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What Do Cats Need In Their Diet? 12 Essential Nutrients Your Feline Cat Needs

Written by: Arden Moore

Last Updated on January 8, 2024 by Catster Editorial Team

A fluffy white cat eating wet food off of a dish or bowl.

What Do Cats Need In Their Diet? 12 Essential Nutrients Your Feline Cat Needs

Stumped on what to feed cats? The key to your cat’s health can be found inside her food bowl. And, the good news is that you do not need to become a nutritionist to ensure your cat attains the status of PhC — that’s Pretty Healthy Cat. Let’s review some simple advice on what to feed cats:

What to feed cats — the basics

An orange tabby cat in a bowtie thinking about fish and food.
Wondering what to feed cats? Let us break it down for you! Photography ©nemchinowa | Getty Images.

With the help of Elisa Katz, DVM, a veterinarian who serves on the Feline Nutrition Foundation, Catster is happy to school you on some essential nutrients your cat needs and deserves to stay healthy, live long and swat away various diet-influenced diseases like diabetes, heart disease, irritable bowel disease, arthritis and more.

“The best diet for cats starts with a real meat — not a meat meal — and is the least processed,” says Dr. Katz, who takes an integrative-holistic approach to caring for cats, dogs and other companion animals at her Holistic Veterinary Center, located in Bourbonnais and Downers Grove, Illinois.

Second insight: The feline biological system lacks a high-thirst drive. There are many health benefits to serving quality canned or commercial raw food diets to your feline.

“Cats were domesticated because they hunted mice away from grain stored on farms, and mice are 70 percent water,” Dr. Katz says. “Cats who don’t have a thirst drive cannot get enough water from eating dry food alone. Their urine becomes concentrated, and their kidneys have to work hard to keep from becoming dehydrated. That’s why cats on dry foods are more likely to develop urinary crystals and stones, and it may be a contributing factor to kidney disease.”

In her home, all five of her cats ages 9 to 1 are fed 30 percent raw food and 70 percent canned food. Any treats they receive are freeze dried and consist of a single protein, like chicken.

The result? “All are at perfect weights and have healthy coats,” Dr. Katz says. “Providing your cat with the right nutrition reduces their dander, inflammation and digestive issues. Remember, cats are such small creatures, and exposure to chemicals can have a huge impact on them.” Her quest to help educate people on the benefits of serving caloric-dense, clean nutrients to cats led her to join the Feline Nutrition Foundation, created in 2011 as a nonprofit group focused on advocacy, research, nutritional analysis and education.

What to feed cats — proteins’ amino acids

Red meat, chicken and salmon.
Beef, chicken and fish are good sources of amino acids. Photography ©robynmac | Getty Images.

Ready, class? The two nutrient headliners are proteins and fats followed by a supporting cast of key minerals and vitamins. Much has been declared by feline experts about our cats’ true identities as obligate carnivores — aka meat eaters. But let’s delve deeper into the building blocks of protein: amino acids. The amino acids are responsible for making antibodies and hormones, providing energy and aiding in growth and development.

It turns out that cats can only produce 12 of the 23 amino acids they need. The rest must come from being fed a quality animal-based protein diet. Two must-have amino acids that cats cannot produce are taurine and arginine. Taurine is essential for heart and muscle health, while arginine draws applause for helping the liver to remove ammonia. An arginine deficiency can result in neurologic symptoms.

The only available sources of taurine and arginine are found in quality animal-based protein diets and not plant-protein based diets. Good sources of these amino acids are beef, chicken and fish.

What to feed cats — fat and oils

There are a lot of hard-to-pronounce-and-spell fatty acids cats need, including alpha-linolenic acid, eicosapentaenoic acid, arachidonic acid and gamma-linolenic acid. But fortunately, these and others fall into the better-known groups of omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. Cats need essential fatty acids added to their diets because their bodies cannot make them.

Essential fatty acids keep your cat’s skin and coat healthy, maintain cell membranes, boost the immunity system, reduce inflammation and aid the circulatory system. Unlike dogs, cats need an omega-6 fatty acid known as arachidonic acid, found in animal and fish such as lamb, chicken and salmon. The top three omega-3 fatty acids that should be included in your cat’s diet are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), found in flaxseed and canola oil; docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), found in salmon and algae extract; and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), found in salmon and salmon oil.

What to feed cats — 12 essential nutrients

OK, you’re doing great. Now, let’s finish strong by identifying a second tier of essential nutrients your cat needs. In the family of minerals, 12 are identified as essential nutrients for cats. According to the 2006 study called Your Cat’s Nutritional Needs: A Science-Based Guide for Pet Owners published by the National Research Council of the National Academies, here are the dandy dozen and what they do for cats:

  1. Calcium for strong bones and teeth
  2. Phosphorus for energy metabolism and skeletal structure
  3. Magnesium for hormones and enzyme function
  4. Sodium for nerve impulse generation and transmission
  5. Potassium for enzymatic reactions
  6. Chlorine for acid-base balance
  7. Iron for hemoglobin synthesis
  8. Copper for healthy connective tissue
  9. Zinc for cell replication
  10. Manganese for bone development
  11. Selenium for the immune system
  12. Iodine for thyroid hormone synthesis

What to feed cats — the vitamins your cat needs

Too much or too little amounts of key vitamins can unleash a variety of health problems. Work with your veterinarian in choosing a quality diet that provides the right amounts of these vitamins for your cat:

  1. Vitamin A for vision and immune function
  2. Vitamin D for the skeletal structure
  3. Vitamin E for fighting off oxidative damage
  4. Vitamin K for clotting and bone proteins
  5. Vitamin B1 (thiamin) for energy and carbohydrate metabolism
  6. Riboflavin for enzyme functions
  7. Vitamin B6 for red blood cell function and hormone regulation
  8. Niacin for enzyme functions
  9. Pantothenic acid for energy metabolism
  10. Vitamin B12 for enzyme functions
  11. Folic acid for amino acid metabolism

Parting advice on what to feed cats from Dr. Katz:

“Do read food labels, and avoid lesser brands that use chemical preservatives because while you may save money at the supermarket, it is likely to cost you more at the veterinary clinic in terms of health problems your cat may develop when fed a nutrient-poor diet.”

To learn more about how to feed cats and your cat’s nutrient needs, visit the Feline Nutrition Foundation at

Read more about cat food on

Thumbnail: Photography ©RooIvan | Thinkstock.

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