Basic Needs

Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they must eat meat to survive.

Cats are incapable of digesting and receiving sufficient nutrition from the majority of vegetable proteins. Unless on a specific veterinarian-controlled diet, cats cannot eat a vegetarian diet and survive. Dog food is also not balanced for cats and can lead to health problems. Cats need more fat and protein and certain specific amino acids found in meat, such as taurine and arginine.

  • Protein: The primary source of food energy is protein. Typically, the cat's diet should be derived from at least 25 to 30 protein, almost all of which must be animal protein. The major sources of animal protein in commercial foods are meat, fish, eggs and dairy products.

  • Fats: The secondary source of food energy is fats. The cat requires a diet containing a lot of fat, 15 to 40 percent -- far more than either the human or the dog. Unlike proteins, fat does not provide a burden to the kidneys. Because of this, as a cat reaches old age, the fat content of its diet should be increased somewhat while the protein content is decreased proportionately. In this manner, the proper overall energy content may be maintained while easing the burden on the older kidneys. Remember though, an all fat diet is as bad as a no-fat diet!

  • Carbohydrates: Only about 5 percent of the total food energy should be carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates, the sugars, are more easily assimilated into the cat's system, while the complex carbohydrates, the starches, pass through virtually untouched. Cooking complex carbohydrates such as potatoes, corn, pastas, etc., starts the conversion from starch to sugar and aids in the digestion process.

  • Water: Fresh water should be available to your cat at all times. Cats with certain health problems, especially kidney failure and bladder infections need to drink more water than the average cat. If you have trouble getting your cat to drink water, try adding a little water to their food. Vary the types of bowls used. You cat may have a preference for a shorter bowl rather than a taller one.

    Note: drinking excessive amounts of water can be indicative of health problems. Consult your veterinarian.

Choosing a cat food

There is no one food that is best for every cat. Cats are individuals just like people, which means that you could feed a brand of very well-formulated food to a group of cats and find that most of them do great, some not as well, and in some, it may actually cause some gastrointestinal upset. Luckily, there are many well-formulated cat foods to choose from today and it is fine to try several to determine which one works best for your cat.

High quality ingredients are essential for a healthy food. Some economy brands are made from inexpensive ingredients, are not easily digested and therefore do not provide the best nutrition. They have lower energy values and lower-grade proteins and thus pass through your cat's system without being absorbed. This means you must feed larger amounts, which may end up costing you more in the long run.

Review the list of ingredients:

  • Look for meat, fish, egg, or some type of meat meal or fish meal as the first and second ingredient. This will indicate that the product probably contains enough animal-source ingredients to supply taurine and essential fatty acids.

  • Be sure Niacin and Vitamin A have been added. Find a product that offers a nutritional claim that states the food meets the requirements of the AAFCO, preferably by animal feeding trials. Without this statement you cannot be sure that you are feeding a complete and balanced diet.

  • Feeding directions provided on the label are a simple guideline. Actual quantities will vary from individual cat to cat. For example, if your cat is overweight, you need to feed less.

  • Use your eyes and your head in determining how much YOUR cat should eat. A shiny coat and eyes will indicate that the food you are feeding is appropriate for your cat.


Feeding your cat a variety of food prevents your cat from developing a preference for food that may not be 100 percent nutritionally balanced. If however, your cat is content with a single nutritionally complete and balanced cat food, there really is no reason to feed more than one variety.

The exception to this rule is feeding tuna. Tuna is "addictive" to some cats and is not a balanced food. Overfeeding of tuna may also cause a serious disease called "yellow fat disease" where the fats in the body become hardened and turn yellow. Limit the feeding of tuna to a treat food.

Common Feeding Problems

  • Overfeeding can lead to the number one nutritional disease - Obesity. Obesity is a very serious disease in cats, with negative implications for the heart, liver, thyroid and kidneys and may create a tendency to diabetes.

  • Feeding dog food to cats is a common error, especially if dogs and cats are in the same household.

  • Overdosing with vitamin and mineral supplements has been known to cause severe medical problems in cats.

  • Feeding exclusively meat or fish results in an unbalanced diet and causes related nutritional diseases

  • When switching foods, do so gradually to avoid digestive upsets

Commercial cat foods are formulated as dry, semi-moist, and canned. The products differ in water content, protein level, caloric density, palatability and digestibility. The differences are primarily attributed to the processing methods used by pet-food manufactures. A quality cat food provides the necessary nutrients in a properly balanced proportion no matter what the formulation.

Adapted from the CFA Mentor Program


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