifically as an emetic. The domestic cat is a prime example of an obligate carnivore, as are all of the other felids (Pierson 2008).”2

Over a Quarter of UK Cat Parents Surveyed Admitted Their Pets Have Diet-Related Medical Problems

According to U.K. veterinarian Rodney Zasman, who also works as a consultant for Lily’s Kitchen:

“It’s alarming that many of the nation’s cat owners are oblivious to what constitutes a healthy diet for their pets, particularly when healthy eating plays such a big part in modern day living for the owners themselves.

One of the biggest dangers to our cats’ health is actually poor quality, mass produced pet food. In some instances these foods contain as little as [4 percent] meat and, as a result, cats aren’t getting the nutrition they need to keep them healthy. But many cat owners are largely unaware of this fact and only find out when they take their poorly or overweight moggy [cat] to the vet.”

The research also revealed that 28 percent of cat owners say their pets have been diagnosed as either overweight or suffering from other medical conditions such as skin problems and diabetes as a result of their diet.

“Feline obesity is a huge issue in the UK,” says Zasman, “as well as a host of other health complaints, many of which are caused by eating the wrong type of food which is low in real meat and high in a range of other, less nutritious ingredients, cleverly disguised on the label as ‘meat and animal derivatives.’”

As True Carnivores, Cats Have a Unique Requirement for Animal Protein

Cats must eat animal meat and organs to meet their nutritional needs, and plant-based proteins (grains and vegetables) simply aren’t a good substitute. Cats lack the specific enzymes necessary to use plant proteins as efficiently as animal proteins. The proteins derived from animal tissue contain a complete amino acid profile. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Plant-based proteins don't contain all the amino acids critical for the health of an obligate carnivore.

Cats also need much more protein in their diet than other animals. Kittens require 1.5 times more protein than puppies. Adult cats need two to three times the amount adult dogs require. One of the reasons for this is because while other mammal species use most of the protein they consume for growth and body maintenance, cats use protein for those purposes and also as a source of energy.

When other species of animals are fed a low-protein diet, their bodies make adjustments to conserve amino acids to manage the deficit. But a cat's body must continue to use protein even when there's not enough in the diet, which is why protein malnutrition happens quickly in sick, injured or anorexic cats.

In addition to their increased need for protein, cats also have a higher requirement for certain specific amino acids found naturally in animal tissue. One of the amino acids missing in plants is taurine, which is found in animal muscle meat, in particular the heart and liver. Taurine deficiency causes serious health problems in cats, including cardiovascular disease and blindness.

Cats Also Have Specific Dietary Requirements for Certain Nutrients, as Well as Moisture

Cats evolved hunting a different set of prey species than dogs did, so their dietary requirements are different than dogs. Cats have a special requirement for vitamin A, which is available naturally only in animal tissue. They lack the intestinal enzymes necessary to convert B-carotene in plants to the active form of vitamin A. Vitamin A is essential for maintenance of vision, growth of bone and muscle, reproduction, and the health of epithelial tissues.

Cats also require five times more dietary thiamine (vitamin B1) than dogs do. A thiamine deficiency can result in a poor-quality coat, loss of appetite, hunched posture, neurologic problems including seizures and even death. Unfortunately, thiamine isn’t stable in commercial pet foods and levels drop significantly the longer the food is stored, so many cats may be deficient unless they are eating very fresh food. 

Vitamin D is also essential in the diets of all mammals. Cats must consume vitamin D in their diet (they can’t synthesize it through their skin). The liver and fatty tissue of wild prey animals is rich in vitamin D. Arachidonic acid is an omega-6 fatty acid cats must also get from their diet.

Another distinctive biological feature of cats is their need to get most of their water intake from the food they eat. Domestic kitties, who evolved from desert-dwelling ancestors, are not as responsive as other animals to sensations of thirst or dehydration.

When fed a diet devoid of moisture (e.g., kibble), cats aren't driven to search for another source of water to make up the difference between what their bodies require and what their diet provides. This can result in chronic mild dehydration, a condition that will ultimately result in disease, especially of the feline lower urinary tract and kidneys.

Many Cat Parents Report That ‘the Choice of Food to Provide Isn’t Theirs’

The Lily’s Kitchen survey of U.K. cat parents also revealed, predictably, that part of the problem in offering cats healthier diets is the natural tendency of many kitties to be fussy eaters. A third of survey respondents reported their cats ultimately make their own food choices by simply refusing to eat healthier offerings.

But as the Independent correctly points out, “… by patiently transitioning cats onto new foods, owners can have a much better success rate when introducing a new recipe.”

While it’s best to start kittens out on the right paw by offering a nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate, fresh food diet as soon as they’re weaned, it’s certainly possible to switch even the most persnickety or dry food-addicted adult cat to a healthier diet. For help, see my step-by-step guide to slowly transition your cat to a better diet.

Going slow is as important as the transition itself, since another unique thing about felines is their inability to fast in the same way dogs and humans can. Cats who suddenly stop eating or drastically reduce their daily calorie intake — and this is especially true for overweight kitties — can quickly develop a life-threatening liver condition called hepatic lipidosis.

The Best Diet for Cats in the UK and All Over the Globe

Cats in the wild thrive by consuming fresh, living whole foods. Their natural diet is moisture-dense because prey animals are about 70 percent water, plus it's high in protein and minerals, and moderate in fat. Your kitty will do best with a high-moisture diet consisting of excellent-quality meat, moderate amounts of high-quality animal fat and a very low percentage of carbohydrates. This means absolutely, positively no kibble.

My recommendation is to feed a nutritionally balanced raw or gently cooked diet, preferably homemade, designed for cats, since raw food contains the highest amounts of natural nutrients. Since an unbalanced diet can create so many health problems for pets, it's critically important that homemade diets are balanced.

Making small, fresh batches of real food is the best way to ensure you’re delivering the maximum level of species appropriate nutrition to your kitty. Here are a few homemade recipes to try:

raw chicken meal

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cooked chicken meal

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raw beef meal

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If you prepare homemade meals and cook the meat, even gently, it's a good idea to supplement taurine to ensure your kitty is getting an adequate amount. There are no known reports of taurine overdoses, so supplementation is relatively safe. I don't recommend feeding fish to cats for a number of reasons, with the exception of sardines packed in water and perhaps some wild caught salmon in rotation with other proteins.