Are Cats Carnivores or Omnivores?
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Our cat's playtime often manifests behaviors related to hunting. They can chase a feathered lure or even strike at moving shadows, just as a cat in the wild would attack their prey. This behavior implies animal-based protein is part of their diet, but it doesn't tell us everything about their nutritional needs. When we are eating something which is not meat based, our cat may also express interest and try take a bite. Doing so suggests they may be able to eat food which is not from animal meat. This leads us to ask are cats carnivores or omnivores?
Although cats can eat non-meat foods, they are considered carnivores. AnimalWised explains why by looking at the nutritional needs of cats. In doing so, we show the importance of protein in a cat's diet and why being vegan or vegetarian is not a good option for their health.
Are cats carnivores or omnivores?
We group animals into different categories for varying reasons. While some may be based on the type of animal species to which they belong, others are grouped according factors such as habitat, locomotion or, especially, their diet. Although there are many variations, there are three main types of animal diet:
- Herbivores: these are animals with a diet which is based on plant material. There are various sub-categories of herbivore, such as types of granivorous animals which feed mainly on seeds and grain.
- Carnivores: their diet is based mainly on meat from other animals. There are also various subcategories of carnivore, often including other non-meat foods in their diet to a lesser extent. What makes them carnivores is a necessity of metabolizing nutrients which are found in animal meat.
- Omnivores: these are animals which are able to survive on both plant and animal matter.
One of the reasons we have subcategories of the above types of animal diet is that there is much variation within them. For example, some herbivores do not eat meat because it is not available. Food availability in an animal's habitat is an important factor in their diet. We may still consider them a herbivorous animal because they do not often eat meat, even if they can do so without causing harm to their organism.
Similarly, carnivores will eat a diet based mainly on other animals, but this does not mean they will never eat plant-based foods. Generally speaking, the difference between a carnivore and an omnivore is that a carnivore needs to eat a diet based mainly on animal protein or they won't thrive. Omnivores may eat meat, but do not necessarily need it to survive and can rely on plant-based foods when necessary.
It is for this reason cats are obligate carnivores. Although they can eat food which is not from animal sources, they will not be able to survive when doing so. The vital nutrients they need for survival can only be provided by other animals.
What type of carnivore is a cat?
Both cats and dogs are carnivores, but they are not the same type. Dogs will generally prefer meat over plant-based foods, but they do not need as high a percentage of protein as cats. For this reason, cats are considered obligate carnivores. This means they need to eat a certain amount of animal protein in their diet in order to meet their nutritional needs.
In contrast, dogs are considered facultative carnivores. Also known as an adaptive omnivore, this means their diet should contain meat, but they are also capable of digesting and assimilating nutrients present in plant-based foods, such as carbohydrates.
Read our related article to see more examples of carnivorous animals.
Why cats are obligate carnivores
As with human nutrition, certain trends appear in commercial cat food products and even homemade diets for cats. Some may even claim they can create a vegetarian or vegan diet for cats. While they may be well intentioned, here is why a cat should have a diet based on animal protein:
- Anatomy and physiology: both the teeth and the rest of the digestive system of cats have an anatomical design typical of carnivorous animals. Their small, but powerful jaws are poised to catch their prey and tear through meat with ease. Their gastrointestinal tract is much shorter than that of animals that are not obligate carnivores, giving cats faster digestion. They are only prepared to digest simple nutrients, such as proteins and fats. Their large intestine (where complex carbohydrates are digested) is also short, explaining why they have some difficulty digesting carbohydrates. In addition, the sensory system of cats is specially adapted to be stimulated by the components and sensory qualities of meat.
- Metabolism: unlike other animals, cats are not able to adjust their metabolism to a low-protein diet. If they do not eat it, they consume the protein stored in their body to meet their needs, mainly from muscle. Cats are also unable to synthesize some specific amino acids, such as arginine or taurine, requiring them to consume them through meat to avoid nutritional deficiencies. Cats have little activity of amylase and maltase enzymes (enzymes that break down carbohydrates), making it difficult to digest these nutrients.
- Evolution: despite living in the domestic environment, a cat's lifestyle is still based around hunting behavior. During the domestication process, cats hardly changed their nutritional or behavioral needs. As they are such effective predators, maintaining a protein-rich diet was relatively easy. The result is less evolutionary pressure to adapt their diet, unlike the changing dietary requirements of domestic dogs. It is for this reason cats are obligate carnivores and maintain a diet which requires animal protein.
Find out more about cat metabolism with our article on food rich in taurine for cats.
Nutritional needs of cats
As strict obligate carnivores, cats need animal protein to stay healthy. While some cats in the wild will feed almost exclusively on animals, we can see by the composition of commercial cat feed they do contain other ingredients. This does not mean a cat can be vegan, but we can take a closer look at the dietary requirements of cats.
The importance of palatability
Palatability is the characteristics that food must have in order to be attractive and pleasant to eat. Cats have a highly developed olfactory ability, meaning their scent receptors are very important in choosing food. It is an important ability as it prevents them from eating rotten or poisonous food in the wild. For this reason, cats will often not eat food if they find the aroma unpalatable.
The texture of the food also affects its palatability and the rate of ingestion. Generally, wet food diets for cats are more palatable and easier to ingest, with dry feed being eaten more slowly and causing less excitement. Temperature also plays an important role in food selection as most cats prefer to consume food that is at a temperature of around 35 ºC/95 ºF. This is because warm food better resembles a fresh kill of prey.
Nutritional needs of cats
To design a balanced diet suitable for the nutritional needs of cats, it is necessary to take into account the following factors:
- Protein: since cats are obligate carnivores, their diet should contain around 30% crude protein when eating commercial food. Of this protein, it is recommended that around 50-60% be of animal origin, as its biological value is greater than that of plant-based protein.
- Fat: are the main source of energy in cats. Their diet should include around 10% fat, with animal fats being especially important. They are a source of arachidonic acid, an essential fatty acid for cats which they cannot otherwise synthesize.
- Carbohydrates: as we have already seen, cats have some difficulty digesting carbohydrates. They are also capable of synthesizing glucose from protein. However, the diet of cats should not only include meat as a raw material, since this can cause imbalances in the calcium/phosphorus balance and cause metabolic diseases. Up to 30% carbohydrates should be included to provide a balanced cat diet. The type of carbohydrate is also important.
- Essential nutrients: there are certain nutrients that cannot be synthesized by the body of cats. These animals show a certain inefficiency for the synthesis of taurine and arachidonic acid. They lack the enzyme that transforms beta-carotene into vitamin A. Neither can they transform tryptophan into vitamin B3. This makes it necessary to provide these nutrients through food to avoid the appearance of nutritional deficiencies.
Other recommendations for a cat's diet
Regarding the management of food, we must point out some important aspects. In general, cats are animals that self-regulate their food intake well. They usually limit themselves to eating the amount of food they need to satisfy their energy requirements. Compared to dogs, they are less voracious animals and better chewers, meaning they can be given food more freely. However, in sedentary animals or those with a tendency to feline obesity, it is advisable to restrict access to food, dividing the daily ration into two or three meals.
Cats must also have an unlimited supply of clean fresh water. This is especially important if we give them only dry feed since wet food at least provides some hydration. We can encourage them to drink by giving them a running water fountain and we need to be especially careful on hot days to avoid dehydration in the cat.
Finally, it is very important we meet the specific needs of our individual cat. This means we need to adapt their diet according to various factors including overall state of health, age, immunity and activity levels, among others.
If you want to read similar articles to Are Cats Carnivores or Omnivores?, we recommend you visit our Healthy diets category.
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- AVEPA: Feline Medicine Specialty Group. Cats and food.