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Obligate Carnivores Explained: Are Cats Obligate Carnivores?
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If you're the proud pet parent to a cat, you know they love fish and other types of meat because they're obligate carnivores that rely on the nutrients found in animal products.1 But why are cats obligate carnivores? Your cat is a natural hunter, and wild cats eat high amounts of protein from prey.
Like their wild ancestors, cats are obligate carnivores because they need diets that consist of high amounts of protein and low fat and carbohydrates.1 Of course, cats also require micronutrients like vitamins and minerals. Understanding that cats are obligate carnivores can help you make better choices in terms of their diet to ensure you're providing them with a healthy balance of all the nutrients they need for overall health and wellness. But what is an obligate carnivore, and what does it mean for your cat? Keep reading to learn about your cat's nutritional needs.
- What Is An Obligate Carnivore?
- Why Are Cats Obligate Carnivores?
- Nutritional Needs Of Cats
- Frequently Asked Questions
- Final Notes
What Is An Obligate Carnivore?
So, what is an obligate carnivore, and how does it differ from carnivores? An obligate carnivore is an animal that requires a diet consisting primarily of meat because it can't digest vegetables.2 The word "obligate" means cats have a more restricted diet because they're obligated or bound by the necessity to consume meat for their health.
Ultimately, your cat's digestive tract is designed to process meat. Carnivores eat other animals but don't rely entirely on animal meat for nutrients like obligate carnivores.2 An animal's diet must consist of 70% or more meat to be considered an obligate carnivore.3 Additionally, obligate carnivores are meat-eaters that can't digest plant material and absorb nutrients effectively. Examples of obligate carnivores include wild cats like lions, tigers, cheetahs, jaguars, and the domestic housecat.
Why Are Cats Obligate Carnivores?
Your cat is an obligate carnivore because they have a diet that consists primarily of meat and minimal carbohydrates, just like their wild cat ancestors. In the wild, cats hunt prey, which consists mainly of protein or meat.4 Unfortunately, your housecat can't hunt its own food, so they have to eat a high-protein, low-carb diet similar to what a lion or tiger would eat.
Unfortunately, cats can't adapt to other diets because their bodies either don't absorb or synthesize some nutrients. For example, cats can't make the active form of vitamin A or adequate quantities of niacin, both of which are found in meat.5
Your cat needs meat for their overall health because they're adapted to it. Their bodies are perfectly designed to digest and absorb nutrients from meat, which is why you should feed them only food formulated for cats. Feeding them anything else could result in malnutrition and illness.
Nutritional Needs Of Cats
Your cat needs a healthy, balanced diet that consists primarily of meat and is formulated specifically for their life stage to provide them with the protein, fat, carbs, amino acids, and vitamins they need for optimum health and wellness.
- Protein: Every cat needs a high-protein diet because they don't produce all the amino acids they need on their own. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, helping the body repair and build tissue and organs.6 Protein sources full of amino acids include fish, beef, chicken, and eggs.
- Fats: Fat is necessary for cats to provide them with energy, but they don't need as much of it as other animals.6 Fat also improves nutrient absorption to help your cat create hormones while contributing to the formation of body tissues.6 In addition to fat, cats need fatty acids in their diet because they can't synthesize them on their own. Fish is an excellent source of fatty acids for cats, which play a vital role in healing inflammation and maintaining skin, coat, kidney, and reproductive health.6
- Carbohydrates: Cats require a diet low in carbohydrates because their bodies are designed to digest meat products, and prey in the wild contain very few carbs. That said, cats still need carbohydrates in their diet for energy production.6
- Vitamins and minerals: All cats require vitamins and minerals. As we've discussed, there are some nutrients cats can't synthesize on their own, so they'll need to get those vitamins from food.
- Water: All living creatures need water to keep them hydrated and prevent serious illness or death due to dehydration.6 Additionally, water can provide your cat with a balance of minerals and electrolytes necessary to help the body function.
If you're a first-time cat parent, you might wonder how to feed a cat based on this information. Ultimately, commercial pet diets have made it easy for you to choose the right food for your cat based on several factors, including their age – or life stage — and specific health concerns. But what should you feed your cat? Canned food doesn't contain as many carbohydrates as kibble, which tends to be higher in fat, carbs, and calories, so it may be a healthier option for your cat, especially if they're overweight.1
Additionally, some cats may require special diets to help target a specific health concern. For example, overweight cats might require a weight management program that consists of more filling ingredients, while diabetic cats can eat food that's high in protein and lower in carbohydrates.
In addition, you should be aware of your cat's nutritional needs before giving them any treats or human food. Some human food is toxic to cats, but once you confirm that food is safe, you should determine if it's worth sharing with your cat. Even if they're safe, human foods don't provide cats with any nutritional benefits as long as they eat a complete and balanced diet.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can my cat eat a vegan or vegetarian diet?
Cats require a specially formulated diet that consists primarily of meat because they can't synthesize various vitamins independently. Instead, they have to get them through food. Additionally, your cat's body is designed to digest and absorb nutrients from meat. Therefore, a vegan or vegetarian diet is not safe for cats.
For example, taurine, an essential amino acid, is only found in animal sources like meat or milk.7 Unlike dogs and humans, cats can't synthesize taurine, so a vegan diet will not provide them with enough of this essential nutrient. Additionally, your cat requires a diet high in protein. Plants don't contain enough digestible protein to support their overall health and nutrition. Cats also can't digest carbohydrates as well as protein, so a carb-rich diet isn't safe for them and is unlikely to provide them with any reason nutritional value.7
Over time, cats have adapted to eating meat. Their bodies are perfectly designed for it, so feeding them a non-meat diet can be harmful to their health and cause digestive issues, malnutrition, and associated health problems.
Apart from the vegan cat diet, there are several types of diets for cats, including the raw diet, homemade cat food, and commercial diet. Unfortunately, there's no guarantee that any food you purchase for your cat is healthy for them. For example, you can find vegan cat food on the shelves of pet stores today because of demand from pet parents who want to feed their cats a more "ethical" diet. However, we still don't have enough research on the vegan cat diet to determine if it's healthy or even safe for cats in the long run. Most experts advise pet parents against this diet because it simply isn't worth the risk to your cat's health.
What's most important is ensuring your cat's diet can give them the proper balance of protein, fat, carbs, vitamins, and minerals. If you want to find the best diet for your cat, we suggest talking to a vet who can provide you with recommendations for the best diet and brands.
Are cats 100% carnivorous?
Cats are obligate carnivores, which means their diet consists mainly of meat and animal products. While cats require at least 70% of their diet to come from meat, you can consider them true or obligate carnivores, but they're not exactly 100% carnivorous because your cat doesn't require 100% meat. Instead, they can digest and get nutrients from other sources like animal products such as eggs.
Additionally, carnivores in the wild eat raw meat and organs. While your cat's diet should consist mainly of meat, that doesn't mean their diet has to completely reflect the diet of their ancestors. Most experts, including the FDA, advise against feeding your cat a raw diet because of the risk of Salmonella, Listeria, and other pathogens.8
Are dogs and cats obligate carnivores?
Cats are obligate carnivores, but dogs are omnivores that have adapted to thrive on a healthy diet of meat and plants. It's worth noting, however, that wolves are considered true carnivores that eat very little plant matter.9
Therefore, even though Fido may drool over the smell of meat cooking, they require less meat and protein than cats. Additionally, the nutritional needs of dogs and cats are significantly different. For example, dogs can produce taurine while cats can't. In general, different species have different nutritional needs. Dogs can digest and benefit from plant matter, while cats can't. A dog's nutritional needs are much more similar to a human's than a cat's. Dogs can synthesize many vitamins on their own, while cats must get them through their diets.
It's important to note that you should never feed your cat dog food and vice versa. Commercial pet foods are species-specific to provide a cat with all the nutrients a cat needs and a dog with all the nutrients a dog needs. Giving your pet another diet could be dangerous, resulting in malnutrition and a host of associated health issues, such as liver and heart issues.10
Cats are obligate carnivores, which means they require a proper balance of protein, fats, and carbohydrates to support the proper functioning of their bodies. If your cat isn't consuming a high-protein diet, they can experience malnutrition that causes serious health problems that require treatment while ensuring they get the nutrients they need from food.Unfortunately, there are many cat food options and even more misinformation on the internet about the best diet for your cat. Consult a Dutch vet for diet and nutrition advice to ensure your cat eats a complete and balanced diet that supports their health and wellness.
"Feeding Your Cat." Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, 20 July 2018, https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/feeding-your-cat.
"Obligate Carnivore." Definition of Obligate Carnivore in Biology., https://bluebox.creighton.edu/demo/modules/en-boundless-old/www.boundless.com/biology/definition/obligate-carnivore/index.html.
"What Is a Carnivore?" The Australian Museum, https://australian.museum/learn/species-identification/ask-an-expert/what-is-a-carnivore/.
"Cats Are Carnivores, so They Should Eat like One." VMBS News, 11 Mar. 2022, https://vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk/cats-are-carnivores-so-they-should-eat-like-one/.
"Cats vs. Dogs: 5 Differences in Nutritional Needs." Pet Food Institute, 17 Aug. 2022, https://www.petfoodinstitute.org/blog/cats-vs-dogs-5-differences-nutritional-needs/.
"Cat Nutrition Tips." ASPCA, https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/cat-care/cat-nutrition-tips.
"Why Can't My Cat Be Vegan?" ASPCA, https://www.aspca.org/news/why-cant-my-cat-be-vegan.
"Raw or Undercooked Animal-Source Protein in Cat and Dog Diets." American Veterinary Medical Association, https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/avma-policies/raw-or-undercooked-animal-source-protein-cat-and-dog-diets.
Bosch, Guido, et al. "Dietary Nutrient Profiles of Wild Wolves: Insights for Optimal Dog Nutrition?" The British Journal of Nutrition, U.S. National Library of Medicine, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25415597/.
"Veggie Cat Food? Why Not All Cats Need Meat." Scientific American, 12 Mar. 2009, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/veggie-cat-food/.