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What Do Cats Eat? - Guide to Cat Nutrition

 
By Laura GarcĂ­a Ortiz, Veterinarian specialized in feline medicine. Updated: February 28, 2024
What Do Cats Eat? - Guide to Cat Nutrition

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In order for your cat to live a happy and healthy life, it is important that it receives a balanced diet. Cats are carnivores, so meat is an essential part of their diet. Unlike dogs, cats can never be vegetarians or vegans because cats use protein as their main source of energy and therefore require larger amounts of protein. A high quality complete food must be rich in proteins and other nutrients and specially formulated to provide them with everything they need depending on their age and physical condition.

The following AnimalWised article explains what do cats eat and their specific nutritional needs in every stage of their life.

Nutritional requirements of cats

The nutritional needs of our cat depend on its physical activity, reproductive status, environmental conditions in which it resides, age, health, and metabolism. Therefore, feeding a pregnant cat is different from feeding a baby cat, an elderly cat with kidney disease, a neutered cat that stays at home all day, or a cat that spends all day outdoors.

Cats are pure carnivores and have a high requirement for protein (at least 25% of the total diet) as well as taurine, arginine, arachidonic acid and vitamin A, which they obtain by ingesting animal tissue. Therefore, the nutritional needs of cats are divided into the following areas:

  • Proteins: Proteins, which consist of amino acids, are the main source of energy for cats. Since cats cannot produce these compounds themselves, their diet must contain these essential amino acids. These proteins, included in a complete cat food containing meat or fish, must contain the essential amino acids your cat needs to build and maintain healthy muscles, skin and coat, and to strengthen its immune system. If your cat does not consume the necessary proteins, they may have growth problems, lose muscle mass, affect the quality of their coat and increase the risk of infections due to a weak immune system. The ideal amount of protein in a cat's diet should be about 40%. In addition to the quantity, it is also important to consider the quality of the proteins. Ideally, they should be 90% of animal origin, avoiding bones, tendons, and cartilage.

  • Essential amino acids: The two essential amino acids in cat food that are indispensable are arginine and taurine. Arginine is necessary for the synthesis of urea and the excretion of ammonia, since its deficiency leads to ammonia poisoning (hyperammonemia), from which our cats can die within a few hours. Taurine, whose deficiency leads to damage in the cat's body only after months, can be responsible for heart disorders (dilated cardiomyopathy with heart failure), reproductive disorders or retinal degeneration that can lead to irreversible blindness. Both amino acids are present in meat.

  • Fat: At least 9% of an adult cat's calories should come from fat, which is found in meat. Therefore, the amount of fat in the diet should ideally be 15-20%, especially in homemade food.

  • Fatty acids: Fats, made up of small units called fatty acids, are the fuel that keeps your cat active while insulating and protecting its internal organs. Essential fatty acids, such as omega-3 or omega-6, are vital to the health of your cat's skin and coat and are an important part of her diet. Without them, your cat could develop skin and coat problems. Omega-3 fatty acids can be obtained through fish and shellfish. However, unlike other animals, they are unable to synthesize the essential fatty acids they need via linoleic acid (omega-6 fatty acids). Therefore, they require an additional supply of arachidonic acid, which is formed from and found in animal tissue. A deficiency of arachidonic acid in cats leads to blood clotting disorders, alopecia, skin diseases and reproductive disorders.

  • Carbohydrates: although carbohydrates (starches and fiber) are not essential in your cat's diet, they do provide a source of energy. Prebiotic foods (containing soluble fiber) also help maintain intestinal health by promoting the development of health-promoting bacteria, while insoluble fiber supports intestinal transit and good stool quality.

  • Vitamins: Vitamins are necessary in small amounts to support your cat's growth, normal vision, healthy skin and coat. They are involved in the metabolism of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. Vitamins C and E also act as antioxidants. Fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) are stored in your cat's fatty tissue, while water-soluble vitamins (B-complex and C) are not stored in the body but are excreted in the urine.

  • Minerals: Minerals such as calcium and phosphorus are essential for strong, healthy teeth and bones. Therefore, they should be included in your cat's diet in sufficient and balanced amounts, especially if it is a pregnant cat or a growing kitten. Sodium, chloride, magnesium, and potassium as well as zinc, copper, and iron are other important minerals in a cat's diet. High quality complete foods provide your cat with a balanced amount of minerals. Balance is very critical: too much of one mineral can lead to a deficiency of another.

The diet of an adult cat must be very balanced to ensure proper nutrition. If you want to learn more about this topic, do not miss this article where we discuss whether wet food is better than dry food, as well as other interesting facts about cat nutrition.

What Do Cats Eat? - Guide to Cat Nutrition - Nutritional requirements of cats

What do kittens eat?

Newborn kittens receive their mother's antibodies from colostrum for the first 16 hours of life and then nutrients through their mother's milk. If the cat rejects the litter, one of her cats is weak or sick, or does not produce milk, they must be fed the milk intended for newborn kittens.

Baby cats drink 10-20 ml of milk per feeding during their first week of life, and to gain 1 gram of weight, they must consume 2.7 grams of milk. It is important to use cat milk before regular cow's milk, as the latter contains lower levels of protein, fat, calcium, and phosphorus. Cow's milk contains 27% protein, so the 40% of formulated milk is preferable.

As kittens grow, their energy requirements increase from 130 kcal/kg per day at 3 weeks of age to 200-220 kcal/kg per day. At 5 months of age, their energy requirements reach a maximum of 250 kcal/kg per day and then decrease to 100 kcal/kg per day at 10 months of age.

Natural weaning of kittens usually begins at about four weeks of age. At this time, we can encourage the introduction of solid food by mixing kitten food with water or milk and gradually reducing the liquid until only dry food remains. This decreases their ability to digest lactose. After six weeks, when they are eating 20 grams of dry food per day, complete weaning is achieved. At this point, they require more kcal than an adult cat because they need three times more energy to grow healthy. If a homemade diet is offered, the food should also be introduced gradually until the mother stops nursing.

It is important to respect the natural rhythm of separation as the cat receives its first lessons with its mother and siblings and the period of socialization begins.

If you want to learn more about proper kitten care, do not miss this other article where we present our kitten care guide.

What Do Cats Eat? - Guide to Cat Nutrition - What do kittens eat?

What do pregnant and nursing cats eat?

During pregnancy, a cat's energy needs increase each week, so that by the end of pregnancy, the cat needs about 100 kcal more energy per day. In addition, it is important for the pregnant cat to consume more fat in order to accumulate reserves that it will need during the last weeks of gestation, when weight gain is transferred to the kittens, and during lactation.

A pregnant cat gains an average of 40% more weight than her normal weight, but loses 20% after birth. During lactation, the remaining weight disappears or even makes the cat thinner, because during lactation the cat takes in 80-85% of its food needs, while the rest comes from its reserves.

Energy requirements increase or decrease according to litter size. During pregnancy and lactation, due to the high energy requirements of kittens, it might be a good idea to feed your cat food made for kittens. Once lactation is complete and the cat has reached its weight and energy level, it will be switched back to the appropriate diet for adult cats. We will see below what adult cats eat and what kind of food they eat.

What do adult cats eat?

The energy requirements of adult cats vary widely. Domestic cats with little activity need 60 kcal ME/kg/day; if neutered, especially quiet, or older, the value may drop to 45 Kcal/kg/day, while active cats need 70 to 90 Kcal/kg/day. Age must also be taken into account, as younger cats tend to consume more energy and their needs are higher than in older cats.

Sterilized cats have more appetite, but in return their energy needs are lower. As a result, most neutered cats are overweight by an average of 30% one year after surgery, if the diet is not adjusted, because the excess energy accumulates in their body in the form of fat. It is also advisable to use a special food for sterilized cats or to prepare a homemade diet according to the instructions of a veterinarian specialized in nutrition.

When cats reach an advanced age, they often suffer from diseases such as kidney failure, diabetes, or hypothyroidism and require an appropriate diet. Due to the increase in free radicals responsible for aging, a diet higher in vitamins C and E can also be given, which, as we mentioned earlier, are antioxidants. The energy content of the diet should not be increased because of the lower activity. Also, the protein content should be increased, and the phosphorus content should be decreased. To prevent kidney disease, ingredients that acidify the urine should be avoided.

What to feed a cat?

There are three ways to feed a cat:

  • Wet food
  • Dry food
  • Home cooked food

If you do not have the appropriate knowledge or have doubts about the balance of nutrients, it is best to feed your cat wet and dry food, alternating both options and making sure they are of good quality. As we have already said, meat must be the main ingredient. Therefore, it is important that you read the labels and evaluate the product before buying it.

Cats are animals that prefer to eat several small meals throughout the day, rather than two large ones. For this reason, it is better for this type of animal to always have their daily ration of food available and to divide their ration of wet food among numerous feedings. They prefer fresh and moving water. That is why many cats prefer to drink water from the tap or from a fountain rather than from their own drinking water bowl.

Home-cooked food has many advantages over industrially produced food, such as the possibility of choosing the products and guaranteeing that they receive the required amount of each nutrient, especially meat. However, it is essential to remember that they must also receive other nutrients already mentioned. Additionally, it is advisable to avoid raw food, unless it has been previously frozen and thawed, because it may contain parasites or microorganisms that can make your cat sick. It is advisable to divide the food into about four daily meals.

Once again, we emphasize the importance of being informed and consulting a veterinarian specialized in nutrition in order to establish a homemade diet adapted to the specific needs of your cat.

If you want to learn more about how to feed your cat properly to ensure its health and well-being, do not miss this other article, where we explain what is the best diet for cats.

What Do Cats Eat? - Guide to Cat Nutrition -  What do adult cats eat?

What do stray and feral cats eat?

Feral cats feed primarily on small rodents such as mice, rats, hares and rabbits, as well as small birds such as sparrows. They may also feed on larger prey such as moles, squirrels, and bats.

Instead of hunting prey, which is difficult to find, stray cats in urban areas rummage through container food or dispose of food that others give them, either individually or in cat colonies. The latter term refers to structuring cats into groups in a very specific location where they have retreats and people to feed them. In addition, animal welfare organizations help these colonies by providing them with food, shelter, medical care and sterilization. In this way, they prevent uncontrolled reproduction that could negatively affect the public and the environment, as well as kill other animals, including certain wild bird populations. The great advantage of cat colonies is that they prevent the spread of rat infestations and other animals that can transmit diseases to humans.

Although many people believe that feral cats lead more fulfilling lives than domestic cats, feral cats live in more precarious conditions and are more likely to suffer from disease, adverse weather conditions, and starvation. Because of this, these cats have a lower life expectancy and quality of life and typically do not live past 9 years of age, while our domestic cats can live 18-20 years with proper nutrition, room temperature and veterinary care. That is why it is so important to know what cats eat and all the information about cat nutrition.

If you want to read similar articles to What Do Cats Eat? - Guide to Cat Nutrition, we recommend you visit our Healthy diets category.

Bibliography
  • R. Elices. (2010). Atlas of Nutrition and Practical Feeding in Dogs and Cats . Servetus.
  • Ateuves. (2017). Nutrition in the different stages of a cat's life. Available at: https://ateuves.es/caracteristicas-nutricionales-las-distintas-etapas-la-vida/
  • ML Palmero. Nutrition in cats: from gestation to weaning. Available at: https://www.gattos.net/images/Publicaciones/Marisa/ArticulosNuevos/23ANutricionenGatasDesdelaGestacionalDestete.pdf
  • Aveaca. Nutritional requirements in dogs and cats . Available at: https://aveaca.org.ar/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Nutrición-Seccion-02.pdf

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