All mammals need a mix of vitamins, minerals and fatty acids that can’t be produced by the body and must be supplemented by the animal’s diet, but each species’ dietary needs are unique. And cats are no exception.
Unlike dogs and humans, cats are carnivores. They evolved eating different foods and thus, need different essential nutrients. For example, cats can’t synthesize adequate amounts of the amino acid taurine. If it’s not supplemented by their diets they can develop eye and heart problems.
“Cats are unique,” says Dr. Susan Wynn, a veterinarian at BluePearl Veterinary Partners board certified in veterinary nutrition. “They are more specialized carnivores. They need more specialized nutrition.”
So, what can cats eat? Find out, below.
What to Look for on Cat Food Labels
Because cats are carnivores, the first ingredient you want to see listed on commercial cat food is a meat source, says Dr. Judy Morgan, a holistic veterinarian and author. Ingredients like corn, peas and rice can provide protein, but cats need meat.
This could be chicken, seafood or pork, or an organ like heart or liver. Don’t rely solely on the guaranteed analysis, which lists the food’s protein and fat content, says Morgan.
“The guaranteed analysis might say the food contains 35 percent protein, but a lot of that protein could be coming from vegetable matter,” Morgan says.
Unless the animal has a food allergy, there is no best meat for cats, she adds. It’s all about your cat’s preference. Some like chicken, while others prefer pork or seafood.
Additional ingredients vital for cats include fat, B vitamins and vitamin A, to name a few. But it’s hard to say how these might appear on the label. Some companies get the vitamins and minerals from whole foods, for example, liver is a good source of vitamin A, and fat can come from the food’s meat source.
“Your best bet is to look for the AAFCO statement that the food is complete and balanced for the animal and its life stage,” Wynn says. “The AAFCO statement will also tell you if the food is not complete and balanced.”
What About Grains in Cat Food?
Ingredients like corn and other grains are often used in cat food to provide vitamins, minerals and fiber.
Grains also help dry food maintain its shape and crunch. This means dry food is usually high in carbs, so go easy, as too many carbohydrates can lead to obesity, pancreatitis and diabetes in cats, Morgan says.
Some cat foods also contain vegetables. Even though cats are carnivores and don’t need fruits and vegetables, they may still benefit from having these ingredients in their diets, Wynn says. Again, it’s all about evolution.
“Think about what might be contained in the stomach of a bird or mouse in the wild,” she says. “There might be tiny amounts of vegetables or seeds.”
How Often Do Cats Need to Eat?
Whether you’re serving wet or dry, canned or homemade food, most cats are fine with two feedings per day, the doctors say. Both Wynn and Morgan discourage “free feeding,” or leaving a bowl of food out for your cat to eat at her leisure. This can lead to overeating and obesity.
Some people will object and say cats are grazers, Morgan says, but grazing in the wild is much different than grazing at home.
Most natural foods are significantly lower in calories and fat than what we buy our pets at the store, Wynn says. For instance, a mouse only provides about 30 calories, she adds, so the average cat in the wild would need to eat six to eight mice per day. This doesn’t translate to six to eight servings of cat food.
Helen Anne Travis is a freelance writer based in Tampa, FL. She also writes for CNN, The Guardian and The Globe and Mail.
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