Brown and white cat licking its mouth in front of a bowl of food

Key takeaway

Cat diets vary depending on the individual cats nutritional needs, age, health, and other factors. Talk to your vet to determine what’s best for your cat.

Your cat depends on you to provide it with a healthy diet. Left to their own devices, a cat will eat whatever looks tasty and is easy to get; while the popular image of that is of a cat chasing a bird or mouse, in reality a cat on its own will eat whatever they can find, even if it contains foods that are dangerous for them.

As a pet parent, this means you need to monitor your cat's diet and ensure they eat only safe foods that offer good nutrition. The occasional cat-safe treat is fine, but should be served in moderation with approval from your vet.

This doesn't mean you have to keep your cat on a drab diet. Cats like many foods that are actually good for them, and your cat specifically will have their own preferences. In this article, we’ll answer the question, “what do cats eat?”, discuss the key components of a cat’s diet, and more.

Key Components Of A Cat's Diet

Like all animals (including humans), cats get the nutrients they need to survive through the things they eat. And as you might expect, all animals have different dietary needs depending on how they process food and their nutrient requirements. Cats, for example, are obligate carnivores, which means they need animal protein in their diet. This means cats can’t follow a vegan diet.

Plant-based proteins are often much harder for a cat to digest and absorb, compared to meat-based protein. Chances are, a "vegan" cat is not getting everything it needs in terms of nutrition and may just not be showing any outward issues. You'd have to have your vet monitor the cat constantly if you tried removing meat from their diet.

So, all that being said, you can guess that meat is a key component of a cat's diet. Meat and fish both provide the protein and amino acids that a cat needs to be healthy.1 In addition to protein, cats benefit from many other vitamins and nutrients which we’ll discuss in more detail below.

Protein and Amino Acids

Like humans, cats don't produce all of the amino acids they need on their own, and they have to get about 10 amino acids from food. The amino acids are what a cat's body uses to form tissue and help the production of glucose, which is used for energy. Cats suffer from amino acid deficiencies rather quickly, so feeding the cat a high-quality protein source at each and every meal is critical for good health.

Amino acid deficiencies can result in the cat being unable to clear ammonia out through urine, or cause vision and hearing loss. Cats who get pregnant when deficient in certain amino acids like taurine can deliver kittens that have birth defects.

Good sources of protein for cats are meat (beef, chicken, etc.), eggs, and fish. It's essential that these foods always be cooked to safe temperatures and not given to the cat raw; while there are raw-food proponents who say giving their cats raw meat has helped the cats' coats, there is too much of a risk of both food poisoning and parasite infection to give cats meat, fish, and eggs that are undercooked or completely raw.1

Primary sources of protein

Primary Sources of Protein

What do cats like to eat? As mentioned, meat, fish, and eggs are the best sources of protein for cats. Ensure they have at least one of these at each meal; a well-balanced cat food will provide adequate protein and other nutrients for the cat.

Most domestic cats living with humans will actually get their protein in the form of dry and wet cat food; feeding actual chunks of chicken, fish, hard-boiled eggs, and so on to cats is possible, but speak to your vet first about safe quantities. These foods often don't contain all the nutrients cats need, such as a small amount of carbs or the right amount of fat.

Fats And Fatty Acids

Speaking of fat, it is a necessary nutrient for cats just as it is for humans. Fat is an important source of energy for cats. Remember that each fat gram contains more than twice the calories that you find in protein or carbohydrate grams (4 calories each for protein and carbs, and 9 calories for fat), so it's a great way to ensure your cat gets energy without having to eat too much food in terms of bulk. And, just as it is for humans, fat makes food more appealing to the cat and more filling.

Making food more appetizing isn't the only thing that fat does for both humans and cats. Without fat, your cat will have a harder time absorbing fat-soluble vitamins and will be less able to create the hormones that help its body function. Fat also contributes to the formation of body tissues such as membranes and helps nerves carry signals throughout the body, meaning that without enough fat, the cat's body and mind simply may not function well at all.1

The fats that house cats tend to get are in cat food from ingredients like animal fats and vegetable oil.2

Graphic listing the key components of a cat’s diet

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are a vital energy source, but cats really don't need too many carbs in their diet. In fact, a low- or no-carb diet is often the treatment for cats with diabetes. Some cats can have a lot more carbs than others.2

However, regardless of how many carbs your cat can have, you have to remember that cats can't live on very high amounts of carbs and little protein. You have to give them animal protein as the majority of their diet.

Vitamins And Minerals

Cats are very dependent on the food they eat for their vitamin and mineral intake. Cats need most of the same vitamins and minerals that humans do, but be aware that you absolutely cannot give the cat vitamin and mineral supplements made for humans. Cats should get nutrients only from their food, unless otherwise directed by their vet.

Water

It is essential that cats get enough water, and it really helps to have fresh water bowls available throughout your home. Cats tend not to experience a strong sense of thirst most of the time, but they are amenable to drinking fresh water when they find it. Having a special drinking fountain made for cats can be a great way to get your cat to drink; it's the same concept behind why cats often drink water out of a running faucet.

Wet Vs. Dry Cat Food

Cats benefit from having both dry and wet food, what’s best for your cat depends on their unique needs. While not all cat food is formulated the same, wet cat food has more moisture, which can help your cat stay hydrated, and it tends to have more animal proteins and fewer carbohydrates.

If you’re unsure what’s best for your cat’s diet and nutrition, make sure to consult your vet.

What Do Stray Cats Eat?

Strays and feral cats, assuming they don't have a neighborhood caretaker who leaves cat food out for them, will typically go for rodents and similar small animals. They'll also eat insects and the occasional small lizard, and they'll go after birds quite often. They'll also go after bats which, unfortunately, does put them at risk of getting rabies.3

Can Cats Eat People Food?

Cats can have cooked meats and eggs as long as they're not in a preparation that contains other foods that cats can't eat, like onions. Vegetables and cheese are OK in reasonable amounts, which of course varies from cat to cat; leafy greens can be great for some cats and not great for others, so a call to your vet is definitely in order before you indulge your cat's interest in that pile of spinach.

What Can't Cats Eat?

There are a number of foods your cat shouldn't eat, and some of them might surprise you, starting with tuna. Yes, canned tuna is a mostly forbidden food for cats because of both the mercury content and the lack of nutrients; while tuna has protein, that's about all it has for the cat. A small amount of tuna is ok as a treat, but should not be fed consistently.

Onions, garlic, and basically all alliums and similar foods including chives are toxic to your cat, potentially leading to anemia as the cat's blood cells deteriorate when exposed to compounds in those foods. This includes things like onion powder, so keep the cat away from all foods containing any onion, garlic, and so on – including pizza if the sauce contains any of those ingredients.

Grapes, raisins, and chocolate are also well-known as being toxic to cats. Grapes and raisins cause kidney damage and failure, and chocolate can lead to heart problems, seizures, and death.

Dairy products are generally bad because cats tend to be intolerant of dairy. Give most cats dairy, and you'll get their unfortunate bout with diarrhea in return. It's true that "most" doesn't mean "all," and some cats can have a little. But you need to discuss this with your vet first.

Alcohol can be deadly, with a tiny sip leading to enough liver and brain damage to put a cat in a coma. Always watch your glass and keep bottles closed securely if you drink while a cat is around.

Other toxic foods include raw eggs and meat, caffeine, bones and trimmings, liver, unbaked yeast dough, human medicines, and food meant for other animals.

Brown and black cat eating from food bowl

Final Notes

A cat's diet is rather straightforward when you take a good look at it. It is a protein-heavy, animal-based diet with a good amount of fat and a little bit of carbs, with wet and dry cat food that contain animal protein, fats, and vegetable oils as the best things to feed your cat.

That being said, ensuring your individual cat is doing well can be tricky due to variations in the cat's health status, as well as how much the cat tries to steal foods it shouldn't eat. If your cat is dealing with being overweight or underweight, has a disease, or has a food allergy – or if you simply want some advice on what to feed your cat as it ages or to verify what cats eat and drink – try contacting Dutch for a virtual appointment with a vet. With no time stuck in traffic and no need to force your cat into a carrier, an online consultation with Dutch is the easiest way to get basic care for your cat.

References

  1. “Cat Nutrition Tips.” ASPCA, https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/cat-care/cat-nutrition-tips.

  2. Lorie Huston, DVM. “Why Fat Is Good for Your Cat.” PetMD, PetMD, 16 Oct. 2020, https://www.petmd.com/cat/centers/nutrition/slideshows/why-cat-food-fat-is-good#slide-1.

  3. “What Do Feral Cats Eat in the Wild?” Pet Keen, 7 June 2022, https://petkeen.com/what-do-feral-cats-eat-in-the-wild/.