You might not know it, but your cat has something in common with animals like hawks, eagles, snakes… even dolphins. Like these and many other animals, a cat is an obligate carnivore. That means it must eat meat in order to survive.
An obligate carnivore is different from just the regular old carnivore. Of course, carnivores will eat meat, but they can also survive on other types of food. It’s important to understand why this obligate carnivore characteristic is so critical to cat health and why you need to be very selective when it comes to your pet’s nutrition.
Unlike your cat, you are a plain old carnivore. You don’t need to eat meat in order to live. Cats are completely different. From the smallest kitten to the largest tiger, all cats fall into this special category of an obligate carnivore.
Now, cats feline ancestors didn’t just eat rodents and insects back in the day because they thought they tasted great. It was out of necessity. A cat’s prey provides many nutrients in a sort of “pre-packaged” form. These nutrients are critical to cat health because a cat’s body can’t produce them. And if they don’t get these nutrients, they can’t survive.1
Here are just a few examples:
A cat’s body doesn’t have the enzymes needed in order to properly absorb this vital nutrient. So cats have to get vitamin A through their diet. This is one of the reasons it’s so important to be careful when buying cat food. The brand you choose should have the active form of vitamin A within its ingredients. Cats in the wild have to get their vitamin A from their prey.2
Arginine is an incredibly important amino acid. If a cat doesn’t get enough, the results can be fatal. Cats can’t produce their own arginine, so they have to get it through cat food or prey. As a side note, dogs don’t need arginine from their food the way cats do, because a dog’s body has enzymes that produce this amino acid.3
Taurine is important for cat health in a lot of different ways. It is not only important for the reproductive system, but also for the proper functioning of the eyes, heart, and other areas of the feline body. The reason a cat has to be a meat eater is that meat is the only natural source of this nutrient.4
But that doesn’t mean a cat is completely helpless when it comes to being able to produce its own vitamins. For example, cats and dogs can make their own vitamin C. Humans, on the other hand, have to get this critical vitamin through fruit, veggies, or supplements.5
A cat’s digestive tract has developed over time due to it being an obligate carnivore.
The feline digestive system is smaller than that of most mammals.
It can quickly digest raw meat, so it doesn’t need a longer digestive tract.
This is different than an omnivore, which eats meat and plants. A plant eater needs to have a longer digestive tract because it takes more time for the bacteria in the gut to break down plants.6
Another way obligate carnivores differ from omnivores has to do with the amount of protein each type of animal needs. Obligate carnivores, including the cat, gets their glucose (a substance that provides humans and animals with energy) through the protein they consume. Most other animals get their glucose by breaking down carbohydrates. Getting enough protein is critical to cat health. If a cat doesn’t get enough protein, its body could start breaking down its own muscles and organs for energy.7
Strange But True Feline Nutrition Habits
Now, cats are fascinating. In the wild, they typically keep to themselves – as long as they have an ample supply of food. If food becomes scarce, and they find a place where it’s plentiful – such as a farm or dumpster – they will adapt, even if there’s a large group of other cats around. And in order to get the nutrition they need, feral cats have to hunt several times a day. In fact, a cat may eat as many as 20 small meals each day.8
Now, an obligate carnivore needs to eat meat, but it’s not exactly practical to give your cat a steady supply of natural prey.
So, as a cat owner, you give your beloved feline kibble or wet food to make sure they get the nutrition they need. These foods combine animal products with other ingredients. Some products, however, contain mostly vegetable-based ingredients.
The problem with this approach is that the feline body has a hard time getting the proper nutrition from cat food that is mostly vegetarian. The food is either too high in carbohydrates (which a cat’s body can’t process), or it doesn’t contain the amino acids necessary to help ensure optimum cat health.9
One Last Thing
As you can see, an obligate carnivore is a different type of carnivore. Obligate carnivores must eat meat to survive. Because your cat is in this special category, it has specific nutritional needs. So, pay attention when you purchase cat food and make sure it has the healthiest ingredients possible.
Disclosure: The Dr Marty’s Pets team creates these articles as a way to provide you with the latest information on health and nutrition. Unfortunately, we cannot make specific product recommendations for our website visitors, such as “Dr Marty’s Nature’s Feast” or “Feline Prime” Please consult with your healthcare provider to determine the best products for you.