Cats are natural predators. But does that mean they thrive best when they only eat meat? Or are their diets better with a small amount of plant-based foods added in?
Should cats only eat meat? Cats can thrive on a meat-only diet, but it’s not necessary for optimal health to feed one. Wild cats eat nothing but meat, so your cat can eat a similar diet. Drawbacks to a meat-only diet include a lack of variety (e.g. if you don’t feed them offal, which provides essential vitamins and minerals to wild cats), bacteria found on/in store bought meat, and the additives like water or breadcrumbs found in many meats. An all-meat diet is almost certainly better for cats than a complete commercial plant-based one, at least based on current brands available, and is certainly easier to provide on your own. However, a commercial diet made mostly of meat with grains, vegetables and other plant-based foods added in is perfectly suitable for your pet.
The guide below first addresses whether an all-meat diet is healthy for cats, with reference to what cats eat in the wild, what they can and can’t digest, and whether a full or partial plant-based diet is viable. For balance, we’ll also look at why an all-meat diet can cause health problems for cats, and whether raw meat diets are good or bad for your cat.
Should Cats Only Eat Meat?
Cats can survive and thrive on meat-only diets. A meat-only diet is what your cat would eat in the wild, and if done correctly, can provide your cat with every nutrient it needs.
That being said, there is nothing wrong with feeding a cat food that has non-meat additives in it—things like grains and vegetables. These are used to provide balance and completeness to commercially available cat foods. These foods can be just as good for your cat as those that contain nothing but meat, although be aware that they are often used because they’re cheaper ingredients.
What Do Cats Eat In The Wild?
Wild cats eat nothing but meat. They are known as ‘obligate carnivores’, which is a term lots of people know, but not everybody understand correctly! An obligate carnivore is an animal that can only survive in the wild if it eats meat. There are multiple things that make this so:
- The animal is adapted to digesting meat, e.g. with a predator’s teeth and a short gut that’s good at digesting meat but not plants
- Certain nutrients that they need are only found in meat
- There are no plant sources in its habitat that could sustain it, so it hunts other animals instead
As a result of this, wild cats specialize in hunting small prey. The animals that cats are descended from hunt for rodents and birds, and if your cat went missing or was feral, that’s what it would eat too.
Can Cats Eat Fruits & Vegetables?
Cats can and will eat fruits and vegetables. Some cats adore them as snacks. But as always, just because your cat likes something, that isn’t a sign that that something is good for it.
There are lots of ways in which fruits and vegetables are thoroughly unsuitable for cats. One is their protein content. Cats require lots of protein in their diets (around 30g per 100g) so that they can maintain muscle mass. While cats are thin and lithe, they have a relatively high amount of muscle mass so need lots of protein to keep fit. Fruits and vegetables have nowhere near enough; while some have more than others, none have anywhere close to 30g of protein per 100g of food.
What’s more, meat offers ‘complete proteins’. A complete protein is a protein that offers every amino acid a cat needs to get from its diet. If you didn’t know, amino acids are the building blocks of proteins: amino acids are linked together in a long chain that forms what looks like a ball. Cats need a total of 11 amino acids from their diet, and meats offer all of these. While it is possible to get every amino acid from a plant-based diet, they aren’t available in just one fruit or vegetable, so a varied diet is required. Even then, certain amino acids are only found in large amounts in meat.
Another way fruits and vegetables are unsuitable is their fat content. Cats digest fat better than they digest complex carbohydrates, so use fat for energy as well as for creating a fat layer. Cats enjoy around 9g of fat per 100g of food. Most plant-based foods have far less than that, although in fairness, some have even more (like avocados).
All of this is to say that while cats can eat fruits and vegetables, they should only ever be offered as snacks or as part of a complete cat food. They shouldn’t form the core of your cat’s diet alone. That being said, fruits and vegetables are included in some complete cat foods, which is acceptable.
Can Cats Digest Things That Aren’t Meat?
It’s a myth that cat’s can’t digest things that aren’t meat. The truth is that cats are adapted to eating meat, but can nevertheless convert carbohydrates and some plant materials into useful energy and nutrients (i.e. digest it).
Cats can digest carbohydrates. Meat contains no carbohydrates whatsoever, so some people think that cats can’t digest carbs at all because they ‘aren’t adapted to it’ or for similar reasons. However, this is untrue. Cats can easily digest simple sugars, as these don’t take much effort to break down into their constituent parts. While they struggle to break down more complex carbohydrates due to their short guts, cats can nevertheless absorb much of the energy found in grains, fruits, vegetables and the like.
As for rough plant fibers that your cat’s gut can’t break down, these aren’t a problem anyway. Cats have fiber in their natural diets in the forms of fur, feathers and bones. These act as roughage that help the stomach and gut initially break down food.
Can You Feed Cats a Plant Based Diet?
This is a difficult question to answer because research into plant based/vegan diets for cats is still ongoing. There are a few things that we know for sure, though. This is where the confusion about cats being ‘obligate carnivores’ comes in. In nature cats are, by definition, obligate carnivores; they need to eat meat if they want to survive. A wild cat that decides to eat nothing but plants would die. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s not possible to either use synthetic or plant-based sources to provide those nutrients instead.
It’s definitely possible to find all of the nutrients a cat needs in a non-meat diet. This is best illustrated with an example. Taurine is perhaps the most famous ‘cat nutrient’ that we know cats need, and lots of taurine is found in meat. To be completely accurate, taurine is an amino acid; amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. It’s vital for bodily functions in cats and is essential for eye health, heart function, digestion and many more things. While it’s commonly stated that taurine is only available from animal sources, that’s not true. According to the Journal of Nutritional Science it can be found in certain species of algae, bacteria and fungi, and in low concentrations in some plants. What’s perhaps more workable is using synthetic taurine, like the kind found in energy drinks. Remarkably, much of the taurine found in meat-based food is this synthetic taurine already!
Also true is that cats are better at digesting plant foods than people give them credit for. As pointed out above, cats can digest starches and sugars like we can, even though their guts are geared towards breaking down meat. If you were to feed your cat a bowl of grass, it would pass through your cat’s system almost untouched. But other plant-based foods are far easier for your pet to digest, and contain much less indigestible fiber.
In short, then, it’s potentially possible to feed your cat a plant based diet. But it’s currently not possible to do that yourself at home with vegetables you got from a supermarket. It also means that plant based foods available from manufacturers may not yet be fully suitable for your pet, although in the future after more research, they might be.
Can Cats Eat a Whole Food Plant Based Diet?
What’s not possible is to feed a cat a whole-food plant based diet. Fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds may provide a balanced diet for a person but they won’t for a cat. To bring the discussion back to taurine, while it is possible to find taurine that isn’t from an animal source, you won’t find any of these sources in your local grocery store. The only potentially viable option is therefore to buy a complete plant-based cat food, although questions about the nutritional adequacy of these products has been raised too. What’s likely is that in the coming years, as more manufacturers attempt to make viable plant-based cat food alternatives and more research is done, suitable foods will become available.
What’s also true is that an all-meat diet requires far less effort to do right. A cat will survive and could thrive eating nothing but store-bought raw meat its entire life, with no additives and no supplements necessary. So while things aren’t as black and white as the term ‘obligate carnivore’ might make out, a meat diet is still the easiest and perhaps the best for cats. If you want to follow a plant based diet and would like to get a pet, but don’t want to feed it meat, there are lots of pets available that thrive on plant based diets, so it would be best to pick one of these instead.
Why Can Feeding a Cat an All Meat Diet Cause Problems?
One problem with an all-meat diet is if you feed your cat lots of processed foods. Processed meats aren’t as good for your cat (or for you) as unprocessed meat. Processed meats typically contain more water, fewer nutrients, more salt and sugar, and are less nutritionally complete. A good example of this is bacon: bacon isn’t toxic to cats, but it’s too salty and too fatty. If you feed your cat bacon that’s been fried, it’s even more fatty.
Feeding Only One Kind of Meat Can Cause Nutritional Insufficiency
The core problem with an only-meat diet is that it’s easy to accidentally cause nutritional deficiencies in your cat. This occurs because meats don’t always have nutritional information available. If you buy from a butcher’s shop, for example, the product you buy won’t have nutritional information on the packet. And even if you do buy meat that has nutritional information, there’s no absolute guarantee that it’s accurate.
What also happens is that owners can become complacent and feed their cats only one kind of meat. Even if that kind of meat is only slightly deficient in a certain nutrient, that deficiency can add up over time and cause health problems. One example is vitamin A, which cats typically get from the livers of their prey; if you’re feeding your cat chicken breast, it will get some vitamin A, but not an awful lot. In the wild, your cat would eat lots of different birds or rodents which would make up for nutritional deficiencies it might experience.
Not All Meats Are ‘All Meat’
Processed meats contain things that aren’t meat. So, if you’re planning on going to the extra effort of planning a new diet for your cat, you would be sabotaging those efforts by feeding something that contains grains and/or vegetables anyway.
Most store-bought meats are processed even if they don’t appear to be. What manufacturers often do is inject the meat with extra water. This water makes the meat weigh more and appear bigger so that they maximize their profits. If you ever fry meat in a frying pan, and notice it seeping what looks like water, that’s why! Other meats like sausages contain grains, breadcrumbs and the like to make them go further for the same reason.
Should You Feed a Cat a Raw Meat Diet?
A raw meat diet has both advantages and disadvantages over a ‘normal’ cat diet. Raw meat is, of course, what your cat would eat if it still lived in the wild. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best choice; domestic cats live longer than feral and wild cats because they have access to better diets (among many other reasons). Let’s take a look at the pros and cons below.
Raw Meat Is What Your Cat Would Eat in The Wild
Food that at least approximates what your cat would eat in the wild is typically a good choice. That’s because your cat has adapted to eating certain things. Feeding it foods that match these adaptations means that it can digest them efficiently and is likely to get the nutrients it needs from them.
Take your cat’s gut, for example. Some differences between meat-eating and plant-eating animals are obvious, like the teeth: meat-eating animals have longer teeth to hunt other animals with, while plant-eating animals have teeth that are better at grinding. Omnivores often have both. Some differences, though, are on the inside. A plant-eating animal’s gut is longer and its digestive system has specialized sections in it that meat-eating animals don’t have. You will almost certainly have heard that cows have several stomachs. The scientific truth is that they have one big stomach that’s divided into four sections, but the point still stands: they have these complex stomachs to break down plant fibers that other animals can’t break down.
Cats don’t have complex stomachs and guts. Their intestines are much shorter because the protein and fats in meat aren’t as difficult to break down as tough plant fibers. That doesn’t mean that cats can’t digest plant matter or carbohydrates at all, just that they can’t do so as efficiently. In other words, if one cat ate plant-based foods and one cat ate raw meat, and each meal had an equivalent amount of calories in it, the cat that ate the meat would absorb more of the calories than the other cat.
If only that were all there is to the question of a raw meat diet!
Raw Meat Carries Bacteria
Unless the raw meat you’re feeding your cat was freshly processed at home just minutes prior to feeding, it will carry bacteria. If the meat is dirty enough, it can cause your cat digestive problems, or even cause you digestive problems if you didn’t handle it correctly.
The reason for this is the circle of life! When an animal dies, whether it’s in the wild or in a processing plant, other animals and bacteria want to eat it. If you left the chicken out on the countertop for long enough, it would rot, a result of the bacteria eating it up. In a natural environment, the rotten mess would soak into the soil and feed the next generation of plants and trees. Despite our best efforts to keep meat clean before it’s sold, bacteria from the skin and gut of the animal will remain present in small numbers. This applies even to meat that’s kept in the fridge. Meat in the fridge has bacteria on it, but the cool temperature stops them from multiplying.
On meat that’s left out, though, bacteria grow—and grow quickly. It’s thought that the amount of bacteria on food doubles every twenty minutes at room temperature. So if you leave the meat out to thaw a bit too long, or if your cat takes its sweet time to come and get its dinner, it would be getting a side of germs with its chicken.
This is a problem for you, too. Avoiding raw meat contamination is the cornerstone of kitchen hygiene. You have to do store it correctly in the fridge, thoroughly clean any surface it touches, thoroughly clean anything you prepare it with, and wash your hands afterwards; all while avoiding rookie mistakes like washing the meat under a faucet (which spreads germs rather than getting rid of them). This isn’t news to people who cook, but if you never prepare or cook with raw meat, you have to be prepared for this or you’ll find yourself getting frequent stomach bugs.
The Bones in Raw Meat Can Cause Problems
Another problem with raw meat is that it can contain bones.
Cats are, of course, used to eating bones. When a cat eats a rodent or a bird, it eats its prey whole. That includes fur, feathers and bones. A cat will bring these bones up as it would bring up a furball, or if they’re small enough, they’ll pass through the digestive tract untouched.
The issue is that the bones you might find in chicken or similar meats are bigger. If your cat were to eat one of these, it could become lodged in the digestive tract. They can also damage your cat’s teeth. And while it isn’t a problem if you’re feeding an entirely raw diet, bones that are cooked can splinter and hurt your cat’s mouth, throat and gut. While it’s unlikely for any one of these things to happen each time your cat sits down to eat, there is no risk of this whatsoever with processed food, so it’s worth making the distinction.
So… What Should I Feed My Cat?
If you’re confused, good! You should be!
That might strike you as an odd thing to say, but the science behind caring for cats is far from a done deal. We know a lot more than we used to about the ideal cat diet than we did several generations ago, and it’s likely that we don’t know as much as future generations will. While all-meat diets seem to be a good option, so too do partial-meat diets. You also have to account for the fact that some sources recommend certain things while others suggest the opposite, e.g. some saying that raw meat is good with others saying it’s not ideal.
By far the best thing to do is to talk to your vet. They can tell you whether your cat’s current diet is suitable or not. If it is, you won’t have to change a thing. If it’s not, they can recommend the changes you should make. And if you do make any changes to your cat’s diet, you should do so progressively rather than quickly, as cats can reject new food and even bring it up whether or not it’s better for them.