Call of the Wild

All breeds of domestic cat can now be traced back to five subspecies of wildcat, and ultimately to one specific type in northeastern Africa, Felis silvestris lybica.   Why is it important to understand where cats came from?  Even after all this time, modern day cats are still remarkably similar to their ancestors, both inside and out.  Cats have been domesticated for a period of only about 9000 years – a short while in cats’ existence.  During this time they remained avid hunters of mice, rats, birds, and other ‘vermin’, helping their human’s habitats remain pest free.  Only for the past 50-60 years have pet food companies been manufacturing dry kibble.  Since then, we have seen a surge in feline obesity, diabetes, feline lower urinary tract disease, and a host of other problems.  Could these be caused in part, because we are feeding the wrong thing?

Get Inside their Heads

Cat owners know that even the most pampered house pet retains many of the behaviors of its wild ancestors.  Even an indoor cat that has never seen a mouse still instinctively knows what to do!  Both wild cats and domestic pet cats -

• Stalk, pounce, and catch their ‘prey’ – whether it be a real mouse or a fuzzy toy
• Have a desire to climb as high as possible, for comfort and security
• Have a strong instinct to bury their stool in loose, sandy areas
• Can have a natural aversion to water
• Instinctively sharpen their claws and mark their territory

Physical Characteristics

House cats don’t just act the same as their wild ancestors, they look the same too.  Put a pet cat next to a wild cat and you might have a hard time telling them apart.  They have retained the same physical characteristics as their ancestors, which help us understand what they are meant to eat. 

Head/Jaw – Cats teeth are adapted for the holding and tearing of flesh, and can only move up and down – they don’t possess the grinding motion needed to grind or chew tough vegetable matter or other fibers. 

Tongue – The cat has a limited number of taste buds, and is missing the taste receptor for ‘sweet’ flavors usually found in sugars and carbohydrates.  The tongue is also covered in stiff barbs containing keratin, which can help hold and tear its food. 

Claws – A domestic cat retains its instincts to keep its claws sharp to aid in the capture or prey.

Digestive Tract – The intestinal tract of a cat is very short, made for the quick digestion of meat.  The short tract reduces digestion time, which limits the risk of harm from potential bacteria and parasites.   Cats also have relatively large gall bladders and livers, which help emulsify fats (found in meats) and filter out toxins (higher in meats than in grains). 

Simply put, cats are built to eat meat.


Nutritional Needs

Cats aren’t just built to eat meat, they need to eat meat.  Cats are considered obligate  carnivores, and must eat meat in order to survive.  Obligate carnivores may eat other foods such as vegetables, grains, or fruits, but they must eat meat as their main source of nutrients.  They cannot survive on a strict vegan diet.  Cats require certain nutrients from meat that cannot be obtained in sufficient amounts from plant foods - a deficiency in these necessary nutrients can result in a variety of serious health problems.  These essential nutrients are things the cat cannot produce themselves, and therefore must be consumed in the diet.

Essential Nutrients for Cats

Taurine – Taurine is an amino acid derivative essential for cats.  It is essential for proper bile formation, eye health, and the functioning of the heart muscle.  Cats require a high amount of taurine , but have a limited enzymes which can produce taurine from other amino acids – therefore, they need a diet high in taurine.  Commercially prepared foods add taurine to make sure requirements are met, but a high quality meat based diet provides enough on it’s own.  If taurine is deficient, it can cause dilated cardiomyopathy, retinal degeneration, reproductive failure, and abnormal kitten development.

Arginine – An animo acid necessary for cats to produce a critical amino acid, Ornithine.  Ornithine is necessary because it binds ammonia produced from the breakdown of protein.  If cats are deficient in arginine, there will not be enough ornithene to bind the ammonia, resulting in ammonia toxicity.  Arginine is found in high quantities in protein rich foods.

Arachidonic Acid – One of the essential omega-6 fatty acids.  While dogs can manufacture AA from other fatty acids, cats cannot.  AA is important in producing an inflammatory response, a necessary means by which the body can protect itself.  AA also helps regulate skin growth, is necessary for proper blood clotting, and the functioning of the reproductive and gastrointestinal system.  AA is only found in animal fats and must be included as part of the diet.

Vitamin A – Cats must get pre-formed Vitamin A, because they lack the enzyme needed to convert beta-carotene to retinol, the active form of Vitamin A.  This pre-formed Vitamin A  is present only in foods of animal origin.  Deficiencies can include night blindness, retarded growth, and poor skin and coat quality.

Niacin – Many animals can synthesize Niacin, a B Vitamin, from the amino acid tryptophan.  Cats cannot manufacture it in sufficient quantities, and thus require higher amounts in their diet.  A deficiency in Niacin can lead to loss of appetite, weight loss, inflamed gums, and severe diarrhea.

What Cats DON’T Need

Cats don’t need carbohydrates in their diet – not only do they not need them, they have a decreased ability to utilize them. 

“There is no known minimum dietary carbohydrate requirement for either the dog or the cat.  Based on investigations in the dog, and with other species, it is likely that dogs and cats can be maintained without carbohydrates if the diet supplies enough fat or protein from which the metabolic requirement for glucose is derived.” 
Source: Waltham Book of Dog and Cat Nutrition

Unlike people and dogs, cats are true carnivores.  They do not have a specific requirement for carbohydrates in their diets.  They must, however, have large amounts of animal protein in the diet to get those essential nutrients they cannot produce n their own. 

Carbohydrates are included in pet foods as an inexpensive source of energy – digested carbs are used to provide food (blood glucose) for people and some pets; if the energy is not used immediately, it as stored as glycogen in the muscle or liver to be used later.  While dogs and people can use protein for energy, this is less efficient for them and they get the best source of energy from carbohydrates. 

Cats, on the other hand, have the ability to convert protein into energy through a process called gluconeogenesis. Gluconeogenesis is the production of glucose in the body from non-sugar sources, mainly protein.  Gluconeogenesis provides the main energy source for cats, as they lack the enzyme, glucokinase, that lets other animals use glucose more rapidly after eating.  Cats use a different enzyme, hexokinase, which is inefficient at processing carbohydrates. Thus, a cat’s best source of energy is actually protein, rather than carbohydrates like many other animals. 

Are Carbohydrates Actually Harmful for Cats?


All research seems to clearly point to the fact that cats thrive on a high meat content diet.  But is there harm in feeding a high carbohydrate diet? Going back, the natural diet of a cat – a bird or mouse – contains 65% to 75% moisture.  Dry kibble, with only about 5-10% moisture, draws even more water from a cat’s own reserves once ingested.  A Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association article questions the link between carbohydrate laden dry food, obesity,  and associated diseases.

Obesity – Which came first, the chicken or the egg? 

Obesity and many other feline diseases often go hand in hand, and many feel that carbohydrate laden dry food is where the most troublesome calories lie.  It is estimated that 35-50% of cats are overweight or substantially obese – if we are feeding our pets correctly, this should not occur.  According to the JAVMA article, The Carnivore Connection to Nutrition in Cats, “There are a large number of factors that contribute to this problem including sex, age, activity, and feeding style.  Although a combination of these factors is likely to be important in the development of obesity, the role of diet in this problem is being scrutinized.  Regardless of the cause, obese cats have many health issues, such as development of diabetes mellitus, joint lameness, FLUTD, Idiopathic Hepatic Lipidois, and nonallergic skin conditions.  One dietary factor that is receiving increased attention in obese cats is the role of carbohydrate dense diets.  Cats housed exclusively indoors and consuming energy dense, high-starch dry foods are provided with more energy than they can effectively use.  Any dietary carbohydrates that are not used for energy are converted to and stored as fat.”  

Idiopathic Hepatic Lipidosis – The most common metabolic hepatic disease of cats, it is especially common in cats that are obese or stressed.  Also called ‘fatty liver disease’, it is a syndrome characterized by excess fat accumulation in the liver.  Insufficient protein may play a role in the development of IHL.  The best diet for the treatment of cats with IHL is unknown, but evidence clearly suggests that dietary protein reduces hepatic lipid accumulation and maintains nitrogen and energy balance in cats with IHL.

Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease – Dry food is implicated as a risk factor for FLUTD.  Conversely, cats fed a moisture-rich diet have an increase in urine volume and a decrease in urine specific gravity.  This effectively dilutes the stone forming minerals in the urine and therefore lessens the prevalence of stone formation. 

Diabetes – Some research has been done to show how a high carbohydrate load in a carnivore’s diet wreaks havoc with blood sugar, leads to down-regulation of insulin producing cells, which can lead to diabetes.  Because cats have no glucokinase activity, they are limited in their ability to regulate excess glucose and store glycogen. 

Kidney Failure – A risk of a dry diet, long term dehydration could be a contributing factor for chronic renal failure in cats.

What to Feed?

Now that an owner understands the specialized needs of their furry felines, how does that translate into what to feed?

Keep in mind that not one food is best for every cat.  If only it were that easy!  There is no single food that will give every cat the shiniest coat, the most energy, and the healthiest digestion.  Cats are unique just like people, which means that you could feed a high quality food to a group of cats and find that some do great, others not so great, and others might not do well at all. 

There are many prepared cat foods to choose from, and by using the knowledge of what kind of diet cats were designed to digest and process, owners can choose the best food for their particular pet. 

Consider Your Cat’s Stage of Life

Make sure that the food you choose is appropriate for your cat’s age.  A kitten eating an adult cat food will not get the calories, protein, vitamins and minerals he needs for proper growth.  An adult cat eating kitten food likely does not need the increased calories a kitten food provides.  Some foods may be formulated for all life stages, so in that case you may want to monitor your cat’s portions to ensure appropriate caloric intake. 

Select a Food Type

People often wonder if they should feed dry or canned food.  Though dry food is definitely more convenient, recent findings show that cats eating dry food are chronically dehydrated when compared to cats eating canned food.  As strict carnivores, cats are developed to obtain most of their water requirements from consumption of their food.  Cats have a less sensitive response to thirst and dehydration than dogs or other omnivores, so they drink less water.  This means that cats eating commercial dry foods will consume about half the amount of water (through food and drinking water combined), compared with a cat who eats canned food. 

Feeding canned food increases water intake and urine output, thus lessening the risk of stone-forming minerals and the risk of FLUTD.  In older cats, water consumption is even more important to avoid dehydration. 

There are some low carbohydrate, species appropriate dry food diets now available for cats.  These are grain free and have the increased protein and decreased carbohydrate content cats are designed for.  For an owner looking to feed a high quality food but for who convenience is important, this is a viable option. 

However, this does not address the issue of decreased moisture content. Most veterinarians now recommend feeding at least some canned food daily to increase water consumption in a cat’s diet.

Many owners also advocate feeding a raw diet for cats, and feel this best mimics their natural diet, including percentages of fat, protein, carbohydrates, and moisture. Caution must be taken to make sure the raw diet is safe, complete, and balanced – see our page Feeding Strategies for further information on appropriate dry, canned, and raw grain free diets for pets.

Check Out the Ingredient Panel

No matter which type of food you choose, it is necessary to look at the ingredient list to make sure the food contains high-quality, digestible ingredients.  Many brands of cat food are made from inexpensive ingredients that are not easily digested, and therefore, do not provide the best nutrition.  While they might meet the minimum required percentages of fat, protein, and carbohydrate levels, these foods’ ingredients may be sub-par.  Because of this, important nutrients may pass through your cat’s system without being absorbed.  This results in the need to feed larger amounts of low quality food to provide your pet the same amount of nutrition as a higher quality premium food.  See our page Pet Centered Nutrition for more information on how to pick a high quality pet food.

Do What’s Best for Your Pet

Again, not one food is best for every cat!  Even if on paper a food meets your criteria for ingredients, percentages of fat, protein, carbohydrates, and moisture content, if your cat does not thrive on it, it’s just not the food for your pet. 

After you have done all you can to make sure your cat’s food is nutritionally sound, take a look at your cat.  Give the food a chance to shine, and after a month or two on the food, examine your cat.  Bright eyes, a shiny coat, good body weight, high energy levels, a sound digestive system, and little clean up in the litter box will let you know you have succeeded in providing the highest quality nutrition possible. 

​At PetPeople we are a group of dedicated and passionate pet people. We are so enthusiastic to engage our customers, exchange information, and work together to solve common pet problems. We hope you will continue to come to us with questions, problems or situations regarding your pets’ care. It is our goal to be a partner with you and your veterinarian in the health and well-being of your pet.


While we are happy to advise you and share our knowledge with you, we would never propose that our recommendations be used instead of consulting with your veterinarian about any concerns or issues. You know your pet better than anyone, and should always use your best judgement regarding obtaining the best care for your pet. ©2015 PetPeople Enterprises, LLC

There are many high quality cat foods available, and a well-educated owner knows what to look for when choosing a proper diet. Research has been done to develop foods with high quality, nutritious ingredients – but how do these ingredients translate to cat food specifically? 

A cat is not a small dog or a small human – they are a unique species with their own unique nutritional needs.  The best diet for a dog or a human is not necessarily the best diet for a cat. 

By understanding the digestive system of cats, how their metabolism works, and what they were meant to eat, owners can make the most species appropriate – and healthiest - choice possible for their feline friends.

Cat Nutrition

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