Cats Are Obligate Carnivores — What That Means & Why It Matters

Are cats carnivores? Cats are actually obligate carnivores. Find out what that means and why cats crave and need a diet rich in animal protein.

A cat looking through a fridge at fruits and veggies.
A cat looking through a fridge at fruits and veggies. Photography ©Nataliia Pyzhova | Getty Images.

Next time you catch your cat napping in a sliver of afternoon sunlight, think tiger. Think lion. You wouldn’t think a lion or tiger would eat a plant-based diet, right? Of course not! Big cats are obligate carnivores, which means eating meat is absolutely biologically essential to their survival.

Your little tiger isn’t much different. Domestic cats are true obligate carnivores who must eat meat in order for her body to receive certain vital compounds for her long-term health and well-being.

Cats need more protein than humans or dogs, according to Deborah E. Linder, DVM, MS, board-certified veterinary nutritionist, head of the Obesity Clinic for Animals at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. Kittens need more protein than most other animals, and adult cats need two to three times more protein than dogs, she adds.

Vegetarian or vegan diets fail to provide the amino acids necessary for proper feline health and are too high in carbohydrates that cats have not evolved to be able to process, according to Marla McGeorge, JD, DVM, a feline specialist consultant in Portland, Oregon.

(Is being vegan healthy for YOU? Come find out >>)

Obligate carnivores — what exactly does that mean?

A ginger tabby cat with a fish.
Cats are obligate carnivores but what does that really mean? Photography ©Voren1 | Getty Images.

Before we go any further, let’s clear about what exactly obligate carnivores are:

  • Obligate (adjective): ob•li•gate • biologically essential for survival • restricted to one particularly characteristic mode of life
  • Carnivore (noun): car•ni•vore • an animal that feeds primarily or exclusively on animal matter

Must-have nutrients for cats

One vital amino acid that cats can’t get from any source other than animal protein is taurine. Cats can’t make taurine from other amino acids as most mammals can, said Joe Bartges, DVM, PhD, DACVIM, DACVN, Professor of Internal Medicine and Nutrition at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine.

When cats are fed a diet too low in taurine, they can suffer retinal degeneration, dilated cardiomyopathy and reproductive issues, according to Dr. Linder. While all cat foods should include taurine, she says, the total amount in the diet is not the only important factor. Other ingredients in the diet can affect how taurine is broken down in the gut and how bioavailable it is to the cat, so it’s important to feed a diet that has been carefully formulated and tested, she adds.

Cats also lack the enzyme needed to make their own arginine, another amino acid found in animal protein, so it must be provided in higher amounts in their diet, according to Dr. Linder. Arginine is involved in removing ammonia from the body; if this function is impaired, cats can suffer weight loss, vomiting, neurological issues and even death.

A meat-rich diet also provides vitamin A, a nutrient that cats are unable to convert from beta-carotene, as well as other certain key nutrients, including arachidonic acid and vitamin B12, which can’t be sufficiently obtained from plant-based foods, says Dr. Bartges. Without a steady supply of these nutrients, cats can suffer from liver and heart problems, not to mention skin irritation and hearing loss, he says.
Feline diets also need added niacin and vitamin D3, according to Dr. Linder.

What protein is best for cats?

A calico cat licking her lips.
What protein is best for cats? Photography ©GlobalP | Getty Images.

As to which animal protein is best for these obligate carnivores — beef, chicken or fish — there is no one best type, according to Tony Buffington, DVM, PhD, DACVN, emeritus professor of veterinary clinical sciences at Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

In fact, it doesn’t really matter if a cat gets her protein from dry or wet food, as long as she eats the food and it satisfies her nutritional needs, says Dr. Buffington. The key is to review the label. Commercial cat food labels should say that the product is formulated to meet Association of American Feed Control Officials nutrient profiles and complies with its guidelines, meaning it’s nutritionally complete, balanced and appropriate for your cat’s age. Of course, if your cat has specific nutritional needs, always follow your veterinarian’s recommendations, he adds.

Thumbnail: Photography ©Nataliia Pyzhova | Getty Images.

About the author

Ellyce Rothrock spent half her life with Flea, a Maine Coon who lived to be 21 and is missed every single day. She’s currently seeking a feline friend to manage Fritz and Mina, her German Shepherd rescues. She’s lucky enough to live her passion for pets as a 25-year member of the pet media industry.

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10 thoughts on “Cats Are Obligate Carnivores — What That Means & Why It Matters”

  1. Pingback: Vegan Pets: Cruel or Kind? – 24LINE.NET

  2. Pingback: Healthy and Green Pet Care – Green at Home

  3. Hi
    My name is Sandi Walker and I do a newsletter for the Royal City Humane Society and I have tried to contact Catster to ask if I can run some of Catster’s articles in our newsletter would it be possible to do that can you help me?

  4. I on occasion give my cat small amount of melted butter which she loves. One or twice a week. Is this okay; she is three & really likes it.

  5. I’ve heard from vets–and in particular, Lisa Pierson who’s site has TONS of info about this, that the best type of food for cats is either poultry or rabbits. No dry food at all. Homemade or canned (she has a recipe and you must put in the extra minerals, etc.) She also has a super handy chart that tells you which foods are good. In general, look for foods that are high in protein, low in carbs, where muscle meat is the first ingredient and has no soy, chicken meal, gluten, corn or peas.

  6. As to which animal protein is best for these obligate carnivores — beef, chicken or fish — there is no one best type,

    But there is one worst type. Tuna contains almost no taurine. Perhaps OK as a very occasional treat, tuna should not be a regular component in a cat’s diet. One meal a year is OK. One meal a month is OK. One meal a week may be pushing your luck. One of two meals a day is definitely out.

    Don’t be confused by the fact that wet and dry cat foods may be labeled “tuna.” The named ingredient of those foods is typically only 4% of the content: 4% beef or 4% chicken or 4% tuna, etc. Enough to make them smell of the named ingredient (and, for all I know, taste of it). The other ingredients in tuna-flavour cat food provide sufficient taurine. Human tuna is not good for kitties.

    BTW, taurine is not an amino acid. It’s a sulphonic-amino acid, usually simplified to just sulphonic acid. Biochemists would not approve of you calling it an amino acid.

    1. Paul, thank you for the added info. I’m a new cat mom going on 2 years now. I’m always curious about what I can and can not give her. Tuna was my number one question and you just gave me the answer I needed. Do you have any other recommendations on other types of meat she’s allowed to eat occasionally?

    2. Leslie Galloway

      Thank you. Much needed info. Our kitties get a taste of fresh caught ahi tuna once a year on their birthdays. That’s if they want it. Most of ours turn up their noses at seafood and prefer fresh liver (occasionally).

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