Cats have special nutritional requirements because they have some fundamental differences in what and how they can metabolise and utilise different food sources compared to many other animals (such as dogs).
Cats’ special nutritional requirements
Cats have evolved as obligate carnivores, which means they are dependent on a meat diet and cannot be healthy or survive without it. However, they need more than just meat, and in the wild they would eat their whole prey (the prey animal’s entire body including the meat, organs and bones). A diet of meat only would be deficient in certain important components (for example, calcium).
Cats do not have some special enzymes and body processes which other animals have to digest and convert plant nutrients. This means that they cannot utilise plant based foods in the same way that dogs and many other animals can.
Cats also have a higher requirement for protein in their diet compared to dogs and many other animals.
Cats should not be fed dog food, as the dietary requirements are very different for the different species.
Since cats have very specific nutritional requirements, it is recommended that the basis of a cat’s diet should be a high quality balanced commercial species-appropriate food formulated using sound scientific evidence that is appropriate for their life stage (e.g. kitten, adolescent, adult, pregnant, senior) and health status. By reading the label, you should also check that the food complies with the Australian Standard for the Manufacturing and Marketing of Pet Food AS5812:2017.
In addition, each cat is an individual and, therefore, you should seek veterinary advice on your cat’s ideal diet; particularly if your cat has any medical problems, special dietary needs, or has a sensitivity to any foods.
Different types of food
Wet food contains more water than dry food, can be more palatable, can make animals feel more satiated (full), can be better in specific health circumstances (see below), and may also be preferred for animals that have trouble chewing or sore mouths.
The higher water content in wet food can help ensure adequate water intake, particularly for cats (their natural diet – meat – has a high water content and so they are adapted to meet much of their water requirement from their food). Some circumstances may make it important to maximise a cat’s water intake (for example, some medical conditions like renal insufficiency); in these cases it may be better to feed the pet wet food based on their veterinarian’s advice.
Dry food is often easier to use for enrichment, less likely to spoil, and may help clean teeth (specific kinds only). Some cats do prefer dry food.
Cats should always have a source of fresh clean water available and animals on a solely dry food diet will generally drink more water.
In most cases, it is good to feed your cat some wet and some dry food, depending on their health and individual requirements. Cats can develop very fixed food preferences, which means that they decide they will only eat one kind of food and refuse everything else! If you can, it is good to try and avoid this happening by feeding them some wet and some dry food so that you have more flexibility to change their diet if needed.
Cats should be fed little and often (the recommendation is at least 5 small meals a day), as this is closer to the way that they would naturally eat.
Ideally you should use your cat’s food as a source of enrichment by using food toys and puzzle feeders. Please see RSPCA’s guide to keeping your cat safe and happy at home for ideas.
To help you monitor your cat’s health, it is a good idea to weigh them regularly. Record the weight every week or two and if it is showing a trend of going up or down, talk to your veterinarian. This can help pick up and address health issues early.
Hand MS et al (2010). Small animal clinical nutrition 5th ed., Mark Morris Institute: Topeka, Kan. ISBN: 9780945837053.
Scherk M (2016) Controversies surrounding protein in feline nutrition. Advances in Small Animal Medicine and Surgery 29: 1–3.
Wortinger A, Burns KM (2015) Nutrition and disease management for veterinary technicians and nurses (Second ed.), Wiley-Blackwell: Ames Iowa ISBN: 9781118509272.